The Grotesque Body Politic

Bakhtin, Rabelais, and Western Marxism



Je m’en vais chercher un grand peut-être.
— Last words of the dying Rabelais (Bloch 1104)

As defined by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, "the carnivalesque" is a subversive literary technique that focuses on humour produced by the grotesque body in relation to festive carnival images. He coined the term in 1940 in his book Rabelais and His world when he identified the 16th century French writer François Rabelais as a master of the tactic of the carnivalesque.

My research aims to frame the carnivalesque within the tradition of western marxism, as a dynamic tactic of subversion. The carnivalesque has enduring potency in forming alternative logics and experiences to what is taken as given reality. This depiction of upsetting social and political structures translates into creative regeneration of the participants- ultimately altering our collective imagination.


Bakhtin and Rabelais’ Carnival

Don’t all our Orthodox argue that faith is precisely that: an argument for things which no one can prove?
— Rabelais (22)

Bakhtin didn’t receive widespread attention until the second half of the 20th century. When his book was first published in English in 1968, his work was still largely unknown in his native Russian. (Bakhtin vii) This lag between the original publication of his writing and the translation was not coincidental or by any means an indicator of its significance. It was due to his antagonistic stance to the official post-Russian Revolution culture.

In Michael Holquist’s prologue of Rabelais and His world, he quotes Karl Mannheim’s definition of “intelligentsia”, from Ideology and Utopia: “In every society there is a social group whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world for that society.” (xiii) Written in the 1930’s at the height of Stalinist Orthodoxy, Rabelais and His World was considered a dangerous text. The events of the Russian Revolution overturned the very categories in which the world could be interpreted, the fall out of this being the identity crisis and attempt at redefining the social organization of Russia. As in the case of Bakhtin, the systematic debasement of the pre-revolution system left intellects in a vicarious position: Stifled and forced to submit to the new social order especially through condemnation of ideological laxity of Soviet literature and culture. (Bakhtin xx)  

In Rabelais and His world, Bakhtin focuses his study on the magnum opus of Rabelais, the epic of Gargantua and Pantagruel. In this pentalogy, Rabelais uses the tradition of folk culture to produce a comical adventure following two giants, Gargantua, and his son Pantagruel. Banned for obscenity upon its publication, Rabelais presented a world  that uses the bodily logic of carnival to disrupt the logic of the power structures of his time, predominantly the great chain of being.  It is characteristically a chaotic, communal performance where spirit and logic are relegated to the material experience of the senses.

Burton Raffel’s translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel is one of the few that critics feel have preserved the personality of the original work, other translators timid in the face of such vulgar subject matter. He deciphers the complexity of the text in which Rabelais is “tempting the reader out of his customary and definite way of regarding things, by showing him phenomenon in utter confusion.” (Rabelais x) Raffel notes that “the revolutionary thing about his way of thinking is not his opposition to Christianity, but the freedom of vision, feeling, and thought which his perpetual playing with things produces.” (x)

Considering Bakhtin's choice of subject matter, Rabelais and His World was clearly at odds with the official culture of its time. In fact, it was almost not published. Bakhtin compiled the text in 1940 from the many notebooks he had written on Rabelais throughout the 30’s and submitted this as a thesis to The Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. The defence of his thesis was delayed until 1947, when he received a letter that’s tone made it “chillingly clear that defence in this case was to be more than a formal academic exercise, and that more than a mere degree was at stake for a man already once arrested for unreliability” (Bakhtin xix) Despite this, Bakhtin defended his dissertation to the examining committee with such eloquence that several members sought to have him awarded with a higher degree, a move that was deterred by the more conservative members of the panel. Even so, it wasn’t until 1951 that Bakhtin received the degree. (Bakhtin xx)

To say Bakhtin’s critiques of society were unwelcome would be an understatement. When reading Rabelais and His World, it’s unclear to what extent Bakhtin uses Rabelais as an analogy for himself and all other intelligentsia whose work has been suppressed in response to disregarding their official culture. Of Rabelais, Bakhtin says: “his appreciation [for certain decree] never took on an official and unconditional character […] Rabelais’ basic goal was to destroy the official picture of events.” (439) It is this form of ambivalence that granted both Bakhtin and Rabelais their immunity to total social condemnation.


Bakhtin and The Frankfurt School

Through the disorderly fund which his knowledge places at his dis­posal, the allegorist rummages here and there for a particular piece, holds it next to some other piece and tests to see if they fit together
— -Benjamin (Gilloch 211)

Because of political, linguistic and geographical barriers, Bakhtin was unaware of the output of work from the Frankfurt School of Social Research. It seems that the irony of this is the great overlap between the thought of members of the school and Bakhtin himself. Much like Bakhtin, members of the Frankfurt School found themselves at odds with orthodox Marxism, in response employing new interdisciplinary tactics of analysis  in order to combat the shortcomings of Marxism. For the Frankfurt School, this eventually lead to the development of what we now understand as Critical Theory.

There is an especially striking connection between Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin. As P.V. Zima notes, their work expresses “‘liberatory elements of critique whose ambivalence (the joining of incompatible values) constitutes the motor of a discourse both dialectic and dialogic.” (Beasley-Murray 4) The first comprehensive comparison of these two thinkers was compiled by Tim Beasley-Murray in his book Mikhail Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin: Experience and Form (2007). Beasley-Murray discovered in his study that Western Marxism can be used as a tool to bolster the thought of Bakhtin, and vice-versa. This paper will respond to The Frankfurt School’s concerns in order to determine how they relate to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, and attempt to illustrate a synthesis of these areas of thought.


The Liberal Carnivalesque

Terror is conquered by laughter.
— Bakhtin (336)

An important part of my research is to distinguish the carnivalesque as a radical tool that actively resists the assimilation of power structures. In its recent interpretations by American scholars, Bakhtin’s carnival has not been paid any favours by the neo-liberalism it’s been painted with. These interpretations attempt to understand the carnivalesque in a way that disarms it’s radical power, making it palatable to liberal individualism.

Early critical response of Bakhtin was undoubtedly serious. However, more recent “critics of Bakhtin have emphasized this theory of laughter to the extent of emptying his thought of any substance.” (Beasley-Murray 11) These attempts portray Bakhtin as a post-ideological relativist, aligning him with a liberal mentality. This willingly ignores the distinct characteristics of the carnivalesque as defined by Bakhtin. He identified that central to the element of the carnivalesque in Rabelais’ work was the representation of the body politic in the overturning of social hierarchies.

These recent readings of Bakhtin subjected the thinker to a depoliticizing based on the interpretation of the tone in which it was written. This phenomenon runs in parallel to the essentializing of Walter Benjamin’s work. Interestingly, Benjamin and Bakhtin have been popularly represented as the polarities of melancholy and frivolity, respectively. However, they both adamantly resisted a position of definity.

Much like the how posthumous liberal interpretations of Bakhtin and Benjamin are incongruent with the revolutionary aspect of their work, in Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin disavows the romantic interpretation of Rabalais’ grotesque. He argues that in the romantic interpretation, the grotesque lost its “regenerating power”. (Bakhtin 39) Part of this phenomenon was found in the tonal difference of the Rabelaisian and romantic grotesques, the latter being a somber, satirical expression of “not the fear of death but the fear of life”, favouring scornful laughter over gaiety. (50) This perspective is contrary to Rabelaisian grotesque, in which life and death, laughter and seriousness are not experienced as polarities, but as symbiotic components in a totality. Neither here nor there, the interpretation of the carnivalesque’s balancing act of binary-challenging ambiguity relies on the comprehension of multiplicities. Bakhtin challenges the one-dimensional seriousness of romantic grotesque in favour of his Rabelaisian carnival:

The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which the grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all the pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. (Bakhtin 49)

Bakhtin’s insistence of a multidimensional reading of Rabelais was not extended to critics’ interpretation of Rabelais and His World. Yet, when we apply Bakhtin’s logic to that of his own work, it’s complex tone provides us with the richness. To interpret Bakhtin’s work, we must take cues from his own method and begin to analyze the context in which he wrote his study of Rabelais. Bakhtin is not offering the reader a conclusive theory:  he attempts to challenge the very way we interpret and process knowledge.

Herbert Marcuse identified this dimensionality as the key in culture that resists reification. In The Aesthetic Dimension, Marcuse discusses humour as a characteristic difference between propaganda and art:

Compared with the often one-dimensional optimism of propaganda, art is permeated with pessimism, not seldom intertwined with comedy. Its “liberating laughter” recalls the danger and the evil that have passed- This time! But the pessimism of art is not counterrevolutionary. It serves to warn against the “happy consciousness” of radical praxis. (Marcuse 14)

Carnival and Utopia

... The circus, vaudeville, and burlesque, herald the joy to which men will attain in being liberated from the ideal…
— Herbert Marcuse (Reitz 89)

The carnivalesque undoubtedly echoes characteristics of “bodily utopianism”, or those utopias that center bodily pleasure, with plentiful food and drink, and in many versions readily available sex. This is also known as the “utopia of escape” and there have been no culture without such utopias. (Sargent 12)  However, the carnivalesque Bakhtin wrote of hinges upon its utopian and dystopian potentialities; violence and abuse are not absent from this realm. The non-static existence between binaries frames the carnivalesque as an experience that can only be understood through alternative logic systems.  

This distinguishes Bakhtin's carnivalesque from the neoliberal “carnival” of escapist consumerism that has been categorically designed for the pleasure of the participant. The distinguishing “unchallenged pleasure” element succumbs readily to reification.  Unlike Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, the neoliberal carnival presents a concrete utopia posing as post-ideological individuality.

In his paper “The Liberal Utopia," Slavoj Zizek explains the logic which allows these seemingly disparate approaches of ideological utopianism and liberal individualism to collide:

The global liberal order clearly asserts itself as the best of all possible worlds; the modest rejection of utopias ends with imposing its own market-liberal utopia [...] Behind all this lurks the ultimate totalitarian nightmare, the vision of a New Man who left behind the old ideological baggage. (Zizek)

This form of “utopia of escape” forces individuals to retreat to the alienation of escapism packaged and sold as commodity. However, we should not frame escapism as a phenomenon experienced only through dominant culture. If we are to think through the extremes as Benjamin did, we should examine the way “utopias of escape” can manifest themselves in groups of oppositional radicals. Benjamin uses his proximity to the Surrealists in order to form a criticism around their modes of resistance, reinforcing binary logic and ultimately leading them up the spiral staircase of the ivory tower. Their fetishization of drugs, mysticism, and fragmentation acted as a powerful force of what Benjamin called “profane illumination”, which in their endless chase for, was not conducive for the coherence necessary for radical social critique and revolution. (Gilloch 91) This is as dangerous as religious ecstasy; the tactics of enlightenment yields to the force of reification and even through its radical opposition, the Surrealists unintentionally replicated the alienation/escapism cycle of capitalism.  

Why the carnivalesque is not  a “utopia of escape” is due to the element of confrontation with the discomforts of the transgressive body politic. In Bakhtin's time, much like our own, the body is conceived of as an individual entity. The severing of the body from the body politic conceptualizes the body as a fragmented subject. The bodily functions of these subjects are transferred to the private, psychological level, and no longer linked to the totality of the social or ancestral. The body is envisioned as a closed system, burdened with the alienation this conception produces.  (Bakhtin 321)

Bakhtin argues that Rabelais’ notions of utopia are firmly grounded in our collective ancestry and do not fetishize linear concepts of progress. He does not present a means to an end. Rather, “the grotesque concept of the body is interwoven not only with the cosmic but also with the social, utopian, and historic theme, and above all with the theme of the change of epochs and the renewal of culture.” (Bakhtin 325) Bakhtin presents us with a utopian image in the form of the carnivalesque that has fluidity built into it’s very structure.
When reflecting on Rabelais’s writing, we cannot escape into the comfortable pleasure of consumer individualism. We are forced to address the way in which the grotesque body politic and the current canon of body differ. We are exposed to the image of bodies that are not alienated from each other or the world and are confronted with our own contradictory forms and the fragility and instability of social organization.


The Carnivalesque Rupture

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.
— Adorno (Whitebook 79)

A dilemma in Marxist thought is the concept of revolution. Members of The Frankfurt School gave this concept consideration as a potential rupture of society and a  break in the space-time continuum. It was a contentious subject; a topic where theory and praxis could come together in a potentially disastrous way, as concreteness of vision is believed to lead to totalitarianism. The development of negative dialectics sought to negate this through a non-speculative manner. However, Benjamin approached the idea of the rupture in a way similar to Bakhtin.

In Benjamin’s theories surrounding the messianic, he explores how “rupture” is not a single moment of discontinuity, but is formed by the multiplicity of unforeseen instances. In his study of Benjamin’s oeuvre, Critical Constellations, Graeme Gilloch interprets Benjamin’s perspective on how the concept of “rupture” as singularity is a historically constructed idea:

This discontinuity [with metanarratives] cannot find representation in the conventional linear narratives of the historicist, but can be conceptualized only as an ephemeral moment of recognition when a fleeting constellation between past and present is formed. (Gilloch 200)

Benjamin, like Bakhtin, resists the inclination to frame rupture as a dichotomy of the before and after of linear progression. Independently, they developed theories that challenged closedness with form, substituting the completeness of experience with constructing form around the flux of experience.

This logic is mirrored in Bakhtin’s definition of the transgressive acts of the grotesque body. It does not propagate itself as a closed system; it remains eternally incomplete. Stress is given to those parts of the body which are open; orifices where the world and the body meet. The body exceeds its own limits in these exchanges with the world and with other bodies; In copulation, pregnancy, birth, death, eating, defecation. The grotesque body is preoccupied with “the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point where they enter into each other.” (Bakhtin 26)

The space-time continuum is rudely interrupted with the ephemeral rupture of the carnivalesque. In Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais ingeniously sets his epic in landscapes that historians have discovered were familiar to him. (447) This element of tangible materiality is disoriented when introduced to the cosmic image of grotesque bodily regeneration.  It observes the incidences when binary logic fails us, the moment when polarities collide and we must begin “to understand that an object can transgress not only its quantitative but also its qualitative limits, that it can outgrow itself and be fused with other objects.” (308) The carnivalesque creates a rift in our perception. Bakhtin explains that “in such conditions there cannot be any suggestion of a naturalist atomization of reality, of an abstract and tendentious approach.” (448)

The carnivalesque “discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. It leads men out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity, of the indisputable and stable.” (48)  This schism of reality is lauded in The Aesthetic Dimension when Marcuse commits to his thesis: “Art creates the realm in which the subversion of experience proper to art becomes possible: the world formed by art is recognized as a reality which is suppressed and distorted in the given reality.” (Marcuse 6)



While breaking up the false seriousness, false historic pathos, he prepared the soil for a new seriousness and for a new historic pathos.
— Bakhtin on Rabelais (Rabelais 439)

In Max Haiven and Alex Khansnabish’s study of radical activisms, The Radical Imagination (2014), they investigate the title concept in relation to the data they collected. They discuss philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis’ use of the term to refer to an analytical, sociological process, that tectonic substance of which social institutions and identities are produced. The collective imagination acts as the cornerstone of what we accept as our given reality. This concept of imagination is not a singular entity; it is “shaped by our experience as embodied subjects who are intersected by [...] difference.”(Haiven 6) In a phenomenological sense, this difference shapes the imagination; “it is sparked and grows when we encounter the unexpected, the foreign, the new.” (7)

In this understanding of the radical imagination, the carnivalesque is incredibly formidable in its ability to present alternatives to dominant culture. In the subversive realm of the carnivalesque, the norms of society become plastic, allowing for difference to be understood in an unorthodox fashion and as an integral element of the body politic. The bodily grotesque forges intersubjective empathy between participants and/or observers.

In liberalized interpretations of Bakhtin and Benjamin, the political implications of the promotion of openness of form has all but been lost. However, in latent readings of their approaches it is suggested that “the temporal orientation of the thinkers’ work and the extent to which Bakhtin’s and Benjamin’s promotion of the openness of form might be “provisional positions predicated on a future completion that will come on either the messianic-theological or the political-revolutionary plane.” (Beasley-Murray 17)

The potency of the carnivalesque is its potential to be a catalyst for awakening the radical imagination, breaking any convincing illusion of given reality. However favourable these protean configurations become, we must remember Bakhtin’s  assertion that Rabelais always leaves us with a gay loophole- “that opens up on the distant future and that lends an aspect of ridicule to the relative progressiveness and relative true accessible to the present or to the immediate future.” (Bakhtin 454)



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