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Critical Essay by Robert Anchor
Mikhail M. Bakhtin is best known for his visionary conception of carnival—the carnivalesque, "carnival consciousness," "the culture of laughter"—as a model for the regeneration of time and the world and the emancipation of the human spirit: "This carnival spirit offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helen Iswolsky, 1968. Bakhtin elaborated this model most fully in his best known work, Rabelais and His World, written largely in 1940, though not published until 1965, partly at least because of its anti-Stalinist implications. But the role of the carnival spirit and its revolutionary potential—its power "to consecrate inventive freedom, and to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted,"—this conception of the carnival spirit is fundamental to all of Bakhtin's work, dating back to the 1920s, and clearly goes beyond cultural history in the usual sense, as a relatively specialized mode of cultural analysis in the tradition of, say, Burckhardt, Huizinga, and Friedell. What Bakhtin aimed for (and produced) was a richly textured, historically and aesthetically informed model which would transform cultural analysis into cultural critique from the standpoint of the utopian potential to be found in the diverse manifestations of the carnival spirit, a spirit Bakhtin regarded as itself universal.
For Bakhtin, carnivalization—always a source of liberation, destruction, and renewal—flourished in premodern times as a social practice, nurtured by a rich and pervasive folkloric culture. It began to deteriorate in the seventeenth century with the triumph of absolute monarchy and the birth of a new official "serious" culture which excluded the general population and its culture of the "marketplace." The carnival spirit survives in modern times (in both capitalist and socialist societies) principally in the realm of literature, specifically in the novel. For the novel, as Bakhtin tried to show in his radical reinterpretation of its history and distinctive aesthetic properties, is unique among literary forms in being an antigenre that is as old as literature itself, that alone has the capacity for constant self-renewal, and that, in the carnival spirit which informs it, thrives on travestying and parodying all "systems"—political, epistemological, and cultural—and pointing up the arbitrariness of all norms and rules, including its own. For Bakhtin, the novel is not merely one literary form among many, but the very image of culture in general, the genre of Becoming. To understand the novel, then, as the parodic genre par excellence, the genre that historicizes by disclosing the conditions that engender claims of unconditionality, is to understand what carnival was as a social practice that once provided people with an actual experience of life without hierarchy in opposition to the fixed categories and humdrum institutions and rhythms of official culture.
The purpose of this essay is to present a coherent account of the main lines of Bakhtin's thought, especially the relationship between his conception of carnival and his ideas concerning language and literature. This task is complicated by the fact that Bakhtin's writings themselves are carnivalistic in nature, often deliberately playful and inconsistent. His zestful wealth of surprising allusion gives to many a passage in his works something of the colorful, carnivalesque aura he looked for in all great literature. Gary Saul Morson scarcely exaggerates when he says: "Ideas are often toys for him; he is extravagant in his expression of them, and he could have used a good editor" ["The Heresiarch of Meta," PTL 3 (1978)]. Indeed, some of Bakhtin's arguments—for example, that Dostoevsky is linked to the "underworld naturalism" of the Menippea of Petronius and Apuleius, or that Rabelais was more of a populist than a humanist—have the appearance of a scholarly trapeze act. But, then, Bakhtin always maintained that words cannot be conceived apart from the voices which speak them, that every word, therefore, raises the question of authority, and that all language (including his own) necessarily engages in contest and struggle. Given the realities of life and literature in Stalinist Russia, it is not surprising that Bakhtin (like many other Russian intellectuals) resorted to an Aesopian language of indirection and circumlocution to question the authority of that totalitarian regime, as well as to deceive the censorship and circumvent its vigilance. What is surprising is that Bakhtin succeeded in creating from such a situation a critical vision of society and culture in which the utopian dimension reveals itself as a transfiguration of historical phenomena that still manages to preserve a viable connection with the requirements of institutionally structured life.
Bakhtin's conception of carnival (the totality of all the various festivals, rituals, and forms of a carnival type) is grounded in an anthropology—an intuition of the individual as existentially free, unique, and unpredictable, hence impossible to understand, except within his own point of view, and equally impossible to categorize or define in any fixed and immutable fashion. This intuition is basic to Bakhtin's analysis of the origins and history of the novel and its indebtedness to the most ancient forms of folk humor (in which mockery of authority, both divine and human, was fused with rejoicing), and basic also to his insight into carnival as the vital link between life and literature. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929), Bakhtin writes:
The carnival forms, transposed into the language of literature become powerful means of artistically comprehending life, they become a special language, the words and forms of which possess an extraordinary capacity for symbolic generalization, i. e., generalization in depth. Many of the essential sides, or, more precisely strata of life, and profound ones at that, can be discovered, comprehended and expressed only with the help of this language.
Unlike many other leading literary scholars of his generation (e.g., Curtius, Auerbach, and Spitzer), Bakhtin sought the novel's progenitors not only in the literary hierarchy it parodies, but also in the extraliterary forms of folk humor which, like the novel itself, are suffused with a sense of "jolly relativity," a consciousness of the historicity of all social and literary forms. The novel was born when the three principal kinds of folk humor—ritual spectacles like carnival pageants, comic verbal compositions, and genres of billingsgate—fused and entered the literary tradition they so often parody, a tradition fathered by Rabelais and Rabelaisian in spirit.
The link Bakhtin established between carnival and the novel is that both challenge the instrumentality of society by challenging the way in which words, objects, and actions signify in ceremony and serious discourse. Carnival, with its peculiar logic of the "inside out" and "turnabout," was an enactment of the world turned upside down, a period of institutionalized disorder, a set of rituals of reversal which sent time flowing backwards and temporarily suspended the rules regulating what was permitted and forbidden in speech and conduct. Carnival converted the town or city into a theater without walls, transformed the streets and squares into a stage, and abolished all distinctions between actors and spectators. The defining feature of Bakhtin's utopian conception of carnival is in fact this vision of society as a community of equals, a realm of pure spontaneity and freedom, a rite of universal participation whose essentially affirmative character is guaranteed by its universality.
Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the world, or of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part.
To the "serious" culture of the Middle Ages, which banished laughter from all its spheres, carnival juxtaposed its "feast of fools" and other ritual inversions of the official world and its canons. Carnival crowned and uncrowned mock kings and clergymen, celebrated obscene versions of religious ceremonies, and wore clothing inside out and upside down. Carnival provided an occasion for social protest, but also for social control that often erupted into violence through which members of the upper classes eliminated opponents of the lower classes. Carnival masks, costumes, and grotesque distortions of the body served to destabilize fixed identities and role differentiations. Contemporaries aptly described carnival as "a time of 'madness', in which Folly was king." The festive popular images epitomized in carnival—preserved in engravings and pamphlets in which mice eat cats, wolves tend sheep, children spank parents, carts precede horses, rabbits trap hunters, geese roast cooks, and the like—signified a parodic inversion of the official world with its intricate network of social definitions and claims to immutable authority that, Bakhtin believed, "reveal[s] the deepest meaning of the historic process."
Bakhtin's incorporation of these inversions and transformations of carnival was crucial to his conception of the ambiguous complexity of the novel and its capacity to discover, comprehend, and express deep strata of life accessible only to the language of carnivalization. The defining characteristic of Bakhtin's theory of the novel may be stated in terms of its relationship to time, to the historical process. The novel is the only genre that continues to develop, that is never completed. The novel is ever novel, ever contemporary, hence ever inconclusive and open-ended. Unlike every other literary genre, the novel conceives itself as of the present moment, and is ever aware of its location within the flux of history. In his essay, "Epic and Novel" (1941), Bakhtin writes: "From the very beginning the novel was structured not in the distanced image of the absolute past but in the zone of direct contact with inconclusive present-day reality." The novelistic perception of the world is deeply and self-consciously relativistic; it regards all assertions of timeless norms and canons as time-bound and thus ephemeral. In the novel, conventions are always just that, never more than arbitrary, ever given to change, transitory codifications of hierarchy. Born of parodies of linguistic and social norms—its predecessors include the "serio-comical" genres of antiquity (Socratic dialogues, Menippean satire, and dialogues of the Lucianic type) and medieval parodic grammars and monkish travesties of religious rituals—the novel emerged as the literary expression of the world in process, a macaronic mixture of linguistic forms, the old and the new, the dying and the procreating, beginnings and ends.
The polar opposite of the novel in this respect is the epic in which "the tradition of the past is sacred. There is as yet no consciousness of the possible relativity of the past." The epic past is an "absolute past"—closed, complete, retrospective, walled off from all subsequent times, above all the times of the epic narrators themselves. The epic hero, like the absolute past to which he belongs, is finished and complete, entirely externalized, "hopelessly ready-made." He views himself exactly as his society views him and as he anticipates his descendants will view him because he assumes they will hold the same views and values held by him and his contemporaries. No steady succession of times connects the epic past and its heroes with the present, or even with the past as experienced in the present. On the contrary, the epic past resists the possibility of approach, familiarization, or reevaluation; it is always opposed in principle to any merely transitory, future-oriented past. In the epic absolute past, only what comes "first" is good, and all the really good things—"beginnings," "founders," "ancestors"—occur only in this past, which is the sole source and beginning of everything good for all later times as well. The epic absolute past, then, is not simply one temporal category among many but a "monochronic and valorized" category, one that is normative and conclusive, remote and immutable.
Epic gives way to the novel when laughter is invoked to deprive the epic past of its distanced and sacrosanct character, and to bring the past into familiar proximity to the present. To be comical, Bakhtin argues, an object or image must be close at hand, where it can be divested of the fear and piety it inspires at a distance; where it can be examined, questioned, judged, ridiculed, and finally forgotten, so that creativity may be renewed. In the comic world, in contrast to the epic, "there is nothing for memory and tradition to do"; laughter delivers the object or image into the hands of "free experimental fantasy." Comedy thus contemporizes the past, makes the past accessible to the present, transforms it into a relative and relevant past. But Bakhtin also distinguished clearly between modernizing the past, which distorts its uniqueness, and contemporizing the past, which requires "an authentic profile of the past, an authentic language from another time." A parody can only be funny after all if we know what is being parodied. If a parody violates a former code, then that code must always be implictly there and recognizable in the parody itself. In other words, parody is as much a reassertion and revitalization of the code it travesties as it is the violation of that code. Parody, then, produces its unique comic effect not by "modernizing" the past, but by abolishing the temporal distance between the two codes and juxtaposing the present code to the past one within the same temporal frame—that is, by carnivalizing the temporal dimension itself. "Novel" and "epic" are, for Bakhtin, not genres in the usual sense, but rather stages in the development of genres; he might have said that every genre begins as a novel and ends as an epic.
The language of comedy transposed into the language of the novel thus produces a radically new temporal model of the world in which "there is no first word (no ideal word) and the final word has not yet been spoken." By destroying the distancing plane, the novel challenges the hierarchy of times with its linear, monological ideology. Through contact with the ever uncompleted present, time and the world become genuinely historical for the first time. Persons and events lose their finished and remote quality; and past, present, and future merge into a single, indivisible, ever-unfolding temporal continuum. Thus, for the novelist, personality is always in the making, never exhausted by the plot, never defined or definable once and for all. Unlike the epic hero, who is always equal to himself and to others' expectations of him, the novel's hero exists in a continual process of flux and redefinition, ever eluding finality. The novel's hero, like the novel itself, dwells in the zone of incompleteness; what both preserve through time is their openness to time, i.e., their contemporaneity. Depicting the present in all its inconclusiveness, the novel itself is ever inconclusive, ever at one with Becoming. In this inconclusive context, all the semantic and ideological stability of the past is lost; its sense and significance are constantly renewed and transformed as the context continues to unfold.
Thus, from the very beginning, as Bakhtin tried to show in the essays that make up The Dialogic Imagination, the novel developed as a literary form that had at its core a new way of conceptualizing time in which the hierarchization of temporalities played no role. As the literary form of Becoming, as the only literary form that brings the past into direct contact with developing reality, the novel could never be merely one genre among others or have a canon of its own. On the contrary, the novel not only parodies the other literary genres, it also parodies its own forms whenever they threaten to ossify. The novel seeks paradox and is at home in the interstices of human experience. But the novel does not simply play on its own definitions and the definitions of other genres, it also questions the literary frame itself, probes the boundaries of literature as a whole and its relationship to life outside literature. For the novel knows the boundaries of literature as simply another social convention, as arbitrary and historical as any other. In the presence of the novel, all other genres necessarily change. Bakhtin conceived the history of literature in fact as a constant struggle between the novel and the other genres, a struggle in which the novel compels them to acknowledge and abdicate their claims to unconditionality and to establish contact with the indeterminate present. By the "novelization" of the other genres Bakhtin did not mean their imitation of the novel, but rather their liberation from everything that would congeal them, and the novel itself, into stylized forms fated to outlive themselves. "Novel," in other words, is what Bakhtin called all those forces at work within a given literary system which reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system.
It is not surprising that Bakhtin sought and found the origins of the novel and novelistic discourse in just those transitional periods—between the classical and Hellenistic, and between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—when past and present confronted and interpenetrated each other in carnivalistic fashion. In the Hellenistic period, Bakhtin argues, the carnivalization of culture produced prenovelistic works, like the Menippean satire, which parodied the absolute past of the classical age, with its "hopelessly ready-made" heroes and unitary language, in a style that is hybrid, multi-voiced, dialogic (or polyphonic)—a style in which there is a constant interaction among conflicting linguistic and ideological meanings and different time-frames. The ancient parodic travestying forms contributed to later novelistic discourses by creating a distance between language and reality that allowed for multiple meanings within the same text, thus subverting the architectonic myth implicit in the classical literary consciousness, and in every subsequent monologic consciousness, of an absolute identity or fusion of words with a particular ideological meaning.
Bakhtin suggests that late medieval man also lived simultaneously in two worlds, defined by a series of oppositions: sacred/profane, virtue/vice, official/unofficial, social hierarchy/utopian equality, Latin/vernacular, classical-normative/carnival-grotesque. In the literature of the waning Middle Ages, as in Hellenistic parody, the tendency was toward "a laughing double" for every serious form. The playing off of one (comic) version of the world against another (serious) version, epitomized in carnival, highlighted the importance of the border zone where seeming opposites collided or coexisted in ambiguous and often tensely charged relationships, as in the macaronic verse of the Carmina Burana. Carnival rituals and literature conveyed simultaneous messages about food and sex, religion and politics. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of medieval carnival is that it was polysemous, meaning different things to different people within the same cultural context. Pagan meanings were juxtaposed to Christian ones, modifying both but obliterating neither; and the result, Bakhtin suggested, must be read and understood as a palimpsest. Just this carnivalization of culture, this interaction of incongruous linguistic and ideological perspectives within the same text produced the novel in the Renaissance.
By the end of the Middle Ages, the boundary line separating the official cult and ecclesiastical ideology from the culture of laughter was in dissolution. The lower genres began to penetrate the higher levels of literature, and laughter began to enter into all spheres of ideological life. This process was completed during the Renaissance and found its highest expression in Cervantes, Shakespeare, Grimmelshausen, but especially in Rabelais in whom the destruction of the old world-view and the creation of a new one are indissolubly interwoven. The medieval rogues, clowns, fools—those "life's maskers" who claim the right to be "other" in this world, "the right not to make common cause with any single one of the categories that life makes available;" and who, through their wholly theatricalized beings, reassert "the public nature of the human figure"—became the progenitors of the modern novel's heroes, those marginal figures who elude social definition and finality, who ever test and contest the conditions of their existence. The novel as a distinctive literary form was born when medieval culture, with its dualism and eschatological conception of history (the creation of the world, the fall from grace, the first expulsion, redemption, the second exile, and the final judgment—concepts in which the time of this world is devalued and subsumed to extratemporal categories), gave way to a "generative" time: a time measured by creative acts, constant birth and rebirth; a time in which death is not decisive in the larger socio-historical scheme of things; a time "maximally tensed toward the future." Rooted in the genres of folk humor and carnival narrative, and reflecting its parodic and metacultural origins, the novel depicts moments of maximum indeterminacy that call all fixed forms and structures into question. Standing outside and defying cultural hierarchies, the novel and its heroes become agents of a sociolinguistic universe that "defamiliarizes" existing conditions by playing off one mode of arrangement or perspective against another, revealing in the process possibilities for historical transformation.
For Bakhtin, then, literary structure is not something that exists unto itself, which can be discovered by the static segmentation and analysis of individual texts. His view of the novel as the site on which contesting and contested discourses of different periods, groups, or classes engage one another as sociolinguistic forces implied, rather, that literature—indeed, culture in general—must be understood as a system of signification that dialogically manifests itself and its multiple meanings in all their historical specificity and social valence. Bakhtin was one of the first in fact to propose a model for interpreting not only phenomena like carnival and carnival narrative, but for interpreting any sign system, be it literary or nonliterary, verbal or nonverbal. This original conception of culture ("high" and "low" alike) as the symbolic exchange of language, circumscribed and permeated by a specific historical environment, was the outcome of Bakhtin's novel attempt to solve what was in his time, and still is, the key problem confronting literary theory: to square the formalist conception of the autonomy of literature with the obvious fact of literature's interaction with other social phenomena.
Or, to rephrase the question in light of the vigorous debate Saussure's synchronic model stirred among Russian literary scholars of the 1920s: how can one speak of literary history, of the process of becoming, of intertextuality, if what is meant is simply a sequence of self-referential linguistic structures? On the one hand, Bakhtin agreed with Saussure and the Russian formalists in placing language at the center of literary theory and in positing a sharp and categorical distinction between the world as a source of representation and the world as represented in literature. When text is confused with context, words with the things they stand for, Bakhtin warned, the result is some form of naive naturalism, mimesis, reflection theory or psychologism, all of which in various ways obscure the differences between what is aesthetic and what is social in literature. On the other hand, Bakhtin joined with Marxist scholars (notably P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov, with whom, or under whose names Bakhtin published some of his own work) in criticizing the formalist conception of language as an ahistorical system that posits a radical disjunction between the aesthetic and the social. Viewing both models as themselves contesting discourses confronting each other dialogically as it were, Bakhtin sought to synthesize elements of each to produce a theory of literature that would neither conceal nor exaggerate the boundary line between the aesthetic and the social, expressing his own position by an organic metaphor suggesting symbiosis:
However forcefully the real and the represented world resist fusion, however immutable the presence of that categorical boundary line between them, they are nevertheless indissolubly tied up with each other and find themselves in continual mutual interaction; uninterrupted exchange goes on between them, similar to the uninterrupted exchange of matter between living organisms and the environment that surrounds them. As long as the organic lives, it resists a fusion with the environment, but if it is torn out of its environment, it dies.
Reacting against the "abstract objectivism" of Saussurean linguistics (the idea of language as a system of conventional, arbitrary signs of a fundamentally rational nature), Bakhtin and the members of his circle emphasized the speech aspect of language. Not the sentence, but the utterance—which differs from the linguist's sentence not in length or substance, but in its contextuality, its "historicity"—stands at the center of Bakhtin's conception of language. For Bakhtin, there is no such thing as a "general language" that is spoken by a general voice, that may be divorced from a specific speech act, which is charged with particular overtones. Living discourse, unlike a dictionary, is always in flux and in rebellion against its own rules. The recurring motifs in The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), and the works published under Bakhtin's own name—"the concrete life of the word," "the living word," and "the word within the word"—bespeak an emphasis on the here and now, on the intensely immediate exchange between living people in actual historical and social encounters. Language, when it means, is somebody talking to somebody else, even when that someone else is one's own inner self. To understand an utterance, therefore, means to formulate a reply to it (even if not to make it overtly), to evaluate it, to determine its meaning within a particular context. Understanding is thus itself dialogue. It follows, moreover, that "meaning" does not belong alone either to the speaker or the listener, but to the interaction between the two.
In point of fact, the word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser and addressee…. I give myself, verbal shape from another's point of view, ultimately, from the point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is territory shared….
The French linguist, Emile Benveniste, would later verify Bakhtin's insistence on the impossibility of isolating language from discourse, or discourse from subjectivity, through his analysis of linguistic components he claimed can only have meaning in actual discursive situations. In "Subjectivity in Language" (1958), Benveniste argues, for example, that the pronouns "I" and "you" lack the standardized and conventional significance of other linguistic terms. "I" always implies a speaker to whom it refers, and "you" always implies a listener whom the speaker addresses. These roles are endlessly reversible, as are the signifiers which depend upon them; the person who functions as a speaker one moment functions as a listener the next. These pronouns are also only intermittently activated, and thus have only a periodic meaning. In the intervals between speech utterances, they cease to mean anything at all.
There is no concept "I" that incorporates all the I's that are uttered at every moment in the mouths of speakers, in the sense that there is a concept "tree" to which all the individual uses of tree refer…. We are in the presence of a class of words, the "personal pronouns," that escape the status of all the other signs of language. Then what does I refer to? To something very peculiar which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is pronounced, and by this it designates the speaker. It is a term that cannot be identified except in what we have called elsewhere an instance of discourse and that has only a momentary reference…. It is in the instance of discourse in which I designates the speaker that the speaker proclaims himself as the "subject." And so it is literally true that the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language. [Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary E. Meek, 1971]
Benveniste notes that language also contains other elements whose status is equally dependent upon discourse, and equally marked by subjectivity—words, that is, which take on meaning only in relation to a subject. Verb forms imply a similar conceptualization of time, one keyed to the moment in which discourse occurs. Benveniste shows in "The Nature of Pronouns" (1956) that "the 'verb form' is an inextricable part of the individual instance of discourse: it is always and necessarily activated by the act of discourse and in dependence on that act." And in "Subjectivity in Language," he asserts that "language is marked so deeply by the expression of subjectivity that one might ask if it could still function and be called language if it were constructed otherwise."
Another Bakhtinian insight that informs Benveniste's theory is that subjectivity is entirely relational; it only comes into play through the principle of difference, by the opposition of the "other" or the "you" to the "I." In other words, subjectivity is not an essence but a set of relationships. Moreover, it can only be induced by discourse, by the activation of a signifying system which precedes the individual, and which determines his or her cultural identity. Benveniste (following Lacan) demonstrates that, in ordinary conversational situations, the speaking subject automatically links the pronouns "I" and "you" to the mental images by means of which it recognizes both itself and the person it addresses, and it identifies with the former of these. In "Language in Freudian Theory" (1956), Benveniste describes discourse in precisely these terms:
All through Freudian analysis it can be seen that the subject makes use of the act of speech and discourse in order to "represent himself" to himself as he wishes to see himself and as he calls upon the "other" to see him. His discourse is appeal and recourse: a sometimes vehement solicitation of the other through the discourse in which he figures himself desperately, and an often mendacious recourse to the other in order to individualize himself in his own eyes. Through the sole fact of addressing another, the one who is speaking of himself installs the other in himself and thereby apprehends himself, confronts himself, and establishes himself as he aspires to be, and finally historicizes himself in this incomplete or falsified history…. The subject's language (langue) provides the instrument of a discourse in which his personality is released and creates itself, reaches out to the other and makes itself be recognized by him.
For Benveniste, then, as for Bakhtin, language is emphatically not a unitary, coherent system, separable from ideological and cultural flux. Because "the word" (i.e., the utterance as distinct from the sentence) is shared territory, the same set of words can differ in meaning in different verbal interactions. And because even the simplest communication act is never uniform, never transparent, never ahistorical, no amount of analysis of language as a synchronic "system" is sufficient to explain how words can (as Alice marveled) mean so many different things. The formalist idea of an utterance as simply a collocation of linguistic features Bakhtin would regard as a fundamental misconception of verbal exchange. For him, an utterance is shaped from within by the speaker's expectations of the listener's responses. And these expectations are in turn a product of all the speaker knows, or thinks he knows, about the listener (the attitudes of his social group, his personal history, the nature of his ties with the speaker) and the occasion and purpose of the utterance. Thus, we can understand the meaning of a speech act, Bakhtin and his group would argue, only when we succeed in connecting it to the linguistic and extralinguistic context in which it occurs, to the unstated social premises on which it depends. It would be impossible, for example, to recognize irony, parody, or stylization without reference to the context of another utterance, since they all rely for their meaning on something outside themselves. As Voloshinov put it, "the whole utterance is, after all, defined by its boundaries, and these boundaries run along the line of contact between a given utterance and the extraverbal and verbal (i. e., made up of other utterances) milieu."
In other words, no communication can be understood on the level at which it occurs because it is only at still higher orders of contextualization that the communicative system comes to be defined. This means that global patternings of meanings which are immanent in the organization of a cultural system at all levels can never be entirely reduced to a unique, determinate meaning in some local situation of occurrence or realization. At the higher levels of semiotic organization these discursive formations constitute an entire culture. The multiple conflicting "voices" in dialogic discourse form the basis of a social process in which identity, status, and ideology among various social groups may generate conflict and change within the sociolinguistic system itself. This can happen because a cultural system comprises an ordered system of codes which determine both the distribution of meanings in society as well as ownership and access to the means of production of social meanings. Hence the ever-present possibility of misunderstanding.
Thus, Bakhtin could claim that language is the most sensitive barometer of social and historical change. The synchronic and diachronic dimensions of language, he argued against the formalists, can never be separated, even for purposes of analysis, because "whatever a word might mean, it is first of all materially present, as a thing uttered, written, printed, whispered, or thought" [The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics]. At any given time, language consists of a multitude of jargons, dialects, and discourses of regional and social subgroups, all more or less successful, depending upon their social scope and ideological authority. Language, in other words, is always languages, defined by "multi-speechedness," "heteroglot from top to bottom," ever in motion. To a synchronic view of language, however, change must appear as but an irrational force distorting the logical purity of language. There is no development, only inexplicable disruption. "What interests the mathematically minded rationalists is not the relationship of the sign to the actual reality it reflects nor to the individual who is its originator, but the relationship of sign to sign within a closed system already accepted and authorized." Once an analysis excludes the utterance and its necessary socio-historical context, change can only be described in terms of the altering of the components of a sentence—which is something like describing the history of philosophy as a random succession of ideas. As Bakhtin saw it, language is a dynamic process in which an endless contest between langue and parole, between canonization and innovation, is fought out at every level.
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. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process…. Consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language.
Literary language is also a jargon like any other, used in a particular milieu and in a specific speaker-listener relationship. The very existence (not to mention the primacy) of literary language in some cultures but not in others is itself a salient social fact about it, and social changes that affect everyday language will eventually affect literary language as well. it is only by conceiving language itself as not merely permeated by ideological values, but also as constituted out of the social interaction in which those values are born, live, and die that we can begin to understand a literary text as part of a social process. As Medvedev and Bakhtin tried to show in The Formal Method In Literary Scholarship, the literary work participates in the larger economy of material and ideological production. "Literary history is concerned with the concrete life of the literary work in the unity of the generating literary environment, the literary environment in the generating ideological environment, and the latter, finally, in the generating socio-economic environment which permeates it."
To put it another way, the life cycles of literary forms do not run their course within a closed aesthetic space, independent of what goes on in the world outside literature. Literary forms have no predictable life-span, and mere frequency of use has nothing to do with their durability or obsolescence. Literary forms become obsolete when they no longer tell, or are thought to tell, the truth about the world, and there is no predicting how long it may take for this perceived failing to overtake a particular form. But changes of this kind, when they occur, always bear the traces of a material history and culture antecedent to the change itself. As Bakhtin wrote in "Discourse in the Novel" (1934–35):
When discourse is torn from reality, it is fatal for the word itself as well: words grow sickly, lose semantic depth and flexibility, the capacity to expand and renew their meanings in new living contexts—they essentially die as discourse, for the signifying word lives beyond itself, that is, it lives by means of directing its purpose outward.
The final point here—that consciousness is linguistically (and through language socio-historically) determined—forms the central argument of Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1927). Here Voloshinov and Bakhtin reject Freud's distinction between the conscious and unconscious in favor of the view that the unconscious is simply a variant of the conscious, differing from it ideologically but not ontologically. What Freud called the unconscious (the realm of repressed drives and desires), Voloshinov and Bakhtin rename the "unofficial conscious" as distinct from the ordinary "official conscious" whose ideologies may be shared openly with others. The language of the unofficial conscious is "inner speech"; the language of the official conscious, "outward speech." But both (as Lacan and Benveniste would argue) operate according to the same general rules governing all verbal behavior. Inner speech is essentially the same as outward speech, differing from it only in the matter it addresses. Both are sociohistorically determined. The structure of every utterance, internal or external, is social, as is every experience it expresses.
The verbal component of behavior is determined in all the fundamentals and essentials of its content by objective social factors…. Therefore, nothing verbal in human behavior (inner and outward speech equally) can under any circumstances be reckoned to the account of the individual subject in isolation; the verbal is not his property but the property of his social group (his social milieu).
Far from being private, inner speech is the most sensitive and immediate register of social change. Although both variants of consciousness are ideological through and through, ideology has a different status in each. The primary difference consists in the greater stability of the official conscious whose ideologies are shared by the group as a whole. At this level, "inner speech comes easily to order and freely turns into outward speech or, in any case, has no fear of becoming outward speech…. In a healthy community and in a socially healthy personality … there is no discrepancy between the official and unofficial conscious." But once an ideology ceases to be shared by the group as a whole, as happens when it no longer expresses the group's real socioeconomic interests, a gap develops between the two levels of consciousness which disrupts their internal dialogue and stifles inner speech. And the greater the gap between them, the more difficult it becomes for the motives of inner speech to find verbal expression, and the more apt they are to turn into a "foreign body" in the psyche and to become "asocial." This doesn't mean, however, that every motive in contradiction with the official ideology is doomed to become asocial and lose contact with verbal communication; a "censored" motive might well engage in a struggle with the official ideology.
If such a motive is founded on the economic being of the whole group, if it is not merely the motive of a déclassé loner, then it has a chance for a future and perhaps even a victorious future…. Only, at first a motive of this sort will develop within a small social milieu and will depart into the underground—not the psychological underground of repressed complexes, but the salutary political underground. That is exactly how a revolutionary ideology in all spheres of culture comes about.
The master text of Voloshinov's and Bakhtin's political underground is Notes From Underground, in which the narrator's tortured soul and "anti-social" tendencies bespeak the disintegration of the official ideology (and through it, his own disintegration), against which he rants in the name of the rights of repressed consciousness—the right to be "other" in this world, to be unique and unpredictable, to throw everything into question, including oneself. "We are oppressed at being men—men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man." In contrast to Lukács, for example, Bakhtin argues that the hero interests Dostoevsky in the Notes, and throughout his writings, not as a typical (or atypical) manifestation of a fixed and stable external reality, nor as a profile composed of objective features which, taken together, constitute his identity. What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world, but first and foremost how the world appears to his hero, and how the hero appears to himself. In a Dostoevsky novel, the rules governing the psyche coexist on the same level as the rules governing the state. Dostoevsky politicizes his heroes, in other words, by giving their inner speech the same weight and status as the outward speech they contest, thereby undermining its stability and ideological authority. The hero's voice in a Dostoevsky novel is only one, albeit the central one, in a chorus of voices in which any "authoritative" discourse can in fact be made to appear relative. In thus revising Freud's conscious/unconscious dichotomy and insinuating it into his interpretation of Dostoevsky, Bakhtin was in a sense, as Michael Holquist suggests [in "The Politics of Representation"], giving voice to his own dilemma, the dilemma of a Dostoevskyan underground man "sending out transcoded messages from the catacombs"—one being that "in the history of literary language, there is a struggle constantly being waged to overcome the official line … a struggle against various kinds and degrees of authority."
It is in Dostoevsky, and in Dostoevsky alone, that Bakhtin finds the polyphonic ideal fully realized: the ideal of the coexistence, interaction, and interdependence of several different, relatively autonomous consciousnesses that express simultaneously the various contents of the world within the unity of a single text. "What Dostoevsky's characters say constitutes an arena of never-ending struggle with others' words, in all realms of life and creative activity … the life experience of the characters and their discourse may be resolved as far as plot is concerned, but internally they remain incomplete and unresolved." This greatest of all literary contrapuntalists genuinely surrenders to his characters and allows them to speak in ways other than his own. Heroes are no longer reduced to the dominating consciousness of the author, as they are in monologic narrative (in Tolstoy, for example, with whom Bakhtin often compares Dostoevsky), and secondary characters are no longer encompassed by and reduced to their usefulness to heroes—or to the author. Dostoevsky's characters are, in short, respected as full subjects, shown as consciousnesses which can never be fully defined or exhausted, rather than as objects fully known, once and for all, in their roles—and then discarded as expendable.
Bakhtin shared with Dostoevsky a view of the individual as comprehensible only within his own point of view (his "confessional self-utterance"), hence impossible to define or categorize in any permanent and immutable fashion. This view—indeed, all the significant aspects of Bakhtin's thought—is apparent in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, the only one of his writings of the 1920s he published under his own name. This work, which may be read as Bakhtin's own confessional self-utterance, clearly rests on a vision of the world as essentially a network of subjects who are themselves social in essence, not private or autonomous individuals in the Western sense. Bakhtin expressed this vision always in terms of the "multi-voicedness" or "multi-centeredness" of the world as we experience it. We come into consciousness speaking a language already permeated by many voices—a social, not a private or unitary language. From the very beginning we are "polyglot," already in process of mastering a variety of social dialects derived from parents, teachers, clan, class, religion, and region. We grow in consciousness by assimilating more voices, then by learning which to accept as "internally persuasive." In this way, we achieve a kind of individuality, one which recognizes and respects the fact that each of us is a "we," not just an "I." Polyphony, the interaction of many voices which finds its supreme literary expression in the novel, is thus both a fact of life and a value to be pursued endlessly against the suffocating forces of regimentation and conformity.
Ken Hirschkop on the Sociological Implications of Bakhtin's Theories:
The ease with which everyone can endorse the central elements of the Bakhtinian programme indicates that the hard work has not really begun. What is this 'dialogism' that so many celebrate as liberating and democratic: what are its actual cultural forms, its social or political preconditions, its participants, methods and goals? When we first meet this concept in Bakhtin's work it describes a certain relation between distinct 'voices' in a narrative text, in which each takes its shape as a conscious reaction to the ideological position of the other; but even then it is a metaphor for a broader principle of discourse. 'Heteroglossia', when first mentioned, is a description of stylistic and generic stratification and conflict within the confines of a national vernacular. But what are the consequences of this stratification? Do all such divisions have political significance? Is it a recipe for social diversity or the establishment of warring interest groups? 'Carnivalesque' works, in Bakhtin's parlance, use motifs, themes and generic forms drawn from a tradition of subversive medieval popular culture, a tradition linked to a very specific festive practice and to the significance of the body in medieval and Renaissance culture. How can these practices be translated into the very different kinds of popular culture one finds in modern capitalist societies? These are all questions which the Bakhtin circle left unanswered, but they pose in particularly acute form the problem of how to establish a democratic culture and language in modern societies.
Ken Hirschkop in his introduction to Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press, 1989.
It is largely from Bakhtin's writings, especially his books on Dostoevsky and Rabelais, that we have learned to apply terms like "carnivalization" to the dissolution of hierarchy in all spheres of life, and it is a major part of his legacy to have taught us about the liberating energy of the carnivalesque and carnival laughter. "There is no standpoint counterposed to laughter. Laughter is 'the only positive hero'" ["The Art of the word and The Culture of Folk Humor (Rabelais and Gogol)," Semiotics and Structuralism]. Bakhtin's unshakable faith in the transcendent power of laughter permeates his lavish descriptions of the carnivalesque, descriptions which clearly celebrate a tradition whose full realization he found in Rabelais, and whose renaissance he discovered in Dostoevsky. It is characteristic of Bakhtin that the carnival-grotesque serves, in some respects, as his model of the "normal" in that it embodies both the conventional and the unexpected, the established and the creative. This model enabled him to see how traditional literary forms are abolished or transformed through parody as part of the complex interaction of social forces within particular periods of upheaval and transition; how the novel may be said to characterize literature as a whole; and how language systems are revitalized by creolization and restricted by stabilization. The most important part of Bakhtin's legacy, however, is not his immensely fruitful struggle with worn-out words and literary forms, but rather his struggle—often resourceful, cunning, and oblique—with the forces of stagnation and finalization, with the determinism of being, whether in the fixed forms of unitary discourse, genre conventions in literature, or in the rigidity of thought patterns. In other words, Bakhtin might have said that he wished to be read as a novel, not an epic.
Robert Anchor, "Bakhtin's Truths of Laughter," in CLIO, Vol. 14, No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 237-57.
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