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Bakhtin’s Carnival applied to Contemporary Culture

This essay is taken from Alexandra Giroux’s website, http://www.alexandragiroux.net. In this essay they contextualize Bakhtin’s notion of Carnivalesque and Grotesque Body within contemporary culture. This essay has been used purely for research purposes and to familiarize ourselves with Bahktin’s work in order to apply the knowledge gained to a succinct analysis of Venice when the field trip is upon us.

Our civilization is built upon both high and low culture and we need tools to understand the link between these two notions. Bakhtin (1895-1975), writer of Rabelais and his World was interested in the transgressive qualities of carnival and the grotesque, including a critical utopia. This text has in our post-modern society offers a new insight. This essay will try to consider how the relationship between high and low culture is worked out today, through a piece of analyse of Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais. First, it will be stated that Bakhtin’s theories are important to understand our society: after a typology of carnival and the grotesque, it will be explained how these notions are still present in our culture in order to challenge the power. But some limits will be envisaged like the issues commodification or spectacle, before wondering if it is still possible nowadays to make a distinction between high and low culture.

To begin, it can be stated that Bakhtin’s account of carnival and the grotesque continues to be an indispensable instrument for analysing the relationship between the high and the low in contemporary culture.  A typology of the carnival and the grotesque will help the reader to be more familiar with these notions. Carnival is a profane celebration tolerate by the Church that takes place before Lent, in which people feast and dress in costume and when “the world turned upside down”. It used to challenge the Church morale. The traditional carnival has inspired through time and spaces different variations. For instance, in some areas of France, one hundred days before the A Level, pupils wear fancy dresses and do the mess in the high school. The grotesque refers to the use of bizarre, absurd, irony, laughter and excess, dealing with the dichotomy life and death. This art is characterized by the mixture of parts of humans and animals, the presentation of defecation and vomit, which has to be considered as a whole celebration of the body. For instance, in The Phantom of Liberty (Buñel 1974), bourgeois conventions are demolished when a couple of friends seat all together on toilet bowls and hide themselves when they want to eat. “The grotesque expresses not the fear of death but the fear of life” (Kayser cited in Bakhtin 1984, p.50). Carnival and the grotesque question the notions of utopia and dystopia. Irrupting into the everyday life, the carnival is a period where hierarchies are temporally lifted although narrative disappointments are experienced by some people. Some traces of the carnival and the grotesque can be found in our culture, in reaction to the process of repression.
We live in an atomized society of abundance, of accumulation, which tends to obscenity, in Latin, ob scene, behind the scene. Therefore, the carnival can be seen as a collective response to challenge power such as capitalism, bureaucracy or gender issues. In Nancy, France, once a month, during the “vélorution”, hundreds of people wear fancy dresses, ride their bicycles and go in the street to protest and to ask for more space and security for them in the city. The gay pride is the same concept: people holding parades and asking for more rights and equality within sexual difference. In March 2008, in Paris, sex workers and activists celebrated the “Pute pride” (hooker pride) in reaction to the laws which oppresses prostitutes. Bennett (1986) takes the examples of Blackpool and the seaside, which he considers as an unregulated land, site of carnival praxis. The idea was “to expose the working classes, if only for a day, to the improving physical and moral climate then prevailing in Blackpool” (p.138). In The Sopranos, the words used are quite vulgar, for instance one of the character has the nickname “Big Pussy”, which is an important element of the carnivalesque (Work 2002). If language is an interesting aspect to consider, the body is even more. Since the modernity, we tend to hide the body functions. “The body is where the power bearing definitions of social and sexual normality are, literally, embodied, and is consequently the site of discipline and punishment for deviation of those norms” (Fiske 1987, p.248). People refuse the identity proposed by the dominant ideology and use the body as a material against morality, discipline and control.  Larsen (2001, pp.68-69), inspired by Freud’s theories about the anal stage, analyzes South Park: “The episode “Cartman’s Anal Probe” presents Cartman as the exemplary post-modern acephale, suffering amnesiac abduction and the resultant lapses in self-regulated subjectivity, the schizophrenic invasion and probing of sacrificial organs of the body (the anus), the unfolding of the classical body onto a plane of seductive and impenetrable surfaces, with the prioritized inspection of the (expressionless) anus signifying the lack of disciplined and expressive “self” which marks out the grotesque body”. Orlan playing with her body material or modern primitives reconsidering their skin as a semantic field express that they owe their body. As Foucault (1979) has argued, “the power exercised on the body is conceived not as a property, but as a strategy, that its effects of domination are attributed not to ‘appropriation’, but to dispositions, manoeuvres, tactics, techniques, and functionings”.
Carnival and the grotesque are anti-hegemonic strategies to escape the hierarchy, the church, or other power like capitalism. They are a temporally and spatially determined transgressions followed by the restoration of the social order. These notions are tainted with Marxist theories, with the idea of challenging the power, like in The Island of Slaves (Mariveaux, 1725), a play about servants and masters, on a desert island where a group of slaves decide to take the power. The carnival is the dream of a free world where people would not miss anything. “The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of particular significance” (Bakhtin 1984, p.10). It is exactly what De Certeau argues in his book The Practice of Everyday life (1984) when he explains that the everyday man uses tactics such as urban nomadism, poaching or bricolage to subvert the state power imposed upon him. If the State tries to control the people whenever and wherever, each individual has his own micro possibilities of resistance. For Gardiner (in Crossley and Roberts 2004, p.39), all these things “constitute a crucial resource through which the popular masses can retain a degree of autonomy from the forces of socio cultural homogenization and centralization”. Mary Russo (1997 in Conboy, Medina and Standury) in a feminist point of view explains that the category of the grotesque “might be used affirmatively to destabilize the idealization of female beauty or to realign the mechanism of desire” (p.10). As the transsexual body challenges the bodily boundaries, the female grotesque body is “the body of becoming, process and change”. Pregnancy, aging or obesity can be used to lead the people think about the boundaries marking high culture and organized society. But some critics of the carnival can be made: it was not spontaneous because people had days off, some groups used to excluded because of racism and outsiders were accused of several things like diseases. Current carnival and notions of the grotesque can as well be subject of some critics.
It can be wondered if Bakhtin is out of context because his theories have their own limits. Humphrey (in Brandist, C and Tihanov, G (eds). 2000. p.167) points out two key limitations: “it does not enable us to describe the complex range of ways in which cultural practices make us of inversion at the level of symbolic form, since all inversion is read as resistance, and neither does it enable us to investigate with any degree of refinement how forms of culture come to acquire and express various kinds of political meanings and effects historically”. To understand correctly these issues, we need to consider the notions of commodification, class struggle and gender struggle. Now, the upper-class, which is associated with the high culture, is also the producer of the low culture. Little Britain may be a grotesque show but the purpose for BBC is at the end to earn money. Likewise, the social aim of the carnival has disappeared and his purpose is most of the time commercial, like the Venetian Carnival can be. The case of Blackpool analyzed by Bennett mentioned earlier is criticized by Webb (2005). He thinks that Bakhtin’s concepts have been over-utilized. He explains for instance that with the help of a “geographical class regulation” (p.125), class distinctions were maintained. He states that utopia cannot really be found in the case of Blackpool because it was “a space of pleasure for the working class created in large part by the working class” (p.131). Strinati (1995, p.191) makes as well an interesting feminist critic and explains that usually high culture – art – is associated with masculinity production, work, intellect, activity, writing. On the opposite, mass culture – popular culture – is associated femininity, consumption, leisure, emotion, passivity, reading. But another thing can be pointed out: today, we tend to consume more than we participate.
The Carnival of Rio may be a popular event but it is a show where casual people do not participate. Mass people are only the viewers who watch that in the television. Similarly, Big Brother is the screen materialization of a fake show where the participants gazed leave their boring life in front of a camera: they eat, swear and fart and their behaviour is glorified by the viewer, by the voyeur, the stalker. The spectator who wants to become spectacle will try to mimic what he sees in the Medias, by using the same postures, clothes or expressions than his pathetic idols. Our life is influenced by all the images that we continuously see from the television to the cinema, from the porn movies to the freak shows. In our society influenced by a bourgeois sensibility, the woman of the porn industry is slim, she has no hair, no periods, and sometimes it is even hard to guess if her body produces cyprine. It can be seen as an infantilization of the body. This taboo is present as well in advertisement: a campaign for a sanitary towel usually shows how it is efficient by a demonstration with blue blood. Another taboo is talking about diseases because it reminds us that we will die one day. Guy Debord (1967), in his pessimistic analyze explains that “understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations – news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment – the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process”. But the spectacle is not the life, it is his inversion. The mass-entertainment industry allows us to escape the world for a few hours. Nothing changes and at the end, when people leave Disneyland, the pumpkin is not a coach anymore. However, the problem has to be rethought in context, which means that we need to take in consideration the fact that we live in a post-modern world.
In our post-modern society, it can be asked what the meaning of what we see in the Medias is and if even it means anything. Strinati (1995, p.225) states that “there are no longer any agreed and inviolable criteria which can serve to differentiate art from popular culture.” The distinction between high culture and low culture is complicated. It is more complex than literature, painting and sculpture versus popular music, tattoo art and pornography. Although Jean-Louis Costes, performer artist, plays with his urine, feces and sperm on stage, he is recognized to be “an artist” by the profession and he is invited all over the world. The post-modern pieces of art use intertextuality and the frontier between high and low tends to disappear. Exhibitions in the streets, happenings, art in situ are evidence that it is harder and harder to consider that a work belongs to this or that category. If an extract of a symphony is used in an advertisement, this tune will be tarnished and although it used to be considered as related to high culture, the masterpiece will probably loss a bit of its symbolical value. Moreover, it can be wondered if carnival and the grotesque are really achievable today because we live in an individualistic society where the idea of community is not really present. Carnival was the idea of lots of different people going all together in the street and it was not a compilation of individual isolated actions.
In our society, carnival and the grotesque do not have the same meaning than they used to have but still, these concept help us to understand what is problematic in our culture. These concepts still exist in our society, in a fragmented and localised form. The aim is still the same than in the past id est. it is a way to challenge the power. But in the capitalist society, carnival and the grotesque can be used by some people for the only purpose of making money. Sometimes, the social aim disappears so class and gender struggle are still present. More than an event where everybody can participate, carnival and the grotesque are now most of the time a voyeuristic show where the scopic pulsion of the spectator is satisfied. Moreover, it is much more complicated to inverse the notions of high and low currently because they tend to disappear with postmodernism. The analyse of Bakhtin is thus still interesting in the contemporary culture but we need to bear in mind that things have changed and a recontixtualisation including politic, economic and social issues is necessary.


Bakhtin, M. 1984. Rabelais and his World. Bloomington: Midland Books, Indiana University Press.

Bennett, T (et al). 1995. Popular Culture and Social Relations. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Brandist, C and Tihanov, G (eds). 2000. Materializing Bakhtin: The Bakhtin Circle and Social Theory. New York: Palgrave.

Conboy, K Medina, N and Standury, S (eds). 1997. Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Crossley, N and Roberts J.M. (eds). 2004. After Habermas: New Perspectives on the Public Sphere. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Debord, G.1967. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books

Fiske, J. 1987. Television Culture. London: Routledge

Foucault, M. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Larsen, D. 2001. South Park’s Solar Anus or Rabelais Rectum. Cultures of Consumption and the Contemporary Aesthetic of Obscenity. in Theory, Culture and Society. Volume 18, Numero 4.

Strinati, D. 1995. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. Routledge: London.

Webb, D. 2005. Bakhtin at the Seaside: Utopia Modernity and the Carnivalesque. in Theory, Culture and Society. Volume 22, Numero 3.

Work, H. 2002. Big Bellies and Bad Language: Carnivalesque in The Sopranos. in Media Edcational Journal. Issue 32.



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