Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theoretical Conception. Dialogic Criticism


 The thoughts of the outstanding Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin made a substantial impact on 20th-century philosophical space, playing a coordinating role in the development of literary-theoretical thinking.

Bakhtin’s originality was revealed primarily in the theoretical position on whose basis he resolved in his own way two basic problems important for Russian theoretical thought: the relation of the language of the novel to the spoken language and the origin of the genre of the novel. Bakhtin conceptualized speech as a social phenomenon, as a result of which form and content emerge as a whole placed in a single segment. The idea of the social discourse is closely connected with the idea of genre. Accordingly, genre acquires a social status, or emerges as a social structure.

Similarly to Russian formalists, Bakhtin focuses attention on the specificity of the word of the novel, considering it to be an artificially created system. But unlike the formalists, his system rests not on schemes worked out in advance, but on the live language and phraseology. In Bakhtin’s view, the novel is an artificially organized diversity of different types of social speech and individual voices. He does not delimit the diversity of spoken language from language diversity, defining the novel as a network of dialogues carried on between languages. He links the origin of the genre of the novel to the phenomenon of language. In Bakhtin’s view, the internal structural arrangement, existing at any historical stage in all languages, is a necessary precondition for the genre of the novel to take shape, or language is automatically considered a historical precondition for the origin of the novel.

According to Bakhtin, the novel is a multi-genre system, a continuous process that faithfully reflects differing discourse layers and specific polyphony of a concrete period, people and culture. To him the novel is an ever live organism, artistic structure, revealing with great precision the historical processes occurring in social and cultural reality in the shape of inter-social and intercultural dialogue.

Dialogic criticism is the cornerstone of Bakhtin’s theoretical system – a central, basic principle on which other main concepts and principles rest like a superstructure. A dialogue conducted between two persons is essentially two independent dialogues, alternating in the text. The two-voice structure in prose becomes the main factor of narration and, through it, the narration of the author or narrator may be perceived as “other’s” speech in relation to the narration of the character. Expressed otherwise, “other’s words”, as a theme, determines the composition of the work. Gaining an insight into “another’s statement”, in Bakhtin’s view, means orientation with regard to another person, with the responding phase superimposed on each perceived one. Therefore, all relationship is in its essence dialogic.

Dialogue is an expression of the genuine function of the speech, the property of such a conversational model in which the organization of the text is accented on “other’s speech”, being shaped as a two-voice system.

Two-voice structure or heteroglassia in the theory of literature means various, differential speech and is considered to be one of the basic terms established by Bakhtin. In his view, “heteroglassia” is not only a unity of various language models but their purposeful coordination in a literary text. To put it in a different way, Bakhtin’s “heteroglassia” is textualized. “Heteroglassia”, he believes, implies two delimited language relations: different social languages within a single national language and different national languages with a single culture. But heteroglassia is not a neutrality of language differentiations simply implemented in the text. Heteroglassia causes a conflict between different language structures. Thus, heteroglassia is a two-voice discourse embracing at the same time two types of language model: the direct speech of the character and the author’s background speech. Heteroglassia is a precondition of dialogism. Bakhtin delimits the concepts of dialogism and heteroglassia, yet he argues their inevitable link: whereas dialogism brings out the process of interaction of different languages, heteroglassia describes and establishes the difference existing between languages. The language differentiation brought to light by heteroglassia is realized at dialogue level of a literary text.

Bakhtin’s dialogism implies the existence of two different voices in one voice. But specifically about which voices does Bakhtin speak? What is implied under two voices made integral? Different style discourses and contexts or the “author’s” and “character’s” voices?

Bakhtin’s analysis of the concept of dialogism is connected with research into Dostoyevsky’s works involving in-depth literary-structural study of his well-known novels.

In Bakhtin’s view, Dostoyevsky’s genius as a novelist lies in his maximally increasing and expanding the functional significance of language, manifested in the texts by dialogism. Most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, Bakhtin believes, represent a gamma of independent and unblended voices, a non-integrable synthesis, being a doubtless precondition of unusual polyphony.

Realization of the equal, independent voices of a polyphonous novel is a dialogic process, being implemented on a definite temporal-spatial or chronotopic plane.

Dialogism is the central concept of Bakhtin’s theory of genre. In his view, the novel is a social phenomenon and it implies wide-spread discourse in the unlimited space of streets, cities, countries, social strata, generations, epochs and cultures. The function of each of this dialogic discourse is to demonstrate the polyphonic essence of the novel.

Bakhtin perceives the origin of the polyphonic novel in Menippean satire and carnival traditions.

The carnival, conceptualized by Bakhtin, constitutes the most important element of the history of mankind that has acquired textual form. In the text the carnival is realized through different plots, contexts and language models, but textual form is not only its genuine essence; carnival is primarily a festival expressed by activity-festivity that simultaneously embraces the performer and the spectator, the object of action and the observing subject. The carnival has grown on roots of folk humour; through laughter it makes understandable the dualistic nature of existence, and opposes truth, as an alternative, to the imposed regime of violence and fear.

Bakhtin links the reincarnation of carnival motifs to medieval literature, defining it as bold manifestations of opposition to officialdom, church diktat and feudal culture. Carnival in Bakhtin’s theory is an equivalent concept of grotesque realism, a synonym of existence parodied by the people, in which laughter performs a drastically degrading and materialized function. Carnival laughter is liberation, on the one hand, from officialdom, from the mask imposed by the official regime and culture, and on the other hand, from one’s own human weaknesses. Laughter implies integrity of contradictions, embracing dualistic realities and establishing them in the language model of the novel. The language embodiment of dualism is of dialogic character and is realized in relevant temporal-spatial or chronotopic models.

Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope etymologically derives from Greek: chronos meaning “time” and topos “space”. The uniting by Bakhtin of the categories of time and space in one term, chronotope, demonstrates his belief in the inseparability of these elements in a literary structure. To him chronotope is a certain measure – a measure of how – in conditions of a concrete epoch and concrete genre – synthesis of real or historical time and space and personages important for history is affected, as well as the process of their adjustment to artistic time, space and characters. In Bakhtin’s view, the dominance of the constituent elements (time and space) of a chronotope is determined by the specificity of genre: the relationships between time and space and between human beings domiciled in them – Bakhtin believes, alter according to the historical and literary environment of the text, or to put it otherwise, Bakhtin’s chronotope is at the same time a historical and genre phenomenon as well.

According to Bakhtin’s conception, the chronotope functions in three principal directions: a) showing history at text level; b) realization of genre at text level; c) reflection of the individual time and space field of the characters.

Each of these directions is related to constantly changing components and, obviously, causes the creation of alterable chronotopic models.

Chronotope in Bakhtin’s opinion is a clearly elastic category. It implies diverse varieties of temporal and spatial relations: the author’s chronotope, that of recognizing-failing to recognize, adventurous chronotope, idyllic chronotope, etc. Bakhtin pays special attention to the chronotope of road and meeting, as the best textual expression of the unity of time and space. He considers realization of the historical and genre-typical functions to be the purpose of each of these chronotope models.

Bakhtin’s theory of chronotope exerted a great influence both on his contemporary and later literary criticism.

Bakhtin’s ideas are being familiarized with, used, transformed, developed; at times they are liked, at others disapproved, but they are always perceived as an indispensable “other”, a partner to be taken account of, an interlocutor actively engaged in the process of dialogue.


  Irma Ratiani