The Phantom Parade: Bakhtin’s Carnival and the Storming of the Capitol
Art by Alex Schaefer (IG: @paintwithalex)
Nothing stands out from January 6th quite like the hastily-snapped pictures of the “QAnon Shaman, the shirtless, tattooed man who marched through the Senate chamber in a Viking costume. Seeing the man’s face—mouth agape in giddy mischief, paint-streaked forehead covered by a floppy bearskin—my first thought isn’t shock, or anger, or even cynical amusement.
Instead, I think of Carnival, the annual season of debauchery between Christmas and Lent. During those boozy, bawdy weeks between late December and early March, the rules of everyday conduct are suspended, giving way to a celebration of the grotesque and the primal. Public demonstrations are a fixture of the season, and carnival-goers often take to the streets in homemade costumes to thumb their noses at God, government, and the common good.
Carnival rituals are widespread and time-honored, with regional variants both charming and absurd. The Venetians’ unique spin on the centuries-old celebration involves costume balls and mask competitions; the Greek town of Tyrnavos commemorates the event with an annual phallic festival. There is an order to all the madness, though: a universal carnival-language underlying these diverse and storied traditions.
“Carnival,” Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “has worked out an entire language of symbolic, concretely sensuous form.” Carnival rituals have a physical lexicon, ranging from the event’s collective performance to the gestures of its individual actors. Bakhtin maintains that Carnival satisfies universal, primal urges that cannot be transposed to verbal reasoning or abstract thought. Hence, the sole outlets for Carnival’s chaos are the artistic imagery of literature and the material world. Riots and their implied “body language” fit neatly into this second category.
Bakhtin’s Carnival is not mere spectacle—it is life shaped according to play, driven by eccentric behaviour and profanation. The carnival theatre stirs the “latent sides of human nature to reveal and express themselves.” We saw plenty of this on January 6th, as protestors vandalized Capitol grounds, leaving pipe bombs, firearms, and even feces in their wake. As for the profanation, look no further than Nancy Pelosi’s office, a de facto loot box-cum-photo booth for the Capitol insurgents. Consider also the defacement of hallowed symbols like the Speaker’s podium, and Bakhtin’s notion of “carnivalistic blasphemies” seems spot-on.
But no carnival is complete without a final ritual: the mock crowning and subsequent de-crowning of the carnival king. The king epitomizes carnival’s subversion, highlighting the “joyful relativity of all structure and order” and countering determinate hierarchies: the jester elevated to the throne. One has only to think of the mercifully ex-commander in chief to conclude that the events of early January are long in the making; what were the last four years, if not the protracted run-up to a tumultuous de-crowning?
The beginning carnival sequence is pure farce, with costumed revellers acting in service of Bakhtin’s notion of carnivalistic mésalliances. Through mésalliance, “free and familiar attitude spreads over everything and things that were once self-enclosed… are drawn into carnivalistic contacts and combinations.” This notion of subversive recombination also has material implications, most notably where the human body is concerned.
Mésalliance underlies the physical “lower stratum” of the body, which integrates both obscene and creative functions. This anatomical region includes the belly, the buttocks, and the genital organs. In it, the carnal act of urination and the spiritual act of procreation are grotesquely intertwined. This bodily disjunction can be found in endless cultural symbols, from Celtic sheela-na-gig carvings that combine fertility and obscenity to graveside prayers that meld holiness with the literal debasement of a lowering coffin. Hence, typical carnival regalia includes distended bellies, enlarged phalluses, and animal motifs—read: plastic Viking horns—as part of this grotesque image of the body.
Nightfall marks the bodily stratum’s shift from vulgar spectacle to large-scale subversion; the sun sets and puckish carnival-goers are recast as phantoms, the sunny parade as a gleeful death sequence. This, according to Bakhtin, is crucial; carnivalistic symbols must be expansive, containing not only themselves but their opposites. Hence, through inversion, the carnival simultaneously degrades and sanctifies. Beast-forms succeed Man—until daylight intervenes and the transmutations are reversed, Man mercifully is left intact. At the heart of the carnival, finally, is banality.
The carnival uses dialogue to unmask the truth behind arbitrary ranks and ceremonies. By this measure, the Capitol insurgents have been successful, letting daylight in on the banality of the legislative process. Their acts of vandalism can easily be erased, but the image of lawmakers made fearful (and later, brittle) by their subjects is indelible in the public imagination. Populist opportunists have already seized on the riot’s absurdity, which exposes vulnerabilities in the rule of the few over the many.
For now, there is justified alarm over the mob: aimless at best, hateful at worst, this was a crowd seduced by the clarion call of a cultish showman. The attack on the Capitol was driven by anger—a sentiment incubated for the past decade by austerity and inflammatory rhetoric. For all the media hand-wringing, the storming of the Capitol is not so much a meditated attack against democracy’s ideals as it is the result of the ferment of 2010s—a decade twice bookended by economic catastrophe and hollowed out by political invective. At the risk of sounding trite: the masked culprit is late-stage capitalism and its cool but flawed logic of security through globalization.
America’s populist turn is only one piece of the puzzle; global commerce spawns global discontent. Across the Atlantic, disgruntled gilets jaunes also march under red-white-and-blue. Yet, the storming of the Capitol met near-universal public alarm. What disturbs and provokes about the attack are its home-grown particularities, not its premise; America is cozy with reactionism, but not its consequences. January 6th showed us the casualties of cable news and its rote sloganeering: a public incapable of voicing its dissent with reason and restraint. Nevertheless, the tongue hits where the tooth hurts, and the baying masses orchestrate their own humiliation—both in public taste and under law.
The Capitol riot fails on other levels as well. Lacking Bakhtin’s stipulated “familiar and free contact among people,” it also collapses as carnival. While the riot did momentarily upend hierarchy, it failed on the level of meaningful transgression by neglecting Bakhtin’s notion of cooperation. Rather, the event sought to meld officialdom with only one variant of the “lower” cultural strata: White, male, and Christian. The riot’s spirit was destructive, enforcing further separation and alienation between the so-called lower strata. Bakhtin would call it a “pageant with footlights,” a vulgar spectacle that poses no real challenge to authority.
Nevertheless, the insurrection contains a legitimate teaching moment. It collapses as carnival because individualistic ideologies and nihilism—think: cynically voting red in 2016 “as a joke”—are at odds with the carnival’s egalitarian purpose and thus invite the latter’s ridicule. The carnival ought to be a collective, democratic effort, blurring the lines between spectator and participant.
One would assume that the current moment, with its emphasis on public protest, would give rise to the carnivalesque. Yet, for all the apparent social progress of the 21st century, carnival and its rituals are seldom incorporated into mainstream, online activism. For Bakhtin, the advent of modern technologies decisively isolated society’s upper stratum from the lower cultural strata. In his own time, Bakhtin lamented that the Renaissance’s mechanistic worldview supplanted the organic notion of the world, spelling the decline of the carnival—an eerie parallel to our current moment and its triumph of the digital over the corporeal, of discord over solidarity.
The carnival is by premise anti-elitist and universalist, upending through sheer collective imagination the rule of the few over the many. Crucial to Bakhtin’s carnival is that it mocks both those in power and their subjects—the carnival-goer laughs at his reflection, conjuring, however briefly, “the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that represses and restricts.” Our current task is to apply the subversive power of the carnivalesque to the social and economic barriers we face today.
Bakhtin, M.M. “Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics.”
—. “Rabelais and His World.”