Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sins, Tragedies and the Carnivalesque

Studying Francois Rabelais’ work Gargantua and Pantagruel, Mikhail Bakhtin espouses the notion of the carnivalesque, a theory that emphasizes the importance of “otherness” and the transient nature of things.  For Bakhtin, the “[c]arnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people” (Bakhtin 7).  Essentially, what Bakhtin emphasizes is that the seemingly grotesque world of the carnival is symbolic, or at least metaphoric, of the nature of society, of the world at large.  The carnival is universal, honest and upfront.  Moreover, it does not seek to represent a portion of society but rather applies to all of society, to everybody.
One important element imbedded in the Bakhtinian notion of the carnival is that it is a space where everybody is equal, where hierarchy and social divides are not applicable.   The carnival is a safe space where dominant social and institutional ideologies are overturned, questioned and even parodied.  This owes largely to the carnival element that nothing is permanent or concrete.  Hence, the carnivalesque or grotesque bodies that pervade the carnival represent “a body in the act of becoming.  It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created” (Bakhtin 317).  Carnivalesque bodies, what might be deemed freakish according to societal principles of normalcy, are in fact bodies that not only represent the social others but also the continuum of humanity.  To be human is to be involved in a continual process of growth, never being but always becoming.  This becoming is symbolized by the different bodies of the carnival, bodies that are extended, bulging, growing, excreting and excessive. 
The continual process of becoming is further emphasized by Bakhtin’s dialogic principle which contends that “meaning is understood as something still in the process of creation, something still bending toward the future as opposed to that which is already completed” (Holquist 24).  If the carnival is a space where “degradation” is the main concern, where “acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy and birth” represent the continual conception and renewal of the earth, so does the dialogic emphasize the notion that meaning, notions of self and being, are temporal and spatial as it is continually involved in a process of renewal and creation (Rivkin and Ryan 688).  Meaning is not permanent because it relies on the perception of an other.  The emphasis is that “the site of knowledge is never unitary” and “the very capacity to have consciousness is based on otherness” (Holquist 18).  To conceive a notion self means to be in a dialogic relation with another who will serve as a perceptive mirror; but the reflection only lasts for as long as the dialogue is ongoing.

A visual example of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque and dialogic principle is evident in the music video for “I Write Sins not Tragedies” by Panic at the Disco.  The narrative of the video begins with a wedding where the bride and groom are portrayed as seemingly in love with each other.  However, this idealistic setting is broken by the entrance of a singing ringmaster who leads a troop of circus characters.  As these circus people sit on the groom side of the chapel, they are juxtaposed to the guests on the bride’s side of the room.  Comparing the two sets of guests, the circus group is expressive, moving and seemingly “free” while the other guests have painted faces, masks that do not reflect emotion or anything.  The bride is upset by the entrance of this circus group and runs off leaving the groom at the altar.  As the narrative continues, the groom discovers that his beloved bride is cheating on him, thus shattering the illusion of love he had embraced.
The interruption of the carnivalesque group upon such a serious and institutional moment hints at the illusiveness of such an institution.  That is, weddings often connote notions of forever and happily ever after.  But as Bakhtin contends, there is nothing in the world that is permanent for everything is involved in death and renewal.  The great difference between the two sets of guests further emphasizes this notion as the bride’s guests represent society that is frozen by institution.  In contrast, the movement of the groom’s guests shows how the carnival life is about being free, about moving, and about celebration.
Furthermore, the video illustrates the overturning of a social institution that is a mark of normalcy.  The parody on the wedding and marriage evinces the negative to the positive.  The implication being that there is always the “other” side to everything.  The reference to the carnival, a space where otherness resides, emphasizes that the world functions not from a singular view rather in multiplicity.  The perception of the other as an important element in becoming is illustrated in the groom’s realization of his bride’s indiscretion.  That is, through his bride’s eye he sees a notion of self that is defined as being a loving groom, a devoted husband- to- be while the ringmaster reveals to him another self, the revelation that he is a victim of illusion and the love he believed in was a lie.  Essentially, the video illustrates the notion that not only is nothing eternal but that an understanding of the self differs as it is reflected by different people. 
Indeed, the video has many carnival references; references that show a subversion of social ideals, of notions of normalcy, and of institutions.  But more importantly, the video evinces the multiple sides of society coming together in one space where the divide is broken.  As the circus group dances with the uptight guests, the chapel becomes a carnival space of oneness, of unified celebration.  While there is much to explicate, the most important idea to note is that the video shows how life is a carnival where change happens, illusions are shattered, and everyone is unified.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolssky. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press,
     1968. Print.
Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. London: Routledge, 1990. Print.