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Mikhail Bakhtin: an Introduction

Updated on December 26, 2019
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Brandon Riederer is an Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.

Mikhail Bakhtin
Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin

Bakhtin was a Russian Formalist during the mid-20th century. His ideas were so shockingly revolutionary for his time, particularly as subtle ripostes to the Stalinist Regime. For instance, his Doctoral Dissertation (now known as his most famous book, "Rabelais and His World) was rejected several times. Thus, his outlandish work forced him to teach in rural communities throughout Russia so he would not become a target of assassination by the Stalinist government; although, he was arrested a few times but released on the condition of his terrible health: his diet was essentially cigarettes and coffee (Holquist, 1997).

Even though his major book focuses on Renaissance culture in France and Rabelais's proto-novel "Gargantua and Pantagruel," it nevertheless has a power to displace itself and seep into modern contexts. By reading what Bakhtin had to say about Rabelais, readers can get a glimpse of how Bakhtin felt about Stalinist Russia, and life in general. For instance, his idea of marketplace language— in which Europeans during the Renaissance could speak anywhere between 15 and 20 different languages— set the foundation for his unique idea called heteroglossia, which literally means 'many tongues' (Holquist, 1997).

In the rural communities in which Bakhtin taught, he saw a similar phenomenon of marketplace language: Bakhtin could speak several different languages, each one— he argued— containing different perspectives on culture. Thus, the power of a chronotope (or a culturally-construed understanding of space and time: another concept contribution to literary theory by Bakhtin) is embedded within the semiotics of language. He even took it further by arguing how the semiotics of a single culture could be heteroglossic because of the various social meanings words can possess. Thus, the constant interplay of semantics led to his general emphasis on dialogism.

Since Bakhtin's ideas have been published (early 1960s), his influence on dialogism has been profound. His impact on the humanities is significant and widespread. He has inspired the development of several contemporary theories in linguistics, communications, literary studies, psychology, and criticism. While he is not a household name because his work has only been around for a short time, he is nevertheless quickly becoming recognized as a creative and critical thinking genius.


Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

© 2019 Instructor Riederer


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