The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship by Bakhtin and Medvedev

The following is a short summary of the book The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics by M. M. Bakhtin and P. N. Medvedev. It is primarily for my own records.

The primary aim of Bakhtin is to describe and critique Russian formalism from a Marxist perspective. Though addressing many aspects of Russian formalism and being generous in his description of it, his is especially attentive to sociological poetics. That is, Bakhtin is concerned with the relation between life and literature. Literature holds refractions of mediated life, reality “reflected through the prism of the ideological environment” (17). As such, literature reflects it ideological horizon. The Marxist, sociological approach of Bakhtin points to several problematic aspects of Russian formalism in this regard. These include, though are not limited to, Russian formalism’s use of subjective psychology, ignorance for the role of materials as ideological, and suppression of meaning.

Instead, Bakhtin positively criticizes Russian formalism. The main thrust of his argument is that every artistic construction is connected to a broader ideological horizon and is in an act of social intercourse when read: “To understand an utterance means to understand it in its contemporary context and our own, if they do not coincide” (121-122). Though not the focus, Bakhtin’s approach is essentially one of dialogism: “Definite forms of social intercourse are constituent to the meaning of the works of art themselves” (11), namely between the art and the ideological horizon. Between these poles, within an ongoing dialect, readers find meaning.

Though I won’t quote specifics, he has a few comment on topics relevant to my own work. He talks about the issue of genre as being clarified through awareness of who the imagined or perceived audience is (13). He also addresses issues relevant to intertextuality, namely his discussion of transposition (22) and the boundaries of text groups (77). Finally, he has a relatively lengthy discussion about genre (129-141.