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Bakhtin’s Voices and Official Culture

Lecturer: Valery Vinogradovs

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) belongs to a group of Soviet artists of thought -- together with the likes of Solzhentsyn and Tarkovsky -- whose names and legacy are widely known in the West. Like his brothers and sisters in arms, Bakhtin suffered immensely during the Soviet regime, which, like many other regimes, directed funds and efforts into all kinds of affairs besides supporting daring artistic and intellectual searches for meaning. Most of Bakhtin’s work in English has been published posthumously, whereas much of it was conceived decades earlier in the 20’s and 30’s. This is partly due to the systematic harassment of the state, and also due to Bakhtin’s idiosyncratic writing style in Russian -- his own voice and language -- reflecting an enigmatic person.

Bakhtin’s philosophy draws from a bountiful intersection between verbal art, semiotics and real life. These three axes are inextricable. As social creatures, we are defined by our capacity to communicate. Art is a special means of communication, and it is charged with human values, since the artist draws from their life, cognitions, feelings and acts, so as to create. However, for Bakhtin, life is different from art in that the latter has a wonderful capacity to morph the original material into something new -- possibly, into new values. This way, art is always ideological, and yet some art may impose no ideology.

As in Nietzsche, creation of new values (concepts and aspirations) is a disruptive process, calling into question the official culture -- that which is diligently followed by the many. Bakhtin’s philosophy is in principle disruptive, then, as it celebrates the idea of “heteroglossia”: diversity of consciousnesses and lifestyles engaging in a dialogue in a work of verbal art. Incidentally, diversity is also the feature of folk culture, in Bakhtin, representing the carnival spirit, emptied and, typically, policed in contemporary Western culture. Note that it is not the “high” urban culture that covers the vast plurality of experience that the malleable human nature is disposed toward. It is in the “low” culture, formerly called Dionysian, or the culture of the collective body, that we may discover instincts and meanings essential to unleash the human potential. 

The phenomenon of carnival and the art of the novel, Bakhtin argues, share a fundamental trait -- hence, in our course we will traverse his choice of key literary texts. For example, Bakhtin chooses Rabelais because the renaissance master’s work marks Western culture’s last productive clash between a life-affirming impulse to carnival and the state subsuming anything unpredictable and joyous and transgressive under its rational directives. Further, Bakhtin chooses Dostoevsky, because the great Russian genius forces no single autocratic voice onto his readers. Dostoevsky is plagued by riddles, and his characters communicate all kinds of conflicting and convincing views; collectively they fit into no plan or a rigid body of values, inviting us to explore a perspective of our own.

Meaningful engagement with a novel, as a quintessential artform reflecting life, is Bakhtin’s chief educational objective. At the same time, an acquisition of this skill-set is conducive to one’s critical engagement with any other voice or a choir that wants to appear absolute. Accordingly, our course capitalises on the polyphonic and dialogical nature of Bakhtin’s legacy, examines his oeuvre, navigating through literary theory and texts, so as to better understand the voice of Bakhtin himself, publicised in a recently translated series of interviews, and considered at the end of our course.

1. The Dialogic Imagination

  • M. Bakhtin (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

2.  Rabelais and Gogol: Folk Culture and Urban Culture

  • M. Bakhtin (1984). Rabelais and his World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • M. Bakhtin (1983). “Rabelais and Gogol: The Art of Discourse and the Popular Culture of Laughter”. Mississippi Review, vol. 11 (3): 34-50.

3. Dostoevsky vs Tolstoy: Question of Polyphony

  • M. Bakhtin (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

4. Problems of Literary Texts: Late Developments

  • M. Bakhtin (1986). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

5. Act of Creation: Bakhtin in Conversation

  • M. Bakhtin (1993). Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • M. Bakhtin (2019). The Duvakin Interviews, 1973. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.