The opportunistic teacher who embraces the leisure interests of his pupils in the hope of leading them to higher things is as frequently unsympathetic to the really valuable qualities of popular culture as his colleague who remains resolutely hostile. A true training in discrimination is concerned with pleasure.
Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher, literary critic and scholar who worked on topics associated with the philosophy of language. His writings inspired scholars from the fields of literary criticism, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and psychology. Although Bakhtin was active in the debates on aesthetics and literature that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, his distinctive position did not become well known until he was rediscovered by Russian scholars in the 1960s.
Bakhtin was interested in signs within their social contexts—language in use, in all its complexity. He and his circle were responding to the literary and semiotic theories of their time. Conventional scholarship viewed signs as having arbitrary meanings, positioned literary texts as linguistic artifacts with language separate from social context and use, and conceptualized the author (in the case of literature) as an individual psyche. But if signs are sites of struggle, then meanings are motivated rather than arbitrary. This Bakhtinian philosophy of language—a sociological and linguistic philosophy—views signs as complexly motivated, literary texts as nested in social contexts, and the author as a socio-ideological self.
When I was an undergraduate literature student at the University of Illinois, I fell in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was attracted to all nineteenth-century Russian literature, perhaps because my grandparents, who lived with my family, were turn-of-century immigrant Russian Jews whose interactional dynamics resonated, for me, in these novels. Reading them was an aesthetic, personal, and pleasurable experience, as I became immersed in the characters’ cadences that fueled my childhood memories. And even after later learning about Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, I continued to feel a strong connection to Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov ( 1992) for its narrative point of view and uses of dialogue, which continue to connect me to my childhood—in particular to the tradition of D’var Torah as part of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. This tradition involves thirteen-year-olds interpreting portions of the Torah. The young interpreters are taught that they are entering a conversation that includes two thousand years of interpreters—rabbinical scholars—whose competing perspectives and translations are an expected and accepted part of the dialogue. In other words, the presence of other interpreters always already exists in the words, the language of the text, and the interpreter.
In graduate school, my interest in literature turned to teaching and learning, specifically how young people make meanings of literature and other signs, both as reader-interpreters and as writer-producers. There were connections, for me, from Dostoevsky to my family’s conversations—rife with overlapping turns and competing perspectives—to Bakhtin and back again to Dostoevsky. Thus, my thoughts about Bakhtin are connected to my interests as a researcher whose work uses sociocultural theory, ethnography, and discourse analysis to study literacy, media education, and learning.
When I read The Dialogic Imagination and Speech Genres, I understood, through Bakhtin’s lens of dialogism, not only how heteroglossic voices converge and collide in literature but also how all signs are thus constituted. In this way, Bakhtin’s philosophy of language mirrors that of his close colleague Valentin Voloshinov (1973), who argues that the sign is inevitably a site of struggle. As Janet Maybin puts it in her explication of Bakhtin’s philosophy of language, “Language originates in social interactions and struggle and these are always implicated in its use and meaning” (2001 64). In Speech Genres, Bakhtin makes it clear that genres arise and shift in and through these struggles. The “signs” of faith, doubt, responsibility, morality, and so on are all sites of struggle played out through language in The Brothers Karamazov—with each utterance responding to and anticipating other utterances, in a polyphony of voices. Given where I come from, my own socio-ideological self, perhaps my attraction to this line of thinking is not surprising.
As a child, I was taught to distrust authority, especially institutions that could potentially be anti-Semitic, and I grew up with the tacit knowledge that fixed discourses without nuance and multiple perspectives were, more often than not, to be challenged. I brought these assumptions to my work as a teacher and have since taught the interpretations of all texts and signs, from middle school through graduate school, using the same three principles of critical literacy (Lewis, Pyscher, and Stutelberg 2015). I’m interested in (1) how signs position readers/viewers, (2) how readers/viewers position signs, and (3) how signs and readers/viewers are positioned within social, political, cultural, and spatial contexts. The first dimension addresses signs as mediational means whose effects on readers are often inscribed within the sign (e.g., who does this film address, and what ideologies are present in the film?). The second addresses the ideological formations and identity affiliations of the reader. The third addresses the sociocultural placement of texts and their consumption in particular sociocultural and spatial contexts.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan studying at the Residential College, I had the pleasure of studying with Professor Herbert Eagle, who was a professor of Russian and East European cinema and film theory. From him, I got to study the theories and films of Sergei Eisenstein and view films by Andrzej Wajda and Dusan Makavejev. At that time, Professor Eagle was just finishing his book, Russian Formalist Film Theory (1981) and I could see how he was working out ideas about meaning-making and interpretation. I remember, at the time, trying desperately to figure out concepts like paradigmatic and syntagmatic structures, and feeling very unsure of this heady, abstract theory. Only years later, when I encountered the work of Mikhail Bakhtin did I make a connection to the important ideas circulating among Russian intellectuals during the 1920s that had been shaping my understanding of how to be an active film viewer and reader.