Category Archives: Bakhtin

RE: "The Self, the Novel and History. On the Limits of Bakhtin’s Historical Poetics" by Vladimir Biti

Ah ha! I new, probably interesting article based on Bakhtin’s theories. I’ll have to check out the full text when it’s available for free.

The Self, the Novel and History. On the Limits of Bakhtin’s Historical Poetics

  1. Vladimir Biti


Article first published online: 12 JUL 2011
DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0730.2011.01018.x


  • self


  • novel;
  • history;
  • historical poetics;
  • post-colonial theory



This article considers Bakhtin’s historical poetics as a particularly enthusiastic representative of the European evolutionary paradigm with a series of disquieting (post-)colonial implications. It starts with a genealogy of several basic modernist categories like the self, the novel, history and historical poetics. In order to lay bare the underlying novelistic pattern of the modernist conception of history, it continues with a comparison between the philosophical and sociological theories of the novel of Bakhtin and Luhmann respectively. Both of them connect the advancement of the self with a devaluation of the other, which is a typically colonial pattern according to the argument in the conclusion of the paper.

Also posted in Critical Theory, Literature

The Abject Spiraling Grotesque: A Primer on Bakhtin’s Unmeaning

I have been obsessed with David Attenborough lately. I know, weird, but hear me out; this will all come full circle. During moments when he’s recounting past expeditions, he’ll summarize events that transpire using mundane, scientific terms, which seems fairly appropriate to me. However, in the episode “The Lost Gods of Easter Island” he reads the diary of one of the explorers on Captain Cook’s boat after they leave Easter island. The man, Johan something, notes that they escaped under the danger of life and limb, or something to that effect; however, the native Fijian with them who had just successfully bartered for a number of wooden figurines debarks with no such impediment. (I know I’m not getting the quote right, but the BBC website doesn’t offer transcripts, so I can’t claim exactitude, and I’ve already returned the DVD.)

My point in bringing this up is to highlight the hyperbolic statement by Cook’s journalist and the contrasting facts as exemplified by Cook’s Fijian crew member’s successful bartering. Why would the journalist sensationalize an event that posed no more danger than the rest of the expedition’s trans-world

journey? Using this logic, wouldn’t the phrase “escaped under life and limb” be littered all over the man’s journals considering the whole expedition was a daily gamble of life and death? And now I finally get to my bigger and overarching reason for using this scene. The hyperbolic phrasing, I would argue, arises from the explorer’s view of the impoverished islander’s pitiable condition. The Europeans see them as crazed and starving isolationists on an island two-thousand miles from any other island or civilization. Therefore, to the Europeans, escape at all costs becomes a matter of “life and limb,” especially considering the island provides them with no supplies or potential wealth, and they fear that the islanders themselves may do something rash as a result of their “eminent” starvation and consequential insanity. The Europeans see the islanders and their “situation” as what Bakhtin labels as grotesque, and it is this notion that biases the journalist’s description.

I know that was a long illustration to get at my greater goal of describing the grotesque, but I felt I needed to provide a “real” world, non-literary example before delving into the theoretical

explanations. But the effect of how Cook’s journalist characterizes their escape from the island and islanders is humor. It’s absurdly funny. Within normal social settings people maintain the notion of choosing words they mean so as to communicate effectively, for if they slip from our grasp, words no longer are under our control; they mean something other than what we intended.

The effect, then, in some circumstances, is humor. Yet, the etymology of the word humor predates it’s presumed primary definition: comedy. Instead, in the the 14th century humor was used to describe the cardinal humors of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. And so, using the method of showing correlations, related and un-, as many jokes do, the etymological origin of the word humor itself has grotesque origins. More powerfully though, Bakhtin makes the connection between humor’s natural inclination to examine and be critical of mores, people, and behavior.

Enter art. Art can use humor to link together the high and the low of our world, whatever they may be within a given context to show the malleability of such stratifications, all the while inducing the audience to laugh.

The grotesque, similar to humor–and having similar results–, is a means to analyse ourselves and our world. However, the grotesque becomes the most beneficial to its audience, not when it comforts the audience, but when it disconcerts. To picture this scenario, recall the scenario I introduce at the beginning. We find the grotesque in the explorer’s lie; the islanders posed no harm to Cook’s party and were trading with them at the moment the escape “for life and limb” transpired. The journalist paints a picture of savagery, but the history books confirm that the islanders didn’t have the means to attempt to kill the Europeans.

The grotesque can apply to more than just the heterogeneous qualities of purported social interactions. It can manifest within a closed system as well. Life and death can be viewed as binaries within which the grotesque operates. People live, grow old, then die, showing a negation, a binary opposition, yet essential opposition to the life-cycle. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin notes “The essence of the grotesque is precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life. Negation and destruction (death of the old) are included as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation, from the birth of something new and better… This principle is victorious for the final result is always abundance, increase” (62). Just as these last words seem contradictory, that the ending of life breeds abundance, so does the grotesque point at, then implode contradictions, resulting in the creation of new meaning.

Bakhtin, as he stresses about other elements in his body of work, argues that the grotesque is an unfinalizable body. It constantly unfolds. He states that, “the grotesque body…is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world” (317). What does this mean? To Cook’s men, saying that they escaped with their lives might have been a true statement for them, but it certainly was not for their Tahitian shipmate, and for modern audiences the notion seems even more ridiculous. For viewers in the future, such a statement may have a different effect; the grotesque may rear its head not in the statement, but in some other aspect of the exchange.

How we identify depends on many social factors. Language itself becomes a courier for the ever changing grotesque. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary we notice that the adjective describing the grotesque, “becoming” first entered the English language in 1565. However, the word’s definition describing the grotesque (“a coming to be, a passing into state”) didn’t exist until 1853. Language itself might be seen as a grotesque aspect of our lives as it is constantly being created and swallowed by the world, paraphrasing Bakhtin.

Many argue that language mediates how we perceive the world (and vice-versus), and knowing that language constantly changes puts us in a “reality” that is becoming and unbecoming–a grotesque reality.

The relation to all this “rampant” grotesque-ness is the abject. Abjection, as Julia Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror, “is radically excluded and,” as Kristeva explains, “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” Residing in liminal, boundary-less spaces, the abject poses as the threat of unmeaning that we as cyphers for the grotesque cannot manage to reorder. The result, for example, is an inadequate description of Easter islanders. The break down, our inability to re-make meaning causes us to place the grotesque into the position of known, and so we label it as abject. ” Describing their departure as “fleeing for their” lives, therefore, was the journalist’s method of responding to a scene of horror, a grotesque scene of starving men and women trading their valuables away to Europeans for trinkets, a scene that confuses and scares the journalist to incomprehension.

Also posted in Comedy, Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Horror, Humor, Kristeva

“Midnight in Dostoevsky”: DeLillo’s New Short Story

Speculation. Query. Curiosity. All fairly inherent, natural attributes for human beings. Actually, these aspects constitute the building blocks of how we see ourselves. DeLillo’s newest work, a short story titled “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” found on the The New Yorker website, ruminates on these topics and explores the implications of what occurs when these pursuits fail.

The title was the first thing to catch my eye, me being a fan of Dostoevsky–especially in the context of Bakhtin’s statements and explorations on dialogism–, and the word midnight piqued my interest as well; however, the story deals more with dialogism and the power of creating meaning through dialog than what the connotations of midnight might reveal at the prim facie level. The two characters in DeLillo’s short story, Todd, and the narrator Robby are the primary speakers in the story. There exists a competitive dynamic between the two, most poignantly in how they attempt to understand the world around them by way of placing broad labels on its goings-ons, the things about which they seem to be continually perplexed. They converse and play their game of creating meaning to quell their unease for the rising, centrifugal questions assaulting them and for the purpose of proving they are “right,” to quell their unease by using language as a centripetal force.

The play between Todd and the narrator enumerates DeLillo’s character’s vertigo: they simply cannot identify who the old man is, yet they fabricate meaning from the “clues” and circumstantial evidence they stumble upon. They wish to gain plausibility in their arguments in verifying the coated man’s identity. The two seem to follow Bakhtin’s philosophy that meaning is made not in a “singular way,” but that “between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme, and this is an environment that it is often difficult to penetrate. It is precisely in the process of living interaction with this specific environment that the word may be individualized and given stylistic shape” (PDP 276). When the two are arguing about their professor’s country of origin, the narrator readily admits to himself (and the audience) that he doesn’t necessarily hear the professor’s Russian accent, and then deconstructs his own faulty method for making meaning by stating: “I didn’t know whether it was there or not. The Norway maple didn’t have to be Norway. We worked spontaneous variations of the source material of our surroundings.” Previously, the narrator had labeled trees he describes as “large,” with “bare branches forking up fifty or sixty feet” knowing that Todd won’t dispute something that he cares nothing for, yet in this instance the narrator remembers that he has made up a label for something and realizes that he truly does not know what type of tree he saw, or whether he recognizes the professor’s Russian accent.

Todd does not care much about the accent either. Letting the verification of the man’s accent ride, meaning that they have verified he’s Russian, the two soon begin discussing where the professor lives, along with assigning his supposed wife a name: Irina. No corroborating information exists in the story noting that the professor even has a wife. As Bakhtin defines it, the two character’s living reality becomes, just that, their own construct, which is built around their speech and acknowledged definitions of things and scenarios.

Yet, the two run into other elements and speech in the story that challenge them, and these elements cause them to give way to what they think is true. And in response the two assuage their disquietude by making their views plastic depending on where the conversation meanders. Yet, the narrator’s sideways speech points to the notion that facts, verifiable facts, are less important than seeking order. He says, “At times, abandon meaning to impulse. Let the words be the facts. This was the nature of our walks–to register what was out there all the scattered rhythms of circumstance and occurrence, and to reconstruct it as human noise.” Control becomes a central impetus, then, for the narrator.

In one instance the narrator tells Todd to “consider the origin of the word,” yet the reader must be skeptical of the two speakers who wish to create a final word or meaning in explaining the man in the green coat. Todd, as characterized by the narrator/speaker, appears to have his own set of values and notions about what he sees, fulfilling the notion of creating a heterogeneous section of a group made whole partly by the narrator. Todd, in arguing what type of coat the old man wears, brings the wellspring of “Inuit lore” to bear, as the narrator characterizes it, to prove his point. The reader might make her own meaning of the coat, realizing that represents an artifact that speaks backwards towards Gogol, the author of “The Overcoat,” a short story dealing with a man’s connection to his direly earned coat which is eventually stolen from him while he is brutally murdered. The reader’s meaning might enrich the two character’s meanings and visa-versus, and yet, definitive meaning seems to be what the two want to create then tenaciously hold on to.

The two character’s argument about what kind of coat the man is wearing seems to be a clever exordium to begin the story but then turns into a banal conversation as the piece moves forward. However, the reader experiences the inner-workings of how the two make meaning when using the instance of the coat’s labeling as an example. “In the actual life of speech, every concrete act of understanding is active….Understanding comes to fruition only in the response. Understanding and response are diametrically merged and mutually condition each other; one is impossible without the other” (PDP 282). Accordingly, the utterance hangs useless and meaningless without a rejoinder, within the affirmative response or in refutation. Meaning comes to life when dialogue occurs, when two statements commingle and reflect or refract off of each other.

But the two lose meaning at a number of points in the story, and this happens when they interact with other people, or are tasked with understanding concepts and situations other people present them for which they simply cannot conjure up meaning. Ilgauskas’ lectures seem to mystify the two students enough that they don’t bother to piece them together or discuss them with each other. The narrator acknowledges that he attends a school where he couldn’t converse with his professor, to ask questions and expect an answer, “We did not speak in class; no one ever spoke. There were never any questions, students to professor.” The narrator unknowingly is up against what Bakhtin labels monological speech. And it is this form of communication that is diametricaly opposite to how Todd and the narrator superficially communicate and make meaning for themselves. Perplexed, the narrator asks, “What did he mean by “things”? We would probably never know.” The narrator later acklowledges that their teacher “challenged [their] reason for being,” but he’s not convinced that the method Ilgauskas goes about is enlightening.

The reader gets another instance of the narrator’s loss of or inability to create meaning when he meets and converses with Jenna, the girl from Ilgauskas’ class. Immediately the narrator tests her ability to make meaning when he says that his name is Lars Magnus. And just as quickly she casts aside his attempt to control information, in which case he identifies himself in the story for the first and only time: “It’s Robby.” Jenna makes it known that she has seen Robby around campus “working out in the fitness center.” Yet, Robby doesn’t seem to care much that she has been spying on him in such a vulnerable state; he only asks, “Is that what you do?” But what really intrigues him is that Jenna has seen Ilgauskas at the local diner. Robby never responds to the conjecture-free bits of information she provides to him about herself: she’s quitting college to move to Idaho, maybe, because she was unhappy. Making meaning regarding Jenna’s personal life is a non-issue for Robby. He cares more about the unknown.

As the reader approaches the story’s final parts Robby begins to spin precariously out of control. He gains then quickly loses touch with the girl. He disagrees with, then gets into a physical fight with Todd, culminating in a poetic scene that freezes just like the snow around them. Finally, the reader realizes that Robby never experiences true corroboration to pinpoint the identity of the coated man, nor does he look for it, yet the interesting fact to take note of is that the narrator is left alone, fearful that he must make meaning for the confusing and anxiety inducing world in which he finds himself. The dialogue ends, with his friend, with the professor, and with the female classmate, and poignantly, no character in the story ever converse with the man in the green coat. Dialogue, therefore, is stifled. But what does this mean? We see multiple forms of dialogue in the story, some open ended, like Robby and Todd’s. Other dialogue is monological, like that of Ilgauskas. We encounter dialogue that is started and abruptly stopped in the instance of Robby’s first and only meeting with Jenna, but in each of these instances we see the true creation of meaning and transfer of information being thwarted. Bakhtin notes: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (PDP 110).

Yes, Todd and Robby converse with each other, but the information they compile is almost entirely speculative, and the end result of their conversing is the break in their friendship. For Ilgauskas and his class, “information” is received, but at no time are his students, in this case Robby and Todd, able to query the professor to get clarifying information; Ilgauskas imparts his theories using a monological method. When Jenna wishes to dialog with Robby about quitting school and feeling unhappy, Robby breaks off the conversation by staring at her. For each instance the characters are wishing to handle the chaos they experience, and this chaos remains for each at the story’s open ending, stronger than before.

Also posted in Critical Theory, Literature, Post Modernism

Speech Genres and Dialogics; Notes and Summations

I’ve been reading a lot of Todorov’s summaries and explanations of Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism as it spanned his entire career. In fact, I just finished Todorov’s short book _Mikhail Bakhtin; The Dialogical Principle_. I found it to be both dense and enlightening. I think that it’s not the book to start with if you’ve never encountered Bakhtin before because Todorov frequently refers to Bakhtin’s theories on heteroglossia, polyphony, and (of course) dialogism while assuming that the audience already has a firm grasp on each of these dynamic elements within Bakhtin’s meandering theories.

Here are some of my own (meandering) notes written after reading the book:

Much of my own critical studies of culture and literature as they revolve around Bakhtin’s own theories focus on notions of popular culture as represented and commented on by art. We know that Bakhtin wrote an entire book (Rabelais and His World) on the carnivalesque, and this book makes a number of defining statements on popular culture and its wish to break free from accepted or status-quo culture. Todorov brings up the same issue of popular culture’s existence and questions Bakhtin’s notion of just what popular culture constitutes. He makes the point that “the mythical image” that supposed popular culture wishes to remake into its own remains contingent on power structures of the times. Todorov makes this point by raising the issue that “culture…[during the renaissance and medieval eras] [was] the preserve of an elite fundamentally alien to the ‘people'” (78). But still he agrees, as Bakhtin states, that forces remain in absentia and in praesentia, or in anthropological opposition to each other; likewise, according to Bakhtin, these forces would be called centrifugal and centripetal. But the most important part that remains relevant to all kinds of culture today is the remaining distinction that can be made from both theorists delineation’s between “serious” culture and “subversive” culture (the latter being the culture of laughter).

I think an easy example of the serious culture and subversive culture coming into contact with each other would be Kanye’s incident at the VMAs and Obama’s condemnation of the musical artist’s horning-in on the ceremony. The interaction between the two, Obama’s calling Kanye a jackass, breaches the barrier between serious culture, that of politics, laws, all the things that embody seriousness, with that of popular culture, a phenomena propelled by the visceral and capricious buying habits furthered by the individualistic need for satisfaction. The effect is humorous, hyperbolic, and subversive. One might first ask why Obama would bother to take the time to make a statement on something so innocuous as the VMAs, especially in regard to passing judgment on a mouthy artist operating within the circle of popular music. But it did happen, and the immediate effect, according to Bakhtin’s theory, is a dialogical subversion of power structures.

I found another interesting point that Todorov unravels from Bakhtin’s various writings in regard to how humans conceptualize things. I know, that’s an enormously broad topic, one that Todorov favors highest among Bakhtin’s disparate ideas. Bakhtin himself calls it philosophical anthropology, a term coined to describe the act of creating art. In attempting to describe it, Bakhtin wishes to understand human existence, and for those who have studied Foucault, who started his revolutionary work some twenty years after Bakhtin started his own, the Other becomes a prime agent in understanding and explicating this subject. Taking perspective as the subject, the other, therefore, becomes an entity impossible to conceive of without having the links that relate the subject to the other or others.

People’s connections to others are intrinsic in how people perceive the world. Bakhtin argues this in his roundabout way and Todorov doesn’t refute the notion. But quite interestingly, Todorov unravels Bakhtin’s ruminations on how the self becomes self-conscious. Bakhtin argues that how we see ourselves is intrinsically bound to the other’s perception of us. Bakhtin argues this point by using examples of how children both acquire speech, and accordingly, learn how to identify their own body parts; children borrow “baby talk” from their parents (96). Bakhtin states, “In this sense, the body is not a self-sufficient entity; it needs the other, his recognition and his formative activity” (47).

Putting the issue aside that this notion presages contemporary psychoanalysis, we can get to a clearer understanding of how Bakhtin weighs the issues at stake. Environment, language, vernacular, idiom, consciousness itself, are all perceptions hinging on information received from others. And once a person matures to adulthood, the circle continues. In his Dostoevsky book, Bakhtin makes the point that one becomes him or herself when this person can reveal him or herself to another, “through another and with another’s help” (311). He has much more to say on the subject of self, so if you’re interested please pick up his wonderful book _Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics_.

Todorov also brings up the topic of love and how Bakhtin explains it. Love, for Bakhtin is of course a highly conditioned and perspective-driven activity. But the most important point he makes, stemming from his theory that people gain a sense of self from others, is that one cannot love another as one loves oneself. Bakhtin states “one cannot love oneself as if one were one’s neighbor…Suffering, the fear for oneself, joy, all are qualitatively and deeply different from compassion, the fear for other, common joy…” (44). Regardless of how one becomes a self-assured, heteroglossic self, what’s received is different from what one projects and assumes upon others. “You,” “me,” and “her” are drastically different parallel pronouns that provide false analogies between disparate entities that cannot be so easily reduced. Bakhtin puts it quite clearly when describing how one conceptualizes the love and understanding for others: “in all cemeteries there are only others” (99).

If you’re a follower of literature you’re probably wondering where art fits in the midst of this mish-mash of theoretical meandering. Well, Bakhtin often raises the question of the artist’s role or job in creating art, especially when one considers all the social and environmental forces at work. After all, how does an author inhabit the heads of many characters if he cannot truly conceptualize the other, as Bakhtin argues? This is where his theories on artistic creation emerge.

Bakhtin, therefore, distinguishes two distinct stages of an artist’s creative act. The first stage is empathy or identification; it is during this stage that the novelist steps into the shoes (or place) of the character. The second stage is when the novelist re-enters his own character as writer. Bakhtin calls this second movement “finding oneself outside,” which Todorov translates as extopy (99). Thus the author closes himself off from himself, enters the character of another, as integral to himself as that of the other who formed him, then re-emerges as himself again, knowing that expressing his “self” in art would be impossible because of the self’s contingencies on the other. The author can only relate to the other through his own sense of self: “Only the other as such can be the axiological center of the artistic vision” (99: 163). An event, then, whether in a novel written by a man born into destitute poverty, or by a woman who was the queen of Lichtenstein cannot be reduced solely in terms of that author’s environmental stimuli. The consciousness that catalyzed each respective novel is consciousness made up of many others, each feeding, instilling, detracting, and reinforcing this same consciousness in many ways.

Leaving the topic of the author, Bakhtin takes a gouge at bourgeoisie methods of finding a solution to a problem, specifically in terms of discourse, noting that this method is comprised of explaining how one got to the problem and not what the problem actually may be. He labels this method as reification of discourse. Intrinsic to the bourgeoisie method, ideological discourse is central to enlightenment thought. Bakhtin argues that not only in literature, but also in the human sciences, a tendency exists that research begins with the question of the “dominant viewpoint” for the purpose of getting at the easiest “solution” to whatever this contemporaneous problem may be. In later works Bakhtin makes similar pronouncements about modernism.

The last issue I’d like to mention is Todorov’s noting Bakhtin’s comments on Hegelian dialectics and how they compare to Bakhtin’s theories on dialogism. Quite simply, Bakhtin labels Hegelian philosophy as only leading to a monological understanding of ‘everything’ and leading to a finalizable explication of literature. Bakhtin says in reference to Hegel’s work: “Monist Idealism is the least favorable ground for the flowering of a multiplicity of unmerged consciousness” (Todorov 104). Using this same statement, Bakhtin refers to Dostoevsky’s pluralistic work to contrast Hegel’s monastic dialectic theories that wish to unify all areas of thought into one monological ‘Phenomenology of Spirit.’ To Bakhtin, Dostoevsky’s novels represent a world comprised of many desperate elements that speak unto themselves as reflected by the many self-propelling voices found within. Bakhtin drives at supporting the many voices that occur, each with their many destinies and profusion of lives, each fortified by the other in their profusion of actualizing themselves in a world, not centralized and objective, but liberal and permeable by another, never being finalized, closed.

Bringing the author back into the discussion, Bakhtin identifies Dostoevsky’s method of taking the author’s position out of the story, showing that the author’s goal is not to place him or herself in a state of isolation independent from others. Dostoevsky may or may not be commenting on the larger theme of individualism that the Romantic era championed, and which is an inherent part of capitalist or bourgeois society. Bakhtin feels that Dostoevsky is against idealism and decadence which breeds “desperate loneliness” (105).

Quite fittingly, as the American economy seems to be slowly rebounding from a crash brought on by capitalist greed and unchecked idealism, pundits and politicians are beginning to prescribe solutions to prevent such a tragedy (which ironically hurts the working class the most) from ocurring again. To fix the situation, experts wish for Americans to collectively buy more, consume more. In terms of how this paradigm might be commented on in literature, Bakhtin would argue that the hegemony that capitalistic individualism exerts onto people is really a violent, alienating act that disjoints the many voices possible in a heteroglossic populace.

Also posted in Critical Theory, Cultural Anthropology, Essay, Pop Culture Issues, Social Linguistics

Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination

It’s only 20 pages, but hey. Bakhtin – The Dialogic Imagination

Also posted in Critical Theory