Mikhail Bakhtin [1895-1975]
Russian Critic/Theorist

WWW Links:
"Bakhtin Laid Bare"
Bakhtin Centre
"The Grotesque Corpus"
Mikhail Bakhtin
Major Works:
The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helen Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1968.
Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: Universit
y of Texas, 1986.

From Evil Genius: An Experiment in Fantastic Philosophy (work in progress) by David Lavery

In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin shows that in the past four hundred years a preoccupation with politeness, taste, manners, and rational, institutional values has eclipsed an earlier, pre-modern fascination with the "grotesque body," imposing a "bodily canon" on expression and on perception itself. This earlier wonder at the "earthy"--created and sustained by folkloric imagination--is readily apparent, according to Bakhtin, as the shaping force behind the exuberant but thoroughly grotesque genius of the French priest. The "grotesque" body depicted in pre-Renaissance art in general and Gargantua and Pantagruel in particular is one which, according to Bakhtin, unashamedly "fecundates and is fecundated, that gives birth and is born, devours and is devoured, drinks, defecates, is sick and dying."

The "bodily canon," however, asserts instead that human beings exist outside the hierarchy of the cosmos. It stresses that we are finished products, defined characters, and in its reductionism attempts to seal off the bodily processes of organic life from any interchange with the external world. 

The bodily canon therefore seeks to: 

     1) close all orifices; 
     2) stop all mergers of the body with the external world; 
     3) hide all signs of inner life processes and bodily functions (hence, for example,
     prohibitions against farting or belching in public); 
     4) ignore all evidence of fecundation and pregnancy; 
     5) eliminate protrusions; 
     6) present an image of a completed, rational, individual body.

As a flight from the reality of human embodiment, the anality described by culture critics from Sigmund Freud to Ernest Becker and Norman O. Brown (who argued for the essential  anality of capitalism's pursuit of "filthy lucre") is thus thoroughly modern, both cause and effect of the bodily canon. 

Rabelaisian man, if Bakhtin's thesis is correct, possessed "true . . . fearlessness" in the face of the human condition. Because he felt his own body to contain within it the presence of the cosmos, because he experienced his embodiment as "a point of transition in a life eternally renewed, the inexhaustible vessel of death and conception," Rabelaisian man found himself at home in the world in a way that modern man finds difficult to imagine. Before the censure of the bodily canon, Bakhtin insists, even urine and dung could appear to be "gay matter, which degrades and relieves at the same time, transforming fear into laughter" and not as memento mori. ("In the modern image of the individual body," Bakhtin reminds, "sexual life, eating, drinking, and defecation have radically changed their meaning: they have been transferred to the private and psychological level where their connotation becomes narrow and specific, torn away from the direct relation to the life of society and to the cosmic whole. In this new connotation they can no longer carry on their former philosophic functions.") 

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Repression of the bodily--the achievement of centuries--is now efficiently accomplished in a single childhood. All parents, myself included, pass on the bodily canon to our progeny. It's the least we can do.