Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a postmodern Russian literary critic and semiotician. In the wake of political upheaval in Russia, Bakhtin created an intellectual literary circle which met in Nevel and Vitebsk between 1918 and 1924, and continued in Leningrad. The group discussed religion, politics and literary criticism. It included Lev Pumpianskii (1891-1940), Ivan Sollertinskii (1902-1944) and Matvei Kagan (1889-1937), who was instrumental in its inception. The group had disbanded by 1930 as a result of Stalinist oppression. Bakhtin was sentenced to exile in Siberia, which was commuted to six years exile in Kazakhstan because he had osteomyelitis, as a result of which one of his legs had to be amputated.
Bakhtin's first publication was "Art and Responsibility" in 1919. His seminal work, Problems of Dostoevsky's Art, was published in 1929. He developed the idea that Dostoevsky's work was not a simple narrative but rather a polyphony of different individual narratives. Each narrator was presented by the author as an individual who could change and was never fully revealed to the reader. As each character necessarily related to other characters, the interaction produced multiple interrelated narratives.
In Bakhtin's analysis it was not just the characters narrating, or in a dialogue with one another. The novel itself was a dialogue with other works, a concept which Bakhtin referred to as dialogism. This was not just a question of symbolic references in Dostoevsky's works to others, but a two-way relationship in which the works referred to were also affected by being referred to in Dostoevsky's works.
This multilayered analysis led him to coin the phrase heteroglossia in his 1934 paper "Discourse in the Novel." Since the author could create a dialogue with other works while the characters narrated their separate interrelated stories, Bakhtin suggested that the draw of novels was precisely the interaction between different types of speech. This was not only interaction between characters and narrators, but also interaction with the speech of the author.
It was in Rabelais and His World (1941) that Bakhtin developed some of the other concepts for which he is best known; carnivalism and grotesque realism. Bakhtin was referring to a modern incarnation of medieval church carnivals, involving the sanctified being profaned and overturned, and the reversal of opposing concepts such as heaven and hell, and wisdom and folly. The purpose of this was to introduce a dialogue between the concepts which became possible when the hierarchy of these concepts, one being superior and the other inferior, was questioned. Bakhtin described the method by which this leveling process of vice and virtue could be employed in the novel as grotesque realism. He suggested that Rabelais reduced abstract political ideals to a grotesque material level by relating conflicts to human anatomy, the grotesque body.
When Bakhtin submitted his thesis on Rabelais to the Gorky Institute of World Literature in the late 1940s, it met with mixed reviews. Ultimately, he was not granted the doctorate he had applied for.
The last of Bakhtin's works to be published in his lifetime was The Dialogic Imagination, a collection of four essays about the novel and language: "Epic and Novel," "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse," "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," and "Discourse in the Novel." In these, Bakhtin further developed the concepts of heteroglossia, and dialogism. He introduced the concept of chronotope, regarding the timing and setting of novels. Bakhtin pointed out that all narratives are set in a spatio-temporal matrix. Unity of place can bring together the cradle and the grave, childhood and old age, and the lives of various generations living in a particular place, as in idylls. Similarly temporal boundaries create cyclic rhythms. Bakhtin observed that in novels, common everyday life can become the essence of life, and unrepeatable events may be reduced to the level of the mundane.
"Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences," was the last thing Bakhtin wrote. Here he sought to distinguish his concept of dialogism from dialectics. Dialogism, as opposed to dialectics, does not involve a dispute between two different points of view, but rather signs and modality introduced by the author which interact with the reader and other works. Bakhtin's attention to content over form was characteristic of structuralism. However, Bakhtin rejected structuralism because he found its emphasis on static coexistence too rigid, and emphasized processes of unification and change.
Bakhtin's works only became available in translation towards the end of his life and after his death. Some Bakhtin scholars in the United States characterize him as a humanist first and foremost. Others associate him with Russian Formalists such as his contemporary Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984). He perhaps had most in common with the fellow semiotician Yuri Lotman (1922-1993), who went on to found the Moscow-Tartu school of cultural semiotics.