Note on Carnivalesque


Carnivalesque” is a term used in the English translations of works written by the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, which refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. Bahktin’s notion of “carnivalesque” is a form of heterotopia (i.e., “places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions”). Bahktin conceived of this hetertopia from his study of the writings of Rabelais and his descriptions of medieval festivals. He sees the “carnivalesque” as a way in which laughter and the mocking of authority inverted religious and civil (i.e., church and state) traditions through the celebration of idleness, drunkenness, and debauchery. During these revels, there is a momentary disruption of hierarchical distinctions and barriers, norms and customs, ofřcial ordering of time and space, and all forms of political coercion.


This began in the medieval carnival where social hierarchies of everyday life—their conventional moralities, solemnities, pieties, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). Civic and religious truths are endlessly tested and contested, and all demand equal dialogic status. The “jolly relativity” of all things is proclaimed by alternative voices within the carnivalized literary text that de-privileged the authoritative voice of the hegemony through their mingling of “high culture” with the profane.


Through carnival and carnivalesque, a social ritual of “inversion” occurs— “the world is turned-upside-down”. This collective resistance to authority opens up a space (a heterotopia) where cultural, and potentially political, change can take place.