My obsession with Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin began when I was an undergraduate with the Open University. I was working my way slowly (if took me 7 years, including a year off to have my daughter) through a BA (Hons) in English Language and Literature, and one of the courses introduced Bakhtin’s ideas on the dialogical nature of language.
I was so inspired I rushed off and bought a copy of The Dialogic Imagination which I proceeded to devour. It was the first time I allowed myself to actually write in a book (in pencil!) as I underlined passages and wrote my own responses in the margins – and so my dialogue with the work of this great Russian thinker began.
Born in 1895, Bakhtin’s life and work was inevitably shaped by the dramatic events of Russian history, and although he had his first major publication in 1929, it was 1968 before his work was translated into English.
There is a degree of controversy over the authorship of some of the texts which have been attributed to Bakhtin, due in large part to the constraints of working within the Soviet regime and the fact that he often worked in close correspondence with a group of other thinkers, often referred to as the ‘Bakhtin Circle’. Some of Bakhtin’s work was lost during the turmoil of WWII – with one manuscript being blown up when the publishing house was bombed. Other work was lost when, because of war shortages, Bakhtin – a lifelong heavy smoker – had resorted to ripping out pages of his notebooks to roll his cigarettes! I’ll leave Wikipedia to fill you in on further details of Bakhtin’s biography, for now I’ll try to explain why I find his ideas so inspiring for my research.
Bakhtin takes the utterance as the basic unit of language and recognises that all utterances are always both situated – within a physical/social/cultural/historical context – and interactional – that is always involving more than one participant. This view of language forces us to acknowledge meaning making as an ongoing interactional process- as Bakhtin puts it:
We are taking language not as a system of abstract grammatical categories, but rather language conceived as ideologically saturated, language as a world view…
(M.M. Bakhtin from ‘Discourse in the Novel’ in The Dialogical Imagination 1981: 271)
This world view emerges through the process of language use – we experience ourselves through this process of interaction with others. As Bakhtin so beautifully puts it – ‘…Language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s.’ (Bakhtin, 1981:293). This is an active process of meaning making as negotiation.
This relational understanding of language offers to explain the potential of discourse to shape our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world through our interactions:
The tendency to assimilate others’ discourse takes on an even deeper and more basic significance in an individual’s ideological becoming, in the most fundamental sense. Another’s discourse performs here no longer as information, directions, rules, models and so forth – but strives rather to determine the very bases [sic] of our ideological interrelations with the world, the very basis of our behaviour; it performs here as authoritative discourse, and an internally persuasive discourse.
(Bakhtin, 1981: 342)
The idea of the word as ‘half someone else’s’ and the power of discourse to shape our view of ourselves, others, and our experience of the world, forms the foundational basis for my research. The resonance I felt between Bakhtin’s dialogism, and George Mackay Brown’s power of ‘the word’, was the inspiration for basing my project in my hometown of Stromness.
It is the word, blossoming as legend, poem, story, secret, that holds a community together and gives a meaning to its life. (George Mackay Brown, An Orkney Tapestry, 1969, page 21)
As I continue to carry out my fieldwork, and reflect and write about my experiences, I hope to illustrate the way Bakhtin’s dialogical approach to language can help to explain the power of the word identified by George Mackay Brown. I am particularly interested in how narrative and stories shape our everyday lives, often in ways that go unnoticed.
 The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emmerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press, 1981.