Carnival and Dialogue in Bakhtin's Poetics of Folklore (excerpt)
by Shanti Elliot
Images of reversal twist through many folklore traditions, celebrating the poor fool who becomes king and condemning the powerful to ruin. For Mikhail Bakhtin, such reversals express the creative energy of "a carnival sense of the world." In carnival, laughter and excess push aside the seriousness and the hierarchies of "official" life. Carnival shakes up the authoritative version of language and values, making room for a multiplicity of voices and meanings. Bakhtin's theories of language emerge from this space of multiplicity. By discerning between different modes of discourse, Bakhtin shows how "dialogic" language disrupts uniformity of thought.
In Bakhtin's work, the image of reversal symbolizes his intellectual ideal of rethinking: finding multiple levels of meaning in words, images, and tones. The outrageous and contradictory images that make up carnival ambivalence require the activity of rethinking. Bakhtin's theories of carnival and discourse help folklorists to discern multiple semantic levels in social and philosophical interaction. In the narrative, song, and ritual of many traditions, ambivalence creates a flexible realm of meaning that holds socially transformative potential.
A number of folklorists began to use Bakhtin's philosophy of carnival soon after it became known in the West,' finding it useful in understanding the structures of carnival and power relationships in diverse traditions. Bakhtin's theories of dialogue are meanwhile finding more and more resonance among folklorists recently. Since the image of carnival sets the stage for his theories of dialogue, I will concentrate primarily on elaborating Bakhtin's approach to carnival, as it relates to folklore. I will then discuss how different folklorists have used Bakhtin's theories, the advantages his theories have offered them, and the disadvantages they have noted.
The Philosophy of Carnival
Bakhtin's writing reflects the spirit of carnival: it defies systematic explanation. He imbues his key terms with unexpected and even shifting, intertwining meanings. In this section, I will fix these mobile terms enough to indicate the main elements of carnival and their relationship to discourse. By grounding his philosophical explorations in subversion, laughter, ambivalence, and becoming, Bakhtin emphasizes the dynamic movement underlying "unofficial" language.