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Bakhtin Circle Philosophy Culture and Politics

Bakhtin Circle Philosophy Culture and Politics

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06/27/2013

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Along with dialogue and polyphony, the category of carnival has
been enthusiastically adopted and variously applied, with little
attention given to the philosophical roots of the idea. Bakhtin’s
vividly evoked image of the unrestrained festive vitality of ‘the
people’ has been taken to heart by many modern writers seeking to
break out of the narrow confines of the official canon of literature

134The Bakhtin Circle

and establish popular culture as a legitimate object of study. It is by
no means clear, however, that Bakhtin himself had any such agenda,
as is suggested by the fact that he completely ignores perhaps the
most important popular medium of his own age, cinema. Rather,
Bakhtin is more concerned with the presence of the formsof past
popular-festive culture in literature, and how they exercise a defining
influence on the development of genre. Bakhtin outlines these forms
and treats them as transitional stages between life and objective
culture, stages which become reactivated at certain historical
moments in order to address the rigidification of that culture. Galin
Tihanov argues convincingly that this is at least partly due to the
influence of Nikolai Marr’s ‘semantic paleontology’ in which all
humanity shares a common, indeed primordial, heritage of myth,
features of which are preserved in later culture (Tihanov 2000b:
136–8, 159–60). Bakhtin traces the forms of carnival culture back to
the comic festivals of antiquity, especially to Roman Saturnalia,
which was considered a ‘real and full (though temporary) return of
Saturn’s golden age to the Earth’ (RW 7–8, TFR 12). He also suggests
that festive forms go back even further, back into pre-history. In his
discussion of the ‘folkloric bases of the Rabelaisian chronotope’,
Bakhtin suggests that this temporary restoration of ‘productive,
generative time’, which continues in carnival celebrations proper,
can be traced back to the ‘agricultural pre-class stage in the devel-
opment of human society’ (FTCN 206; FVKhR 355). This passage
strongly echoes Freidenberg’s more openly Marrist work on the
‘primordial world-view’ of ‘primitive communism’, with which she
connects the ‘cosmic’ metaphors of food, death and rebirth, dis-
memberment, master and slave, laughter, praise and abuse,
procession, and so on, that become central to Bakhtin’s analysis
(Freidenberg 1997: 50ff.). Bakhtin praises Freidenberg’s book as an
extremely rich source of ‘folkloric material’, which directly pertains
to ‘popular laughter-culture’, but complains that ‘this material is
interpreted in the spirit of the theory of pre-logical thinking, and
the problem of popular laughter-culture is still not posed’ (RW 54;
TFR 63). This single reference certainly does not do justice to the
wealth of material Bakhtin evidently found in the book, as the
following passage, which Bakhtin highlighted in his own copy of
Friedenberg’s book (Osovskii 2000: 133) shows:

Ancient comedy has complete structural identity with tragedy; but
the most remarkable thing is that in contradistinction to European

The Novelist as Philosopher (1940–63)135

comedy, it presents itself not as an independent genre, but as a
parody of tragedy. Meanwhile, parody in itself has a sacral origin
and this lives on in folklore right up to modern times: its very
cultic-folkloric forms bring to us both tragic elements, in the form
of public worship and passion [strast´], and comic [elements] in
the form of farces and obscenity. Beginning with antiquity, the
festival of the new year, there is passion and Births – all days of
the new suns and the new births – have a parodic beginning in
the form of the feast of simpletons [glupets], the festival of asses,
the feast of fools [durak] etc. After all we have said [in the course
of the book – CB], there are for us no novelties; we are not
surprised that the king [tsar] is chosen from the jesters, that the
clergy swap clothes with the crowd, that public worship is
parodied, that churches serve as an arena for obscenity and shame.
Neither does it surprise us that we meet parody alongside all the
acts of life – marriage, burial, birth, the administration of justice,
commerce, government etc. And the main image is alongside the
act of eating. Characteristic in this regard is the medieval ‘liturgy
of gluttons’, which permeated the church during public worship:
the clergy greedily ate sausage right in front of the altar, played
cards right under the nose of the priests conducting a service,
threw excrement into the censor and made a stink with it. (Frei-
denberg 1997: 275)

Freidenberg identified central ‘semantic clusters’ which recur in
variously modified ways throughout literary history, and these same
‘clusters’ appear throughout Bakhtin’s work on carnival.1

Here one
can sense the significance of Bakhtin’s debt to Freidenberg’s research,
but there is no doubt that Bakhtin interpreted Freidenberg’s material
along different, indeed opposite lines. As Kevin Moss notes,

ForBakhtinparodyisopposedtoitsoriginal;forFreidenbergitis
ashadow,butitaffirmsthesamevalues.ForBakhtinparodyisrev-
olutionary,liberating,theepitomeoffreespeech;forFreidenberg
itreaffirmsthestatusquo.Bakhtinseesinparodyevidenceof
religiousdecline,aformruthlesslydrivenfromtheofficialsphere
bythechurch;Freidenbergseesinparodytheapogeeofreligious
consciousnessthatcanuseevenlaughtertoaffirmitsforms.For
Bakhtin,themodelofparodyismedievalcarnival,withits
rebelliousfreedom;forFreidenbergparodyisthehubristic‘other
aspect’ofallthatisreal,authentic,official.(Moss1997:22)2

136The Bakhtin Circle

One can see that Bakhtin adapted Freidenberg’s observations
according to his own neo-Kantian philosophical predilections and
populist political preferences. The former was not difficult, since
Cassirer’s work on myth had been an important influence on Marr’s
‘japhetic theory’ and Freidenberg’s work (Freidenberg 1997: 31–7;
Moss 1984: 94–105), so Bakhtin only needed to restore the feature of
Cassirer’s work that the Marrists rejected: the neo-Kantian theory of
knowledge. Parodic forms are, for Bakhtin, evidence of the growth
of critical consciousness evident in the unfolding of symbolic forms,
and the ‘semantic clusters’ that endure have the character of a priori
elements necessary for thinking as such. Bakhtin’s populist dialectic
of official and popular forces could also find a correspondence in the
Marrist idea of a primordial unity of all peoples.

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