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Bakhtin and the Carnivalesque

Aymar Jean Christian April 25, 2008 uncategorized 1 Comment on Bakhtin and the Carnivalesque

So last night after an exhausting day — 4 hours of class, a presentation, preparing to teach today, starting a paper on realism — I came home in the mood for reading. I selected a random essay in the Cultural Theory and Popular Culture reader, and I’m so glad I did! Here is my take on my first reading of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Carnival and the Carnivalesque:”

My favorite quote comes early, it’s what woke me up last night:

“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectactors. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated, and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalesque life.”

Bakhtin goes on to discuss how the carnival — primarily a Renaissance phenomenon — opened up a space where social distinctions become blurred, hierarchies suspended, free contact between people became possible, and parody allowed for open critique, “an entire system of crooked mirrors elongating, diminishing, distorting in various directions and to various degrees.”

There’s a lot more there, but I want to focus on these concepts. I know there is tendency to take Bakhtin and run with him in all sorts of direction, but I cannot help but think of parallels to the current new media environment — and perhaps a large part of contemporary youth subculture.

Let me break it down.

There’s been this fantasy in new media studies that the Internet collapses boundaries and distinctions. We can think of the now infamous 1997 MCI commercial made famous by Lisa Nakamura: “there is no race.” “there is no gender” “there are no disabilities” online. It seems foolish now, but perhaps we can salvage the thrust behind the campaign.

I’m studying the performance of camp on YouTube right now, and, despite the prevalence of homophobia, one of the interesting things I notice is the amount of “normalcy” the performers confer to their vlogging. On YouTube, they just “are.” (“I’m just being me,” I hear often.) There is a sense of marginality, but it’s usually discussed as if it’s something that only gives the performers more agency, not less.

There are so many “weird” people on YouTube that hierarchical distinctions from the “real world” matter a bit less. It isn’t MCI’s utopia (or Cisco’s “Human Network” or the Washington Post’s “OnBeing”) but it’s this sense of finding a place for oneself in democracy’s individualist, neoliberal framework, in ways that begin to transform the definitions — individual, citizen, male, female — themselves.

Bakhtin, a favorite of postmodernists, talked a bit of “disruption” in the carnival. But perhaps we can see the new media carnival not as “disruptive” per se, but progressive and inclusive instead. A colleague of mine, C. Riley Snorton, talks about the “radical politics of hope” (before Obama, mind you), and while he’s never explained this to me in detail, I suspect this is somehow related. In other words, rather than lament the system, decry “power,” people online are finding ways of articulating their own kind of power, in ways that seek to remake the “system” from within, in ways that blur the lines between performers (agents) and spectators (subjects). (Think: can there be anything more neoliberal than YouTube?)

Perhaps I’ll write more on this later. This was just my stream-of-consciousness thoughts on my first reading of Bakhtin.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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