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Who Still Needs the Carnivalesque?

The Lord of Misrule looms over a new Puritanism

Following several decades of Reformation, with the Church of England emerging from the schism of Henry VIII and then onto the various religious settlements of his children—the austere Protestantism of the reign of his son Edward VI, the Inquisition-friendly Catholicism of his daughter Mary I, and the via media realpolitik Protestantism of his other daughter Elizabeth I—the Lord of Misrule was endangered. The Lord of Misrule, known by the similarly evocative title of “Abbot of Unreason” in Scotland, is one of those totemistic archetypes of the Middle Ages, a fragment of halcyon Merry Old England, along with maypoles and Morris dancing. During the Christmastide season, a layperson would be chosen or elected as a kind of jester-ruler over the festive and feasting commonfolk, a motley fool who mocked piety, subverted hierarchies, and challenged faith and state in a barely-approved anarchic display of pent-up antinomian energies. Similar to the court fool, Malcolm Jones describes the Lord of Misrule in The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World as among the “most important cultural figures of the late Middle Ages . . . a paradoxical figure who, at his most servile, merely entertains the society which patronizes him with empty, puerile buffoonery, but who, at his most heroic, challenges the very assumptions on which that society is founded.” He is, then, a dancing, farting, squawking, drinking, blaspheming challenge to the status quo, who the Medieval Church begrudgingly turned a blind eye to, but with scholars long arguing about just how radical the position actually was; whether the Lord of Misrule promised something that was revolutionary, or was mere pressure gauge. By the Elizabethan Age, an increasing Puritanism throughout the Church made the vaguely-pagan ritual even more suspect, so that the polemicist Philip Stubbes would rail in his 1583 Anatomy of Abuses against this “heathen company” with their “pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobby horses, and other monsters skirmishing.” What Stubbs objected to, with this panegyric, was the carnivalesque.

For Medieval peasants existing in uneasy stasis with the Church, the carnivalesque was a means of subversion for the former and a tool for inculcating pliancy in the latter.

Everybody who spends the better part of a decade in a graduate humanities program has the mental fingerprint of their own favored critical theory terms firmly embedded and frequently regurgitated, shibboleth to the initiated and annoyance to everybody else. Those lacquered rebels with their leather jackets have Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” the serious young women and men who smoked American Spirits have Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomes,” the cultural study theory-heads in black turtlenecks retain Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus,” and the Ren-Faire Crew of Comus are burdened with Mikhail Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque.” I didn’t go to Ren Faires, but I still fell in love with a critical term that evoked roasted chestnuts and stewed lamb, belled hats and checkered pants, warm ale, and spiced wine. If not invaluable, certainly romantic. A term that’s both noun and adjective, that can describe how in the seventeenth century a man like the noble Richard Evelyn’s retainer Owen Flood could be invested with “full power and authority . . . to break up all locks, bolts, bars, doors and latches, and to fling up all doors out of hinges.”

Bakhtin is a theorist who has had a succession of afterlives, a figure much like Walter Benjamin who is forever germane, in part because he combines erudition with the aphoristic, a mystic more than a critic. The Russian Bakhtin was the sort of scholar who turned the manuscript of his lost history of the bildungsroman into rolling papers for his tobacco as the Nazis blockaded Moscow. Associated with the quasi-scientific linguistic movement known as the Russian Formalists, Bakhtin’s innovative, unconventional, eccentric, and often useful literary scholarship animates works such as Toward a Philosophy of the Act and The Dialogic Imagination, which went untranslated into English until the 1980s and 90s, by Vadim Liapunov and the team of Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, respectively. Working at the same time as the Anglophone New Critics, Bakhtin far surpassed them in coining critical neologisms. From his pen came such terms as “chronotope,” “heteroglossia,” and “polyphony,” but no concept derived from Bakhtin has been quite as evocative and contested as “carnivalesque,” from his study Rabelais and his World, completed in 1940 and published in 1965, his dissertation on the seminal French Renaissance writer, a consideration of grotesque Medieval subversions at the dawn of modernity. What Bakhtin defined as the “principle of laughter and the carnival spirit . . . [which] destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities.”

For Bakhtin, living under the at-best drab uniformity of Soviet bureaucracy and at worst the totalitarian nightmares of Stalinism, the carnivalesque was simultaneously a way of describing the ribald, lusty, and earthy rituals coming to an end in Rabelais’ century as well as identifying a mode of critique that could serve to challenge the conventions of authoritarian social structures, both in the Middle Ages and his own day. His was a methodology of collective joy and mocking humor, of promiscuous pleasures and wanton excess intended to turn the world upside down, what Terry Eagleton described in The Ideology of the Aesthetic as a “cackle of obscene laughter, as a vulgar, shameless materialism of the body—belly, anus, genitals—[which] rides roughshod over ruling-class civilities.” Part of the brilliance of Rabelais and his World was that Bakhtin was purposefully agnostic on whether or not the carnivalesque was revolutionary or not; if when somebody like Richard Evelyn allowed his servant to knock the door off its hinges, did that gesture towards genuine utopian possibility, or was it simply a way of letting the lumpenproletariat blow off some steam so that the aristocrats didn’t end up underneath an ax-blade? The other possibility, as Bakhtin considers, is that the carnivalesque allows for both. Nor were questions of cultural subversion and appropriation unique to Bakhtin’s purview. It’s not dissimilar to how Royal Caribbean cruise line licensing Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” in a television ad is both a neutering of proto-punk power and the smuggling of a song about heroin addiction onto primetime television. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, among Bakhtin’s greatest readers, argue in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression that it “actually makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative, for to do so automatically involves the false essentializing of carnivalesque transgression.” At the risk of misinterpreting Stallybrass and White, there is no definite tiebreaker in the carnivalesque’s stalemate between heavenly revolt and mere bread-and-circuses, for the simple reason that sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other, though which is which can often be hard to discern.

Stallybrass and White note that carnival is not simply “a ritual feature of European culture but . . . a mode of understanding, a positivity, a cultural analytic.” Strangely, however, the carnivalesque doesn’t seem to enter much into our discourse today, even though the question of whether or not something like the Lord of Misrule was authentically rebellious remains intrinsic to questions of authentic resistance. For Medieval peasants existing in uneasy stasis with the Church, the carnivalesque was a means of subversion for the former and a tool for inculcating pliancy in the latter. The Reformation disrupted this negotiation, as the new Protestant Religious authorities and the Catholic Magisterium overseeing the Counter-Reformation began to decree that rituals such as the carnival crowning of a Lord of Misrule were more trouble than they were worth. Throughout Europe, particularly the north of Europe where the stultifying Protestantism of John Calvin held sway, such practices become rare or extinct. Protestantism ushered in another totalizing worldview allergic to the slovenly delights of the carnivalesque, and that was capitalism. “From an emerging capitalist perspective—relentlessly focused on the bottom line,” argues the sadly departed Barbara Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, “festivities had no redeeming qualities.”

All of those feast days and hangovers may have had negligible impact on the irregular planting and harvesting schedule of your average yeoman farmer, but as countryfolk crowded into cities and industrial capitalism developed, the carnivalesque wasn’t just a threat to organized religion, but the factory system as well. If the Calvinist work ethic made capitalism possible, the staid Protestant austerity has long outlived its usefulness. The satiation of appetites, the unleashing of libidinal energy, and the unhampered celebration of the grotesque is where modern commercial capitalism thrives. Modern festivities have many redeeming qualities to the businessmen who operate them, the landlord who leases the property for them, and the advertiser who promotes them. Carnival exists in neutered form today; there’s a Christmas tree at the office park, but the landlord leases the space for it; the line between life and death might be thinner on All Hallows’ Eve, but it also makes executives at Hershey’s and Mars richer. Reading Rabelais and His World raises the question of what could be considered carnivalesque today. Where else do we see these particular subversions, what Eagleton described as the “mobile, pluralized, disarticulated body . . . which disowns all instrumentality in the name of sensuous repleteness . . . revolutionary consummation of that logic, as the body’s libidinal practice explodes the languages of reason, unity, and identity.”

The king knows that it’s better to pretend to be the Lord of Misrule himself, the better to keep the peasants in line.

Silicon Valley has long been the City on a Hill for a particular type of commodified dissent that tames the carnivalesque in the service of neoliberalism. The clarion call to “Think Different” inaugurated our current epoch of surveillance capitalism, algorithmic omnipotence, and billionaire “rebels” in the form of Thiel, Bezos, and Zuckerberg. Writing in Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, Thomas Frank astutely noticed (twenty-five years ago, no less) that the counterculture’s “frenzied ecstasies have long since become an official aesthetic of consumer society, a monotheme of mass as well as adversarial culture.” While it’s true that the earliest days of the digital revolution grew out of a certain set of countercultural commitments, a kind of Esalen-Institute-meets-The Whole-Earth-Catalogue creed, the utopian hacker ethos of a shared internet commons has long since given way to a new Gilded Age, where the robber barons hope we don’t notice that they’re not any different from Carnegie, Frick, and Rockefeller.

Northern California naturally imbued the industry with a particular style that’s long been superficially carnivalesque in its appearance; nowhere is that evidenced more than in the one-time liturgical ritual of Nevada’s Burning Man. With its crunchy bohemian performance art displays, the declared intent of upending hierarchies and expanding consciousness, the sacraments of MDMA, ayahuasca, and ibogaine, and even with its own court sophist in the form of the not-so-sadly departed Neo-Sufi Hakim Bey intoning about “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” Burning Man commodifies the carnivalesque, with 2020 tickets starting at the low price of $475. This is rather far from English festivals and special occasions even well into the eighteenth century, which historian E.P. Thompson discussed in his study of cultural change Customs in Common as a period after “weeks of heavy labour and scanty diet” when suddenly “food and drink were abundant, courtship and every kind of social intercourse flourished, and the hardship of life was forgotten.” The hippie vibes aside, the vaguely libertarian politics of the whole thing has long attracted participants like Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, and Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, with another annual resident of Black Rock, Nevada named Elon Musk declaring that “Burning Man is Silicon Valley.” Lest there be any doubt about how rebellious Burning Man is, when Grover Norquist attended in 2014 he gushed in The Guardian how it was an example of “radical self-reliance” in action. Now the king knows that it’s better to pretend to be the Lord of Misrule himself; the better to keep the peasants in line.

Furthermore, since Frank made his observation that the GAP, Starbucks, and Apple repackaged a Beat and hippie anti-conformity ethos into campaigns to sell jeans, coffee, and computers, a far more noxious revanchist-carnivalesque has taken hold, the ultimate dialectic result of capitalism’s brilliantly vampiric logic in terms of coopting the means of legitimate resistance. If in the 1960s you had leftists like Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies acting as carnivalesque merry pranksters against the drab, conservative ethos of the era, then today the seeming spirit of that rebellion has been repackaged by Joe Rogan and the alt-right. The spirit of iconoclasm, heresy, and blasphemy is now a reactionary force rather than a progressive one. This is the stereotype that has liberals and leftists as puritanical scolds, concerned with correct speech, proper thought, and acceptable action, while the formerly buttoned-up conservative is the freak of the political moment, the true inheritor of the carnivalesque willing to upset the balance, subvert hierarchy, and challenge the status quo. Now, instead of selling computers and coffee, the carnivalesque is used to promote ethnonationalism, misogyny, and transphobia. It’s fantastic marketing. And I’m not the first to notice that the right seems to at least be having more fun; in Harper’s, novelist Walter Kirn bemoans the “great liberal switch . . . to sanctimony,” how today much of the left seems defined by “Rigidity. Stridency. Shrillness. Self-righteousness.” There’s something to recommend in his observations, particularly his condemnation of the most uptight aspects of very online liberal culture, but his conclusion is overly aesthetic. While valorizing the progressives of his youth who could be a little weird, who turned him onto the poetry of Robert Bly and the novels of Richard Brautigan, he invests a bit too much into taste rather than principles. It’s true that, from the furry and freaky QAnon shaman to the Proud Boys, there’s something that might appear countercultural on a purely superficial level, but a fascist who smokes weed is still a fascist. What Kirn’s aesthetic argument misses is that in the past fifty years the things which the counterculture rebelled against, those adversaries that put them in the tradition of the Medieval and Renaissance carnivalesque, no longer hold the same residual religious enchantments that they once did. Now the last vestiges of any authentic Christianity have been replaced by the new totalizing faith of free market industrial capitalism (and this of course includes the prosperity gospel of evangelical Christianity as well). Fucking, drinking, drugging, and telling dirty jokes may have been rebellious in the twilight of the Hays Code when Hollywood movies still couldn’t depict sex scenes, especially between unmarried adults, but today the raucous laughter of the carnivalesque is ad copy, not revolution. Ad copy for authoritarian ideas laundered under the guise of rebellion.

Supposedly drawn from the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, the right-wing propagandist Andrew Breitbart’s central axiom was that “Politics is downstream of culture.” Whether the carnivalesque is actually radical or not depends on where you are situated in that flood path. For a vulgar-materialist left, such a contention is nonsensical, a non-starter. This is the position of materialist leftists whom Stallybrass and White call “politically thoughtful commentators that interpret the ‘licensed release’ of carnival” as being “simply a form of social control of the low by the high and therefore serves the interests of that very official culture which it apparently opposes.” In one sense the evolution of the revanchist-carnivalesque would seem to confirm that appraisal—all of those Pepe the Frog memes and right-wing podcast warriors ginning up transgression for the sake of reaction rather than revolution. Bakhtin not only admitted that it was ambiguous as to whether the carnivalesque was genuinely utopian or simply palliative, but also neglected to clarify just how emancipatory its politics necessarily were. The ecstasy engendered by the carnival can also be channeled into the violence of the pogrom; the individual liberation within the collective that happened at rock concerns and love-ins was also apparent in the fascist rally. “The widespread occurrence of mocking rituals would almost suggest some human, or at least plebeian, instinct to playfully overthrow the existing order—whether as a way of harmlessly letting off steam or, at some level of consciousness, rehearsing for the real thing,” writes Ehrenreich. Good or bad, left or right, anarchic or authoritarian, the carnivalesque was most of all dangerous. When Breitbart claimed that by posing a cultural assault, individual factions could gain political hegemony, he was stating his actual beliefs. More importantly, he also happened to be correct. If the left has ceded the carnival to the right, we’ve already capitulated the war, with many of us not even realizing it.  

The carnivalesque has always been at its core a theological construct, a method of religious critique. Knowing which faiths deserve our opprobrium makes all the difference in how effective such a rebellion shall be. When Medieval society crowned an Abbot of Unreason, that daring act of blasphemy paradoxically depended on an acknowledgment of the sacred; heresy and the divine mutually reinforcing and always dependent on one another. To similarly mock Christianity today is toothless because even with the dangerous rise of fascistic Christian Nationalism, we must take stock of who the real gods of this world are. Adam Kotsko in Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital writes that our contemporary normative economic thinking “Aspires to be a complete way of life and a holistic worldview . . . [a] combination of policy agenda and moral ethos.” Just as the Roman Catholic Church was the overreaching and dominant ideology of Western Christendom in the era when the Lord of Misrule poked at the pieties of both pope and prince, now our hegemonic faith is deregulated, privatized, free-market absolutist capitalism. If secularism means anything at all it’s not the demise of religion, but rather the replacement of that previous total system with a new one in the form of neoliberal capitalism.

Here’s the thing though. All of those modern forms of the so-called carnivalesque which I’ve enumerated—whether in the form of Silicon Valley tech-utopianism or its darker twin of shit-posting pop-fascism—only offer the illusion of subversion while actually acting as High Mass for the new faith of our world. That so many of the New Atheists of a half-generation ago have gravitated towards a toxic politics—call it the Dark Enlightenment, neo-reaction, or the alt-right—isn’t surprising, for in their own bourgeois way that inchoate movement which was promulgated by grifters like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett never challenged the gods which actually deserved the iconoclast’s hammer. Mocking a reductionist’s idol of “god” is no real heresy, just as rankling at the values of that other eclipsed faith of liberal humanism is not actual rebellion. The revanchist-carnivalesque, in its casual racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, islamophobia, and with its mocking cruelty, is far from the spirit of what Stallybrass and White described as a “potent, populist, critical inversion of all official words and hierarchies in a way that has implications [for] A populist utopian vision of the world seen from below and a festive critique, through the inversion of hierarchy.” Far from that, the revanchist-carnivalesque, whether in the form of a right-wing comedian pretending that their stand-up is “telling truth to power,” or the tenured academic claiming that they’ve been “canceled,” or the tweeting politician inveighing against “wokeism” may take on the mantle of the carnivalesque; they may affect the pose of the iconoclast, their offensiveness may ultimately be similar, but rather than upending the hierarchy they are at the top of the hierarchy, Lords of the Realm pretending to be Lords of Misrule.

Whither the carnivalesque in the age of Twitter and Facebook, the woke and the anti-woke and the anti-anti-woke, of cancel culture and consequence culture?

So, what’s still useful in Bakhtin? Whither the carnivalesque in the age of Twitter and Facebook, the woke and the anti-woke and the anti-anti-woke, of cancel culture and consequence culture? More than anything it’s remembering that just as the Medieval carnivalesque challenged the faith of its centuries, so too must we develop a mode of cultural resistance commensurate with the gods that reign during our own era. It is imperative to remember that the only methods of resistance are religious because the only things worth resisting are also religious. As soon as, with eyes unclouded by a mystifying rationality, we can identify late capitalism for what it is—a malignant, cannibalistic, rapacious, occult faith—the better we can craft our own spiritual, mystical, and religious revolts against it; the better we can develop impiety against this sect which deserves it, heresy leveled at this denomination that’s earned it, blasphemy directed towards this church that warrants it. “Under capitalism, money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted,” writes Eugene McCarraher in The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, and with that principle firmly in mind, a new carnivalesque to answer its imitation revanchist version comes into focus, with the knowledge that mocking bourgeois values matters little when what really deserves our scorn are different gods, such as the Market, the Invisible Hand, and the Golden Calf of Wall Street. Since in its critique of religion the carnivalesque was always a sacred ritual in its own right, so now must an invigorated carnivalesque level target the shrines and relics and altars of today’s dominant religion.

What made the Abbot of Unreason powerful was that there was an awareness that the system they were up against was sacred, even if it wasn’t good. A similar consciousness is needed today, for what oppresses us is sacred, at least to those who lord over us. To mock the rituals of the state and Church during the Middle Ages acknowledged the charged power and holy aura of those things; to be able to mount an effective campaign against capitalism requires a similar acknowledgment. That’s always the problem with much anti-capitalist discourse—vulgar materialism prevents the well-meaning from understanding that what we’re facing is a transcendent faith and that the only way of resisting it is by recourse to a different and better religion. The Lord of Misrule no longer need target kings and priests, better to mock bosses and landlords. Perhaps this seems like a desire that’s both not enough as well as too much, but in a culture where the exorbitantly wealthy billionaire class with its privatized power occupies a position that no Medieval ruler could have imagined, the faux-carnivalesque toothlessness of a podcaster or stand-up comedian targeting the marginalized is abundantly apparent.

What then would a new carnivalesque even look like, if it’s not to be found at Burning Man or on Twitter, in a comedy club, or the Dark Web? In the past generation so-called “culture jamming” was one method, though of limited utility. Today, the inspiring movement for unionization and the anarcho-medievalist r/Antiwork movement, along with the Great Resignation, is another. Despite the pandemic, the authoritarianism, and the war, there is room for hope at this moment. But what the carnivalesque finally offers isn’t seriousness, but joy. Joy is a revolutionary act. As Stallybrass and White note, “Here, between the merry and the mad, the sensitive soul marks out its own spiritual superiority, not by despising the tavern and the popular festive scene, but by discovering a special transcendental quality to the rough music and through it an intuition of the divine where others fine but coarse pleasure.” If our enemies are having fun, we must have more fun; if they’re laughing, then we laugh louder; we drown their music out with our own ferocious drumming, we obscure their jackboot marches with ecstatic dances, we answer them with the derision, mocking, and snark that they so abundantly deserve. Our puritanism serves nobody but our enemies. As Ehrenreich summarizes Bakhtin himself, “carnival is something people create and generate for themselves.” Capitalism offers us the industrial ready-made, but the carnivalesque we build with our own hands. While we wait for the millennium to come, best to remember that the path of puritanical seriousness is the path of defeat, better to put upon thine head the jester’s hat and the mottled pants of the Lord of Misrule and to try and turn the world upside down again.