The Bakhtinian carnival lives on

Mikhail Bakhtin
October 20, 2000

Ken Hirschkop's book is an intellectually vigorous attempt to draw Mikhail Bakhtin's legacy into important debates about the values and problems of democratic culture and to reclaim this by now canonical - and often mythologised - Russian man of letters as an historically shaped, located, bound and perhaps even restricted thinker. Hirschkop's subtle and wide-ranging interpretation constructs a Bakhtin who, instead of revealing romantically arcane eternal truths about the human condition, is now capable of contributing to the more narrowly pragmatic but better delineated theoretical agendas of those who tend to believe in preserving and promoting democratic discourse as more than a sheer act of ideology.

Hirschkop asks several compelling questions, the most significant of which seems to me to be that of the relations between language and democracy. In a careful interpretation of Bakhtin through the prism of Jurgen Habermas, Hirschkop tries to elucidate the status of the novel not merely as an artefact, but rather as a potential pattern of socially relevant discourse, in which complex negotiations of difference and identity are carried out. In a further extension of Habermas, he examines Bakhtin's theory of carnival in order to analyse the "public square" as a materialisation of the "public sphere". We are warned that some of the core divisions running through Bakhtin's work are not to be taken for granted, nor indeed for real. Thus poetic monologism and epic, the customary foes of modernity, are not just regressive phenomena; they, too, are modern and dependent - in a mediated fashion - on democracy. I would add that exposing the inadequacy of these divisions involves recognising that, conversely, some other practices analysed by Bakhtin, such as carnival, are every bit as regressive as they are believed - especially by the left - to be modern, proto-democratic and utopian.

Hirschkop offers a comprehensive reading of some of Bakhtin's central texts, notably "Author and hero in aesthetic activity" and "Discourse in the novel". He has also included a biographical survey of Bakhtin's life and work based on recent research published in Russia and the West. This readable and rhetorically seductive part sandwiched between the two more substantially analytical parts of the book renders excellent service to scholars who are unable to follow the ever growing Russian Bakhtiniana.

Hirschkop's incisive and historically scrupulous narrative richly redeems the impression that occasionally this part seems to be supplying information unrelated to the central argument of the book. In what is undoubtedly the most reliable and up-to-date biographical excursus on Bakhtin and the Bakhtin circle available in English, Hirschkop singles out six stages in Bakhtin's formation and work, from his childhood to his late philosophy. Of these six, only the third seems to be misleadingly summarised in the respective caption. Apparently, Hirschkop means here "human science", especially linguistics, sociology (of literature) and psychology (particularly psychoanalysis), but even so none of these directions and preoccupations was distinctly Bakhtinian - with Voloshinov, Pumpianskii and Medvedev leaving behind more senior work.

This thoughtful, erudite and committed study of Bakhtin's ideas and their role in the (re)definition of the democratic project should be welcome as a substantial contribution to our dialogue with and appropriation of Bakhtin's thought; an added advantage is Hirschkop's engaged and lively prose style, which is likely to communicate his arguments to a wider readership.

Galin Tihanov is lecturer in European studies, University of Lancaster.

Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy

Author - Ken Hirschkop
ISBN - 0 19 815960 9 and 815960 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 352

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