I am here re-posting two videos by Steve Chisnell I bumped into on Youtube the other day, which give a very good brief introduction to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin.
Bakhtin was one of the finest theorists of semiotics and social language theory of the 20th century. Further, he had deep philosophical insight into how study of signification and communication could reveal essential truths about human nature and human society. (This is in complete contrast with the arid and ultimately empty assertions of the logical positivists, who held that study of language should tell us nothing about anything but the correctness of scientific theories – a view that it has taken American and English philosophers six decades to work their way out of, and still incompletely.)
Bakhtin is one of the most enigmatic figures of 20th century philosophy. Due to the politics of the Stalin regime, complicated further by the events of the German invasion, we actually have few records on Bakhtin, and probably more than half his written work has been lost. Toward the end of his life, we was allowed interviews and replies to critics, but it was still the Soviet Union, and one always needs to speak carefully under an authoritarian regime.
Heavily influenced by neo-Kantianism, and an obviously Hegelian reading of Phenomenology, Bakhtin was probably a Trostsky-ite Marxist, but there are some indications that he was at least influenced by Orthodox Christian mysticism.
None of these influences boded well for him in Stalin’s Russia. He was placed under sentence of ‘internal exile’ (carefully monitored probation) more than once. Obviously he needed to write carefully, and his publications were few and far between.
He was also very unlucky. Entering middle age, he had a leg amputated due to a bone disease. A major book publication, on the history of the early German novel, dissolved when the only manuscript of the book went up in flames during a fire of the publisher’s offices. Shortly thereafter, Bakhtin found himself in Stalingrad during the Battle, where he used his notes for the book as rolling paper for cigarets.
In the 1960s, following the Khrushchev-inspired ‘thaw’ in Soviet culture, Bakhtin was at last (re-)discovered by Soviet scholars, and even achieved attention in the West, thanks to the publication of translations of his Rabelais and His World. This monumental work reflected on the way that the ‘carnivalesque’ signifiers of bodily experience, social unrest, parody and satire, erupt in both social performance and literary texts, thus producing dissent to the ideologically uniform status quo. This is in keeping with his broader theory that our experience of language – despite ideological claims to the contrary – is both inevitably heteroglossic and necessarily dialogic. That is, we inevitably find ourselves in a social context of a multitude of voices, and we necessarily engage it in a process of dialogue – a process that cannot reach a final resolution but only contingent negotiations.
In the second video posted here, Chisnell has Bakhtin suggesting, on the basis of this theory, that we “should” not close off contentious positions in dialogue. Actually, what Bakhtin is saying is that we cannot close these off, because it is in the nature of language that oppositions will be generated in discourse. “You say hello/I say goodbye,” as the Beatles once sang; every ‘dark’ has its ‘light,’ and every ‘we’ generates a ‘not me!’ in contra-position to it.
What we find in Bakhtinian semiotics, then, is not a project but a deeper understanding. That is, Bakhtin is not saying, this is how language ‘should’ work; he is saying, this is how it does work. Any project we devise in response to that would be sociological and political in nature. There’s no way to get language to submit to our ideologies; we should rather consider adapting our politics to language and its implicit heterogeneity.
Excerpts from Bakhtin’s essay, Discourse in the Novel, are currently available here:
Informational articles can be found here: