Bakhtin, Mikhail

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Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, Russian philosopher of language and phenomenologist of culture, has three lives. The first is his obscure lived biography as a student of the classics, autodidact, invalid, political exile, and eventually professor of literature and aesthetics at a provincial teachers’ college in Saransk, southeast of Moscow. Today, he is best known for his work on the theory, history, and language of novels (especially Dostoevsky and Rabelais), for his image of carnival and the grotesque, and for a way of being in the world that he called “dialogic.” But Bakhtin did not consider himself a literary scholar or cultural critic. He was, he said, a philosopher—or better yet, a thinker (myslitel’). True, the themes he thought about found brilliant illustration in the fictive worlds created by great writers, as well as in the sociolinguistic life of everyday communication. But Bakhtin’s readings in and around literature are so potent, controversial, and provocative precisely because the ideas, the evolving Bakhtinian worldview, always came first.

A second life for Bakhtin began in 1961, when he was discovered by three postgraduate students (Vadim Kozhinov, Georgii Gachev, and Sergei Bocharov) from the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, and by Vladimir Turbin, professor at Moscow State University.  Making pilgrimages to Saransk, these four literary scholars became Bakhtin’s disciples and indispensable enablers. To champion a non-conformist thinker like Bakhtin was not without risk for this initial post-Stalinist generation. They rescued his abandoned manuscripts from oblivion, negotiated the publication of delayed or stalled work (including a revised edition of the Dostoevsky book and an edited edition of the dissertation on Rabelais), delivered medicines and books, and, after Bakhtin’s death in 1975, supervised the slow trickling into print of his precarious personal archive.

By the late 1960s Bakhtin’s texts and ideas had begun to move into European languages, to growing acclaim. The Western academy was weary of structuralism and master-narratives. Bakhtin’s rambling prose, his theory of decentered or centrifugal discourse, his passion for pagan carnival and his apparently bottomless tolerance for multiplicity promised to put a human face and the feel of a body back into literary study. As Bakhtin became a desired brand, debates arose over certain “disputed” texts in the corpus: books and essays on Formalism, Marxist philosophy of language, Freudianism, and Vitalism signed by members of his circle (Pavel Medvedev, Valentin Voloshinov, Ivan Kanaev). Bakhtin neither confirmed nor denied his authorship of these works. He was not much interested in idea-ownership. With the exception of the Vitalism essay, published in 1926 under Kanaev’s name and itself lifted from a 1922 essay of the same name by the deported “Idealist” philosophy professor Nikolai Lossky (such “plagiarism” was one strategy for getting ideas banned by the state back in circulation), these disputed texts were most likely the product of group discussions. Individual members with the proper Marxist credentials then wrote them up for publication.

But it was difficult to fit all these variously accented writings into one coherent ideology. As Bakhtin’s fame rose, rival camps competed to claim his identity: Was he a Stoic? Kantian idealist? Marxist? Orthodox Christian? American-style liberal pluralist? Phenomenologist of language? Carnival trickster? Evidence for the latter was found not only in Bakhtin’s cavalier, unmarked integration of others’ work into his own, but also in his borrowing, for his own biography, crucial academic details from his older émigré brother’s CV. Bakhtin never completed any university program. While fully excusable under conditions of war, revolution, and recurring illness, this awkward lack of any academic degree became an obstacle when applying for the PhD, which Bakhtin did, not without scandal, in the 1940s. Then the Soviet Union came to an end. In 1996, under Bocharov’s general editorship, a fully annotated academic edition of Bakhtin’s collected works was planned in seven volumes (originally to include works signed by members of his Circle, but ultimately those were excluded). This Sobranie sochinenii was completed in 2012.

A third, genuinely global life can be said to have begun for Bakhtin in the twenty-first century, with the advent of instant worldwide cyber-communication and translation technologies. After booming interest in his work in Latin America, and a quarter-century of triennial Bakhtin conferences in such routine Western venues as Canada (1983, 1997), Saransk (1995), Finland (2005), and Italy (2011), the 16th International Bakhtin Conference (2017) was held in Shanghai, China. As its program made clear, a startling and rich shift had occurred. Although several intellectual historians in the UK and USA (Craig Brandist, Peter Hitchcock, Galin Tihanov) had anticipated this new global current, Bakhtinian thought looked different outside its immediate European predecessors (the Greek classics, German Enlightenment, continental Romanticism and Phenomenology: the legacy of Kant, Schelling, Scheler, Cassirer). The Shanghai gathering documented a vast pool of Asian-based scholars investigating, as part of a deliberate Europeanization of the Chinese humanities by means of Bakhtin, such topics as dialogism in the Chinese novel, the meaning of “meaning” in character-based writing systems, polyphony in ancient Japanese literature, the costs of centripetal nationalism in India, and the unfinalizable self in the context of Buddhist meditation practices. The second edition of a seven-volume complete collected works of Bakhtin in Chinese was published in 2009.

This utterly globalized Bakhtin has become universal currency for “dialogue” in a world of unprecedented intellectual access. But the terms he devised must be handled carefully. During Bakhtin’s first life, or at least its solidly Soviet second half, dialogue was difficult: at a premium, carried on in sheltered places, often dangerous for its participants. With censorship and ideological Newspeak everywhere the norm, Bakhtin elaborated a worldview that trusted the unique in praesentia face and speaking voice. He shunned politics, official meetings, and the telephone. Today, dialogue is altogether too easy—too easy to start, to fake, to fritter our selves away on. Contact between Bakhtin’s thought and the world’s more ancient contemplative cultural traditions might help us retrieve some depth and answerability from the frantic shallows of the media revolution.

But the twenty-first century Bakhtin presents yet another paradox. In his own time, Bakhtin presumed a verbal environment where the speaking individual was embedded in a given collective, communal body, or socium—and at the mercy of it, for better or worse. An individual consciousness had to battle for its own distinct word, even as that word was composed of thoroughly “socialized” intonations and accents. Today, the shared socium is itself an endangered concept. The ability of every consciousness, at any moment, to “privatize” itself on its personal electronic device with its own “feed” (selecting what it wishes to hear, to see, even to feel, whether from other people or from simulacra) has created a decentered, exclusionary dialogic situation separate from communally shared time and space. Such radical individuation is unmappable onto any reality that Bakhtin ever knew.



Bakhtin was born in 1895 in the northwestern Russian city of Oryol, into a banker’s family of noble lineage. It was a large family (two sons, three daughters), well-educated and upwardly mobile. He spent his childhood in the cosmopolitan provincial cities of Vilnius (where the family moved in 1905) and Odessa (after 1911). Fluent in German since childhood, comfortable with French, Latin, Greek, and endowed with a photographic memory for both poetry and prose, the young Bakhtin read through Continental philosophy as a teenager. His generation, that of the younger Symbolists, was the last in Russia to assume Western European culture as its birthright. In his first interview with Viktor Duvakin in 1973, Bakhtin recalls those years warmly, but notes the many surgeries that followed the onset of his chronic osteomyelitis at age ten (“they drilled into my thigh and knee . . . “). This bone disease invalided Bakhtin for much of his life, causing pain, recurring fevers, and festering skin lesions. But after his arrest, illness might have saved his life. The amputation of his right leg at the hip in 1938 sufficiently improved his health so that he could at last hold a full-time job. Thus two of Bakhtin’s lifelong themes might be said to have emerged out of his own biography: the multilingual mind and the grotesque carnivalized body.

Bakhtin audited courses in Odessa and then, in 1916-17, studied Classics and philosophy at Petrograd University, warming especially to the charismatic lectures of Faddei Zielinsky on ancient non-canonical genres and “laughing forms.” During the Civil War he took refuge in the western Russian town of Nevel and, in 1920, in Vitebsk, where in 1921 he married Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovich—who became his indispensable helpmeet for the next fifty years, as Bakhtin was underemployed and often ill. In Nevel, a study group of artists, musicians and literary specialists, later known as the “Bakhtin Circle,” came together to discuss philosophy of culture from the perspective of religion and phenomenology. Bakhtin always remained more a Kantian than a Neo-Kantian, however. Even Kantian precepts and a priori categories were reworked by him into concepts decidedly more concrete, individualized, and energetic. Aesthetic judgment was replaced with aesthetic activity, enacted in value-laden responsive environments. Bakhtin consistently maintained that an ethical or religious event (although not a cognitive event) was always radically personal. It could not be generalized into a norm. For him, what grounds such events is not a categorical ought, as in the Kantian framework, but a “unique or once-occurring ought”— an act that its actants agree to sign, whether or not they caused it. Such a signed act becomes the ground for personal obligation toward another consciousness (or God). Bakhtin’s lectures to his study circles in 1924-25 reflect his passionate early interest in Søren Kierkegaard, as well as his close engagement with the works of the Marburg NeoKantian philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). Of key import was Cohen’s attempt to disentangle experience from cognition and ground religious reality in the individual subject. During this early phase of his thought, the responsible act was more primary to Bakhtin than the responsive interactive word.

The Circle relocated to Leningrad in 1924. By the end of the decade, the focus of Bakhtin’s thought had shifted from act to word. This “language turn,” so characteristic of the Russian 1920s but pursued very differently by Bakhtin (a holistic thinker and synthesist) than by the Petrograd and Moscow Formalists (who were by temperament analysts), produced the polyphony and dialogism of his Dostoevsky study (orig. 1929, rev. 1963). Dialogue as a philosophical principle would grow into “heteroglossia” (raznorechie), the verbal texture that marked all authentic novels (“Discourse in the Novel,” mid-1930s). But these ideas had no chance to enter the scholarly mainsteam. In 1929, soon after the Dostoevsky study appeared, Bakhtin was arrested in a routine roundup, charged with “philosophical idealism” and illicit religious activity. He later recalled his interrogation as a polite affair (“not like the thugs who came afterwards”), but nevertheless his sentence was five years in the death camp of Solovki. Intervention by influential friends, a positive review of the Dostoevsky book, and considerations of health led to commutation to six years’ internal exile in Kustanai, Soviet Kazakhstan, where he worked as a bookkeeper.

The 1930s were astonishingly productive: essays on the novel, on a time-space metric called the “chronotope” (in which Bakhtin’s revisionist Hegelianism comes strongly to the fore), and a huge study on cultures of laughter in medieval France (the Rabelais book). Recent research on this little-known Kustanai period has documented the disastrous state of the region after forced collectivization, famine, and persecution of Christians and Muslims, all of which was daily background to Bakhtin’s luminous theoretical tracts. After serving his term, Bakhtin and his wife were forbidden to settle legally in any of Russia’s major cities. In 1936 he took a position at the Mordvinia Pedagogical Institute in Saransk but, threatened with dismissal for his suspiciously independent teaching methods, he resigned, moving in 1937 to an even more obscure town, Savelevo. In this year, two of his close colleagues from the Bakhtin Circle were arrested and perished. Out of the eye of authorities as Stalin’s Great Terror gathered steam, Bakhtin completed his (largely lost) study of the German Bildungsroman, interrupted only by the amputation of his infected right leg in 1938. When war was declared in 1941, Bakhtin was teaching German and Russian in high school in the small town of Kimry. Fragments of texts written during these dark years suggest that Bakhtin was returning to the holistic ethical inquiries that had occupied him in the 1920s. The context now was a betrayal of both word and image by the violence inherent in all representation, and the triumph of “thing-cognition” over “personality-cognition” (the latter required for all durable acts of faith and love).

Unable to find a publisher for his massive study on Rabelais, Bakhtin submitted it as a dissertation to the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow in 1940. The text was erudite, eclectic, full of unprintable words (in the medieval French of François Rabelais), and—while materialist and “populist” enough—neither prudishly edifying nor Party-minded. Its defense in 1946 was a scandal. Bakhtin insisted that his thesis was radically democratic, anti-clerical, and revolutionary; the official examiners were divided. Eventually, in 1952, Bakhtin was granted a research doctorate and the primary goal thereby achieved: a more generous ration card for the Bakhtins, and the credentials to improve his position at the Saransk Pedagogical Institute, where he had been heading the World Literature department since 1945. The institute was upgraded to a university in 1958. There, until his retirement in 1961, Bakhtin held large halls of students spellbound with his charismatic lectures, delivered without notes. These spectacular monologic performances included huge chunks of poetry and prose, from ancient Greek drama up through twentieth-century aesthetics.

In 1967, six years retired and with his revised studies of Dostoevsky and Rabelais freshly published, Bakhtin was formally rehabilitated (his arrest annulled). He could now live legally in Moscow. In 1970 he was elected to the Union of Soviet Writers. As survivor and witness to the first creative years of the Bolshevik experiment, Bakhtin was sought out and interviewed. Thanks to a high-placed connection, he gained access to the Kremlin hospital, then a nursing home, and then, after being widowed, to the Peredelkino writer’s colony. Although broken by the loss of his wife, he remarked philosophically that his life was ending on a miraculously “carnivalized” note. Bakhtin died in Moscow in 1975, at the age of 80.


Idea Clusters

Five phases, or basic idea-clusters, mark Bakhtin’s intellectual development. The first is Kantian, ethical, and spatial. The second is verbal. The third and fourth phases develop in parallel, one continuing to investigate the fertility of language and the other the fertility of physical bodies. In his final phase, Bakhtin addresses methodology in the humanities. Common to all these clusters is the distinction between inside (“I”/myself) and outside (“you”/others), and between open (laughing, unfinished, mobile: a personality) and closed (serious, completed, static: a thing). No phenomenon or activity is ever purely one or the other. All events occur on boundaries, or tend toward one extreme or another.  But all human being moves between these two poles.

As we have seen, in his first phase (the Kantian writings of the 1920s), Bakhtin focuses on vision, space, responsibility, and value: what does your being outside me enable me to know and oblige me to do? In an essay from 1924 separating his method from Formalism, Bakhtin introduces the distinction between “compositional” and “architectonic” forms: the former qualify as “organized material” and can be known “technically” (through literary devices), but only the latter is capable of registering “aesthetic individuality” and thus it alone can found a history of art. In his second phase (starting in 1929), this individuality is increasingly invested in words, with dialogism (an architectonics of utterances) and polyphony (a decentered authorial stance that grants validity to all voices) exemplified by the prose of Dostoevsky (“The Problem of Content”). The Dostoevsky book declares itself a formal enterprise: its concern is the working of words (“the double-voiced word”), in the narrator’s zone as well as in characters’ speech. Thus, the overall shape of Dostoevsky’s plots and their ethical burden are muted. The goodness or badness of an individual act or word is less important than its structural co-existence and interaction with other acts or idea-positions. Indeed, Bakhtin comes close to exempting Dostoevskian heroes from moral responsibility; they are “idea-persons” existing in the present without past biographies, “unselfish” distillations of ideas rather than fully realized or answerable human stories. This aspect of polyphonic design, which might suggest that Dostoevsky endows all his characters—even the most repellant—with “equal rights” just because their voices co-exist, interact, and continue to be heard, has stimulated vigorous debate.

In the 1930s, Bakhtin’s idea-clusters develop in two fertile parallel strains, one based on the word, the other on the body. Both phases are indebted more to Hegelian becoming than to co-existence or essence, but in each the principle of interaction is celebrated on a grand scale. Expanding dialogism into heteroglossia, Bakhtin advances a theory of the origin of novels in the multiplicity of languages (common to crossroads and cosmopolitan urban centers), and the battle of lowly profane vernaculars against all high, official, unified and sacred discourse. On balance, it would seem, the Tower of Babel was a good thing. The more languages there are, the more modest and inadequate each is shown to be (this is healthy for all speakers), the more angles of approach to a topic or a person become available, and the fewer tempations there are to monologic, despotic, or singular thinking. With this idea, Bakhtin would seem to mark himself off from mainstream Russian philosophy, which traditionally has pursued All-Unity, Vse-edinstvo. This is illusory. The health and harmony of the whole is a constant Bakhtinian theme. But he is that rare thinker who insists that holistic unity can be, and indeed must be, not homogenous but heterogeneous: every part is essential to the whole, yet every part is different from every other.

Bakhtin’s concept of the “chronotope” is also Hegelian, in its dynamism and optimistic forward momentum, located somewhere between word and body. His huge unfinished essay on this evolving time-space matrix, written in the late 1930s and subtitled “sketches in a historical poetics,” moves from genres of antiquity and folklore up through the nineteenth-century novel, noting the ever-increasing particularization of time and space, and therefore of consciousness (“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope”). Bakhtin dwells with special affection on rogues, clowns, fools, and masks. These are pockets of freedom within potentially monologic environments. But in general, the history of literature is the history of a benevolent unfolding toward ever more differentiation, proliferation of meaning, and multi-voicedness.

Analogous with the double-voiced word, but in an idea-cluster of its own, is the double-bodied image of carnival. Bakhtin’s book on Rabelais, read philosophically, is most valuable as a paean to cultures of laughter. The carnival chronotope is empowering, Bakhtin insists—but not in a legal or political sense; it does not aim to change the givens of material existence. It alters personal attitudes. Because laughter (as Bakhtin celebrates it) is indifferent to insult, dissipates fear before violence or the unknown, and thus encourages free inquiry, it is a route to knowledge. It lives in the present, in the realm of the non-obligatory, which (like the chronotope of the mask) is resilient, transitory, and non-judgmental. It follows that the grotesque image is far preferable to the sleek perfected classical body, because it is more open and fertile. Rabelais had great insight into this “laughing” state of mind, and peopled it with fantastic organisms and plots. But Bakhtin was not optimistic about carnival laughter in the long run. Looked at historically, laughter has gotten thinner, meaner, and worse. Elsewhere in his scenarios, good things grow toward fullness, potentials of the future are valued more than the past, but laughter has been continually reduced, collapsed into satire, moved from day to night, from the public square to the closet.  Among his unrealized projects was one on the “seriosification” of the Western world.

Parallels between the “double-voiced word” and the “double-bodied image” can easily be drawn. Treated in Bakhtinian fashion, both dialogic words and carnival bodies help us escape the monologic prison of the Cartesian subject. They dispel the illusion that the mind (or body) can be isolated and “cleared out” of others and thus made more reliable and authoritative. In fact, it is only with the death of the subject that a “self” emerges that can be analyzed as a fixed entity (this stabilization is our final “gift” to those still living who care about us). But carnival must be understood not necessarily as a subversive force (that effect is temporary and secondary), and not exclusively in a secular or materialist spirit. Carnival is a transformative attitude that can serve various ideologies, but its primary purpose is to strengthen human agency, cooperation, and fortitude within the framework of the body. In his somber writings during the Second World War on the trumph of the lie, Bakhtin depicts both double-bodied images and double-voiced words as weakened and at risk.

The fifth post-war phase (the 1950s-60s) coincides with Bakhtin’s heightened official duties as teacher and administrator as well as his rising fame. The Stalinist night was over, the Stagnation had not yet set in. Now Bakhtin experiments with a civic voice. The fragments of essays we have discuss speech genres, the relationship of philological texts to creativity, and the state of cultural studies.


Integrating the Bakhtinian Corpus

As Bakhtin’s ideas and catchwords proliferate globally, two priorities would seem to be paramount. The first is to straighten out the evolution of his thought, a difficult task for several reasons. Existing translations are flawed and often made from doctored texts, which obscures the source and stability of crucial terms. In translation (his second and third lives), Bakhtin’s work became famous out of sequence: first his carnival ideas (in the 1960s), then the polyphony of his Dostoevsky book and his dialogic theory of the novel (in the 1970-80s), finally, in the 1990s, his early Kantian-philosophical essays. When any of these idea-clusters is essentialized, continuity of inquiry is lost.

A second priority is to integrate dialogue and carnival, those two potent strands of thought in the 1930s. Early work on Bakhtin, especially in the West, often presumed that one or the other strand was dominant in Bakhtin’s thought, with dialogism and polyphony representing the high moral road and carnival or laughing cultures the lower, amoral and pagan path. Abundant testimony now suggests that thinking in this binary way is a mistake. Bakhtin saw no contradiction between dialogue and carnival—just as he saw no conflict between spirit and matter, or religious faith and the natural sciences. The place to look for his synthesis is in his theory of knowledge. Deeply influenced by German Romanticism (especially Schelling), Bakhtin resisted the nineteenth-century positivist reduction of a philosophy of nature to what was mathematical and measurable. Reality could be known in many ways, but all of them, to be authentic, must insist on flux, impermanence, and continual responsiveness. The difference that matters for Bakhtin is not between dialogue and carnival (both living, interactive principles), but between mechanism and organism. An organism is reactive, emotive, and requires feedback; it cannot be isolated and merely “wound up.” A mechanism either works or breaks. An organism responds, transforms, and laughs.

It remains to be seen if these robust principles underlying Bakhtin’s worldview, now a classic of world criticism, can be adapted to the pace, creative energy, and perverse challenges of the world in which we now live.

Caryl Emerson, April 2019



Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, U of Texas Press, 1981, pp. 84-258.

—. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. and ed. Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

—. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky, The MIT Press, 1968.

—. “The Problem of Content, Material, and Form in Verbal Art.” Art and Answerability. Early Philosophical Essays of M. M. Bakhtin. Trans. Kenneth Brostrom and Vadim Liapunov. Eds. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 257-325. 



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