Mikhail Bakhtin made a remarkable contribution to social and cultural theory under the most difficult of circumstances: at first under Stalin and then under the relatively relaxed but still highly constrained circumstances of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. Though Bakhtin’s thought is compatible with Marxism broadly speaking and has been enthusiastically been adopted by many soft Marxists, particularly in literary studies, Bakhtin’s thought is not expressed in a demonstratively Marxist manner and is certainly not an expression of Marxism-Leninism or Stalinism of any kind. The strange conditions of Bakhtin’s career have left something of a puzzle about what exactly he did write. There are some great works on literature, language, and culture that are clearly by Bakhtin, along with some other notable work in these fields, published under the name of Bakthin’s associates V. N. Volosinov and P. N. Medvedev, which may have been at least partly written by Bakhtin. This article will refer only to the first category of texts rather than try to sort out the complicated question of the authorship of other texts.
Bakhtin’s most direct object of concern is the status of literary genre; however, this concern is embedded in a theory of history and culture. For Bakhtin, literary genres can be understood only with regard to the loss of natural humanity. In nature, we live in a union of sexuality relations and family life, birth and death, nutrition and defecation, and natural seasons and natural rhythms of the body. The study of literary genres is premised on the loss of this state and the attempt to return to it. Literary genres focus on the content of culture in symbolic form. The loss of the natural state is marked in different forms of time and space. The basic form of time and space is the chronotype. The more folkloric forms of literature have mythic characters unconstrained by normal bonds and a purely additive attitude to time, in which episodes accumulate with no limitation or unifying logic. At this more naturalistic level, we find idylls close to the unities of nature. More pure high-literary genres turn the unified opposites of natural life into abstracted oppositions between life and death, obscene sex and family life, and prepared food and gross defecation.
For Bakhtin, the most vital moments in literature come from influences in popular culture that challenge these abstractions and hierarchies. Bakhtin refers to these kinds of works as Menippean satires or polyphonic or carnivalesque. The Menippean satire is a reference to an antique satire that does not exist as a generally recognized genre paradigm. In Bakhtin, it serves as a convenient way of referring to any work, ancient or modern, that mixes popular and high discourses and uses a variety of voices that relate to each other in a mocking and comical way, in which there is descent from pure aestheticism, with its clearly defined characters, plots, and moral points, into death, obscenity, and the bizarre.
The polyphonic refers to any literature that interweaves a variety of voices, all of which are equal. This is dialogic, interactive, as opposed to the monologic domination of one voice. The paradigm here is the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, which according to Bakhtin refer to popular culture in order to challenge aesthetic hierarchies. Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels are themselves rooted in the carnivalesque. The paradigm of the carnivalesque is to be found in Antoine Rabelais’s Renaissance novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel. This exercise in the learned and the obscene, the aesthetic and the grotesque is a response to the tradition of carnival. For Bakhtin, the carnival is the appearance of natural and folk peasant life, where natural growth is promoted by the inversion and mockery of authority and hierarchy. Bakhtin invokes an analysis of the relation between culture and natural life, which itself refers to the ethical impulses of 19th-century Russian literature, in particular, the work of Leo Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, where aesthetic refinement coexists with the idealization of peasant values and life. Bakhtin also draws on Immanuel Kant, Ernst Cassirer, and a very Russian tradition of the unity of philosophy and history to produce a view of nature and culture influential in literary and cultural studies, with much to say in any discussion of the society and culture.
- Mikhail B. (1983). The dialogic imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Mikhail B. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
- Mikhail B. (1984). Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.