Bakhtin, from Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "From Marxism and the Philosophy of Language." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 1210-1226. Print.

In Chapter 1, Bakhtin asserts that everything ideological is based on signs, and these signs can be studied because they exist materially (1210-1). Bakhtin states that people only have consciousness because of material signs that are enacted and implemented in social interaction; thus, individual consciousness is not merely individual: consciousness creates and operates through signs through a medium of social interaction (1212). For Bakhtin, even images and music are ideological in that they are dependent on the words that structure ideology (1214).

In Chapter 3, Bakhtin focuses on the importance of the addressees of words and the social contexts that shape utterances (1215). He writes that even feelings such as hunger are experienced differently, depending on how individuals are socialized, and it what contexts they experience hunger—in this way, even basic physiological needs are experienced ideologically (1216-7). Bakhtin compares the “I-experience” and the “we-experience” to show that the individual and collective are equally social, though individualism is a luxury of the bourgeoisie (1217). Bakhtin also asserts in this chapter that consciousness is both fact and fiction, in that it is a real and “tremendous social force” based on material signs while it is also an “abstraction from the concrete” (1218). Because abstract meaning is created in ever-changing contexts, we can see why artistic works mean differently at different times among different groups, as Bakhtin suggests (1219). His main point is that society shapes individuals, through and with language, based on dialogic interactions and addressees’ interpretations and responses (1220-1). Through numerous utterances and responses (interactions), social groups establish customs for varying contexts (1223).

In Chapter 4, Bakhtin defines theme and meaning (1224-6). Bakhtin notes that a theme is the “unreproducible” expression of a context, including the historical and social factors of the situation (1224); whereas meaning is “the technical apparatus for the implementation of the theme” existing as a “potentiality” for meaning (1225-6). Bakhtin notes the arbitrariness of language and the fact of polysemy (1225). I might face a challenge in reusing the terms "theme" and "meaning" as Bakhtin uses them because he gives them such specific definitions that readers may misunderstand out of context.