Study Guide

Mikhail Bakhtin Introduction

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Mikhail Bakhtin Introduction

Don't let the whole "Russian social theorist and semiotician" thing scare you off. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) was one of the few intellectuals with a sense of humor—at least in a theoretical sense. Yep, this guy was a veritable wild man, at least from the neck up.

What do we mean by that? Well, Bakhtin was captivated by laughter and the grotesque—anything to mess with stuffy, predictable old narratives. He was sort of like the Quentin Tarantino of the Soviet Union. Oh, except that he was actually super conservative and probably would have blushed at how people use his theories today.

The poor guy worked his tail off in early 20th-century Russia, but basically died unknown, having no clue that scholars would take to his work in the 1960s and use it in fields as across-the-board as literary studies, linguistics, folkloristics, psychology, anthropology, and social history. Word on the street is that he attracted a cult following not unlike that of the deconstructionist rock star Jacques Derrida. (That's like comparing The Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Beatles.) And his work became so popular that it's been compared to a successful retail chain, a so-called "Bakhtin industry." Yowza.

Bakhtin's big interest was language. But he wasn't into words as dead things on a page. No, his big red heart was reserved for spoken language—utterances, dialogues, exchanges between people speaking, listening, and using words in social situations. The foundation of his theory was heteroglossia. Translation: the idea that the English language (or any other language, for that matter) does not exist as a static, unchanging entity. Ch ch changes… abound.

So if you told Bakhtin that you heard voices in your head, he wouldn't accuse you of being a mad hatter. Instead, he would say something like, "Oh yeah, that's just inner speech. No need for a padded cell. You're just having a social conversation that you've learned to have in your head." We've never felt less awkward about talking to ourselves in the shower.

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