Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary concept of carnival claims to promote social equality through the transgression of norms and boundaries; it divides the cultural world into a dominant discourse of the ruling class and a peripheral discourse of the populace, and aims to accomplish its “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order” (1984 : 10) by privileging the cultural peripheries. While some scholars believe carnival to encourage democracy, others have casually pointed out its theoretical contradictions, and dismissed it as a flawed attempt at rebellion in the face of an oppressive dominant discourse. In developing a system of definitions of carnival and connecting it to deconstruction, carnival can be reframed as a way to detect subtle authoritarian rhetoric in culture, in which oppression and even terror is deceptively presented as liberation. Carnival’s unique double-faced structure is not related to the term “double-voiced” commonly used in Bakhtinian studies, but rather shows that it pretends to promote peripheral discourses while underhandedly reducing and weakening them. Bakhtin expresses culture in pairings similar to binary oppositions, and while the binaries in his early work are purely descriptive, those in Rabelais and his World contain power relations resembling those that Jacques Derrida noticed throughout the history of Western metaphysics (Derrida 1982: 21, 28). A significant difference is that carnivalesque binaries invert the traditional order of dominance to privilege the weaker discourse, and it is due to this inversion that Bakhtin considers carnival to be a transgressive structure modelling the beginning of lasting social change (Bakhtin 1984: 91). While carnival is a flawed concept, its subtext is significantly more applicable and unsettling. However, because carnival encompasses both the dominant and peripheral sides of culture in near-equal amounts, deconstructing it would be too obvious. Rather, carnival premeditates a deconstruction of the dominant authoritarian discourse by appearing to transgress its values in favour of peripheral ones such as folk culture, feasting, laughter, eccentric behaviour and the grotesque body. In doing so, carnival prevents a more damaging dismantling of dominant discourse, and limits the unpredictability of non-dominant voices, reducing their potential to push cultural boundaries.
doctoral student at Tallinn University. Her research interests are authoritarian communication, deconstruction, revolutionary terror and political jokes. Her personal interests include ballet and platypuses.