It is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside
the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For
one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and
no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood
only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they
are others.
—mikhail BakhTin, “Response,” The Dialogic Imagination
The African American writer and activist James Baldwin (1924–87) was born
in Harlem, thousands of miles and an ocean away from Orel, the birthplace
of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), the Russian philosopher and literary critic
who wrote the foregoing epigraph. Despite the linguistic, geographic, and
cultural distances between them, Baldwin and Bakhtin explored, each in his
own unique way, how the social environment shapes both the language and
the consciousness of groups and individuals, and espoused cross-cultural
dialogue based on the belief that the human desire for self-knowledge com-
pels reliance on others as interpreters of our identities.1 Surrounded by the
historical and social upheaval of the Soviet Revolution and its aftermath,
Bakhtin spent some time in political exile and later withdrew from public
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