27 April 2010

Mikhail Bakhtin: The Thinker


Continued from this post.

Bakhtin’s thinking is by no means systematic, and it is difficult to know where to begin an overview. But there are certain themes and emphases with which he was clearly preoccupied and which recur throughout his work. If I remember correctly, the article through which I was first introduced to Bakhtin—by Alan Jacobs in Books & Culture—presented these themes in part through a focus on some of Bakhtin’s unique terminology. Similarly, when I bought my first translated edition of some of Bakhtin’s work—The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist—I discovered, and spent a good deal of time studying, the glossary in the back. Holquist introduces it by saying, ‘Bakhtin’s technical vocabulary presents certain difficulties; while he does not use jargon, he does invest everyday words with special content. . . . [H]ere we collect and summarize the terms most central to his theory.’ [1] I will not post all of those given by Holquist, but only those that I personally found most interesting. I will also add to those I take from Holquist two further themes with which Bakhtin is commonly associated.

Authoritative discourse [avtoritetnoe slovo]
This is privileged language that approaches us from without; it is distanced, taboo, and permits no play with its framing context (Sacred Writ, for example). We recite it. It has great power over us, but only while in power; if ever dethroned it immediately
becomes a dead thing, a relic. Opposed to it is internally-persuasive discourse [vnutrenne-ubeditel’noe slovo], which is more akin to retelling a text in one’s own words, with one’s own accents, gestures, modifications. Human coming-to-consciousness, in Bakhtin’s view, is a constant struggle between these two types of discourse: an attempt to assimilate more into one’s own system, and the simultaneous freeing of one’s own discourse from the authoritative word, or from pervious earlier persuasive words that have ceased to mean. [2]

Canonization [kanonizacija]
canonic quality [kanoničnost]
The tendency in every form to harden its generic skeleton and elevate the existing norms to a model that resists change. At the end of ‘Discourse in the Novel’ [pp. 417ff.] Bakhtin discusses a special difficulty in novel theory, how to read properly the rapid transforming process of canonization and of re-accentuation. Canonization is that process that blurs heteroglossia, that is, that facilitates a naïve, single-voiced reading. It is no accident that the novel—that heteroglot genre—has no canon; it is, however, like all artistic genres subject to the pressures of canonization, which on a primitive level is merely the compulsion to repeat. [3]

Chronotope [xronotop]
Literally, ‘time-space’. A unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ration and nature of the temporal and spatial categories represented. The distinctiveness of this concept as opposed to most other uses of time and space in literary analysis lies in the fact that neither category is privileged; they are utterly interdependent. The chronotope is an optic for reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring. [4]

Completed—finished, closed-off, finalized [zaveršen]
and its noun zaveršennost’ [completedness, finalization]
its antonym nezaveršennost’ [inconclusiveness, openendedness]
This implies not just completed, but capable of definitive finalization. Dialogue, for example, can be zaveršen (as in a dynamic dialogue)—it can be laid out in all its speaking parts, framed by an opening and a close. A dialogized word, on the other hand, can never be zaveršeno: the resonance of oscillation of possible meanings within it is not only not resolved, but must increase in complexity as it continues to live. Epic time is zaveršeno; novel-time, the present oriented toward the future, is always nezaveršeno. [5]

Dialogism [dialogizm]
Dialogism is the characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia. Everything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole—there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others. Which will affect the other, how it will do so and in what degree is what is actually settled at the moment of utterance. This dialogic imperative, mandated by the pre-existence of the language world relative to any of its current inhabitants, insures that there can be no actual monologue. One may, like a primitive tribe that knows only its own limits, be deluded into thinking there is one language, or one may, as grammarians, certain political figures and normative framers of ‘literary languages’ do, seek in a sophisticated way to achieve a unitary language. In both cases the unitariness is relative to the overpowering force of heteroglossia, and thus dialogism. [6]

Dialogue [dialog]
dialogizing [dialogujuščij]
dialogized [dialogizovannij]
Dialogue and its various processes are central to Bakhtin’s theory, and it is precisely as verbal process (participial modifiers) that their force is most accurately sensed. A word, discourse, language or culture undergoes ‘dialogization’ when it becomes relativized, de-privileged, aware of competing definitions for the same things. Undialogized language is authoritative or absolute.

Dialogue may be external (between two different people) or internal (between an earlier and a later self). . . . [7]

Discourse, word [slovo]
The Russian word slovo covers much more territory than its English equivalent, signifying both an individual word and a method of using words [cf. the Greek logos] that presumes a type of authority. Thus the title of our final essay, ‘Discourse in the Novel’, might also have been rendered ‘The Word in the Novel’. We have opted for the broader term, because what interests Bakhtin is the sort of talk novelistic environments make possible, and how this type of talking threatens other more closed systems. Bakhtin at times uses discourse as it is sometimes used in the West—as a way to refer to the subdivisions determined by social and ideological differences within a single language (i.e. the discourse of American plumbers vs. that of American academics). But it is more often than not his more diffuse way of insisting on the primacy of speech, utterance, all in praesentia aspects of language. [8]

Heteroglossia [raznorečie, raznorečivost’]
The basic condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance. It is that which insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions—social, historical, meteorological, physiological—that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve. Heteroglossia is as close a conceptualization as is possible of that locus where centripetal and centrifugal forces collide; as such, it is that which a systematic linguistics must always suppress. [9]

Polyglossia [mnogojazyčie]
The simultaneous presence of two or more national languages interacting within a single cultural system (Bakhtin’s two historical models are ancient Rome [Greek and Latin] and the Renaissance [Latin and the vernacular languages]). [10]

Voice [golos, -glas]
This is the speaking personality, the speaking consciousness. A voice always has a will or desire behind it, its own timbre and overtones. Single-voiced discourse [edinogolosnoe slovo] is the dream of poets; double-voiced discourse [dvugolosnoe slovo] the realm of the novel. At several points Bakhtin illustrates the difference between these categories by moving language-units from one plane to the other—for example, shifting a trope from the plane of poetry to the plane of prose [pp. 327ff.]: both poetic and prose tropes are ambiguous [in Russian, dvusmyslennyj, literally ‘double-meaninged’] but a poetic trope, while meaning more than one thing, is always only single-voiced. Prose tropes by contrast always contain more than one voice, and are therefore dialogized. [11]

Two further themes might be added to these. First, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin introduces the notion of ‘polyphony’ in discourse—‘A plurality of independent and unmerged voices [heteroglossia] and consciousnesses’. He associates this unique realisation of the potential of the novel, and indeed, of the very nature of language and discourse, with Dostoevsky above all, observing that ‘a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels’. [12] In Joe Barnhart’s words, Bakhtin ‘viewed Fyodor Dostoevsky as the exemplar of the polyphonic novel’. [13] It is an approach that, as Rowan Williams has rightly noted, has caused critical work on Dostoevsky to become ‘in general far more sophisticated’. [14]

Second, in his study of Rabelais, Bakhtin introduced the theme of carnival. In the words of Clark & Holquist, ‘Carnival is a minimally ritualized antiritual, a festive celebration of the other, the gaps and holes in all the mappings of the world laid out in systematic theologies, legal codes, normative poetics, and class hierarchies. . . . [It is] a kind of existential heteroglossia.’ [15] According to Bakhtin:

During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. . . . [16]

. . .

Thus carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter. It is a festive life. . . . [17]

Orthodox will be interested to know that there have been a number of books published which treat Bakhtin’s thought from an explicitly religious perspective. In The Illuminating Icon, Fr Anthony Ugolnik approaches him as ‘an example of a Christian working through a secular idiom’, [18] and notes, ‘In the literary and philosophical tradition of Russian lay theology, Bakhtin managed to transmit many Eastern Christian presumptions into his Soviet environment.’ [19] Alexandar Mihailovic’s Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse analyses the relationship between Bakhtin’s thought and the terminology of the Œcumenical Councils, concluding, ‘In his christological chronotope of corporeal words Bakhtin attempts to integrate ethical and political thought with theology, which had been marginalized into a peripheral culture, one foreign to a country declared by its political leaders to be the examplar of “Developed” socialism.’ [20] Ruth Coates’s Christianity in Bakhtin: God & the Exiled Author looks at ‘Bakhtin’s demonstrable philosophical engagement with such central Christian concepts as creation, fall, and incarnation’, [21] self-consciously insisting on something like a ‘mere Christianity’ rather than finding anything distinctively Orthodox about him. [22] But then, in the article ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’, which I have already mentioned (here and here), Coates does begin to look at Bakhtin’s relation to certain Orthodox distinctives—particularly the essence/energies distinction, hesychastic prayer, and the rôle of the body in Orthodox anthropology. Leonard Stanton uses an idea introduced in Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the ‘penetrated word’, closely related to ‘internally-persuasive discourse’, as a way to interpret the function of apophthegmata in the Lives of the Optina Elders. [23] Finally, Walter Reed’s Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin uses Bakhtin’s thought as a hermeneutic appratus for a literary-critical reading of Scripture, focusing particularly on Job and Revelation. [24] But these are of course only the studies with which I am familiar and of which I possess copies.

In my opinion, many of the themes defined or referred to above have obvious connections with Orthodoxy, while others require a bit more unpacking to be seen in relation to an Orthodox worldview. One which I believe is particularly elusive is carnival. In context, Bakhtin’s extolling of carnival is often explicitly anticlerical and irreverent (much like Rabelais himself). So it might be instructive to consider at some length what Fr Ugolnik has done with this theme:

The most productive insights are often the most unexpected. Western visitors who encounter the Russian Orthodox liturgy perceive it according to a romanticized body of expectations: beautiful and solemn, [25] it seems expressive of a profound seriousness and melancholy. Yet to be steeped in liturgy as a medium for the Word is to see as well its playful restlessness, its constant shifts in frame of reference. Bakhtin . . . developed the notion of ‘carnival’, a concept now widely used in anthropology and literature. ‘Carnival’ is that dialogic form by which rigid, tyrannical hierarchies become mirrored, distorted, and overthrown. And liturgy can indeed be seen as ‘carnival’. Liturgy is, in effect, a celebration of the gospel whereby we partake in a divine carnival, a divine irony whereby we overthrow the kingdom of this world.

. . .

‘We are fools for Christ’s sake’ (1 Cor. 4:10). Tyranny cannot bear to be mocked; the folly of the gospel, then, will enrage the powerful but delight the poor in spirit. Bakhtin’s sensitivity to ‘carnival’ springs from his own Christian tradition. Russian Orthodoxy is replete with icons and services celebrating a certain kind of saint, the ‘holy fool’, the fool for Christ’s sake. The crazed, beautiful domes of St Basil’s on Red Square celebrate, in their riot of color and form, just such a sainted clown. Early Russian czars, by tradition, included in their retinue a fool who mocked the pretense of the worldly prince. Similarly, Russian literature is filled with the same kind of character, a character who in his or her ‘folly’ forces an encounter between reality and pretense.

. . . The holy fool refuses to accept the structures by which the world forms judgments. He reminds the people of God that the structures by which the princes of this world prevail are less than ‘transitory’—they are signs of liberation in God, showing us in the narrowness and cramped insistence of worldly power what God will never be. The gospel’s clown is, like the monk or nun, ‘apophatic’—that is, he or she shows us not what God is, but rather what God is not. The holy fool mimics the standard by which the cross is seen as ‘tragic’, for the gospel is the very antithesis of tragedy.

Liturgy in its structure is the very archetype of divine carnival. In proclaiming God’s
kingdom, it alters the way in which we see this world and forces us into perpetual re-evaluation. Intellectual tyranny and worldly power take themselves seriously. The gospel mocks that seriousness. Liturgical celebration of the gospel brings Christians together in community, where in a structure of ‘dialogue’ they recreate the terms by which they interpret this world. In liturgical structure we see a majestic celebration of what Bakhtin calls alterity, of the ‘otherness’ of God. In liturgy the Christian overthrows the kingdom of this world and celebrates the kingdom of the Trinity. It is the social and religious structure within which the poor are enriched, the meek made courageous, the oppressed made into monarchs. Thus it is hardly an empty ‘cultic’ celebration, an ‘opera’ that is removed from the terms of the lived world. It is indeed in its nature a ‘subversion’ of the structures of tyranny. It demands that we see this flawed and blasted world anew, as renewed in Christ; that we sinners stand as the redeemed. Liturgy does not ‘announce’, in monologue, the Good News. Liturgy dialogically ‘celebrates’ the gospel; it enacts the plan of God. [26]

I realise I have quoted more writing about Bakhtin than I have of Bakhtin. I by no means wish to discourage the intelligent reader from simply picking up one of his books and diving in (I think the Dostoevsky book and The Dialogic Imagination particularly suitable for this purpose). But it’s hard to know exactly what to quote with a thinker like Bakhtin. In this situation, I have chosen a passage from ‘Author & Hero in Aesthetic Activity’ which seems particularly apropos for a blog like Logismoi: a brief consideration of hagiography.

We cannot deal with this form in detail, for this would exceed the bounds of our theme. The vita of a saint is accomplished immediately in God’s world. Every moment of the vita is imaged as possessing validity precisely in God’s world; the vita of a saint is a life that has significance in God.

This significant life in God must be invested in traditional forms; the author’s sense of reverence leaves no room for individual initiative, for individual choice of expression: the author renounces himself here, renounces his own individually answerable activity. . . .

Thus, the unity of the transgredient moments of a saint is not the individual unity of an author who actively utilizes his position outside the saint; the author’s position outside the saint is assumed and maintained in humility—it is a position which renounces all initiative (since, in fact, there are no essentially transgredient moments for accomplishing a consummation) and which falls back upon forms consecrated by tradition. . . . [H]agiography, just like icon painting, avoids any transgredient moments which delimit a human being and render him overly concrete, because they invariably diminish authoritativeness. What must be excluded is . . . anything concrete in a person’s appearance, anything concrete in his life . . . . That is, anything that reinforces a given person’s determinateness in being (the typical and characteristic, and even biographical concreteness) and thus reduces the authoritativeness of that person (the life of a saint proceeds from the very outset in eternity, as it were). . . .

A symbolic tradition in the treatment of the vita is also possible. (The problem of imaging a miracle and the supreme religious event; here the humble renunciation of adequacy and individuality and submission to strict tradition are especially important.) Where the task is to image and express a valid achievement of ultimate meaning, humility to the point of submission to traditional conventionality is indispensable . . . . Thus, renunciation of his position outside the saint as constituting an essential position and humbling himself to the point of submission to pure traditionality (medieval ‘realism’) are highly characteristic of the author of a saint’s life (cf. the idea of blago-obrazie in Dostoevsky). [27]

In the spirit of nezaveršennost’, I will not say ‘finally’, or ‘in conclusion’, but despite Bakhtin’s promotion of prosaics as a opposed to poetics, I will offer in the spirit of carnival the few nuggets Mihailovic has translated of what he calls ‘the nadir in sentimentality’ among Bakhtin-worshippers:

Perhaps the nadir in sentimentality was reached in a 1989 poem dedicated to Bakhtin that has the critic sitting at ‘his desk like Noah on his ark’, where he ‘guffaws with Rabelais until midnight, and sobs with Dostoevsky til the morning’ and ‘dreams of one thing only: that in every word there should be more good.’ A voice says to the poet, ‘There are no prophets in our fatherland,’ to which he replies, ‘But how one yearns for a prophet!’ [28]


[1] Michael Holquist, ‘Glossary’, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas, 1998), p. 423.

[2] Ibid., pp. 424-5.

[3] Ibid., p. 425.

[4] Ibid., pp. 425-6.

[5] Ibid., p. 426.

[6] Ibid., p. 426.

[7] Ibid., pp. 426-7.

[8] Ibid., p. 427.

[9] Ibid., p. 428.

[10] Ibid., p. 431.

[11] Ibid., p. 434.

[12] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, tr. Caryl Emerson, Vol. 8 in Theory & History of Literature (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984), p. 6.

[13] Joe E. Barnhart, ‘Introduction—Hearing Voices’, Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Talent, ed. Joe Barnhart (Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2005), p. ix.

[14] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, & Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor U, 2008), p. 4.

[15] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1984), pp. 300-1.

[16] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais & His World, tr. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, IN: Indiana U, 1984), p. 7.

[17] Ibid., p. 8.

[18] Fr Anthony Ugolnik, The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 158-9.

[19] Ibid., p. 160.

[20] Alexandar Mihailovic, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997), p. 234. Incidentally, Mihailovic also ends with a typical plea for ecumenism in the spirit of Fedotov and Fr Alexander Men. Yes, I know, it’s a bit annoying.

[21] Ruth Coates, ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’, Religion & Literature 37.3 (Autumn 2005), p. 60.

[22] Ruth Coates, Christianity in Bakhtin: God & the Exiled Author (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1998), p. 22.

[23] Leonard Stanton, The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), p. 159.

[24] Reed proceeds from the belief that Bakhtin’s ‘own adherence to Christianity seems to have been persistent’, and that there exists a ‘striking relevance of Bakhtin’s philosophy and aesthetics of dialogue to the peculiarly polyform nature of the Bible’ (Walter L. Reed, Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin [NY: Oxford U, 1993], p. 14).

[25] It is interesting to note, in light of C.S. Lewis’s discussion of the notion of solemnity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that it is not nearly so opposed to the spirit of ‘carnival’ as the word is in modern usage. See this post.

[26] Fr Ugolnik, pp. 170-1.

[27] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Author & Hero in Aesthetic Activity’, Art & Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist & Vadim Liapunov, tr. & notes by Vadim Liapunov, supp. tr. Kenneth Brostrom (Austin: U of Texas, 1995), pp. 185-6.

[28] Mihailovic, p. 3.

2 comments:

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Again, thank you for these posts!

There's so much here, it's difficult to respond. I share your sense of puzzlement about what to do with Bakhtin's sense of carnival. Ugolnik does about as good a job with that as I can imagine - emphasizing the Gospel's critique of the princes of this world and the sense of eschatological openness that breaks open closed, tyrannical systems. This is an avenue worthy of more exploration. I sense a difference between the holy fool in the Orthodox East and the fool in the post-Franciscan West... Some of which relates to perceptions of laughter and frivolity. Take, for example, the stream which culminates in Harvey Cox's "Feast of Fools" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." It's been observed that the fool in the West makes us laugh, perhaps uncomfortably, while the fool in the East should bring us to tears - e.g. St Xenia of Petersburg.

Nonetheless, again, thank you!

Fr M

aaronandbrighid said...

You're very welcome, Father! I actually had the idea years ago to write some sort of introduction to Bakhtin for Orthodox Christians. Originally it would never have occurred to me that a blog would be the perfect forum for such a thing!

Concerning the fools-for-Christ, I think part of the problem is that, as with St Seraphim, we have a tendency to look at that them for affirmation of our own pet ideologies and proclivities. For this reason, though I think he's basically on target, I worry a bit even about Yannaras's use of the holy fools in Freedom of Morality. It's just too convenient when they manage to prove a point that happens to be helpful to 20th-c. postures. And this from a man who so viciously rejects St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.