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Introducing Bakhtin, Sue Vice (1997)


At the start of this research project, the group made a conscious effort to identify key literature and key cultural and critical theorists that would predominantly mould and influence the work and research produced throughout the duration of the project. One cultural theorist who’s work would be cited a tremendous amount throughout this project is the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s main concepts include carnival, the grotesque, dialogism and heteroglossia. Perhaps one of Bahktin’s most famous works was the thesis ‘Rabelais and his World’.

Trying to familiarise myself with Bakhtin’s work proved greatly problematic; his concepts are so complex and have so much depth to them that I found myself completely overpowered by what I was reading. Ii decided to take a less direct approach to his work and to instead read about his work from the perspective of another scholar who can contextualise what I was reading in the hope that I would be able to grasp the basic notions of his work before diving in head first with the direct work of Bakhtin. To aid my understanding, I found a book called Introducing Bakhtin, written by Sue Vice who is a lecturer in English Language at the University of Sheffield.

Vice’s book did exactly what I was looking for; it took each of Bakhtin’s key concepts and explained them in a more simplistic fashion. When reading Bakhtin’s work, he doesn’t really explain what he means but more directly applies his notions to a certain situation. Vice allows you to fully understand each concept before applying it to a contemporary situation. The main concepts that I was looking to familiarise myself with initially was the notion of carnival, carnivalesque and the grotesque body. The chapter is quite lengthy, almost fifty pages long, but needs must.

Firstly, Vice proceeds to provide an overview of the key concepts of Bakhtin’s work. She states that the carnival acts as both a “signifier and a signified” (1997: 149), implying that carnival can be the mode of representation as well as the subject of that representation. Vice also states that the genre of grotesque realism is predominant within the notion of carnival and that it centres on the image of the grotesque body. She also provides an historical account of Bakhtin’s work and makes reference to the middle Ages and how the carnival played a much more predominant role in individuals’ lives, stating that a dual realm of existence was adopted; one official and one unofficial, both of which are developed later on in the chapter.

Following the brief introduction, Vice develops the concept of ‘folk humour’, explaining that it is a “boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations [which] opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture” (1997:151) Therefore, folk humour with relation to the carnival acts as a mode of rebellion against what is deemed ‘official culture’. In the middle Ages, the Church acted as a form of authority against the public. In a society when life was so regimented and strict, folk humour was a device of escapism for the public and this could be used to oppose the dominant aspects of ‘official’ culture. Folk humour can be categorised into three different headings:

– Ritual Spectacles; carnival pageants, comic shows of the market-place;
– Comic Verbal Compositions; parodies both oral and written, in Latin and in the vernacular;
– Various games of Billingsgate; curses, oaths, popular blazons.
            [Cited in Introducing Bakhtin, 1997:152]

Vice states that Bakhtin said that the above can be traced in examples of carnivalesque literature and the above headings are also developed further in ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics’.

Moving on, Vice begins to breakdown the history of carnival by stating that due to the development of carnival throughout the years, it has caused an influx of related symbols which were characterised by the “pathos of change and renewal” (1997:154) and that due to the continuous change parody is a natural outcome. Here, Vice also states that this is exactly what the carnivalesque was; a parody of official life. However, she is also keen to state that Bakhtin felt that carnivalesque parody is rather different from the ‘negative and formal parody of modern times’.

As mentioned earlier, grotesque realism is perhaps the concept that interests me most yet also one of the trickier concepts to fully grasp. Vice defines grotesque realism as “a literary genre opposed to all forms of high art and literature”. Vice also states that grotesque realism includes parody and any other form which brings down to earth anything ineffable or authoritarian. Basically, grotesque realism degrades and opposes any authoritative form within society. Grotesque realism is principally achieved through mockery and linked with the bodily lower stratum.

As briefly mentioned earlier, degradation is key to the grotesque and is not restricted by gender or class within society. Any class, whether lower, middle or upper class can incorporate themselves into the execution of the grotesque and oppose those institutions they feel obstruct them. Vice links official and unofficial culture to the grotesque saying that “official culture is founded on the principle of an immovable and unchanging hierarchy in which the higher and the lower never merge” (1997:158) The way that the grotesque operates is by eradicating this assumption and providing a platform for people from different classes and different genders to come together, the same way that the carnival allows the same privilege.

Developing the work of Bakhtin, Vice begins to use the work of Julia Kristeva and her concept of abjection. Vice states that abjection can be seen as an extension of Bakhtin’s theory rather than a contradiction. Kristeva’s concept is created from a combination of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Bakhtin’s grotesque and Vice describes the concept as “a psychoanalytically inflected development of Bakhtin’s grotesque” (1997:163) and the focal point of the concept is that of the human subject. The subject matter itself is extremely complex and deals with the realm of psychology at quite a deep level with relation to five ‘bodily’ margins that interest both Kristeva and Bakhtin; they are the bodily margins, maternal, food, death and the text.

As I read each category and tried to comprehend what Kristeva was attempting to demonstrate, I found myself being overwhelmed by a plethora of information. Kristeva attempts to define each category whilst drawing upon Bakhtinian theory and trying to develop this further using her own theory of abjection. As I said, each complex was extremely difficult to understand and I feel that I am not knowledgeable with each category and the work of Kristeva to regurgitate her work into my own prose. However, whilst Vice analyses the work of Kristeva, a key point is made. Vice states that “the grotesque itself exists only as a carnival form” (1997:170) stating that any form that is considered terrifying in real-life is considered grotesque within the culture of medieval laughter. This makes me understand the grotesque to be a mechanism that allows interpretations of certain areas within society to be ‘masked’ and reinterpreted. For example, how death and violence contains different connotations within contemporary society in comparison to when death and violence is acted in the form of a carnival. Both acts have different meanings in their given context. Therefore, when I visit Venice in a few weeks time it is worth considering what is shown within the carnival and considering the use of the grotesque in this context; will I, as an outsider in a foreign country, respond differently to the way individuals within Venetian culture will when I am embroiled in the spectacle of the carnival?

I definitely feel more acquainted with the work of Bakhtin now. As I have taken the time to read about his work indirectly, it has allowed me to learn about his work from the perspective of another scholar, thus enabling me to grasp the basis of his work.

If nothing else, I can now define the key terms from his work that are applicable to my research project. I now feel that I can define grotesque realism, the grotesque body and the carnivalesque in Bakhtinian terms, as well as being able to contextualise them with regards to Venice. By watching multiple media representations of Venice, such as The Talented Mr Ripley and Casanova, I have been able to identify if and when Bakhtin’s terms applicable; analysing the media representations have enable me to consolidate the knowledge I have gained from ‘Introducing Bakhtin’.

The next stage is to utilise the knowledge I have gained and apply this to Venice, the place. I fly to Venice is just over one week and I’m hoping that Venice and the Carnival is going to allow me to formulate my own findings which will have been influenced by the work of Bakhtin. It will be interesting to compare and contrast the way in which Bakhtin’s ‘terms’ are used in a real-life environment.



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