Carnival is not seen by the people; they live in it and everyone lives in it, because by its very definition it involves all the people. While carnival takes place, there is no other life beyond it. There is no escape from it, for it knows no spatial boundaries. During carnival time it is possible to live only according to its laws, that is, to the laws of carnivalesque freedom. Carnival has a universal character; it is a special condition of the whole world—its regeneration and renewal in which all participate.

Mikhail Bakhtin

The Art of François Rabelais

Revolution is a festival of the oppressed and exploited, not a stage show put on for them by a party bureaucracy. When Socialist Realism had its opening night in 1934, Mikhail Bakhtin, an internally exiled critic, saw the festive energy of the masses reduced to the vicarious pathos of the spectator. But he also realized that the democracy which opposed this was not a matter of inviting the people to play a part in Western liberalism’s comedy of manners. The popular culture which he championed and theorized was a drama in which power was forced out of the wings and onto the stage where it could be displayed, mocked, contested and transformed. Bakhtin is perhaps the only major contributor to Marxist cultural theory for whom popular culture is the privileged bearer of democratic and progressive values. It is true that this faith in the people was anarchistic and utopian, and lacked the most rudimentary respect for political organization and strategy. Bakhtin stood in a tradition of Russian Populism which vividly demonstrated its political flaws throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. But this Populism was the forebear of Russian Marxism and an enemy of Russian liberalism. Even Marx was not immune to the tempting idea of a direct passage from peasant communitarianism to socialism. It is surely no accident, then, that Bakhtin’s commitment should provide us with a brilliant corpus of socialist cultural theory.

This theory grew and matured in the atmosphere of social change, intellectual polemic and artistic experimentation which pervaded the 1920s and early 1930s. Bakhtin extracted the radical kernel of a flourishing Russian modernism, tore off the mystifying shell of formalist aesthetics and art, and reminded this new practice of its social origins and purpose. The literary techniques which made language strange and self-conscious—parody, oral narrative styles, grotesque and fantasy, quasi-direct discourse, prose euphony and so forth—did so to foreground not language as linguistic material but language as the material of competing ideologies. These practices were instances of a kind of populist deconstruction he called dialogism. The dialogical work accepted that its production was an historical act: not the signification of a static reality by a lonely subject but an active discursive intervention conditioned by precise social and historical circumstances. The concept itself is meant to emphasize that the logic of discourse is neither grammatical nor borrowed from reality but is a logic of social interaction, in a metaphorical sense, a logic of dialogue. In a society driven by social struggle, however, this dialogue takes necessarily sharp forms, as the ceaseless unmasking of the authority of ruling discourse by the exposure of the social interests which put it into play. The popular culture he reconstructs for us appears shockingly modernist in its tactics: a tradition of parody, farce and plebeian laughter far removed from reactionary images of a pious, backward and stolid ‘folk’.

At a time when formalist trends in deconstruction which prevent the politicization of culture are dominating criticism, the rediscovery of Bakhtin has great import. Whereas in formalism the indeterminacies and conflicts within discourse are connected to a metaphysical flaw of language or Being, in Bakhtin’s work they are the necessary result and condition of the social development of language itself. What popular culture reveals in the ‘double-voicing’ of parody and buffoonery is not an internal limit on discourse but the fact that every utterance, if it is to be meaningful, must be connected with a speaker, an ideological situation, social interests and a social context. For any socialist convinced that there exist general or generalizable interests, this discovery cannot be politically neutral. It suggests a link between popular interests and deconstruction which could be used to transform literary critical techniques into material for cultural politics.