In Bakhtin and Adorno
Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay From Rabelais and His World discusses the role of laughter and comedy in past and present culture. “Laughter and its forms represent . . . the least scrutinized sphere of the people’s creation,” Bakhtin writes (2002, p.83). He discusses the development and practices of carnival-type festivities in Roman and medieval times. As opposed to official feasts in which rank and order were of great importance, or “a consecration of inequality” (2002, p. 88), carnival existed as “a suspension of all hierarchical precedence” (p. 87). The introduction to the test suggests that Bakhtin’s examination is an example of scholars finding politics “in activities that at first glance might not seem so political” (2002. P. 83). After all, carnival as Bakhtin describes it, seems the antithesis of being political. Yet, carnival’s almost exact opposition to the conventions of official feast and its under-the-radar guise as laughter and superficiality poise it to be a perfect piece of political power. It is through comedy that the common person had the power to rebel, to speak and act freely, sometimes in ways that changed lives. It would be interesting to examine how much the role of comedy today resembles the role of Bakhtin’s medieval carnivals. After all, today comedy is still referred to with terms such as “low brow” and comic actors are not considered to be “serious” actors, as if what they do is somehow less real than that which other actors do. Perhaps today’s comedy plays a very similar role for our cultures, though it is not necessarily indulged in during a feast or special event.
Theodor W. Adorno’s essay On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening discusses the roles of capitalism and commodity in the value and quality of culture, specifically music. Adorno brings up ideas such as light music versus serious music, popularity and its relationship to value, the importance of being a best-seller, “the authority of commercial success” (2002, p. 279), the value of a work apart from the value of its performers and quality, the eye-catching or “volume” of a work as its greatest asset (p. 283), originality versus imitation, self-worship as the new real value of culture, and much more. Adorno’s comments ring true, especially in relationship to observing the great contrast of positive and negative criticism available in the media today. Popular performers are chastised for pushing boundaries at the same time they are castigated for sounding just like someone else or acting in a way some deem to be distasteful. They are envied and praised for being rich. It is hard to imagine anyone saying of one of today’s popular vocal performers such as Miley Cyrus, “I wish I could sing like she did.” Instead, it is her lifestyle, physical appearance, and apparent wealth that are considered to be markers of her success, and most especially wealth. An especially interesting phrase that Adorno uses is “the authority of commercial success” (2002, p. 279). It is interesting that he chooses to use the word “authority” instead of “power.” Authority itself can be considered a type of power, yet by selecting the word “authority,” Adorno leaves the reader to question who exactly is granting authority. Do the person or people experiencing commercial success have the power to grant this authority, or does it come from some other source, such as the audience? Does this authority have a greater authority above it, and is that authority concerned with quality, or only capitalization? These are questions that are equally relevant to the present as they were in 1938 when Adorno originally published his work.
Adorno, Theodor W. (2002). On the Fetish-Character in Music and The Regression of Listening. In Cultural Resistance: A Reader (Ed. Stephen Duncombe). New York: Verso. (Original work published 1938).
Bakhtin, Mikhail. (2002). From Rabelais and His World. In Cultural Resistance: A Reader. (Ed. Stephen Duncomb). New York: Verso. (Original work published 1965).