A Brief Story on Mikhail Bakhtin

The battle of the good and the bad. Fierce distiction of the East and the West. The typical dualism which can be found anywhere from philosophy to literature. Although, this has an end and transform to a much complex plane by the hand of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and theoretician who passover the simple dualism by putting his own Notion which is known as “dialogism”. This notion is also different from “dialectics” because it has more powerful definition to understand how contrary notions can be found at the same order. This has a typical sample in Russian literature: Raskolnikov of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. From the novelist point of view, Raskolnikov is the character which depicts man of contradictions. So, it has also have an impact on Bakhtin’s theory of philosophy. Things and ideas which are just opposed to each other can simply find theirselves in one body and works somehow together.

This new perception had been made Bakhtin very special on the eye of the modern West. He rose with his idea of Poliphony, the notion that had taken West’s liberal attention for an aim of creation of the multi-tounge democratic society. What’s more, the stark criticism on Saussure’s linguistic ideas by Bakhtin’s himself, the monolitic structuralism also got affected under the new attitude of Bakhtin; “utterance”.

As you can see, Bakhtin produced many notions and ideas that coherent with Deleuze’s argument on the philosophy, which says the way of making philosophy is definitely put new notions to the field. He made it very well to be sure. We will take a look some of them in this paper.

Moreover, we will give a brief definition of subject idea of him and also phenomenological and linguistic approachs to the idea of subject. He has a Marxist view on the notion of subject as seeing it as a fusion of sociological and historical conditions. But also he put a paraphrase by saying that there are no two other things as subject and object, but in fact there is only one thing which refletcs itself as twofold.

In addition to them, we also discuss about Bakhtin Circle and its legendary rumors in this Paper. In this regard, we briefly point Bakhtin’s self history by taking his ideas and also working groups which draws an attention as misery ones.

Bakhtin and His Circle

Bakhtin born in Russia, studied history and philology and made a career at culture history with his team mates. This group of friends such as Volosinov, Medvedev, Kagan etc. which worked together in linguistics, cultural history and political disobedience under the Stalin’s rule. They had created very special outputs which had an impact on modern literature and philosophy initially after they moved to Petersburg.

As a cultural historician, Bakhtin’s perceptions arose with 20th century and much affected from the results of Soviet Revolution. More specifically, his Rabelais and his World book was published far late from expectation due to the detention of Stalin’s dictatorship at his time. In addition to that, he sent to exile in Kazakistan for more than 6 years just as a result of his attitute to Stalin’s government. As you can see, Bakhtin evaluated things from a Marxist perspective nevertheless he has no contentment with Soviet praxis of Marxism.

His circle which were consist of close friends and thinkers in Russia such as Volosinov, Medvedev and Kagan worked especially in Saussurerian semiotics, Neo-Kantian philosophy and phenomenology and made a great impact not only on Russian academics but also throughout the world thinkers. However, there have been always rumors that the two prominent members of the circle, Volosinov and Medvedev are not really proponents what they write, these papers were written by Bakhtin’s himself in fact.

There has to be something more that we need to discuss about. First of all, at the times of Bakhtin, the cultural alacrity in Russia were quite intensive. German idealists were read and phenomenology had a close look especially from Vygotsky’s works. This wave of philosophy made a clear effect on Bakhtin’s idea of subject.

Moreover, Ernst Cassirer who had a problem with Heidegger’s aim is also very important for his Circle. Cassirer’s Legend of State had a quite impact on Bakhtin’s Notion of “utterance” in respect of thinking ideology more mythical thing than a constructive idea.

Second, Russian formalists who aggresively followed the Saussure’s semiology and Italian futurism which were under fachist propaganda were also taken a lot of stick by Bakhtin. He accused them being in very close relation with Fashist ideals and criticise all the way they did.

Modern west met with Bakhtin so late via Julia Kristeva and Todorov. For this reason a Bakhtin image built beyond the reality on the eye of liberal world. In addition to that problems deal with Stalinist rule make Bakhtin as a liberal thinker in spite of his Marxist base. Also cencorship on Marxist themes through the Sixties in Europe help to create a different Bakhtim image.

Bakhtin’s Idea of Subject

One of the Bakhtin’s main visions is the idea of subject. According to that, subject is the fusion of sociological and historical conditions and determines within them. Typically Marxist, subject is the one that who symbolises these relations. But in fact, whether subject is a determined one or not, the main discussion in Bakhtin’s work has definitely a phenomenologic approach.

Despite the fact that the Hegelian (and also Marxist) tradition which poses the subject as go towards the inside and the object which reflects to outside simply differs and takes independently (And this is a typical view of enlightment) but in Bahktin, subject and object are deemed as one mutual thing, but it has two visions. As a result of that, classical dualism fails and subject become prominent in which has to take questions of life and give answers. The unique ontology of a subject depends these things.

Let’s have a look at the Azeri’s depiction: (Bakhtin, 2001)

“Özne bir olay-oluştur. Doğar, gerçekleşir, biter, gider gibi bir döngüsellikle değil, eylemle birlikte var olan  bir şeydir. Öznenin bitimsiz var oluşudur. Öznenin önceden belirlenmediği, özünün olmadığı ise onun Biricik Varoluş’undandır.”

What is the meaning of “Biricik Varoluş”? That definition is the key one in Bakhtin idea. His theoretical and abstract assumptions eventually turn to concrete accuracy. When compare with Kantian non-pysical extension, his base on Marxist values make his ideas more into real life experiances.

What construct the subject? Utterance, syllable, polyphony. These are on the contrary side to Homophony. They also included some of the main assumptions of Bakhtin such as discursivity, inter-textuality and so on. Subject only exist within its opposite, reciprocity is the vital one.

Bakhtin’s Main Notions

Merry folk symbolises the homogenisation of differanciations of people during the carnival. Whole world percieved as a merry hall and in this respect it challange the serious and masterful stylistic of rhetoric. It also protests the rationality and single meaning which an idea taken from the Rabelais’ Gargantua.

All these are very much in line with Solomon and Marcolph, Don Quijote and Sanchos, Nasreddin Hoca and Tamerlane or Hacivat and Karagöz. Carnivalesque as an inventory Notion that we could find parallel terms such as Metis in de Certau, Doomsday Laughing at L. F. Celine and so on.

According to Bakthin, living in Mediaval Europe separated into two different areas: The serious one and the carnivalesque one. In carnival, things which were once taken seriously easily be mutilated and were mocking all the way. There was no routin and absent of rules as an order matter. Hierarchical order reverses and opaque reality turns into grotesque imagery. This grotesque imagery -As Erdoğan’s saying “Grotesk tezlil” is also valid- comes fort with the hand and tongue of Rogue, Fool and Clown. The tongue of it denotate easily; “Carnivalesque Speech”. When one think of the life spent in Europe in proportion one to third as a Carnivalesque moments, then it should have been understood the important being of mockery in a ordinary life.

When we look down to de Certeau’s Metis, we can see the connotation of Carnivalesque. Erdoğan says: (Erdoğan, 1999)

“Unable to declare an open warfare against law of the place, Hoca makes do with what it provides by means of manipulation, trickery, simulation, disquise and repartee.”

The human body, according to Bakhtin, to be built and mutilated in different combinations. Grotesque imagery symbolises the organs that not stand in order. "Carnivalesque" means making a new form in one body and reflect it as a new bodily image. It also contains the idea that human body can only be surpassed its borders when it eating, having sex, drinking or defecating. Hermaphrodite and androjen bodies are representing his ideal when he think of carnivalesque bodily images.
Let’s look at again to Erdoğan for a better understanding: (Erdoğan, 1999)
“Grotesque imagery is based on degradation or lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal and abstract. Parodying high spiritual values and mocking authority, it turns the world inside out and inscribes the indivisible wholeness and positivity of the human body through the images of copulation, defecation, eating, birth and death.”


Dialogism is also relation with them. Bakhtin created this term after having read Volosinov and Medvedev again. Dialogism is the result of linguistic discussions among Bakhtin, Volosinov, Medvedev, Saussure and Barthes’ ideas. In Erdoğan’s words:

“Bakthin’in çerçevesi metin analizi bağlamında kullanılır. Bu noktada Volosinov’un Marksizm ve Dil Felsefesi metni çok önemlidir. (Hall da bu metne atıfta bulunur.) Temeldeki tartışma dil denen şeyin deneyimi de şekillendirdiği iddiasıyla dilin deneyimi yansıtmaktan ibaret olduğu savunusudur. Saussure’e göre dil sabit, değilmez, kapalı bir bütündür ve göstergelerde (signs) temel iki nokta vardır; görülen ve gösterilen. Yapısalcı dilbilimin bu donukluğu Barthes tarafından aşılmaya çalışılmıştır. Barthes’a göre de dil, konuşanın yerine getirdiği bir şey olmaktan ziyade bir sistem olarak düşünülmelidir ve dil ile diğer şeylerin ilişkilerine bakılmalıdır. Saussure’ün gösteren- gösterilen’den ibaret açıklamasını meta-linguistik çaba ifadesiyle esnetmeye çalışan Barthes, dilin sabit anlamı noktasından çıktığı çalışmalarından nihayet gösterenler galaksisine kadar gelir. Volosinov ve Bakhtin ise tüm bu yapısalcı dil anlayışına karşıdır. Onlara göre dil gönderenle gönderilen arasındaki ilişkinin ortaya çıktığı alandır. Toplu güçler arasındaki ilişkilerin gösterimi ile dil arasında paralellik vardır. Dolayısıyla onlar, yapısalcıların “dilin yapısı” üzerine odaklanmasının karşısında, dil göstergelerinin kendi içine kapalı bir sistem olmadığını, göstergelerin değişken ve akışkan olduğunu, birbirleriyle tarihsel koşullarla ilişki içinde olduklarını söyler. Anlamın oluşabilmesi için bir göstergenin en az bir başkasıyla ilişki içine girmesi gerektiğini söylerler.”

From this point, Bakhtin made a bridge through language and idea of subject. As a dialogic discourse language is inter-discoursive while sign is inter-subjective. So there is someone even when one speak of himself. He gives an important sample in this regard: “One can see one’s exterior only through other’s perspectives.” That’s what Bakhtin says as “dialogic”.


Heteroglossia is the centrifugal power when compares to centripedal powers such as dominant ideology, fixed matrixes in daily life. It is a tool that gives a chance to a man to get deal canonization in his life. Also it depicts itself as the opponent of somewhat monogloctic. It also have some common meaning de Certeau’s Heterologi or Deleuze and Guattari’s “Deterritorialization” - “yersiz yurtsuzlaştırıcı”.


As conceptualized by Bakhtin, the term Chronotope expresses the intrinsie connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships represented in narratives. In his words ”It builds its own world versus the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state.”


In our work we only look forward to give some brief information about Bakhtin’s notions, life, circle and idea of subject which are extremely valuable for the people who really have a great attention to cultur history. He is definitely a spectacular thinker throughout the 20th century especially with his discourse theory. His unique character give him advantages to produce much of the concepts that he used. Moreover, he critisized Saussure’s structural linguistics and showed us that the language is not a normative thing and it is a battlefield for ideologies with their denotation powers. In contrary to Saussure and Barthes, Bakhtin deemed signs as not traffic lights and they are kind of a inter-subjective thing. Also with his dialogism and idea of subject, he could be built an integrated structure in his theory, so that he had many impacts on modern literature, culture theory and philosophy as a whole.


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