Key Theories of Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail M. Bakhtin (1895–1975) is increasingly being recognized as one of the major literary theorists of the twentieth century. He is perhaps best known for his radical philosophy of language, as well as his theory of the novel, underpinned by concepts such as “dialogism,” “polyphony,” and “carnival,” themselves resting on the more fundamental concept of “heteroglossia.” Bakhtin’s writings were produced at a time of momentous upheavals in Russia: the Revolution of 1917 was followed by a civil war (1918–1921), famine, and the dark years of repressive dictatorship under Joseph Stalin. While Bakhtin himself was not a member of the Communist Party, his work has been regarded by some as Marxist in orientation, seeking to provide a corrective to the abstractness of extreme formalism. Despite his critique of formalism, he has also been claimed as a member of the Jakobsonian formalist school, as a poststructuralist, and even as a religious thinker. Bakhtin’s fraught career as an author reflects the turbulence of his times: of the numerous books he wrote in the post-revolutionary decade and in the 1930s, only one was published under his own name. The others, such as the influential Rabelais and his World (1965), were not published until much later. After decades of obscurity, he witnessed in the 1950s a renewed interest in his works and he became a cult figure in the Soviet Union. In the 1970s his reputation extended to France and in the 1980s to England and America.

MikhailMikhailovichBakhtin-s-hBorn in the town of Orel in Russia, Bakhtin subsequently obtained a degree in classics and philology from the University of St. Petersburg (Petrograd) in 1918. St. Petersburg at this time was the locus of heated literary-critical debate involving the symbolists, futurists, and Formalists. Bakhtin was influenced by figures such F. F. Zelinski, a classicist, and the Kantian thinker Vvedenski.1 Fleeing the ensuing civil war, Bakhtin moved to Nevel, where he worked as a schoolteacher. It was here that the first Bakhtin Circle convened, including such figures as the musicologist (and later linguist) Valentin Volosinov, the philologist Lev Pumpianskij, and the philosopher Matvej Isaic Kagan. In 1920 Bakhtin moved to Vitebsk, a haven for many artists, where Pavel Medvedev joined the Circle. He married and returned with his wife to St. Petersburg in 1924. His “Circle” now included the poet N. J. Kljuev, the biologist I. I. Kanaev, and the Indologist M. I. Tubianskij. In 1929 Bakhtin’s first major publication appeared, entitled Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art, which formulated the concept of “polyphony” or “dialogism.” In the same year, however, Bakhtin was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for alleged affiliation with the underground Russian Orthodox Church; mercifully, the sentence was commuted to six years’ exile in Kazakhstan. In 1936 he obtained a teaching position at the Mordovia State Teachers’ College in Saransk; but the threat of more purges prompted him to resign and to move to a more obscure town. Afflicted by a bone disease, on which account his leg was amputated in 1938, he did not subsequently procure a professional appointment. After World War II, in 1946 and 1949 he defended his dissertation on Rabelais, creating an uproar in the scholarly world; the professors who opposed acceptance of the thesis won the day, and Bakhtin was denied his doctorate. His friends, however, procured him a teaching position in Saransk, as Chair of the Department of Literature. These colleagues – comprising a third “Bakhtin Circle” – included scholars at the University of Moscow and the Gorkij Institute, such as V. Kozinov, S. Bocarov, and the linguist V. V. Ivanov. The final years of Bakhtin’s life brought him a long-elusive recognition. His book on Dostoevsky, republished in 1963, was a success, as was the volume on Rabelais, appearing two years later.

Bakhtin’s major works as translated into English include Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays (1990), Rabelais and his World (1965; trans. 1968), Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929; trans. 1973), The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (1930s; trans. 1981), and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986). His important early essay Towards a Philosophy of the Act (1919) was not published until 1986. This and other early writings, such as Art and Responsibility and Author and Hero, are Kantian in orientation, offering a phenomenological account of the intersubjective connection of human selves in language. Bakhtin’s interest in the nature of language was formed in part by members of his Circle. Indeed, the authorship of some of the Bakhtin Circle’s publications is still in dispute: two books, Freudianism (1927) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929, 1930), were published under the name of Valentin Voloshinov. A further title, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), was published under the name of Pavel Medvedev. The dispute was provoked by the linguist V. V. Ivanov, who claimed that these texts were in fact written by Bakhtin. Bakhtin himself refrained from resolving the matter, and the debate continues. It may well be, in any case, that these texts were collaboratively authored or that they express to some extent the shared ideas of members of the Circle.

Bakhtin’s major achievements include the formulation of an innovative and radical philosophy of language as well as a comprehensive “theory” of the novel (though Bakhtin’s work eschews systematic theory that attempts to explain particular phenomena through generalizing and static schemes). The essay to be examined here, Discourse in the Novel, furnishes an integrated statement of both endeavors. Indeed, what purports to be a theory of the novel entails not only a radical account of the nature of language but also a radical critique of the history of philosophy and an innovative explanation of the nature of subjectivity, objectivity, and the very process of understanding.

At the outset, Bakhtin states that his principal object in this essay is to overcome the divorce between an abstract “formal” approach and an equally abstract “ideological” approach to the study of “verbal art” (here referring to the language of poetry and the novel). He insists that form and content in discourse “are one,” and that “verbal discourse is a social phenomenon” (DI, 259). Bakhtin’s point is that traditional stylistics have ignored the social dimensions of artistic discourse, which has been treated as a self-subsistent phenomenon, cut off from broader historical movements and immersion in broad ideological struggles. Moreover, traditional stylistics have not found a place for the novel, which, like other “prosaic” discourse, has been viewed as an “extraartistic medium,” an artistically “neutral” means of communication on the same level as practical speech (DI, 260). He acknowledges that in the 1920s some attempts were made (he appears to be thinking of the Russian Formalists) to recognize “the stylistic uniqueness of artistic prose as distinct from poetry.” However, Bakhtin suggests that such endeavors merely revealed that traditional stylistic categories were not applicable to novelistic discourse (DI, 261).

Bakhtin lists the stylistic features into which the “unity” of the novel is usually divided: (1) direct authorial narration, (2) stylization of everyday speech, (3) stylization of semiliterary discourse such as letters and diaries, (4) various types of extra-artistic speech, such as moral, philosophical, and scientific statements, and (5) the individualized speech of characters. His point is that each of these “heterogeneous stylistic unities” combines in the novel to “form a structured artistic system” and that the “stylistic uniqueness of the novel as a genre consists precisely in the combination of these subordinated, yet still relatively autonomous, unities . . . into the higher unity of the work as a whole.” Hence the novel can be “defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized” (DI, 262).

It quickly becomes apparent that Bakhtin’s view of the novel is dependent upon his broader view of the nature of language as “dialogic” and as comprised of “heteroglossia.” In order to explain the concept of dialogism, we first need to understand the latter term: “heteroglossia” refers to the circumstance that what we usually think of as a single, unitary language is actually comprised of a multiplicity of languages interacting with, and often ideologically competing with, one another. In Bakhtin’s terms, any given “language” is actually stratified into several “other languages” (“heteroglossia” might be translated as “other-languageness”). For example, we can break down “any single national language into social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, . . . languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions . . . each day has its own slogan, its own vocabulary, its own emphases.” It is this heteroglossia, says Bakhtin, which is “the indispensable prerequisite for the novel as a genre” (DI, 263).

“Dialogism” is a little more difficult to explain. On the most basic level, it refers to the fact that the various languages that stratify any “single” language are in dialogue with one another; Bakhtin calls this “the primordial dialogism of discourse,” whereby all discourse has a dialogic orientation (DI, 275). We might illustrate this using the following example: the language of religious discourse does not exist in a state of ideological and linguistic “neutrality.” On the contrary, such discourse might act as a “rejoinder” or “reply” to elements of political discourse. The political discourse might encourage loyalty to the state and adherence to material ambitions, whereas the religious discourse might attempt to displace those loyalties with the pursuit of spiritual goals. Even a work of art does not come, Minerva-like, fully formed from the brain of its author, speaking a single monologic language: it is a response, a rejoinder, to other works, to certain traditions, and it situates itself within a current of intersecting dialogues (DI, 274). Its relation to other works of art and to other languages (literary and non-literary) is dialogic.

Bakhtin has a further, profounder, explanation of the concept of dialogism. He explains that there is no direct, unmediated relation between a word and its object: “no living word relates to its object in a singular way.” In its path toward the object, the word encounters “the fundamental and richly varied opposition of . . . other, alien words about the same object.” Any concrete discourse, says Bakhtin,

finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist – or, on the contrary, by the “light” of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tensionfilled environment . . . it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue . . . The way in which the word conceives its object is complicated by a dialogic interaction within the object between various aspects of its socio-verbal intelligibility. (DI, 276–277)

Offering a summary of his view, Bakhtin states that the “word is born in a dialogue as a living rejoinder within it; the word is shaped in dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object. A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way” (DI, 279). The underlying premise here is that language is not somehow a neutral medium, transparently related to the world of objects. Any utterance, whereby we assign a given meaning to a word, or use a word in a given way, is composed not in a vacuum in which the word as we initially encounter it is empty of significance. Rather, even before we utter the word in our own manner and with our own signification, it is already invested with many layers of meaning, and our use of the word must accommodate those other meanings and in some cases compete with them. Our utterance will in its very nature be dialogic: it is born as one voice in a dialogue that is already constituted; it cannot speak monologically, as the only voice, in some register isolated from all social, historical, and ideological contexts.

We might illustrate this notion of dialogism with an example taken from the stage of modern international politics. Those of us living in Europe or America tend to think of the word (and concept of ) “democracy” as invested with a broad range of positive associations: we might relate it generally with the idea of political progress, with a history of emancipation from feudal economic and political constraints, with what we think of as “civilization,” with a secular and scientific worldview, and perhaps above all with the notion of individual freedom. But when we attempt to export this word, this concept, to another culture such as that of Iraq, we find that our use of this word encounters a great deal of resistance in the linguistic and ideological registers of that nation. For one thing, the word “democracy” may be overlain in that culture with associations of a foreign power, and with some of the ills attendant upon democracy (as noted by thinkers from Plato to Alexis de Tocqueville): high crime rates, unrestrained individualism, the breakdown of family structure, a lack of reverence for the past, a disrespect for authority, and a threat to religious doctrine and values.

What occurs here, then, is precisely what Bakhtin speaks of: an ideological battle within the word itself, a battle for meaning, for the signification of the word, an endeavor to make one’s own use of the word predominate. The battle need not occur between cultures; it can rage within a given nation. For example, a similar battle could exist between conservative religious groups and progressive groups in either America or Iraq. Similar struggles occur over words such as “terrorism,” welded by the Western media to a certain image of Islam, and qualified in the Arab media with prefixes such as “state-sponsored.” In such struggles, the word itself becomes the site of intense ideological conflict. We can see, then, that according to Bakhtin’s view of language, language is not some neutral and transparent expression of conflict; it is the very medium and locus of conflict.

In formulating this radical notion of language, Bakhtin is also effecting a profound critique not only of linguistics and conventional stylistics but also of the history of philosophy. He sees traditional stylistics as inadequate for analyzing the novel precisely because it bypasses the heteroglossia that enables the style of the novel. Stylistics views style as a phenomenon of language itself, as an “individualization of the general language.” In other words, the source of style is “the individuality of the speaking subject” (DI, 263–264). In this view, the work of art is treated as a “self-sufficient whole” and an “authorial monologue,” whose “elements constitute a closed system,” isolated from all social contexts (DI, 273–274). Bakhtin sees such a view of style as founded on Saussure’s concept of language, itself premised on a polarity between general and particular, between langue (the system of language) and parole (the individual speech act). This notion of style presupposes both a “unity of language” and “the unity of an individual person realizing himself in this language” (DI, 264). Such a notion leads to a distorted treatment of the novel, selecting “only those elements that can be fitted within the frame of a single language system and that express, directly and without mediation, an authorial individuality in language” (DI, 265). Stylistics, linguistics, and the philosophy of language all postulate a unitary language and a unitary relation of the speaker to language, a speaker who engages in a “monologic utterance.” All these disciplines enlist the Saussurean model of language, based on the polarity of general (language system) and particular (individualized utterance) (DI, 269).

Bakhtin’s essential point is that such a unitary language is not real but merely posited by linguistics: “A unitary language is not something given . . . but is always in essence posited . . . and at every moment of its linguistic life it is opposed to the realities of heteroglossia. But at the same time it makes its real presence felt as a force for overcoming this heteroglossia, imposing specific limits to it, guaranteeing a certain maximum of mutual understanding and crystallizing into a real, although still relative, unity – the unity of the reigning conversational (everyday) and literary language, ‘correct language’ ” (DI, 270). Hence, when we speak of “a language” or “the language,” we are employing an ideal construct whose purpose is to freeze into a monologic intelligibility the constantly changing dialogic exchange of languages that actually constitute “language.” In this respect, the historical project of literary stylistics, philosophy, and linguistics has been one:

Aristotelian poetics, the poetics of Augustine, the poetics of the medieval church, of “the one language of truth,” the Cartesian poetics of neoclassicism, the abstract grammatical universalism of Leibniz (the idea of a “universal grammar”), Humboldt’s insistence on the concrete – all these, whatever their differences in nuance, give expression to the same centripetal forces in socio-linguistic and ideological life; they serve one and the same project of centralizing and unifying the European languages. (DI, 271)

Bakhtin sees this project as deeply ideological and political: it was a project that entailed exalting certain languages over others, incorporating “barbarians and lower social strata into a unitary language of culture,” canonizing ideological systems and directing attention away “from language plurality to a single proto-language.” Nonetheless, insists Bakhtin, these centripetal forces are obliged to “operate in the midst of heteroglossia” (DI, 271). Even as various attempts are being made to undertake the project of centralization and unification, the processes of decentralization and disunification continue. As Bakhtin puts it, alongside “the centripetal forces, the centrifugal forces of language carry on their uninterrupted work” (DI, 272).

This dialectic between the centripetal forces of unity and the centrifugal forces of dispersion is, for Bakhtin, a constituting characteristic of language. Every utterance, he says, is a point where these two forces intersect: every utterance participates in the “unitary language” and at the same time “partakes of social and historical heteroglossia.” The environment of an utterance is “dialogized heteroglossia.” Hence the utterance itself – any utterance – consists of “a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of two embattled tendencies in the life of language” (DI, 272). What is fundamental to Bakhtin’s view of language, then, is that no utterance simply floats in an ideally posited atmosphere of ahistorical neutrality; every utterance belongs to someone or some class or group and carries its ideological appurtenance within it. As Bakhtin states: “We are taking language not as a system of abstract grammatical categories, but rather language conceived as ideologically saturated, language as a world view” (DI, 271). In contrast, the disciplines of linguistics, stylistics, and the philosophy of language have all been motivated by an “orientation toward unity.” Given that their project must occur amid the actual diversity, plurality, and stratification of language, i.e., amid heteroglossia, their project has effectively been that of seeking “unity in diversity,” and they have ignored real “ideologically saturated” language consciousness (DI, 274). They have been oriented toward an “artificial, preconditioned status of the word, a word excised from dialogue” (DI, 279).

Bakhtin’s own view recognizes that the actual word in living conversation is “directed toward an answer . . . it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in the atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said” (DI, 280). Bakhtin here draws attention to the temporal nature of language, to the fact that the word exists in real time, that it has a real history, a real past, and a real future (as opposed to the static time constructs posited by linguistics), all of which condition its presence. His views bear comparison to Bergson’s views of language as a medium that is essentially spatialized and that has contributed to our conceptual spatializing of time, rather than dealing with real time or durée. What Bakhtin, like Bergson, is doing is reconceiving not merely the nature of language but the act of understanding itself: this, too, is a dialogic process. Every concrete act of understanding, says Bakhtin, is active; it is “indissolubly merged with the response, with a motivated agreement or disagreement . . . Understanding comes to fruition only in the response. Understanding and response are dialectically merged and mutually condition each other; one is impossible without the other” (DI, 282). This “internal dialogism” of the word involves an encounter not with “an alien word within the object itself ” (as in the previously explained level of dialogism) but rather with “the subjective belief system of the listener” (DI, 282).

What Bakhtin appears to be saying is that the clash of different significations within a word is part of a broader conflict, between subjective frameworks, which is the very essence of understanding. Using this model, Bakhtin emphasizes that the dialogic nature of language entails “a struggle among socio-linguistic points of view” (DI, 273). Every verbal act, he explains, can “infect” language with its own intention; each social group has its own language, and, at any given moment, “languages of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological life cohabit with one another . . . every day represents another socio-ideological semantic ‘state of affairs,’ another vocabulary, another accentual system, with its own slogans, its own ways of assigning blame and praise” (DI, 291). The point, again, is not just that language is “heteroglot” and stratified; it is also that “there are no ‘neutral’ words and forms – words and forms that can belong to ‘no one’; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents” (DI, 293). Moreover, it is not merely that language is always socially and ideologically charged and is the locus of constant tension and struggle between groups and perspectives: in its role of providing this locus, it also furnishes the very medium for the interaction of human subjects, an interaction that creates the very ground of human subjectivity. For the individual consciousness, says Bakhtin, language “lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word” (DI, 293). Prior to this moment of appropriation, the “word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language”; rather, it is serving other people’s intentions; moreover, not all words are equally open to this “seizure and transformation into private property . . . Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others” (DI, 294).

Bakhtin’s account of language as constitutively underlying the interactions of human subjects bears a certain resemblance to Hegel’s account of the formation of the human subject in interaction with others; whereas Hegel sees subjectivity as a reciprocal effect, arising from the mutual acknowledgment between the consciousnesses of two people, Bakhtin’s exposition explicitly posits language as the medium of such interaction, and hence sees subjectivity as a linguistic effect, though no less reciprocal and dialogic. As Bakhtin puts it, consciousness is faced with “the necessity of having to choose a language. With each literary-verbal performance, consciousness must actively orient itself amidst heteroglossia” (DI, 295).

Given these political and metaphysical implications of Bakhtin’s views of language, it is clear that for him, the study of works of literature cannot be reduced to the examination of a localized and self-enclosed verbal construct. Even literary language, as Bakhtin points out, is stratified in its own ways, according to genre and profession (DI, 288–289). The various dialects and perspectives entering literature form “a dialogue of languages” (DI, 294). It is precisely this fact which, for Bakhtin, marks the characteristic difference between poetry and the novel. According to Bakhtin, most poetry is premised on the idea of a single unitary language; poetry effectively destroys heteroglossia; it strips the word of the intentions of others (DI, 297–298). Everything that enters the poetic work “must immerse itself in Lethe, and forget its previous life in any other contexts: language may remember only its life in poetic contexts” (DI, 297). In other words, the language of poetry is artificial; the meanings and connotations of words are accumulated through a specifically literary tradition insulated from the life of language beyond this self-enclosed system (T. S. Eliot’s notion of literary tradition as an “ideal order” might fit very neatly into Bakhtin’s conception). The language thereby built up is a language that, according to Bakhtin, has largely bypassed the heteroglossia and dialogism of language as used in other registers. Everywhere in poetry, says Bakhtin, “there is only one face – the linguistic face of the author, answering for every word as if it were his own.” Such a treatment of language “presumes precisely this unity of language, an unmediated correspondence with its object” (DI, 297–298). Another way of characterizing this “project” of poetry is to say, as Bakhtin does, that the poetic image carves a direct path to the object, ignoring the numerous other paths laid down to that object, and the meanings previously attached to it, by “social consciousness” (DI, 278).

In the novel, on the contrary, this dialogization of language “penetrates from within the very way in which the word conceives its object” (DI, 284). In the novel, the actual dialogism and heteroglossia of language are fundamental to style; they comprise the enabling conditions of novelistic style, which thrives on giving expression to them. Poetic style extinguishes this dialogism or, at least, does not exploit it for artistic purposes (DI, 284). For the poet, language is an obedient organ, fully adequate to the author’s intention; the poet is completely “within” his language and sees everything through it (DI, 286). Heteroglossia can be present in poetry only as a “depicted thing,” seen through the eyes of the poet’s own language. The novel, on the contrary, integrates heteroglossia as part of its own perspective; it will deliberately deploy alien languages, and the heteroglot languages of various social registers (DI, 287). Words for the novelist are regarded as “his” only as “things that are being transmitted ironically” (DI, 299n). Indeed, the “stratification of language . . . upon entering the novel establishes its own special order within it, and becomes a unique artistic system . . . This constitutes the distinguishing feature of the novel as a genre” (DI, 299–300). Hence, any stylistics capable of dealing with the novel must be a “sociological stylistics” that does not treat the work of literature as a self-enclosed artifact but exposes “the concrete social context of discourse” as the force that determines from within “the entire stylistic structure of the novel” (DI, 300).

quote-truth-is-not-born-nor-is-it-to-be-found-inside-the-head-of-an-individual-person-it-is-mikhail-bakhtin-69-22-10Bakhtin acknowledges that in actual poetic works, it is possible to find “features fundamental to prose,” especially in “periods of shift in literary poetic languages” (DI, 287n). Heteroglossia can exist also in some of the “low” poetic genres. In general, however, the language of poetic genres often becomes “authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative, sealing itself off from the influence of extraliterary social dialects,” and fostering the idea of a special “poetic language” (DI, 287). He also acknowledges that “even the poetic word is social” but poetic forms reflect lengthier social processes, requiring “centuries to unfold” (DI, 300). Bakhtin sees the novel’s history as far lengthier than conventional accounts, deriving from a variety of prose forms, some of which reflect his notion of “carnival” as elaborated in earlier works such as Rabelais and his World. His account is worth quoting at length:

At the time when major divisions of the poetic genres were developing under the influence of the unifying, centralizing, centripetal forces of verbal-ideological life, the novel – and those artistic prose genres that gravitate toward it – was being historically shaped by the current of decentralizing, centrifugal forces. At the time when poetry was accomplishing the task of cultural, national and political centralization of the verbal-ideological world in the higher official socio-ideological levels, on the lower levels, on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth, ridiculing all “languages” and dialects; there developed the literature of the fabliaux and Schwanke of street songs, folk-sayings, anecdotes, where there was no language-center at all, where there was to be found a lively play with the “languages” of poets, scholars, monks, knights and others, where all “languages” were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face.
Heteroglossia, as organized in these low genres, was . . . consciously opposed to this literary language. It was parodic, and aimed sharply and polemically against the official languages of its given time. It was heteroglossia that had been dialogized. (DI, 273)

It might be objected that Bakhtin’s conception of poetry is narrow; that some species of poetry do indeed enlist heteroglossia and are politically subversive; it might also be urged that the novelistic form per se may not be subversive, that some novelists express deeply conservative visions. But clearly, in the passage above, Bakhtin sees the genres of poetry and the novel as emblematic of two broad ideological tendencies, the one centralizing and conservative, the other dispersive and radical.

It may even be that “poetry” and “novel” are used by Bakhtin as metaphors for these respective tendencies: thus poetry can indeed be radical, but inasmuch as it challenges official discourses, it enlists attributes of language that are typically deployed by prose. What is interesting is that for Bakhtin, the ideological valency of any position is intrinsically tied to the particular characteristics of language deployed. The “novel” embodies certain metaphysical, ideological, and aesthetic attitudes: it rejects, intrinsically, any concept of a unified self or a unified world; it acknowledges that “the” world is actually formed as a conversation, an endless dialogue, through a series of competing and coexisting languages; it even proposes that “truth” is dialogic. “The development of the novel,” says Bakhtin, “is a function of the deepening of dialogic essence . . . Fewer and fewer neutral, hard elements (‘rock bottom truths’) remain that are not drawn into dialogue” (DI, 300). Hence, truth is redefined not merely as a consensus (which by now is common in cultural theory) but as the product of verbal-ideological struggles, struggles which mark the very nature of language itself.


Part of this account is indebted to the valuable introduction to M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). Bakhtin’s essay “The Dialogic Imagination” is contained in this volume, which is hereafter cited as DI.


Categories: Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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