Illustrating the connections among three themes—the political, the carnivalesque, and the ritualesque—this volume provides rich and comprehensive insight into public performance as an assertion of political power. Contributors consider how public genres of performance express not only celebration but also dissent, grief, and remembrance; examine the permeability of the boundaries between genres; and analyze the approval or regulation of such events by municipalities and other institutions. Where the particular use of public space is not sanctioned or where that use meets with hostility from institutions or represents a critique of them, performers are effectively reclaiming public space to make public statements on their own terms—an act of popular sovereignty. Through these concepts, Public Performances distinguishes the sometimes overlapping dimensions of public symbolic display. Carnival, and thus the carnivalesque, is understood to possess tacit social permission for unconventional or even deviant performance, on the grounds that normal social order will resume when the performance concludes. Ritual, and the ritualesque, leverages a deeper symbolic sensibility, one believed—or at least intended—by the participants to effect transformative, longer-term change.
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A carnival is a moment when everything except arguably violence is permitted. It occurs on the border between art and life, and is a kind of life shaped according to a pattern of play. It is usually marked by displays of excess and grotesqueness. It is a type of performance, but this performance is communal, with no boundary between performers and audience. It creates a situation in which diverse voices are heard and interact, breaking down conventions and enabling genuine dialogue.
It creates the chance for a new perspective and a new order of things, by showing the relative nature of all that exists. The popular tradition of carnival was believed by Bakhtin to carry a particular wisdom which can be traced back to the ancient world. For Bakhtin, carnival and carnivalesque create an alternative social space, characterised by freedom, equality and abundance. During carnival, rank otherwise pervasive in medieval society is abolished and everyone is equal.
People were reborn into truly human relations, which were not simply imagined but experienced. Life manifests itself not as isolated individuals but as a collective ancestral body. This is not, however, a collective order, since it is also continually in change and renewal. The self is also transgressed through practices such as masking.
Carnival is a kind of syncretic, ritualised pageantry which displays a particular perspective. It is a brief moment in which life escapes its official furrows and enacts utopian freedom. It is a form of life at once real and ideal, universal and without remainder. Its defining feature is festivity — life lived as festive.
It is also sanctioned by the highest ideal aims of human existence, not by the world of practical conditions. Carnival is also taken to provide a positive alternative vision.
It is not simply a deconstruction of dominant culture, but an alternative way of living based on a pattern of play. It prefigured a humanity constructed otherwise, as a utopia of abundance and freedom.
It eliminated barriers among people created by hierarchies, replacing it with a vision of mutual cooperation and equality. Individuals are also subsumed into a kind of lived collective body which is constantly renewed. On an affective level, it creates a particular intense feeling of immanence and unity — of being part of a historically immortal and uninterrupted process of becoming.
The golden age is lived, not through inner thought or experience, but by the whole person, in thought and body. An emphasis is placed on basic needs and the body, and on the sensual and the senses, counterposed perhaps to the commands of the will.
It lowers the spiritual and abstract to the material level. It thus recognises embodiment, in contrast with dominant traditions which flee from it. Ir replaces the false unity of the dominant system with a lived unity in contingency.
It creates a zone in which new birth or emergence becomes possible, against the sterility of dominant norms which in their tautology, cannot cretae the new. It also encourages the return of repressed creative energies.
Reading this in a contemporary way, we might say that carnival is expressive rather than instrumental. It involves the expression of latent aspects of humanity, direct contact among people as opposed to alienation , and an eccentric refusal of social roles. It brings together groups and categories which are usually exclusive.
Time and space are rearranged in ways which show their contingency and indissolubility. All of this is done in a mood of celebration and laughter. In carnival, everything is rendered ever-changing, playful and undefined. Hierarchies are overturned through inversions, debasements and profanations, performed by normally silenced voices and energies.
For instance, a jester might be crowned in place of a king. The authoritative voice of the dominant discourse loses its privilege. Humour is counterposed to the seriousness of officialdom in such a way as to subvert it. Carnival bridges the gap between holism which necessarily absorbs its other and the imperative to refuse authority which necessarily restores exclusions : it absorbs its authoritarian other in a way which destroys the threat it poses.
It is also simultaneously ecological and social, absorbing the self in a network of relations. It views ecology and social life as relational becoming. Perhaps a complete world cannot exist without carnival, for such a world would have no sense of its own contingency and relativity.
Although carnival succeeded in undermining the feudal worldview, it did not succeed in overthrowing it. Feudal repression was sufficient to prevent its full utopian potential from unfolding. But it is as if it created a space and bided its time. Bakhtin suggests that it took the social changed of the Renaissance era the 15thth centuries for carnival to expand into the whole of social life. The awareness of contingency and natural cycles expanded into a historical view of time. This occurred because social changes undermined established hierarchies and put contingency on display.
Medieval folk culture prepared the way for this cultural revolution. Bakhtin almost portrays this as a recuperation of carnivalesque: it was separated from folk culture, formalised, and made available for other uses.
Yet Bakhtin portrays this as a positive, creative process which continues to carry the creative spirit. Bakhtin suggests that carnival and folk culture have been in decline since the eighteenth century. However, Bakhtin believes that the carnival principle is indestructible. It continues to reappear as the inspiration for areas of life and culture. Carnival contains a utopian promise for human emancipation through the free expression of thought and creativity.
Rabelais stands out here for a style which is irreducibly unofficial and unserious, and irrecuperable by authoritarianism. This style transgresses the boundaries between bodily life and the field of art, bringing bodily functions into the field of art. It also celebrates incompleteness, transgression and the disruption of expectations. This was not conceived as an absolute destruction but as a return to the field of reproduction, regeneration and rebirth. The carnival body is seen as transgressing and outgrowing its own limits.
This effect is achieved by emphasising the orifices and practices which connect the body to the world: eating, drinking, fucking, shitting, birth, and so on. In capitalism, the body breaks away from the generating earth and people. Later uses of grotesque realism in literature tend to lose the universalist and holistic implications of the folk view of the body. Instead of finished forms, the different forms of life — animal, plant, human — are portrayed as incomplete and as passing into one another think, for instance, of gargoyles with mixed human-animal features.
This testifies to a view of being as incomplete. Bakhtin believes that the grotesque is counterposed to the classical aesthetic of ready-made, completed being. The carnivalesque body in contrast expressed ideas of simultaneous death and rebirth. It is counterposed to the classicist idea of art as the pursuit of the sublime.
In medieval times, Bakhtin believes, carnival expressed an entire folk cosmology or perspective which was usually hidden. In this worldview, the earth itself is a kind of grotesque, fertile body. Laughter, counterposed to the monolithically serious official world, is also part of this phenomenon. There is also a vision of time involved, which treats the new and the future as sites of regeneration and abundance. This contrasts with official ideas of a past ideal time or a timeless order.
For Bakhtin, such a view is oppressive and intolerant. It closes language to change. The folk view expressed in carnival and carnivalesque, and related speech-genres such as swearing and popular humour, opposes and subverts this vision.
Folk culture combats the fear created by cosmic terror. The celebration of the immortal collective body in carnival bolsters fearlessness. It tends to produce a complete liberty conditioned on complete fearlessness.
Laughter overcomes fear because it is uninhibited and limitless. Carnival is differentiated from other kinds of humour because the crowd also includes itself in the world which is mocked, and which is reborn. According to Bakhtin, the grotesque is widespread in folk culture, from the giants and demons of myth to colloquial swearing and insults. Curses, parody and debasing are used to subvert the stabilising tendencies of dominant speech-genres.
Still, its continuing attraction shows that it carries the remnants of the energy of folk culture and carnival. This may explain how the rising capitalists were able to use references to the market to hegemonise popular strata.
Today, a genre similar to carnivalesque appears in shows such as South Park and Monty Python. The grotesque also remains widespread in various fields of art, and many examples can be found. Everything must be re-examined as a product of its own context. It is likely, however, that Bakhtin would have seen in them a pale, individualised and spectacularised shadow of the original culture of carnival.
He would nevertheless recognise that they contain some of the energy of the original. Does this express an unconscious longing for carnival which is at the same time disturbing to other layers of the psyche?
Why is contingency not universally celebrated, in a carnivalesque spirit? According to Reich, active force becomes threatening through being associated, as a result of authoritarian conditioning, with repressed desires and fear of authority. Theories with an affirmative view of contingency tend to share with Bakhtinian carnival a belief in an eternal creative force which unfolds in difference — active force in Deleuze and Nietzsche, constitutive power in Negri, the instituting imaginary in Castoriadis and so on.
Theories with a negative view, in contrast, believe in an eternal need for order which is constantly threatened by the contingent nature of existence. The establishment of order occurs with the decision, the master-signifier and so on.
It is a "dualistic ambivalent ritual" that typifies the inside-out world of carnival and the "joyful relativity of all structure and order". Carnivalistic symbols always include their opposite within themselves: "Birth is fraught with death, and death with new birth. It is thus the process of change itself that is celebrated, not that which is changed. The carnival sense of the world "is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order.
All people who take part in the carnival "live it" but it is not an extension of the "real world" or "real life" but rather, as Bakhtin puts it, "the world standing on its head", the world upside down. The carnival for Bakhtin is an event in which all rules, inhibitions, restrictions and regulations which determine the course of everyday life are suspended, and especially all form of hierarchy in society. Bakhtin offers four categories of what he calls the "carnivalistic sense of the world: 1. Free and familiar interaction between people: in the carnival normally separated people can interact and freely express themselves to one another. Sacrilegious: the carnival for Bakhtin is a site of ungodliness, of blasphemy, profanity and parodies on things that are sacred.
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