Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin (1895-1975), the Russian literary critic, semiotician, and philosopher, is widely recognized as one of the central figures in social theory, and his influence has been felt in fields as diverse as anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, communications, rhetoric, comparative literature, and the philosophy of language.
Born into an aristocratic family in Orel, Russia, at the end of the 19th century, Bakhtin came to champion those who were less fortunate than himself, always maintaining a sense of the broad scope of human life as he undertook his many theoretical projects. Coming of age at the time of the Russian Revolution, he attended the University of Saint Petersburg during the First World War, where he specialized in the study of classical literature and philosophy, while maintaining a lifelong interest in language and politics.
During the 1920s, Bakhtin came into contact with fellow intellectuals Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev, now known collectively as the Bakhtin Circle, who were working as instructors for the People's Educational Department in Vitebsk. In time, they came to share a deep commitment to the philosophy of language as a key to social interaction, human psychology, and larger political processes. Though some have credited the works published under Voloshinov's name to Bakhtin as the sole author, it now appears that the influence may have been mutual. In contrast to the structural linguistics of the time, as exemplified by the writings of Ferdinand de Saussure, Bakhtin and his colleagues maintained that language was first and foremost a product of social interaction. This sense of language was often lost when studying formal features such as phonology or syntax in isolation, following the model of examining the records of dead languages (like Latin) with no living speakers. In looking closely at the social foundations of language, Bakhtin identified a short list of major philosophical principles that are now standard in the social sciences and humanities, including dialogism, voice, heteroglossia, ideology, speech genres, the utterance, polyphony, double-voiced discourse, intertextuality, the chronotope, and the carnival.
A central image that recurs throughout Bakhtin's work is that of the simple act of engaging in face-to-face dialogue. Throughout his vast corpus of theoretical writings, this fundamental human context of communication was never far from view—an image that appears even in one of his first essays, “The Author as Hero in Aesthetic Activity,” originally written in the 1920s. By starting with this basic image of the face-to-face encounter, Bakhtin was able to confront the profound asymmetry of communication, given that each person in an exchange inherently sees things from a very different point of view, literally seeing what is behind the other person's head or, more generally, what the other person may not even begin to see because it is beyond his or her direct experience. For Bakhtin, dialogue does not imply a conversation among equals but refers simply to the social nature of speaking, where one “aims” one's word at an audience, even in situations where there are substantial differences in power—where one party refuses to listen. Thus, for Bakhtin, communication is a double-sided act and the audience holds as much power as the author when it comes to shaping the meaning of a text.
In the Dialogic Imagination (1981), Bakhtin establishes a general case for a principle of dialogism, which captures the sense in which language emerges from the inherently social process of aiming one's words at an audience. This principle applies even to cases of inner dialogue, where one responds to oneself while thinking or where the author gauges the potential reactions of some imagined audience, not yet present. As a general process, the dialogical principle can even be extended to more remote cases, such as the extended “dialogue” between authors writing at different times—a concept now known as intertextuality among Bakhtinian scholars such as Julia Kristeva.
Another central idea for Bakhtin was the concept of ideology, which was inspired by the works of Karl Marx, particularly Marx's emphasis on the false consciousness of the proletariat, who accepted a religious worldview that kept them from seeing the conditions of their oppression. From these political and religious roots, Bakhtin extended Marx's concept of ideology to encompass any “system of ideas” that served as a basis for arriving at a shared understanding—from scientists and their models to authors and their distinctive visions. In this way, Bakhtin observed, social interaction is necessarily charged with ideology, since a backdrop of common assumptions is a precondition for engaging in communication—even if these views are challenged and refined in the course of an exchange. This image of ideologies entering into conflict sets the stage for one of the maxims of Bakhtinian studies—the idea that dialog is unfinalizable, given that communication is fundamentally about the exchange of opposing points of view, which can never be fully resolved.
Staying close to the interactive source of discourse, the utterance occupied a place of central importance in social theory for Bakhtin—as an instantiation of language use, or a given person's word, as it is embedded in a particular context, including the submerged ideologies used by the actors to interpret those words. Thus, a simple color word like “black” or “white” can take on racial overtones and even incite a riot when uttered in an ideologically charged moment, such as a rally. A closely related concept is that of voice, or variable ability to be heard when communicating, based on the speaker's relationship to the audience, including the actor's power or lack thereof. Both concepts—utterance and voice—flow from the dialogical principle, given that the word is embedded in social interaction and charged with ideologies. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1983), Bakhtin introduces the concept of double-voiced discourse, where a person speaks through someone else's words—as an author imbues the speech of a character with intentions of his or her own.
Just as recognizable ideologies and voices permeate spoken discourse, utterance is composed of familiar speech genres, based on expectations for the structure and style of the utterance. This principle is developed in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986). Though derived from literary studies, which is filled with genres like epic poetry or political satire, Bakhtin saw this general concept as one of the organizing principles of all discourse, where one encounters relatively stable expectations regarding the character of a narrative, from greetings to conversations, oratory, storytelling, or sung performance. The concept has been especially influential among anthropologists and folklorists, such as Richard Bauman, who specialize in oral performances, framed by local standards, where organizing principles may include expectations concerning the pace, length, and tone of delivery, as well as the nature of the participation.
Given that speech emerges from social actors, each with their own intentions and distinct points of view, Bakhtin argued that language itself embodies inherent diversity at every level of structure and practice. Among Bakhtinian scholars, this principle is known as heteroglossia (a translation from the Russian raznorecie), or the internal diversity of all languages, which can be illustrated in terms of their many dialects, registers, and speech genres, each reflecting a segment of society, from class to ethnicity to the professions and age grades. While recognizing that the opposite, monoglossic trend is often at work, given the prevalence of efforts to enforce standards in language, Bakhtin is optimistic that diversity will prevail, in accordance with the dialogic principle. Drawing on the language of physics, he compared the monoglossic trend to a centripetal force, based on efforts to move toward a common center; similarly, he compared the heteroglossic trend to a centrifugal force, with a movement away from the standardization, toward internal diversity. With these two forces present, everyday speech becomes the site where these competing forces collide, with heteroglossia, or internal diversity, often winning out—as a by-product of the dialogical nature of language.
For Bakhtin, tensions are present at every level of language and society, starting with the word, which can convey multiple ideologies while simultaneously appearing neutral (such as “black” or “white”). In a similar way, even the individual becomes a site where this social diversity plays out, given that we all “live in a world of others’ words.” Thus, even when listening to a single person speaking, we hear echoes of other voices, including multiple dialects, speech genres, and ideological constructs. The same is true of texts, where these multiple voices become central to the task of alternating between characters—as Bakhtin observed in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, where he praised Dostoevsky for writing polyphonic novels, with a range of voices. In this sense, perceptive novelists and ethnographers alike strive to capture a sense of ideological diversity, not assuming, as was the trend in Saussurean structuralism, that language (or culture) is uniform.
Nowhere does the clash of ideologies stand in greater relief than in Bakhtin's extended examination of the carnival, which he explores through the lens of medieval literature, in Rabelais and His World (1965), rather than confronting 20th-century political struggles head-on. There, beyond the direct control of governing bodies, subversive folk genres flourish and rise up to contest official hegemony, which often includes the appearance of the grotesque, to offset the everyday disciplines imposed by standards of piety or etiquette. Bakhtin's fascination with the carnival—and the carnivalesque—has been influential among anthropologists who study counterhegemonic movements as well as the classic rituals of inversion widely described in ethnographic writings.
As a literary theorist, Bakhtin originated many concepts that dealt with the contours of the social imagination, or the way the audience comes to picture a similar mental image when in the presence of a narrator, such as a novelist, poet, or speaker. Even here, Bakhtin identified dialogical principles, such as the chronotope, or the relationship between space and time in imagination, given that these dimensions enter into a kind of dialogue in consciousness. The concept was inspired by a lecture Bakhtin attended on the four-dimensional space-time of Einstein's physics, which Bakthin applied to the philosophy of language, like the centripetal and centrifugal forces of ideology. Bakhtin recognized that authors often vary the ratio of space and time in crafting a story line, making time stand still, perhaps, or using space itself to measure the flow of time as the plot progresses. In early Greek romance novels, such as An Ethiopian Tale, Bakhtin noted, there is almost an empty quality to the adventure time: Things happen, and time progresses, but without any movement in physical space and without any profound changes to the personalities of the characters. Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope has become a powerful trope for anchoring social events in a sense of socially constructed space and time, as told in narrative.
Bakhtin's writings on the philosophy of language have had an enormous impact on the social sciences and humanities since his death in 1975—ironically achieving international acclaim after their author's life of relative obscurity. Since the rise of the postmodern critique in the 1980s, ethnographers have been influenced by the principles of polyphony and heteroglossia, striving to write works that capture a sense of diversity rather than uniformity in society. Performance theorists, in folklore, linguistics, ethnomusicology, and expressive culture, have found a central place for concepts like speech genres, voice, and intertextuality in their work. Linguistic anthropology has also been transformed by the pervasive use of the dialogical principle and the close examination of ideologies in language use, alongside now common tropes like double-voiced discourse and the chronotope. Though Bakhtin was almost silenced by Stalin for his religious views and political dissent, his voice continues to resonate with scholars in a wide range of fields, including major figures like Michael Siverstein and Jane Hill, among linguistic anthropologists, and Richard Bauman and James Clifford, among the theorists of cultural anthropology.
See also Marx, Karl; Saussure, Ferdinand de; Sociolinguistics; Structuralism
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