Favorite Theorists: Mikhail Bakhtin

Favorite Theorists: Mikhail Bakhtin


Mikhail Bakhtin

Anna Balysheva

December 2018

I learned about Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), the world-famous philosopher and literary critic, when I joined New York University Abu Dhabi as a film and new media student. As it turned out, Bakhtin had been in exile in the Kazakh city of Kostanay, the very city I am from. This period of his life in the 1930s, when Discourse in the Novel was created and the idea for his famous work about Rabelais crystallized, is the least investigated.

While searching for the traces of Bakhtin’s presence in my hometown, I began to explore his biography and think about his  creativity. Different discussions about the Bakhtinian legacy attracted my attention because they ran the gamut of critical opinion, from veneration to defamation. A special place in these discussions is given to Bakhtin’s autobiographical myth-making. Here, I present a look at the relationship of some of the biographical distortions to the harsh circumstances in which this thinker lived and developed his theories.

From Anna Balysheva’s art installation “Philosopher and Hunger: Exiled Mikhail Bakhtin, Kazakhstan, 1930s.”

From the beginning of his thinking life, Bakhtin asked of himself a nearly impossible level of intellectual responsibility, something he termed “answerability.” In his first published article, “Art and Answerability” (1919), Bakhtin resolves the conflict between life and art by postulating the “answerable person”: “I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life” (1). For Bakhtin, an “answerable” person is the one who acts with the highest moral attitude for the way his actions play out in the events of his life. In his following work “Toward a Philosophy of the Act” (1924), Bakhtin defines an answerable act as one that occurs through participation in being – what he calls “the non-alibi in being,” meaning that a person has no right to evade, or avoid realizing and carrying out, his distinctive place in a life indistinguishable from a life with others (43-56). To be in life for Bakhtin is to act, creating one’s own unique act of life. That being said, a person involved in the world is opposed to it simultaneously, but even in this opposition, there is always participation in being. Bakhtin’s future would constantly challenge his ability to live out this theory of answerability.

For Bakhtin, life was also complicated by his severe chronic illness in the form of multiple osteomyelitis–a purulent necrotic condition of the bone marrow.

By the time Bakhtin developed his ethical categories, he had already lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, civil war, and massive destruction. Bakhtin and his dear friends were involuntarily acquiring survival skills because of the dramatic vicissitudes in the history of their homeland. But, for Bakhtin, life was also complicated by his severe chronic illness in the form of multiple osteomyelitis–a purulent necrotic condition of the bone marrow. This condition had tormented him since childhood and ultimately he had his right leg amputated up to the groin. Caryl Emerson, а prominent American scholar of Bakhtin, draws attention to his terrible pain in a video interview that I conducted with her: “Bakhtin was in pain his whole life. And it was biologically determined pain. It was not some Bolshevik that was making him suffer. The difference between political pain and biological pain is that there is no one to blame. Bakhtin was a man who knew what meant to suffer when he did not deserve to suffer.” But, even in such an adverse situation, Bakhtin persisted in his focused task of responsible creative participation in art.

Anna Balysheva’s “American Scholars on Bakhtin’s Life and Creativity”

Source: YouTube

Although nothing stopped Bakhtin from developing own theories, he suffered from a form of social anonymity, associated with the lack of a diploma of higher education. The absence of documentation before 1917 was most likely connected to his illness, because of which Bakhtin could not be considered a full-time student. In the post-Revolutionary period, the socio-political situation engulfing Bakhtin was overwhelming, as there were too many catastrophic events in which emigration and death became the norm. For that reason, Bakhtin was unable to obtain accreditation of his prior studying. Devastation drove him to provincial cities where he had to work simply to survive. On the path of his survival, Bakhtin sometimes fabricated his autobiographies for the sake of focusing on the field closest to his academic aspirations, and getting a job that corresponded to his mental acuity.

Bakhtin’s career as a published writer did not take off. His first serious full-length study, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, would only be issued in 1929. Before that, Bakhtin constantly ran into difficulties to present his works due to a range of factors, that ultimately forced him to resort to stealth tactics. In the 1920s, it would seem that Bakhtin published a series of articles under the names of his friends (Voloshinov, Medvedev and Kanaev). The authorship of these works, which in the post-Soviet period were entitled “Bakhtin under the Mask,” continues to be the subject of academic dispute. The very fact of this debate, however, proves the extraordinary circumstances of Bakhtin’s creative life.

Bakhtin’s seemingly predetermined death was prevented by his friends, who managed to achieve the commutation of his sentence to exile in the Kazakh steppes–to the town of Kustanay.

In 1928, Bakhtin had to avail himself of a Marxist mask when he was unlawfully arrested in Leningrad because of his participation in a philosophical and religious circle known as “Resurrection.” Its activities were perceived as counter-revolutionary by the Soviet authorities. During his interrogation, Bakhtin called himself religious and Marxist-revisionist. When answering questions about this rattling entanglement of political convictions several decades later, he would categorically say that he had never actually been a Marxist. The Marxist mask did not help Bakhtin escape a harsh sentence. After a hearing, he was sentenced to imprisonment for five years in the Solovki concentration camp in the north of Russia, where mortality were very high. Bakhtin’s seemingly predetermined death was prevented by his friends, who managed to achieve the commutation of his sentence to exile in the Kazakh steppes–to the town of Kustanay.


Mikhail Bakhtin

Source: M. M. Bakhtin: Besedy s V. D. Duvakinym [M. M. Bakhtin: Conversations with V.D. Duvakin]. Moscow State University Lomonosov Scientific Library, 2002.

Bakhtin’s fate inflicted numerous blows on him. Yet some of them seemed to have saved him from premature death. In Kazakhstan, his involuntary occupation as an economist in the local District Consumers Union prevented Bakhtin from dying during the famine that erupted during collectivization. From the threat of a new arrest at the height of Stalinist repression, he was saved by his timely dismissal from the Saransk Institute, where he worked after the Kustanay exile. The death of Bakhtin’s mother and sisters in besieged Leningrad during World War II makes one realize the likelihood of the same end for Bakhtin, had he not been politically persecuted. Even after the war, Bakhtin’s fate did not treat him lightly. In the professional sphere, he endured a humiliating struggle to defend his dissertation on Rabelais. And it seems that with time he no longer believed in the possibility of publishing his works. Bakhtin’s relentless adversity was in a direct cause-and-effect relationship with the fact that his theories could not become public for too long, and many of his creative intentions were either left fragmented or unrealized.

Bakhtin’s works saw their light only in the 1960s. Since then, public interest in the philosophical and literary ideas that Bakhtin developed has not subsided. His key concepts–heteroglossia, dialogism, chronotope, carnivalesque, polyphony–firmly entered the intellectual world. Bakhtin believed that his active participation in life could occur through the thinking process: “Every thought of mine, along with its content, is an act or deed that I perform-my own individually answerable act or deed” (Toward a Philosophy of the Act, 3). Despite some biographical distortions determined by circumstances, Bakhtin’s creative life was always filled with a morally responsible (or “answerable”) attitude. Bakhtin’s thoughts became a living, ongoing, ethical event that seems to be endless.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1990. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Trans. Vadim Liapunov and Kenneth Brostrom. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1994. Towards a Philosophy of the Act. Trans. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.

Clark, Katerina, and Michael Holquist. 1984. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hirschkop, Ken. 1999. Mikhail Bakhtin an Aesthetic for Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lisov, A. Z., and Trusova E. G. 1996. “Replika po povodu avtobiograficheskogo mifotvorchestva M. M. Bakhtina” [A Rejoinder à propos of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Autobiographical Mythmaking]. The Journal “Dialog. Carnival. Chronotope”. No. 3: http://nevmenandr.net/dkx/?y=1996&n=3.

Makhtin, Vitaly. 2015. Bol’shoye Vremya: Podstupy k myshleniyu M.M. Bakhtina [Big Time: Approaches to M. M. Bakhtin’s Thinking]. Siedlce: Uniwersytet Przyrodniczo-Humanistyczny w Siedlcach.

Voloshinov, V. N. 1993. Bakhtin pod maskoy. Maska tret’ya. Voloshinov V. N. Marksizm i flosofya yazyka [Bakhtin under the mask. The third mask. Voloshinov, V. N. Marxism and the philosophy of language]. Moscow: Labirint.

Anna Balysheva graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a B.A. in Film and New Media with minors in History and Art History. Currently, she specializes in managing multimedia projects. Her articles, documentaries, exhibitions and plays engage history and anthropology to reveal personal narratives that complicate official stories with fixed perspectives. Contact her at asb669[at]nyu.edu.




Favorite Theorists: Pia Arke

Favorite Theorists: Pia Arke


Pia Arke

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen

September 2018

Pia Arke (1958–2007) was a mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic artist and cultural theorist whose adult life was bookended by two momentous events in Danish-Greenlandic relations: the 1979 adoption of a home-rule system of governance in Greenland, which marked the first major push toward a Danish decolonization of Greenland, and the series of Greenlandic protests that culminated in the 2009 implementation of a self-rule system of governance, which saw Greenland win sovereignty from Denmark in most areas except foreign policy and criminal law.

I offer these details about Arke’s life upfront because Arke’s art and theory both insist that we consider the artist/theorist’s vantage points—positionalities, to use a phrase in vogue—to be central to and inextricable from her works. In Arke’s case, being split at the root lent her a complicated and complex perspective on the Danish-Greenlandic cultural dynamic.

Arke’s most noteworthy theoretical work is the manifesto Ethno-Aesthetics (1995, English translation 2010), which she submitted in place of a physical product to earn a degree from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Ethno-Aesthetics beams a flashlight into the psyches of Danes who travel to the North Atlantic to encounter their supposed Others, the “Eskimos” [sic], on whom they project fantasies of cultural purity and backwardness. She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage; an almost pitiable need to ignore signs of Danish-Greenlandic syncretism or of Greenlandic modernities to sustain their racial fantasies; and a pervasive obliviousness to the systematic construction and perpetuation of these reductive images of Greenland and Greenlanders.

Pia Arke

Source: Wikipedia

It seems tempting to frame Arke’s manifesto simply as a North Atlantic incarnation of Edward Saïd’s theories in Orientalism (1978) that the European construction of exotic others reveals less about those cultures than it does about the fragility of Europe’s self-perception and cultural coherence, but Arke goes further than Saïd. Not only does Arke equip critical observers with an intellectual apparatus for “watching them watching us,” i.e. for critiquing Denmark’s construction of Greenland as its other, but she also calls for direct and concerted action from Greenlandic persons to call out their Danish counterparts on their reductivism, and to double down on representing Greenlandic modernities instead of merely playing into essentialist Danish expectations of “what Greenlandic art is.” Arke implores her peers to reject the aesthetic paradigm that Danes tend to impose on Greenland and Greenlanders. Her underlying project, I suspect, is to rouse cognitive dissonance in Danish readers and consumers of Greenlandic culture, calling them out on their stereotyped and reductive visions of Greenland by presenting them with representations of Greenlandic life that diverge so brazenly from what they expect it to look like.

She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage.

Pia Arke ranks among my favorite theorists for numerous reasons: She lets her theory complement her artwork, evinced by the photography exhibit Arctic Hysteria’s dramatization of the violent European gaze on Inuit bodies. She flips the tables of ethnographic inquiry, returning the critical gaze that North Europeans have cast on Greenlanders for centuries. She admits to and even flaunts the anger that these repeated confrontations with Danish scientific racism rouse in her, viewing that frustration not as an unwelcome emotion that leaves her cognitively hamstrung but a feeling that emboldens and sharpens her acumen as a cultural critic. But most significantly, she owns up to and champions the political cause that underpins her theoretical and artistic works: to fight for better, rounder, more complex representations of Greenlanders by Greenlanders. Her dissection of the Danish ethno-aesthetic reduction of Greenlanders to a monolithic category of premodern Inuit sealers who live in igloos (a chimeric dwelling that no Greenlanders actually inhabit; the vast majority of Greenlanders live in apartments in cities and towns along the country’s—mostly ice-free—coastline) has a pointedness to it that lets it contribute directly to the avowedly political cause of decolonizing Greenlandic minds.

Shot while Arke was working on her book Scoresbysund historier, published by Borgens Forlag.

Source: YouTube.

Ethno-Aesthetics took the form of a dissertation in visual arts, yes, but the combination of Arke’s acerbic, satirical prose and her incisive dissection of Danish neocolonialism in Greenland slate it for wider circulation. Indeed, upon its trilingual republication in Greenlandic, Danish, and English in 2010, Ethno-Aesthetics has won scholarly attention even outside the Danish-Greenlandic context. The University of Chicago-based journal Afterall made Ethno-Aesthetics the centerpiece of its Autumn/Winter 2017 edition, using illustrations from Arke’s work on its cover page and devoting the three leading articles in the journal to Arke’s manifesto. Though popular interest in Arke’s theories of the European relation to its North Atlantic others has yet to swell, the freshness and daring of Arke’s work—theoretical and artistic—gives me hope that she may one day enjoy the posthumous recognition she merits.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

I have just started a five-year program at Stanford University. I find myself somehow at the edge of the Western world and near its nexus at the same time. Though I write from the perceived center of the Wallersteinian world-system that would place Arke squarely on a periphery, her words resound here.

Arke’s immediate theoretical contribution may have been a toolkit for better understanding and critiquing the Danish marginalization of Greenlanders, but the methodology of activist scholarship she perfects seems transferable to the context in which I find myself.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

Do I suffer from a similar ethnocentric myopia to the one that made a Danish missionary, whose poem Arke uses as an epigraph to her manifesto, feel somehow justified in lamenting the “too civilized” state of Greenlanders when he visited the country in the early twentieth century:

Sorrow and happiness wander together!’

We readily could appropriate these words

when we met the East Greenlanders.

We were happy to have reached them, yet,

undeniably, also saddened to see them;

for they did not appear as the unspoiled people

we had hoped to find! They were already ‘civilised’;

but what a civilisation! The year before, at Itivdlek,

we encountered a group of East Greenlanders

about whom we could say that, evidently,

these are ‘wild’ people. This year, at Angmagssalik,

we meet with East Greenlanders, one of which wears a top hat,

another knee breeches, stockings and shoes,

as if intent on going to a banquet at the emperor of Germany’s court.

One presents himself in a coat, another in a normal shirt! Etc. etc.!

I nearly burst into tears!


From the diary of C.P.F Rüttel, Missionary in East Greenland, 1894–1904

Arke’s manifesto seems apposite reading for scholars close to the center of the intellectual world-system who, like me, want to steer clear of ethnocentrism—of a reductive ethno-aesthetics—and show the requisite attunement to the experiences of persons whom we too easily fix in a position of subalternity and deny participation in contemporary cultural life.

Ethno-Aesthetics speaks with prophetic clarity and authority to protest and counter one of the most problematic intellectual tendencies of our moment.

It could, and should, be required reading for the burgeoning generation of thinkers striving for a more cogent, diverse, equal world.


Arke, Pia. Arctic Hysteria, 1996. Nuuk, Greenland. Film. 5:55 minutes, silent.

Arke, Pia. Ethno-Aesthetics. 1995. English and Greenlandic translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Arke, Pia and Stefan Jonsson. Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, 2003. English translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Kuratorisk Aktio. Tupilakosaurus: An Incomplete(Able) Survey of Pia Arke’s Artistic Work and Research, 2012. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a B.A. in Literature and Creative Writing. His interests include contemporary culture, new conceptions of World Literature, and emerging strategies for literary studies. Contact him at nnielsen[at]stanford.edu