Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism

By Pamkhuila Shaiza on September 28, 2015

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895 – 1975) was a Russian literary theorist who made contributions to diverse disciples but his contribution towards literature is accounted from his The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Bakhtin, 2010), which shows congruence to many postmodernist thoughts. His dialogic concept contributes to the aesthetic implication of postmodernism as Woods might suggest or what Newman might criticise (Newman, 1985; Woods, 1999). For his discussion on dialogism, Bakhtin is able to contextualise many elements across interdisciplinary studies such as monologist, aesthetics, historiographic metafiction, intertextuality, the ideology of carnivalesque and gender dialogic through various influences from thinkers and writers like Socrates, Shakespeare, Diderot, Tolstoy and even modern-day writer Linda Hutcheon. In particular, the underlying principle in Bakhtin’s dialogism is mainly on discussing the monologic domination in literature (Irene Rima Makaryk, 1993), which silenced the histories of the marginalised. Instead, monologic discourse is seen as being able to open up to dialogism in order to allow alternative voices to be heard. He asserts that dialogism and polyphony do not uproot monologists, instead it allows them to co-exist and support the old monologic form.

Is dialogism an aesthetic art?

Aesthetic subjectivity as an ‘informing language’ (Davey, 2013) allows a conversation to be receptive, mutative and develop cultural subject matters, which informs and transforms it. In this way, aesthetics becomes a way of expression in the dialogic term, where the conversation becomes a way of life, a mode of living, and something to converse within itself. In all disciples, aesthetic subjectivity has been considered as of utmost importance since it has the potential to reveal its objective ground. While discussing dialogism and its relationship with various elements– monologist, aesthetics, historiographic metafiction, intertextuality, the ideology of carnivalesque and gender dialogic– Bakhtin regards dialogism as a form of systematizing knowledge. For him, dialogism has the power to synthesize knowledge among various disciplines and fashion ethical values to be articulated within the specific situations to make it aesthetic proper. Dialogism for Bakhtin is, therefore ‘architectonics’ in nature (Holquist, 2003), in terms of being a ‘science of building’ or systematizing knowledge. Architectonics involves all patterning relationships among artists, which is the essence of aesthetic proper. In addition to this dialogism is also seen as not simply a matter of the theory of knowledge but also as a form that reflects hybrid elements like linguistic, axiology, etc. It shows how social and ethical values can be articulated within specific situations, making it a version of axiology; and in allowing the patterning of relations, dialogism becomes aesthetic in nature (Holquist, 2003).

Apart from glorifying knowledge or embedding values in linguistic and axiology, Bakhtin’s attitude of treating dialogism as an aesthetic art reached its pinnacle in his ‘carnivalesque concept’. Through the ideology of carnivalesque, Bakhtin brings out that capitalism proves useful for the marginalized history and its associated art and values to be heard. Bakhtin claims that the carnivalization of literature proved remarkably productive in capitalization, unlike the oppressive Stalinistic era, since it allows the “capturing in art the developing relationships under capitalism at a time when previous forms of life, moral principles and beliefs were being turned into ‘rotten cords and the previously concealed, ambivalent and unfinalized nature of man and human thought was being nakedly exposed”(Vice, 1997, p. 150). Thus, Bakhtin by own way of designing concepts and building hybrid elements to make it aesthetic inform – all directed towards dialogism.

Exploring dialogism in context

Bakhtin’s dialogism contextualizes many elements across interdisciplinary studies such as monologic, aesthetics, historiographic metafiction, intertextuality, an ideology of carnivalesque and gender dialogic. His reflection on these thoughts shows the influence of influential writers and thinkers from various disciplines such as Tolstoy, Socrates, Shakespeare, Diderot, Linda Hutcheon, and Phillip Gaskell among others.

In regard to monologic dialogism, Bakhtin viewed writers such as Tolstoy in his Anna Karenina as being monologic (Bakhtin, 2010; Irene Rima Makaryk, 1993). He sees Tolstoy’s voice in the novel as absolute and uncontestable, disallowing any counter-statement to challenge the truth meted out by the author  (Bakhtin, 2010; Irene Rima Makaryk, 1993). Interestingly though, Bakhtin viewed many great writers to be dialogic in writings, such as Socrates, Shakespeare, Diderot, etc. Apparently, they prepared a way for Bakhtin dialogism which allows a new genre to come up and contest the monologist to allow the co-existence of different voices. Bakhtin’s asserted the co-existence of both monologist and dialogist since monologist allows the writer or author to convey the truth, while at the same time dialogism allows two or more voices to interplay within each other to establish and form ideologies.

Bakhtinian dialogism also allows the analysis of Linda Hutcheon’s historiographic metafiction as a double-voiced discourse and indicates the co-existence of the historical fact which was officially documented and history with different perspectives and interpretations woven around fiction to co-exist together. It also brings out the realism of those voices and ideologies suppressed by monologic domination owing to religious, social or political suppression of stories, events or ideologies. In addition, Bakhtin also viewed that inside the text, dialogic also allows the authors own voice to be heard, and the voices of the various characters involved. This is similar to Hutcheon and Phillip Gaskell’s view of not only making readers and audience read but allowing them to be both actors and spectators of the text (Gaskell, 1999; Hutcheon, 2003). Thus, the text becomes a representation of a dialogic conversation between the readers and the characters involved in the text, while at the same time, making sense that the story is fiction in itself. Bakhtin also allows the model of intertextuality in his dialogic approach, which aligns with what Hutcheon has to provide in historiographic metafiction, stating that all literary texts are interrelated or align to each other, that any text will precede the one at present and anticipate for the future response, but it is finding a relationship that the all voices in the text can be heard (Bakhtin, 2010; Hutcheon, 2003). In this way literary text or novel for that matter can become heteroglot, where the voices of different social classes can be heard: readers, authors and characters in the novel combined.

Bakhtin’s dialogism is also based on an ideology of “carnivalesque” (Bakhtin, 2010; Vice, 1997). His concept of carnivalesque is believed to have been derived from the “carnival and the Political oppression [in] the Stalinist state” (Zappen, 2012, p. 59). This concept is symbolic of challenging the oppressive authority, to give way to alternate dialogue. Bakhtinian carnivalesque prepares historiographic metafiction to allow the marginalized voice to be heard since they bring out the suppressed and the silenced history while transgressing the ontological boundaries between facts and fiction. It allows the writer and the researcher to give the dialogic rendition of the suppressed and the one in existence, or in other words, the documented history and the suppressed facts.

Bakhtin’s gender dialogic (Bakhtin, 2010) asserts the element of women refashioning their history, by putting their voice in the literary discourse. According to this gender dialogic, women’s excluded voice in the dominant language of earlier texts, writings, and oral interpretations. This will help in fighting against the patriarchal domination and women can stop being the silent bearer. Interestingly, this gender dialogic was also voiced by Bauer (Bauer, 1988), who along with other scholars emphasis voicing the marginalized, while at the same time learning to co-exist with the other voices as well. As such Bauer or Bakhtinian’s ‘gender dialogic’ was not like the male patriarchal monologic, rather it was based on co-existence. Bakhtin’s ideas are now appropriated by several feminist critics for its ability to provide a platform for silenced feminine voices to be heard along with the monologic voice of patriarchy.

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Although Bakhtin’s Dialogism can be understood through various approaches and in many diverse forms and ways, in the end, his discussion on dialogism only points toward monologic discourse. His main concern is to break down monologic domination and interpret and contextualize it along various elements discussed above. However, his dialogism does not aim for doing away with monologists but is seen as a tool in opening up dialogism in order to allow alternative voices to be heard. This dialogism allows various elements to be contextualized, and make knowledge to be synthesized, while patterning relationship with other works of literature and authors. In synthesizing multiple works and elements, while embedding his own voices, Bakhtin managed to make dialogism an aesthetic art.


  • Bakhtin, M. M. (2010). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. University of Texas Press.
  • Bauer, D. M. (1988). Feminist Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community. SUNY Press.
  • Davey, N. (2013). Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics and Gadamer. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=f5alBgAAQBAJ&pgis=1.
  • Gaskell, P. (1999). Landmarks in English Literature. Psychology Press.
  • Holquist, M. (2003). Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. London: Routledge. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=JGGBAgAAQBAJ&pgis=1.
  • Hutcheon, L. (2003). A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge.
  • Irene Rima Makaryk (Ed.). (1993). Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. University of Toronto Press.
  • Newman, C. (1985). The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation. Northwestern University Press.
  • Vice, S. (1997). Introducing Bakhtin. Manchester University Press.
  • Woods, T. (1999). Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester University Press.
  • Zappen, J. P. (2012). The Rebirth of Dialogue: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth and Ritual. SUNY Press.