Mikhail Bakhtin as a Russian Formalist | The Bakhtin School

Mikhail Bakhtin was born on November 17, 1895 in Russia. He died on March 7, 1975. He was a great Russian philosopher, literary critic and semiotician. He worked on literary theory, ethics and the philosophy of language. He is known as Russian formalist. His major interests were semiotics and literary criticism. He was influenced by Zelinsky and Frederich Nietzsche. He influenced Julia Kristeva and Todorov. His notable ideas are heteroglossia, dialogism, chronotope, carivalesque and polyphony.

Mikhail Bakhtin as a Russian Formalist | The Bakhtin School

Bakhtin was a school teacher in a small town in Western Russia where he formed Bakhtin circle. The group consisted of intellectuals with varying interests. Bakhtin considered himself more a philosopher than a literary scholar. In 1924, he moved to Leningrad and worked at the Historical Institute. In 1929, his first work Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art was published. It is here that he introduced the concept of dialogism. During Stalin regime, he was sentenced to exile in Siberia but later he was exiled to Kazakhstan for six years. During these six years, he wrote several important essays. Later he became the Head of the Department of Russian and World Literature. In 1961, he was forced to retire due to deteriorating health. He moved back to Moscow where he lived until his death in 1975.

The major works of Bakhtin are as follows:

  1. Towards the Philosophy of the Act
  2. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
  3. Rabelais and His World
  4. The Dialogic Imagination
  5. Speech Genre and other Late Essays
  6. Marxism and Philosophy of Language

In Toward a Philosophy of the Act Bakhtin describes the process of developing moral philosophy. It concerns ethics and aesthetics. Here he lays down three claims regarding the acknowledgement of the uniqueness of one’s participation in Being.

  1. He says, “I both actively and passively participate in Being.”
  2. My uniqueness is given but it

simultaneously exists only in to the

Degree which I actualize this uniqueness

  1. Because I am actual and irreplaceable, I must actualize my uniqueness.

Bakhtin further states: “It is in relation to the whole actual unity that my unique thought arises from my unique place in Being.”

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin shifted his focus away from philosophy to the notion of dialogue. He introduced three important concepts in this essay. First, is the concept of the unfinalizable self. He says that no individual can ever be understood, known, or labeled. He/she can never be finalized. This concept can be culled ‘unfinalizability’. The second is the concept of the relationship between the self and others or other groups. According to Bakhtin, every person is influenced by others in an in-escapably intertwined way. Therefore, no voice can be said to be isolated. Third, Bakhtin found a true representation of polyphony in Dostoevsky’s work. Polyphony means that there are many voices. In Dostoevsky’s novels, each character represents a voice for an individual self which is distinct from others. The idea of polyphony is thus related to the concepts of unfinalizability and self- and others.

Bakhtin outlines the polyphonic concept of truth. Ile criticizes the assumption that if two people disagree, one of them is not true. He challenges the philosophers who deny plurality of minds. For Bakhtin, truth is not a statement, a sentence or a phrase. It is a number of mutually addressed. They may be often contradictory and logically inconsistent. Truth requires a multitude of carrying voices. The Polyphonic truth requires many simultaneous voices. Bakhtin does not mean to say that many voices carry partial truths that complement each other.

Later, Bakhtin added the concept of ‘carnival’. It is the context in which distinct individual voices are heard, flourish and interact together. The carnival creates the threshold situations where regular conventions are broken or reversed and genuine dialogue becomes possible. In Rabelais and His World Bakhtin highlights his concepts of carnival and grotesque. Here he studies the interaction between the social and the literary.

In The Dialogic Imagination, there are four essays concerning language and the novel. Here, he introduces the concepts of heteroglossia, dialogism and chronotope.

In Bakhtin’s view an expression in a living context of exchange termed a ‘word’ or ‘utterance is the main unit of meaning. It is formed through a speaker’s relation to otherness, other people, their words and expressions. A word is therefore always embedded in a history and cultural context. An utterance according to Bakhtin is connected with addressivity and answerability. It is always addressed to someone and anticipated or generals a response or answer.

Discourse is a chain of utterances. It is basically dialogic and positioned within a community, history or place. Bakhtin wrote, “I live in a world of others’ words. Any utterance is a link in the chain of communication.” The word lives on the boundary between its own context and another alien context.

Bakhtin used the terms heteroglossia and polyphony. He said that speech and complex cultural discourse in all literary genres is mixed through and through with heteroglossia. Heteroglossia means other’s speech and many others’ words. They are necessarily polyphonic (many-voiced)

Bakhtin also used the terms-dialogue, dialogic and dialogism. Every level of expression from live conversational dialog to complex cultural expression in other genres and works of art is an ongoing chain of statements and responses, repetitions and quotations. In them, new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses. Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions. It is populated with the intentions of the others. As a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the border line between oneself and the other.

Thus, dialogic expression is unfinalizable, always incomplete, and productive of further chain of responses, meaning is never closed and always oriented towards future. There is neither the first word nor the last word. There are no limits to dialogic context. It extends into the boundless past and boundless future. Bakhtin says, “Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world. The ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.”

Bakhtin’s deep insights on dialogicality represent a total shift from views on the nature of language and knowledge by major thinkers such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Immanuel Kant. In his essay ‘Epic and Novel’, Bakhtin demonstrates the novel’s distinct nature by contrasting it with the epic. By doing so, Bakhtin shows that the novel is well-suited to the post- industrial civilization in which we live because it flourishes on diversity. It is this same diversity that the epic attempts to eliminate from the world.

Bakhtin used the term ‘chronotope’ which means ‘time space’. He defines it as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. Thus chronotope is a concept that engages reality.

In his Speech Genres and other Late Essays, Bakhtin moves from the novel and deals with the problems of method and the nature of culture.

According to Bakhtin, speakers shape an utterance according to three variables:

(i) The object of discourse.

(ii) The immediate addressee.

(iii) Superaddressee.

As a literary theorist, Bakhtin is associated with the Russian formalists. In 1968, Roman Jakubson mentioned him as one of the new intelligent critics of formalism. After his death, his influence extended to the USA and the UK. Julia Kristeva, Todorov and several others were influenced by Bakhtin. In 1920s, there was a Bakhtin school in Russia in line with the discourse analysis of Saussure and Roman Jakobson. Bakhtin concentrated on language and its general use.

The Bakhtin School arose in the later period of formalists. Ideology is not separable from its medium language. The Bakhtin School was not interested in abstract linguistics of the kind which later formed the basis of structuralism. It was Bakhtin who developed the implications of this dynamic view of language for literary texts. He did not treat literature as the direct reflection of social forces but retained a formalist concern with literary structure. He showed how the dynamic and active nature of language was given expression in certain literary traditions. He stressed not the way texts reflect society or class interests but rather the way the language is made to disrupt authority and liberate alternative voices.

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