Bakhtinian notion of Carnival as applied to Larps

The Bakhtinian notion of carnival offers an interpretation of culture as a “two-world condition” (p. 6), one of the official life of institutions, hierarchies, classes and rituals, and a “second world and a second life outside officialdom” (p. 6) that all people inhabited at one time or another, often publicly. This world was based on laughter and folk humor, and becomes that basis for the study of popular culture. Bakhtin links it to the idea of spectacle, but is careful not to relegate it to a separate world of art. Rather he locates it on the border between art and life and states that “it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play” (p. 7).¬† Carnival, says Bakhtin, “does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators” noting that such an idea of a separation would destroy it. In a description that sounds quite like Huizinga’s description of the demarcated and ritualized magic circle of a game, Bakhtin refers to carnival as: “carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, tehre is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part” (p. 7). Thus, carnival is something that participants embody, they become carnival incarnate, and together they enact and encompass it. In so doing, they recreate spectacle, themselves, and the world of officialdom that they reenter upon leaving carnival space. (Hmm …. this is beginning to sound like a larp).

Bahktin says clowns and fools (hmmm, and tricksters, too? what about kender?) represented the carnival spirit all the time, and as such represented a form of life that is “real and ideal at the same time.”

Also, carnival, says Bakhtin, is the “second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance” (p. 9) — a place to play and revel in what they do not have in the mundane world. It is separated from the mundane world of “practical conditions” by being part of the world of ideals, “the highest aims of human existence” (p. 9). Bakhtin states that this realm must be sanctioned as this other form¬† in order to be allowed and to be festive (e.g. fun). However, official feasts did not lead people out of the existing order into the second life, but instead reified it, “assert[ing] all that was stable, unchanging, perennial: the existing hierarchy, the existing religious, political, and moral values, norms, and prohibitions … the predominant truth that was put forward as eternal and indisputable” (p. 9). Carnival, on the other hand, is a temporary liberation from this “prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (p. 10). Bakhtin says that by design, carnival was hostile to all things that had been immortalized and completed. (this makes larp especially carnivalesque because there is no preconceived script or ending — it is made up and made new).

Carnival also was a social equalizer, Bakhtin says. One did not have to adopt the forms and rhetoric of his/her mundane world status and position. He says, “people were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only the fruit of imagination¬† or abstract thought; they were experienced” (p. 10). Carnival thus was a fusion of “the utopian ideal” and the realistic, made incarnate and embodied. (Larps as breaking away from mundane responsibilities and identities and having their own social codes and at least the perception of greater autonomy and agency via rules that seem less complex, make more sense, and in which one has the power to argue/advocate for self in a direct, relational way with an embodied and present GM vs. a non-corporeal distant entity that controls or enforces.)

Bakhtin stresses that this second life becomes a “world inside out” of “ever changing, playful, undefined forms” that include “parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (p. 11). He notes that this is not “bare negation” or a “negative and formal parody” that we may associate with such humor or behavior. He notes that the purpose of carnival was to revive and renew one’s participation in and acceptance of the official culture that is temporarily displaced by carnival. It is as if, through play and the temporary agency gained withing, that one is able to accept and then return to the mundane world. It is a temporary escape that allows one to subvert “burnout” or depression. Go obtain agency and fun and debauchery during carnival and then return to the official, mundane world with an adjusted attitude and ability to re-engage.

**return to this article for the notion grotesque realism, especially as applied to the horror larps and The Rejects — Theatre of Cruelty.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press.





Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press.

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