mikhail bakhtinOverview

Bakhtin's views anticipated the analytical school of linguistic philosophy, and emphasized the vitality of language. Speech and writing come with the viewpoints and intentions of their authors preserved in the multi-layered nature of language, and heteroglossia is therefore an effective argument against some of the more extreme views of Postmodernism.


Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) had to survive the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, the Stalinist purges, and the hardships of the second world war before receiving even modest recognition. He was born in Orel, south of Moscow, and educated at the universities of Odessa and St. Petersburg. In 1918 he graduated, and was drawn into the literary freedom and experimentation of the early years of the Revolution, making friends with its writers and critics, and perhaps writing parts of works by Medvedev and Volosinov. {1} Bakhtin's first acknowledged book, Problems of Dostoevsky's Art, had the misfortune of appearing in 1929, during Stalin's clampdown, and earned its author a banishment to Kazakstan. He was later allowed to move to a small town near Moscow, where he supported himself by clerical and teaching jobs. Bakhtin eventually defended his doctoral thesis on Rabelais in 1946, and in the sixties and seventies saw his work published in Russia and translated abroad. {2} Always a socialist, Bakhtin was committed to change, though he never abandoned his Greek Orthodox faith. He finally obtained a post at the Saransk Teachers Training College, from which he retired in 1961, becoming well known and respected in Moscow literary circles.


Whereas the Russian formalists drew their inspiration from Saussure, seeing language as a system of signs, Bakhtin took a sociological line similar to that later developed in Austin's speech acts. The spoken word is primary, and words in conversation are orientated towards future words — they stimulate and anticipated replies, structuring themselves to do so. Many genres (e.g. epics, tragedy, lyrics) overlook or even suppress this natural feature of language to present a unified world-view. But the novel accepts, and indeed makes use, of many voices, weaving them into a narrative with direct speech, represented speech, and what Bakhtin called doubly-orientated speech. Four categories make up the latter: stylization (a borrowed style), parody, skaz (oral narration) and dialogue (a hidden shaping of the author's voice). {3}

Bakhtin stressed the multi-layered nature of language, which he called heteroglossia. Not only are there social dialects, jargons, turns of phrase characteristic of the various professions, industries, commerce, of passing fashions, etc., but also socio-ideological contradictions carried forward from various periods and levels in the past. Language is not a neutral medium that can be simply appropriated by a speaker, but something that comes to us populated with the intentions of others. Every word tastes of the contexts in which it has lived its socially-charged life.

Bakhtin's concepts go further than Derrida's notion of 'trace', or Foucault's archaeology of political usage. Words are living entities, things that are constantly being employed and partly taken over, carrying opinions, assertions, beliefs, information, emotions and intentions of others, which we partially accept and modify. All speech is dialogic, has an internal polemic, and this is most fully exploited by the novel, particularly the modern novel. {4}


Bakhtin's work anticipated many concerns of Modernist and Postmodernist writing, most notably that of viewpoint. Sociologists recognize communities of discourse — overlapping groupings with common beliefs, interests and styles of expressing themselves. The groups have no sharp boundaries, and indeed individuals may belong to several such groups. A white, middle-aged literary critic may be a member of the local Church and produce articles of a New Criticism orientation, differing from a work colleague who espouses a feminist viewpoint and attends political rallies. Their active vocabularies will be slightly different, and many words will evoke different experiences and carry different connotations. Repression for the first will conjure up third-world police brutality, while the second may find repression voiced in speech all around her.

To what extent do they really understand each other? Many analytical philosophers would argue that understanding was potentially complete — beliefs, emotions, experiences must be particular to individuals, but statements otherwise can be converted into an objective, literal language, and checked against the facts. Conversely, some literary critics (e.g. Stanley Fish) would argue that understanding was inherently incomplete, or perhaps a meaningless term. Fish's interpretative communities have different paradigms or frames of reference, and cannot be compared except to some universal frame of reference, which does not exist.

Bakhtin's work allows us to recognize both views as extreme. There is no purely literal language, and concepts of truth and meaning have finally to be treated as ways of reacting to experience rather than as logical concepts applying across all possible worlds. Fish's paradigms overlook the ways we reach understanding, that we are constantly checking and adapting our paradigms against our understanding of the world. Paradigms which fail to fully make sense of our surroundings are dropped, or held by very few people. {5} And this, very naturally, is how communities evolve, even the poetry community. There is no centralizing programme or policy, but a network of alliances, overlapping and shifting frames of reference which are constantly being modified — by chance, ignorance, experiences, conversations, by television, newspapers, magazines and books.

It was Bakhtin's achievement to formalize this approach, and show how the variety of voices (each with their different community of discourse) make up a modern novel. Novelists have long realized that even if a single viewpoint is adopted — first person narrator or omniscient author — all characters nonetheless have to act consistently, according to their inner motivations, speaking a language that convincingly expresses their goals and characters. But Bakhtin devised a terminology which serves Postmodernist fiction with its multiple or indeterminate endings, and so goes further than many western commentators on the novel — further than Percy Lubbock, Cleanth Brooks, Mark Schorer, David Lodge or Wayne Booth. {6}

Bakhtin's work also provides an answer to Foucault and others who see language as an instrument of state repression. There is no common viewpoint in modern writing, any more than literature can be written to order, by following some blueprint or recipe. Writing of any length inevitably contains what Bakhtin called the carnivalesque — the expressive, random, individual viewpoint. Language may be saturated with ideology, but it never represents the one, monolithic viewpoint.

Bakhtin's approach illuminates not only politics and the novel, but many aspects of poetry creation and interpretation. Words in a poem naturally arrive with their past usages and intentions, but become hybridized in the good poem — i.e. entirely taken over by the poet, losing their many worlds of reference. Intentionally and consciously by the poet, and so understood by the reader, the polyglot social contexts are fused into the one horizon. Inevitably this must be so, or the poem would lack autonomy or artistic unity. {7} And so the way lies open to an authoritarian, fossilized diction, and to poetry as the preserve of a priestly class, matters which Bakhtin deplored.

But neither is inevitable. Poetry in the past drew on a wide range of social registers, which are more apparent to the history scholar perhaps than to the casual reader, but exist nonetheless. Much of Postmodernism poetry tries very hard not to be literary, to incorporate the raw material of colloquial speech and writing into its creations. Indeed some contemporary poetry openly exploits heteroglossia — the poetry of Larkin, Tony Harrison and Brecht, for example. {8}

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1. pp. 1-4 of David Lodge's After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism (1990). and Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's Mikhail Bakhtin (1984).
2. Michael Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1984), Michael Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination (1981), and Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomovska's Readings in Russian Poetics (1979).
3. Chapter 2 in Lodge 1990.
4. Kathleen Wales's Back to the Future: Bakhtin, Stylistics and Discourse in Willie van Peer's (Ed.) The Taming of the Text (1989).
5. pp. 41-48 in Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning: Reclaiming the Study of Literature (1996).
6. Michael Groden's Fiction Theory and Criticism: Early Twentieth - Century British and American entry in Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth's (Eds.) The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994).
7. pp. 285-287 in Bakhtin 1981.
8. Helga Geyer-Ryan's Heteroglossia in the Poetry of Bertolt Brecht and Tony Harrison in van Peer 1989.

Internet Resources

1. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). Sandy Kao, Ally Chang and Kate Lui. http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/marxism/
. Key terms and related links.
2. Hypersign. Andres Luco. 1999. http://www.cyberartsweb.org/cpace/theory/luco/
. Short treatments of several aspects of heteroglossia and other matters in modern fiction.
3. The Bakhtin Circle. Craig Brandist. 2002. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/b/bakhtin.htm. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
4. A University of Texas handout giving the key points.
5. Intertextuality Revisited: Dialogues and Negotiations in Media Studies. Gunhild Agger. 1999. http://www.uqtr.uquebec.ca/AE/vol_4/gunhild(frame).htm. A detailed look at intertextuality.
6. Taking it Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College. (Book review). Peter Wolf. 2002.http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m0JVP/2002_Fall/
. Heteroglossia in the classroom.
7. Cultural Institutions of the Novel. Deidre Lynch and William Warner (Eds.) 1996. http://eserver.org/clogic/1-1/comitini.html. Review by Patricia Comitini.
8. Scene. Ulf Wolf. http://ulfwolf.com/scene.htm. NNA. Aspects of the novel, with contributions from Percy Lubbock and others.
9. Fiction Theory and Criticism: Early Twentieth-Century British and American. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. (Eds.) 1997. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/
Entry in Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism.
10. Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students. Cleanth Brooks. 1938/1950. http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/understanding-poetry.html. Excerpt from Chapter 6.
11. The Man Between The Lines. Michael Dirda. Aug. 1996. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/reviews/cleanth.htm. Washington Post article on Brooks.
12. Mark Schorer - Bibliography Summary. Al von Ruff. 2002. http://isfdb.tamu.edu/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Mark_Schorer NNA. Listings mostly not online.
13. David Lodge. 2004. http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth62. British Council article.
14. Wayne C. Booth (b. 1921) http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/critical/booth.htm. Brief biography and listings.
15. English 793B: Wayne Booth. Randy Harris 2003. http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/~raha/793B_web/793B2.html. Course bibliography and listings.
16. 19. Home of The Philip Larkin Society. 2002. http://www.philiplarkin.com/. Poetry, critical articles and bibiography.