For the Love of Mikhail Bakhtin!

It is clearly dissertation time again as I find myself becoming strangely, and firmly, attached to historical/philosophical theorists who are long since dead. And this time the poor soul whose work is making its way onto my pile of master-debatory material is Mikhail Bakhtin (replacing Foucault of the previous few months).

Bakhtin was a Soviet era philosopher, semiotician, literary theorist, beard-enthusiast, and starer-extraordinaire (like, seriously his stare is more pointed than Eddie Redmayne’s in…well everything he’s ever been in). His work has only really come into vogue (and begun being translated from its original Russian) since the 1970s and he was a controversial figure in Soviet academia as many of his theories were so far from tradition that they completely polarized Russian academics (resulting in his original doctoral thesis on François Rabelais being rejected). Indeed even much of what we think we know about him is controversial and hazy as he appears to have personally distorted many biographical details of his life in a time and place where knowledge could be dangerous.

Keen readers may have noticed that I’ve mentioned Bakhtin, and his exploration of grotesque realism [1], previously in my History of Banter posts, and will continue to do so in the next few installments. But I’ve  also recently been using his essay ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’ [2] as a window into constructions of gender transcendence and subjugation in Byzantine Hagiography (specifically the Greek language Vita of Mary of Egypt [3]) and I’ve taken him into my heart…

Mikhail Bakhtin: One smoking semiotician

…mainly because of sentences like these:

“…such is the nature of experiences: they experience their object and experience themselves in their object, but they do not experience the process of their own experiencing.”

“The author’s consciousness is the consciousness of a consciousness, that is, a consciousness that encompasses the consciousness and the world of a hero – a consciousness that encompasses and consummates the consciousness of a hero by supplying those moments which are in principle transgredient to the hero’s consciousness and which, if rendered immanent, would falsify this consciousness.”

“All these moments that can consummate us in the consciousness of the other lose their consummating power by being anticipated in our own consciousness, and as such they merely extend our consciousness in its own direction. Even is we succeed in encompassing the whole of our consciousness as consummated in the other, this whole would not be able to take possession of us and really consummate us for ourselves: our consciousness would take that whole into account and would surmount it as just one of the moments in its own unity (which is not a unity that is given but a unity that is set as a task and, in its essentials, is yet-to-be).” [4]

Ahh Mikhail, Mikhail, you’re so far from being accessible that I feel like you’re personally banishing me to the corner. But like the Author to his Hero, I still love you – even if your aesthetic philosophy prevents your response from being anything other than brutal indifference.



[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, 1984)

[2] Bakhtin, ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’, in (eds) M. Holquist and V. Liapunov, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, trans. V. Liapunov (Austin, 1990)

[3] ‘The Life of Mary of Egypt’, trans. M. Kouli in (ed.) A-M. Talbot, Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation,  (Dumbarton Oaks, 1996).

Full PDF can be found here:

[4] Quotes directly from Bakhtin, ‘Author and Hero’, pages: 7, 12, 16

Further Reading

  • Ann Jefferson, ‘Bodymatters: self and Other in Bakhtin, Sartre and Barthes’ in (eds) K. Hirschkop and D. Shepherd, Bakhtin and Cultural Theory (Manchester, 2001, pp. 201-228 – worth reading as Jefferson has the ability to make Bakhtin’s ‘Author and Hero’ accessible.

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