Bakhtin’s Impact on Postmodern Sensibility

Although active in the debates on aesthetics and literature that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher, literary critic, semiotician and scholar who worked on literary theory, ethics, and the philosophy of language, became a prominent figure during the postmodern age, with his highly influential concepts of dialogism, polyphony, the carnivalesque, the chronotope, heteroglossia and “outsidedness”. Together these concepts outline a distinctive philosophy of language and culture that has at its centre the claims that all discourse is in essence a dialogical exchange and that this endows all language with a particular ethical/political force.


Mikhail Bakhtin

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin introduces three important concepts – the unfinalizable self, relationship between the self and others, and, polyphony. Bakhtin’s conception of unfinalizability respects the possibility that a person can change, and that a person is never fully revealed or fully known in the world. About the relationship between the self and others, Bakhtin argues that every person is influenced by others in an inescapably intertwined way, and consequently no voice can be said to be isolated. In Dostoevsky‘s work, Bakhtin found a true representation of “polyphony“, that is, multiple voices. Each character in Dostoevsky’s work represents a voice that speaks for an individual self, distinct from others. This idea of polyphony is related to the concepts of unfinalizability and self-and-others, since it is the unfinalizability of individuals that creates true polyphony. Bakhtin briefly outlined the polyphonic concept of truth. For Bakhtin, truth is not a statement, a sentence or a phrase. Instead, ‘truth is a number of mutually addressed, albeit contradictory and logically inconsistent statements. Truth needs a multitude of carrying voices. It cannot be held within a single mind, it also cannot be expressed by “a single mouth”. Through these concepts, Bakhtin anticipates the postmodern engagement with the concepts of constructedness of reality, truth:and human subjectivity.


In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin studies the interaction between the social and the literary, by analysing the Renaissance social system in order to discover the balance between language that was permitted and language that was not, following which he pinpoints two important subtexts: the carnivalesque which he describes as a social institution, and grotesque realism which is defined as a literary mode. According to Bakhtin, carnival is the context in which distinct individual voices are heard, flourish and interact together and is characterised by subversion or mockery of authority through crudity, scatological humour, violence, and explicit or vulgar insults. The carnival creates the “threshold” situations where regular conventions are broken or reversed and genuine dialogue becomes possible. The notion of a carnival was Bakhtin’s way of describing Dostoevsky’s polyphonic style: each individual character is strongly defined, and at the same time the reader witnesses the critical influence of each character upon the other. That is to say, the voices of others are heard by.each individual, and each inescapably shapes the character of the other. The absolute unconventionality, celebration of fragmentation, decentered nature and absurdness of postmodern literature take cue from Bakhtinian polyphony, carnivalesque and grotesque realism.

In The Dialogic Imagination Bakhtin introduces the concepts of heterogIossia, dialogism and chronotope, making a significant contribution to the realm of literary scholarship. Bakhtin explains the generation of meaning through the “primacy of context over text” (heteroglossia), the hybrid nature of language (polyglossia) and the relation between utterances (which Kristeva identifies as intertextuality). In the essay Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel Bakhtin describes chronotope as “time space” and as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.” For the purpose of his writing, an author must create entire worlds and, in doing so, is forced to make use of the organizing categories of the real world in which he lives, that engages reality. In the final essay, Discourse in the Novel, Bakhtin provides a model for a history of discourse and introduces the concept of heteroglossia,  qualities of a language that are extralinguistic, but common to all languages. These include qualities such as perspective, evaluation, and ideological positioning. In this way most languages are incapable of neutrality, for every word is inextricably bound to the context in which it exists. Thus Bakhtin, with his concepts being highly relevant to postmodernism, can be considered as one of its earliest precursors.

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