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Mikail Bakhtin and the Grotesque Body

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.

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.

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 localized 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 analyze 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




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