Mikhail Bakhtin, Selections

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.


Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas on language offer new insights against the dueling psychological giants of the time, behaviorism and psychoanalysis. He faults both for locating the psyche inside the organism, whereas he will argue that the psyche is the border between the inside and outside world, in the realm of language and speech.

The section Critique on Freudianism provides a good contrast point to elucidate his sociolinguistic conception of “objective psychology”. He immediately questions the very methods Freud used to understand the unconscious. For Freud’s psychology, the desires and motives of the unconscious are hidden, and only in their manifestations in the consciousness can they be interpreted. But how did Freud get to this idea in the first place? Bakhtin argues, that it is through his interaction with patients. But interactions are always situated in the world, with real people enacting various roles and ideologies. The doctor and patient role has different utterances than other interactions. The insights Freud achieved about human sexuality and hidden drives were not a universal proof of the unconscious, but a dramatization of the ideology and practices of his time, his place, and his role as doctor. The unconscious is thus not a hidden drive, something other than consciousness, but simply another form of consciousness.

Verbal reactions are determined by social interaction, so nothing uttered can be considered in isolation. Inner and outer speech are both generated by these outward social connections. “Any instance of self-awareness is an act of gauging oneself against some social norm, social evaluation…In becoming aware of myself, I attempt to look at myself, as it were, through the eyes of another person, another representative of my social group, my class. Thus self-consciousness…is class consciousness.” Every verbal utterance is small-scale ideology.

The reference to class and ideology shows the Marxist framework Bakhtin is working in. In the section Language as Dialogic Interaction he makes the case that his vision of lingustics can learn much from the ideas of Marxism, and that linguistics can solve the problems of superstructure and base, namely how they interact and affect each other.

Ideology is based on signs. Signs are always outwardly manifested. Bakhtin argues that, instead of the idealistic conception of ideology being in consciousness, consciousnesses is a product of understanding a chain of signs. And to understand and interpret signs is an activity between individuals who are organized socially in an interindividual territory. Whenever this understanding and interpreting happens, the word is there.

The word can help understand the relationship of base and superstructure because it is so ubiquitous. Speech performances work closely with the social situation, and so can be used to observe the barely noticeable shifts which eventually become full fledged ideology. This is the social psychology that Bakhtin proposes, which is “first and foremost an atmosphere made up of multifarious speech performances that engulf and wash over all persistent forms and kinds of ideological creativity: unofficial discussions, exchanges of opinion at the theater or at various types of social gatherings, purely chance exchanges of words, one’s manner of verbal reaction to the happenings in one’s life, and daily existence, one’s inner word manner of identifying oneself and identifying one’s position in society, and so on.” (54) Because various classes use the same language, but come at it from different angles and accents, a form of class struggle happens at the level of language as well.

So what does Bakhtin’s conception of language look like? Language as Dialogic Interaction and Speech Genres give us some ideas. Speech, which is a ubiquitous form of signs and thus ideology, occurs within various spheres of activity, each of which develops relatively stable types of utterances. These stable types are called speech genres. The number of these genres is almost inexhaustible. Utterances are “manifested primarily in the choice of a particular speech genre…it is shaped and developed within a certain generic form.” (83) These genres from the repertoire of speech, usually unknowingly. They are learned while acquiring language, and someone might have an excellent command of the language but still be at loss in certain situations because “of the inability to command a repertoire of genres of social conversation, the lack of a sufficient supply of those genres of social conversation, the lack of a sufficient supply of those ideas about the whole of the utterance that help to cast one’s speech quickly and naturally in certain compositional and stylistic forms, the inability to grasp a word promptly, to begin and end correctly…” (84).

Utterances are units of meanings in themselves, but they are always in response to other utterances before it, and anticipate a response from others. The addressee “can be an immediate participant-interlocutor in everyday dialogue, a differentiated collective of specialists in some particular area of cultural communication, a more or less differentiated public, ethnic group, contemporaries, like-minded people, opponents and enemies, a subordinate, a superior, someone who is lower, higher, familiar, foreign and so on. And is can be an indefinite, unconcritized other (with various kinds of monological utterances of an emotional type)” (87)  So an addressee is always present in speech, inner or outer.

In Bakhtin’s philosophy of language, the basic unit of language is not grammar, but the utterance. An utterance is dual natured: it is a full meaning in itself, but belongs in a chain of other utterances. One person’s utterance is complete when it awaits a reply from another. These utterances cannot be removed from their context, because situations and social roles give rise to a huge number of genres that a person acquires as they acquire language. Seen this way, inner speech is more of an inner dialogue.

There are two types of genres identified, simple and complex. The complex genres are a mixture of various speeches and utterances, and are usually written. The novel is the for Bakhtin an example of a complex genre. Bakhtin wrote extensively on Dostoevsky’s works, which he considers to be a new genre of polyphonic novel, where all the different voices and dialogues freely interact with all others without authorial imposition. But he also claims that all novels are always in what he calls heteroglossia, a multitude of voices. He contrasts this with the idea of a national poem, which is ideologically stable and speaks with one voice. Historically the novel was developed in “the heteroglossia of the clown…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 authentic, incontestable face” (114).

The language novels use consists of the following: hybridization of different speeches, the interrelation of languages (characters, narrator, audience, etc.) and the pure dialogue itself. Ultimately the interaction of the three creates in the novel a mirror for ourselves: “What is realized in the novel is the process of coming to know one’s own language as it is perceived in someone else’s language, coming to know one’s own belief system in someone else’s system. There takes place within the novel an ideological translation of another’s language, and an overcoming of its otherness- an otherness that is only contingent, external, illusory. Characteristic for the historic novel is a positively weighed modernizing, an erosion of temporal boundaries, the recognition of an eternal present in the past. The primary stylistic project of the novel as a genre, is to create images of languages.” (120)

The reference to clowns and folk sayings segues into Bakhtin’s other famous concept: the carnival. His studies on Rabelais and folk humor reveals an often overlooked aspect of Medieval life. He finds that people in the middle ages had developed folk humor and carnival parallel to the Church. This is a continuation of old pagan rites, where “coupled with the cults which were serious in tone and organization were other, comic cult which laughed and scoffed at the deity (‘ritual laughter’); coupled with serious myths were comic and abusive ones; coupled with heroes were their parodies and couplets.” (197)

In older cultures serious and comic rites were both official, but in the middle ages the comic rites developed in parallel to the Church and outside of it. Every official feast and religious occasion had it’s folk double, (which survives today in perhaps the most conspicuous of carnivals: Mardi gras) there were parodies of liturgies, hymns, Gospel stories, and proclamations, both in Latin and the vernacular.  The carnivals adopted the language of the marketplace, oaths, profanities and ritual obscenities that were outside of the official language. It was a spectacle which has no distinction between actor and spectator. Everyone was engulfed in the carnival spirit. The official feast “asserted all that was stable, unchanging, perennial: the existing religious, political and moral values, norms and prohibitions”; the carnival brought “a second life to the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance.” (199)  The laughter of the festivites was ambivalent, since the person included themselves in the object of their ridicule. This is what gives the carnival its philosophical and utopian weight.

This concept of the carnival gives Bakhtin a response to two common interpretations of Renaissance works, particularly Rabelais. Rabelais’ works spend a lot of time focused on the human body. This has been interpreted as the ‘rehabilitation of the body,’ an attempt at moving away from the ascetic middle ages. In fact ,Bakhtin says, the works of grotesque realism draw from the rich carnival heritage of the Medieval era. Another thing that these works are not, as was commonly thought, is satire, at least in the modern sense of an author standing outside the thing he ridicules in order to negate it. Grotesque realism degrades the high and abstract into the earthy level. Bakhtin gives an interesting and positive spin on the term degradation. Laughter degrades, and:

To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth someone more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and reproductive organs, pregnancy and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth takes place. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving. (206)