Picture a Saturday night high street. See the bare limbs, flesh glaring biscuit-orange under canopies of street lamps and the neon flashing of signs for pubs and clubs. All is bewildering, all is bright and vivid and searing. High heels and crumpled blazers, unbuttoned shirts and bodies stumbling all over the road, shrieking and laughing and throwing blind curses to the sky. There are people conversing in drunken slurs, echoes of animal-sounding noises, shadows of disaster thrown up the walls. At the weekend, with sun-down comes turmoil: the interruption of the normal.
Writing several decades ago, Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term ‘carnivalesque’ to refer to the nature of carnival, a time in which normal social regulations and restraints are temporarily suspended. This includes social hierarchies and associated cultural expectations and mores. Carnival is a brief period, an interruption of ordinary life that opens up a space outside of regular time, enabling freer, closer social interaction between those who would normally ignore one another (a peasant sharing a toast with a lord; a banker arm-in-arm, sharing a heartfelt singalong with a construction worker at a music festival), the acceptance of bizarre and outlandish behaviour which exposes the underbelly of humanity, the intermingling of opposites (the sacred and profane, high and low, young and old, classy and trashy) and finally carnival is a sacrilegious experience, devoid of holiness and instead a mockery of all things godly. Bakhtin suggests that the state of carnival is valuable in its ability to produce a social condition, however fleeting, of equality and freedom, a reversal of all the cultural norms that carefully structure everyday lives. In short, carnival means the ordinary world thoroughly shaken and flipped upside down:
Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act… The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people [From Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, my emphasis added]
Think of the example Bakhtin provides: the medieval carnival. Lords and ladies would mingle with the peasantry, sharing rich feasts (think wild boar, think excess, think decadent berries, slabs of cheeses and intricate pastries – the burger stand and the Waitrose meal-deal of the Middle Ages), there would be grotesque entertainment, where jesters provided relief from the humdrum boredom of everyday labour. There would be wrestling, archery, hammer-throwing, dancing and general disorder, raucousness and debauchery. Think long wild spirals of medieval hair, clothing being ripped by trampling feet, misfired arrows, shouting, chaos, a sense of triumph and a sense of defeat. A state of pure pleasure and excitement and unity, where all sense of time and habits is lost. These activities aren’t policed; there are no authorities, just a rupturing occurrence of equality.
A key feature of carnival is the grotesque body. This refers to the human form made disgusting, abject, exposed. Inevitably, this involves the opening of bodily orifices, an exposure to shit and piss and sick and blood. Julia Kristeva, in her essay Powers of Horror argues that what these substances (and other triggers of revulsion such as the weird skin that forms on warm milk) is their exclusion from the ‘symbolic order’: being neither subject nor object, these abject fluids draw us ‘toward the place where meaning collapses’, and to put it simply, remind us that everything structured, everything familiar – ‘identity, system, order’ – can collapse, can momentarily be lost. The losing of these necessary familiarities causes discomfort because it reminds us not only of our own mortality (there is blood, we have blood, therefore we live and one day will die) but of the ‘fragility of the law’ that binds us within the symbolic order of social and metaphysical distinction. What is real, what is imagined, what can be touched, what can be lost – all thrown into confusion.
Considering the nature of medieval carnival then, where eating is loud, messy and public, manners are absent and bawdy humour is rife, it is easy to see how Kristeva’s theory of abjection links in with Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. The explicit exposure of grotesque, sweating, expanding bodies and their apertures (eaters, circus entertainers, fire-eaters, dancers, nudists and other performers) creates the collapse of social regulation, internalised politeness and cultural restrictions that preserve normality and define how we live, who we are, what place we occupy in the rigid hierarchies of the world.
The grotesquery of the carnivalesque haunts not just history but also contemporary life. What springs to mind for me are TV shows like Embarrassing Bodies, The Biggest Loser and Supersize vs. Superskinny revel in their exposure of grotesque bodies: bodies that upset the social order, that overspill, that violate expectations of the ideal self. Through their television screens mass audiences observe with fascination and horror the layers of flabby skin, the genital warts, the rashes and the hair loss and the gaping, hungry mouths. What is so compelling about these programs, which seem to delight in their own scatology? I would argue it is their exploration of the abject, their emphasis on the materiality of the human body and self, as well as the fluidity of this materiality – and not only its mortality but also its ability to change, to become thinner, fatter, more tanned, spottier. There is a similarity here to the public autopsies which literally dissected the nitty-gritty of human flesh before an entranced audience. When we watch Gillian McKeith in You Are What You Eat poking around examining someone’s shit, we are confronting our strange, precarious existence as physical entities, as Kristeva puts it: ‘These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.’
So the grotesque forces us to face up to the abyss of possible meaninglessness that besets our very existence. Carnival is a stage for celebration and freedom, but it is streaked with this dark note of the sinister limits of humanity (or could it be called unhumanity?).
I am led now to think back to debauched goings-on that characterise British nightlife. It is quite easy to compare, at least to some extent, the club scene and the music festival with the medieval carnival. Think of all the sweaty bodies thrown together: lawyer, banker, prostitute, mayor, all dancing outside of their normal clothes, their normal dispositions, their normal souls. Collapse of order. Entertainment has not evolved much in civility: one only has to take a trip to an inexpensive British-dominated seaside resort abroad to discover carnival wonders. Grotesque strippers whose very anatomies have been adorned with the alterations of plastic surgery; whose very bodies violate and confuse the (socially constructed?) definitions of human and inhuman, male and female, real and fakery; whose very bodies are abject in themselves, who violate all symbolic hierarchies. The ordinary citizen puts on a dress or a t-shirt and sheds temporarily their identity, dives into the sea of disruption and debauched, drunken catastrophe.
I think of so many human bodies scattered like ants, half-naked on the street. We dance, we dance, but together we fight, we spit, we are sick. Are we free? The rich snort cocaine in the toilets while the poor share their escapism in drink and junk food, and gradually the substances are passed down the food chain, and either way all normal reality is collapsed. Whether in the bar, the cinema, the club, the street. Yet always there is a going back – the freedom is only temporary.
Perhaps it is worse in these post-recession, cut-ridden times. Where to find relief from the mundane trawl of economic news, of job-hunting, of fitting one’s life into a monotonous form? The more human life is repressed into artificial structures and rigorous norms, the more the pressure builds to release, the more our indulgences become more disruptive, the more we binge and cause chaos and feast.
Can we find carnival at a rave?
Can we find carnival in the graffiti that sticks like smears of sick to the graves of urbanity? The need to upset borders, make violent, meaningless marks.
Is carnival an intrinsic part of our humanity?
Perhaps there is a carnal need for escape, for explosion.
Another example of carnival suggested by John Fiske in Understanding Popular Culture is that of the television game show. The presenter tries to assert domination by ridiculing contestants, but contestants respond by ridiculing the presenter. All hierarchies are upset, as money becomes not a currency of earning but something that can be won at the spin of a lottery, the opening of a mystery box. Jokes are rife, people often cry, music fills the atmosphere with a carnival sense of celebration and ridicule. Onlookers watch on with perverse fascination, anticipation, sometimes revulsion, sometimes boredom.
I was recently talking to a friend about the big Scottish music festival T in the Park, and he said that it was one of those things that ‘you kinda hate at the time, but love it afterwards’. I think this sums up the experience of carnival quite well, in some ways. The stress of the occurrence of carnival – the intensification of sensory pleasures and horrors (the live music, the colours, the portaloos, the mud that seeps in through your trainers) perhaps makes the carnival (festival, gig, club, drunken night at the pub/disco/park) hard to absorb at the time. Perhaps because you are too busy experiencing and participating. Too busy actually feeling exhausted, exhilarated, intensely confused and disorientated. But on reflection, the upset social norms can be ignored, and the experience is fitted snugly together by the reason-seeking mind. We remember the good bits, and the bad seem good, and everything is a great whirlwind of excitement and pleasure that sticks because up against normal life the value of the event cannot be measured.
There is also something in the fact that grotesque experiences provide a kind of social glue or bonding through stories. People go out to lose their inhibitions: to get roaring drunk and behave ‘appallingly’, or at least in ways that upset normality. But, fundamentally, they mostly forget. It’s up to their group of friends to get together and fill in the blanks, often chipping in with their own fictional missing pieces. Stories that live on and are retold and recycled and not only provide valuable conversation fodder but serve as a way of uniting and reinforcing friendships. It takes a night of disorder, disruption and eventual recovery (an adventure, a taste of the carnival) to enjoy normality again, to be reminded of who is there and who you are and how everyone relates to you.
In a world where the Chancellor of the Exchequer attempts to show he is a ‘man of the people’ by tweeting a picture of a burger and fries he intends to have for dinner, it is no wonder the world requires remedying through brief disruptions. As disillusionment filters through the everyday mist of reality, perhaps public craving for the carnivalesque has increased, as the thirst for the abject relates to our need to prove that there is a point, a borderline which enables the dissolution of meaning. Where everything seems more and more absurd, where money seems a mere plaything of gambling bankers, so easily borrowed and so easily lost; where our everyday lives are structured by euphemisms and business jargon and lies, it is no wonder we seek to obliterate social norms in alcohol, clubbing, violence and lust. And with the internet, who knows where the exhibitionist and border-crossing nature of carnival behaviour might end up?
Bakhtin, M. (1929) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.
Bakhtin, M. (1941). Rabelais and his world
Fiske, John. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture.
Goulding, C., M. Saren, J. Follett (2003) ‘Consuming the Grotesque Body’ in European Advances in Consumer Research Vol. 6, pp. 115-119
Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.