the politics of laughter and “carnivalesque”

“Here I want to show that the carnival is not a trivial cultural anomaly, and not simply a sideshow to ‘more serious’ cultural practices. First we need to rethink the idea of cultural ‘importance.’

“Allon White has identified the misidentification of seriousness with importance as the most fundamental oppression practiced by modern cultural institutions. […] Somehow, in the eighteenth-century divorce between mundane life and the carnival world, the former, which already had a monopoly on seriousness (something the carnival could care less about), was also given the custody of importance- as if seriousness implied the importance, while there is, in White’s estimation, ‘no intrinsic link at all’ between them. The result is what White calls the ‘social reproduction of seriousness.’ This practice promotes the ‘ruse of reason’ that underlies the fiction that we cannot be in Oz and Kansas at the same time. This ruse is useful in creating a ‘high culture’ of arts and letters under the control of ‘important’ cultural institutions.

“The purveyors of ‘serious culture,’ churches, museums, and universities, would allow the carnival midway a cultural place where nothing of importance can happen, a space for trivial play only. At best, they view it as a harmless waste of time; at worst, a nagging distraction from ‘real culture.’ I would respond that the American traveling carnival is connected to a long historical stream of cultural practices, practices older than any university, perhaps older than any current religion, practices tied to a cultural logic that can be called the ‘carnivalesque.’

“The carnivalesque is as much a mood as it is a moment. It is an itch, a tickle, a sly wink at the rest of life. Most forms of comedy tap directly into this pool of whimsy. […] The Russian cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin claims that we have lost the medieval carnival spirit and with it, an entire other mode of life. […] He also notes the oppressive power of authorized seriousness in modern times, and he looks for ways to reverse the arbitrary equation of importance with tragedy. Most of all, Bakhtin searches for a serious way of laughing.”


“[In the Middle Ages,] the king of the carnival was also its clown, and this reversal of position was a large part of the joke. Putting laughter above seriousness, above the solemnity of religion and the dignity of royalty, upset all propriety. So, too, the carnival elevated the lowly. Women, the young, and the poor found arenas in which to challenge domination. Civic leaders might be required to dress as women for the day. The motley costumes of the clowns also signaled the collapse of class structure in a time when social privilege was marked by one’s attire.”


“The anthropologist Victor Turner made the observation that life gyrates between two frames of reference. The one in which we seem mostly stuck is the rational frame where the limits and consequences of everything we do constrain our actions and thoughts. The other frame is a space where joyfulness and wonder take over, and where we forget our limitations. In this space we find the means to imagine how we might change ourselves and our relationships with others, our society, and our future. We slip into a world of infinite possibility, for a day, or an hour, or the three-and-a-half minutes of a carnival ride. And when we get back to the ground, the ground is no longer the same, for we have glimpsed it differently. These are our moments of inspiration and innovation, and they are also part of the carnivalesque. […]

“Bakhtin likens the carnivalesque to a second life, one that is always with us, at the store, at the office, even at church. This second life doubles our experience in all circumstances, although it shows itself only on occasion. The unchained potential for laughter, a laughter that can overtake any trauma, gives us the strength to move beyond our fears. The power of real laughter is that it reveals the lightness of life even in times of sorrow. We can learn to use this laughter in different ways and times and places, but the younger we find its lesson, the better.”

—Bruce Caron, “Inside The Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World Of The Carnival Midway”


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