People tend to be very constrained. Constrained by society, work, beliefs, socially accepted norms, social hierarchy, etc. However, there are times that these constraints can be temporarily abandoned. This post will discuss the idea of carnivalesque based on the work developed by Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. It will provide a brief background of Bakhtin’s key concepts of carnival, carnivalesque, carnivalesque space and grotesque body in relation to the modern society and contemporary events.
In his work Rebelais and His World (1984), Bakhtin uses the term of carnivalesque dually. Firstly, to describe writing tendency that depicts destabilization or reversal of power structures and frees the assumptions of the dominant atmosphere (albeit temporarily) through humour, satire, grotesque, and chaos. Secondly, he uses it to characterize a historical phenomenon of social activities – the carnival. He describes carnivalesque as something, above all, temporary, unconstrained, freeing, and acceptable, however only for a period of time.
Bakhtin (1984) seeks carnivalesque’s origin in The Feast of Fools – the Middle Ages church carnival. He says that the carnival is not only liberating because the church and state have little or no control over the peoples’ lives but also because set rules and beliefs are sure to be ridiculed at the time. The carnival experience described by Bakhtin is characterized by various distinct features (Webb, 2005). During carnival:
- „there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers’ and ‘all were considered equal” (Bakhtin, 1984: 15, 10);
- „norms and prohibitions of usual life” are not in force so as to allow „atmosphere of freedom, frankness and familiarity” (Bakhtin, 1984: 15–16). Based on that assumption „an ideal and at the same time real type of communication, impossible in ordinary life, is established” (Bakhtin, 1984: 92);
- the hierarchy of the official order is suspended: low class mocks the high class and vice versa (Rojek, 1985);
- all official truths become relative: „carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order” (Bakhtin, 1984: 10);
- the individual self is dissolved: „the individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people’s mass body” (Bakhtin, 1984: 255).
The carnival brings people of all echelons together to share the universal spirit (Rojek, 1985). It also operates on a basis of social control and acts as a reward for period of mundane labour (Rojek, 2005).
However, Bakhtin does not finish his analysis here. He goes deeper describing the society during the period of carnival – its wild and liberated behaviour, and comes up with an idea of grotesque body (Rojek, 1985). Bakhtin (1984) characterizes grotesque body as a body that is open to outside world, a body that outcomes its own limits, a very sexual body. But „above all, it is a living body” (Rojek, 1985: 28). Although the idea of grotesque body is wide itself, it is essential to understand the main point of it in order to further analyse contemporary role of carnivalesque.
Despite the fact that Bakhtin’s theory can be widely applied into modern world, there is still shortage of academic research and studies regarding Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on carnivalesque and its role within contemporary society. As stated at the beginning, modern society and people living in it are constrained by many different aspects of life, such as work, beliefs, or socially accepted norms. They look for ways to free themselves, to lose themselves, to celebrate, to get wild. The idea of carnivalesque gives them that. Carnivalesque events, especially the ones that involve alcohol, encourage people to be free, to forget about their everyday lives. For certain period of time people can do things which they would not do any other time. There is social acceptance and consent for such behaviour, the idea of control is temporarily forgotten. Some events even allow people abandoning their selves and give them the opportunity of being somebody else (an idea that seems to be appealing to so many).
A really good example of carnivalesque is presented in the famous comedy movie Hangover (2009). Not only does it present a perfect carnivalesque space which is famous city of sin Las Vegas, but it also shows a perfect example of the carnivalesque event – a stag night.
Group of friends leave their everyday surroundings (constraints) for a weekend to celebrate their friend’s stag night nowhere else but in famous Vegas („What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”). They completely lose themselves in the partying not being able to remember anything in the following morning. Apart from the wild and unusual adventures of the characters, the movie presents a temporary abandonment of everyday self so typical for carnivalesque (when school teacher Phil leaves the school to go to Vegas with his friends):
Another good example of modern carnivalesque is the Halloween night. Firstly, there is a social consent for partying, drinking, and walking around the neighbourhood screaming „trick or treat” during that night. Secondly, and that is where the grotesque body idea plays its role, there is the social consent for dressing up, meaning specifically women Halloween costumes. Women can dress in a particular, sexy and revealing, way.
Some sceptics argue that Bakhtin’s idea of carnival is only a mirage of freedom because „carnival is a licensed or approved form of transgression” (Oxford Reference, 2016). Even Bakhtin himself recognizes the fact that not only the carnivals have changed their form (and thus evolved into carnivalesque) but the carnivalesque literature has become less common due to modern, individualistic capitalism.
Nevertheless, carnivalesque is widely present in contemporary society. There are plenty of examples: Friday’s night, sport championships, music festivals, reality TV shows, a wedding, student exchange, even taking a „gap year” or going abroad for holiday – all of those can become a carnivalesque event. Some places can turn into carnivalesque space for just a particular period of time (e.g. city parades, New Year’s Eve). However, there is one point worth remembering – there comes the time everything has to go back to its original place.
Bakhtin, M. (1984) Rebelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
McLean, P. B. & Wallace, D. (2013) Blogging the Unspeakable: Racial Politics, Bakhtin, and the Carnivalesque. International Journal of Communication. Vol. 7, pp. 1518-1537.
Oxford Reference (2016) Carnivalesque. [Online] Available from: http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095550811. [Accessed: 08/01/2016].
Robinson, A. (2011) In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power. [Online] Available from: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-2/. [Accessed: 08/01/2016].
Rojek, C. (1985) Capitalism and Leisure Theory. London: Tavistock Publications.
Rojek, C. (2005) Leisure Theory: principles and practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Webb, D. (2005) Bakhtin at the Seaside. Utopia, Modernity and the Carnivalesque. Theory, Culture & Society. Vol. 22(3), pp. 121-138.