Mikhail Bakhtin: An Extremely Short Introduction
A professor at my school, Michael Gardiner, not too long ago brought to my attention the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian social theorist who lived in the initial two-thirds of the 20th century. I recently read his first book on Bakhtin, The Dialogics of Critique: Mikhail Bakhtin & The Theory of Ideology (1992). The book itself was interesting, if somewhat dense at times (though I’m sure that Bakhtin’s own texts are exponentially more dense), and admirably contextualized Bakhtin and his work’s importance within 20th century theory. On the whole, Bakhtin doesn’t appeal to my interests, but his work has gained new relevance and popularity in the face of the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, notably the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Félix Guattari was influenced by his work, and Bakhtin has gained a voice in contemporary hermeneutics, sociolinguistics, and ideology critique. Rather than focusing on these subjects, however, I feel that it would be useful to outline as clearly as possible the more abstract of the new concepts which Bakhtin introduces, and to suggest ways that they can be utilized for contemporary analyses.
Monologism, Dialogism, & Heteroglossia
To illustrate the difference between monologism and dialogism (think monologue versus dialogue), it is best to utilize as background a pamphlet written by Stalin called Marxism & Problems of Linguistics, which addresses confusions about the role of language in relation to Marx’s base/superstructure theory. Base/superstructure theory posits that it is the relations of production (i.e. the economic arrangement of a society)―the base―which determines a society’s other institutions (e.g. religion, education, philosophy, art)―the superstructure. (To illustrate, Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism writes how the habits instilled by Protestant Christianity―such as self-renunciation and a strong work ethic―were what allowed capitalism to become entrenched in Western society; though some may argue that Protestantism fueled capitalism, Marx would argue the opposite.) Language fits into neither category: it is not part of the base because it has nothing to do with economics, logistics, production, et cetera, but neither is it part of the superstructure because even if a society’s entire economic structure changes, the language often remains the same. In a similar way, Stalin emphasizes, language can be neither ‘bourgeois’ nor ‘proletarian’: though there may be some jargon terms which are popular among specific demographics, there are never significant changes in regards to syntax, grammar, etc. Therefore, despite these tiny differences, the language which the society speaks is singular.
Bakhtin and his colleagues (particularly Voloshinov in his book Marxism & The Philosophy of Language) take issue with this notion of the singularity of language, however. They believe that the various dialects within a language should not be seen as insignificant deviations from the norm, but as having a degree of autonomy from the ‘standard’ language. ‘Standard’ is placed in quotation marks because linguists accept the idea of a ‘standard’ as purely ideal; that is, no one speaks the ‘standard’, but rather, everyone speaks in a dialect (depending on the regional accents to which they’ve been exposed & the demographics into which they fit) as well as an idiolect, each person’s own distinct speaking style. A ‘whole’ language is an abstraction, because even if all of the linguistic laws of a language exist unconsciously in the minds of each of its speakers, each person’s internal system of language is incomplete (i.e. there may be nuances of meaning that are lost to some, e.g. ‘modern’ for many is synonymous with ‘contemporary’, whereas for others the word connotes a period of history between the Enlightenment and the postmodern), and there is no way to combine all of these idiolects into the ‘whole’ language except as an abstraction.
So, therefore, two commonsensical descriptions of language oppose each other: on the one hand (Bakhtin), that a ‘whole’ language is only an abstraction and that all that really exists are parts, and on the other (Stalin), the idea that because the fundamental laws of a language are the same among most or all of its speakers, it makes sense to say that they speak the same language. Bakhtin asserts that Stalin was emphasizing wholeness in order to conceal class antagonisms among members of society who speak a single language. Stalin, conversely, would argue that Bakhtin wants to cause strife. The dualism is analogous to another, presented in the following quotation:
“The chemist places a piece of flesh in his retort, tortures it in many ways, and then informs us that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc. True: but these abstract matters have ceased to be flesh.” ~Hegel, The Shorter Logic (1830)
That is to say, although the mechanical structure of an object can be identified, there is also a purely symbolic aspect of that object. Even in an object’s purely visual aspect, its various colors & textures can be analyzed independently, but they still necessarily form a whole which is more than all of these parts in isolation―what psychologists call a gestalt, a relative to the concept of synergy. Stalin, then, emphasizes the mechanical aspect of language, whereas Bakhtin emphasizes the symbolic aspects. Although flesh is always composed of approximately the same particles, its color and texture connote idiosyncratic aspects of it, such as race, socioeconomic class (callused hands versus soft hands), leisure interests (tanned versus pale), etc. Both are correct then, to some extent, but neither aspect should be ignored.
It is precisely the tendency to view a matter under a single orthodox perspective which Bakhtin terms ‘monologism’. One pronounces meaning upon the world in a ‘monologue’, accepting no deviations from one’s set opinion. Bakhtin hardly denies that for practicality’s sake we should think of speakers who can understand each other as speaking the same language, but insists that we ought not to ignore subtle differences which distinguish speakers. Bakhtin advocates ‘dialogism’, opening up one’s opinion to ‘dialogue’ by accepting the suggestions and seriously considering dissenting viewpoints. A society which allows freedom of discourse is in a state of ‘heteroglossia’ (literally, ‘different-voices’), and Bakhtin notes Dostoevsky’s novels as the first example of this tendency to be found in literature.
Bakhtin elevates heteroglossia to a moral ideal which, to save some philosophical noodling, can be explained in terms of what might be called ‘epistemological limbo’. Bakhtin and another theorist named Friedrich Hayek emphasize that because we cannot know everything that we would have to in order to make the best possible choices, the best thing that we can do is to keep the system open toward new ideas and inventions. Hayek disagrees with the idea of socialism (in the older sense of state-controlled markets) because it is impossible to know everything that would be needed to efficiently run a country. Rather, says Hayek, the market, basing its information on the choices of consumers, automatically takes into account patterns which consumers may not consciously realize, i.e. patterns which cannot be fully accounted for in discourse, and especially not in terms of one perspective. As Ludwig von Mises, Hayek’s colleague & mentor, once put it: “on the free market, no vote is cast in vain.”
Gardiner uses the gorgeous phrase ‘cubist thinking’, which means interpreting a matter from a variety of different perspectives all at once, in the manner of a painting by Picasso. Heteroglossia implies a certain sort of irony, as Richard Rorty puts it, where one ought to accept the limitations of one’s views, even to the point of realizing that they might be wrong, that one has gotten onto the wrong theoretical boat, so to speak. In such a cubism, one becomes willing to listen to contradictory opinions, in the knowledge that one can never be entirely certain of all details, and that in some rare instances (such as Euclidean and Non-Euclidean geometry), one theory can answer questions that the other can’t, but at the same time cannot solve problems that the other can. In short then, in the lack of complete certainty, a healthy epistemological pluralism is the most conducive strategy to producing productive results, since even the most trusted theoretical edifices (Newtonian physics comes to mind) can be proven incorrect, and since revolutionary changes can come from unexpected places (such as the discovery of chaos theory by a weather scientist named Lorenz).
Problems in Bakhtin’s Poetics
‘Cubist thinking’ presents to the reader a third term by which they, as a singular reader, can utilize heteroglossia on their own. However, there is a fourth term to this, which could be described by the term ‘puppeteering’. Marshall McLuhan is one such puppeteer: he quotes a stunning variety of sources, many of which are on the surface unrelated to what he is talking about, and uses them to illustrate larger trends brought on by different types of thought (caused by exposure to different types of media). Bakhtin would likely categorize this as a subtype of monologism, and rightly so, but this fourth term is worth mentioning, since it shows how dialogism can at times be difficult to distinguish from monologism.
Bakhtin’s own work (as far as I can gather from Gardiner’s summary) overemphasizes the importance of discourse, i.e. unconstrained conversation among idiosyncratic subjects, and neglects the non-linguistic communication exemplified by Hayek’s interpretation of the free market. Non-linguistic forms of communication such as body language and symbolic capital (e.g. wearing a certain brand of clothing often connotes a certain type of lifestyle and/or worldview) can perhaps be recuperated into Bakhtin’s mode of critique (especially in terms of his theories of ideology, which were not touched upon here), but there is still the problem of arbitrariness, of how a given signifier may signify entirely different things to people of different cultures and backgrounds (e.g. the color blue, which is the most ‘safe’ color to use for a brand-icon throughout the world, is to the Japanese the color of scoundrels). Bakhtin, to my knowledge, offers no strategies for more transparent discourse among agents whose languages and codes are incompatible, and who hence cannot understand each other; a pertinent application for such a theory would be the critique of social institutions so as to judge whether they promote the optimal level of heteroglossia. In this vein there is a book called Accounting, Accountants, & Accountability by Norman MacIntosh which uses Bakhtin (among other poststructuralists) to analyze contemporary accounting theory. Such a book presents an intriguingly practical use of social theory, and may perhaps eventually appear in a sequel to the present essay.
Finally, there remains a by no means uncommon gripe regarding the difficulty of philosophical prose. Bakhtin’s style, Gardiner leads us to understand, is particularly harrowing, having a tortuous style which supposedly ‘challenges our linguistic habits’ and forces the reader to ‘think critically’. (A similar excuse was proffered by the Frankfurt School.) Though it seems incongruous—given Bakhtin’s emphasis on dialogue—to accuse him of elitism, it is nonetheless possible to imagine how a more accessible writing style could encourage readers to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own anecdotal examples (a tendency encouraged by Freud, for example, in his book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life). While unclear writing certainly leaves many ‘blanks’ to be filled, it contains a manifest detachment from the reader, admirably captured in the phrase ‘the despotism of the signifier’. Perhaps Bakhtin wrote the way he did on purpose, however, and for whatever the reason, his newfound popularity among scholars shows that his ideas are worth fishing through his technical prose. Perhaps, in fact, the act of writing clearly itself is a form of monologism, since ideally such reading would be clear enough to allow only one interpretation.
- Gardiner, M. (1992). The Dialogics of Critique: M.M. Bakhtin & The Theory of Ideology. New York: Routledge.
- Hayek, F. (2010). The Road To Serfdom (Unabridged Ed.). Playaway Adult Nonfiction.
- Stalin, J. (1976). Marxism & Problems of Linguistics. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.
- Voloshinov, V.N.; Matejka, L. & Titunik, I.R. (trans.). (1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Routledge.