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Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian linguist and literary critic writing in the first half of the 20th century, used this term to characterize writing that depicts the de-stabilization or reversal of power structures, albeit temporarily, as happens in traditional forms of carnival. Although this may take the form of writing about, or otherwise representing (in film, painting, sculpture, etc.), actual or imagined carnivals, for Bakhtin it was important that the work itself should come to embody the spirit of carnival too. It can do this, as Bakhtin shows in Rabelais and his World (1968), by mobilizing humour, satire, and grotesquery in all its forms, but especially if it has to do with the body and bodily functions. François Rabelais, a French author from the early 1500s, is regarded by Bakhtin as an almost perfect exponent of carnivalesque writing. His most famous work Gargantua and Pantagruel is a vivid illustration of Bakhtin's thesis. It shows a world in which transgressive social behaviour thrives beneath the veneer of social order, constantly threatening to upend things. Conceived in the dark days of the great purges and the Second World War, Bakhtin's concept is often read as a utopian antidote to repressive forms of power everywhere and a celebration of the possibility for affirmative change, however transitory in nature. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986) by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White makes a very strong case along these lines, as does Robert Stam in Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism and Film (1989). In contrast, however, Terry Eagleton argues in his book on Walter Benjamin that carnival is a licensed or approved form of transgression and therefore offers nothing more than the mirage of change. See also dialogism; heteroglossia; polyphony.

Further Reading:

K. Clark and M. Holquist Mikhail Bakhtin (1984).M. Holquist Dialogism (2002).D. Lodge, After Bakhtin (1990).

Subjects: Social sciencesSociology

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