BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Bauer and McKinstry’s (1991) Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic

15 November 2013


Give up on the politics of respectability and organize to present (y)our grotesque (social) body to the the dominating classes in culture.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Bauer and McKinstry’s (1991)[1] Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic

This book presents 13 essays on, as the title suggests, feminism and the early Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and one of his central concepts, the dialogic. Due to the range of the essays, I do not propose to reply to each one, usually because of an overly narrow focus on specific writers, whether the analysis captivated me as in Yelin’s (1991)[2] case or as not in Hitchcock’s (1991),[3] Daly’s (1991),[4] or Berman’s (1991)[5] cases, but also in one case where an overly polemic focus narrows the article’s reach too much, as in Schwab (1991),[6] who seeks, and not without more than a whiff of non-disinterestedness, to defend the French feminist critic Luce Irigaray from her detractors.

This comprises the first of two replies to Bauer and McKinstry’s book, with this one particularly devoted to Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque and grotesque bodies.

By far, Bakhtin’s most frequently invoked concept (perhaps especially amongst feminists) involves the notion of carnivalesque and the grotesque or grotesque bodies, especially as described found in his (1965)[7] Rabelais and His World:

In his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1965), Bakhtin likens the carnivalesque in literature to the type of activity that often takes place in the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). It is not to be construed that the liberation from all authority and sacred symbols is an ideology to be believed and held as a creed. Carnival extracts all individuals from noncarnival life, noncarnival states, because there are no hierarchical positions during carnival there cannot be ideologies for the mind of individuals to manifest.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s four categories of the carnivalistic sense of the world: 1. Familiar and free interaction between people: carnival often brought the unlikely of people together and encouraged the interaction and free expression of themselves in unity. 2. Eccentric behaviour: unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted in carnival, and one’s natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences. 3. Carnivalistic misalliances: familiar and free format of carnival allows everything that may normally be separated to reunite- Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, etc. 4. Sacrilegious: Bakhtin believed that carnival allowed for Sacrilegious events to occur without the need for punishment. Bakhtin believed that these kinds of categories are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances (from here).[8]

Bakhtin’s notion of carnival is connected with that of the grotesque. In the carnival, usual social hierarchies and proprieties are upended; emphasis is placed on the body in its open dimension, in its connection to the life of the community. This emphasis on the material dimension which links humans, rather than on the differences and separations between them, allows for the consciousness of the historical dimension of human life: for every death, there is a birth, a renewal of the human spirit. This process allows for progress. ¶ In the grotesque body, emphasis is placed on the open, the penetrative, and the “lower stratum.” The open (the mouth, the anus, the vagina, etc.) and the penetrative (the nose, the penis, etc.) allow exchange between the body and the world (mostly through sex, eating, and drinking), but also to produce degrading material (curses, urine, feces, etc.). The lower stratum (belly, womb, etc.) is the place where renewal happens, where new life is forged, thus connecting degradation to renewal. The grotesque body is one of excess, rebellious to authority and austerity. ¶  Due to its inscription in time and its emphasis on bodily changes (through eating, evacuation, and sex), the grotesque has been interpreted by some critics as a dimension of the body that permits to perceive the historicity of man: it is in this reading used as a measuring device (from here)

I offer these summaries in part due to the facileness of attempting to paraphrase Bakhtin’s book-length studies but also to point out the breadth of the concepts, which often get very abbreviated in critical or analytical use. While the emphasis on the body (grotesque or not) certainly lends itself to that part of feminist thought concerned with (the often literal) writing on the (female) body, the application of Bakhtin’s concept should amount to more than an allusion an should also keep in mind Eagleton’s (1989)[9] point:

Those liberal humanists who have now enlisted the joyous, carnivalesque Bakhtin to their cause need perhaps to explain rather more rigorously than they do why the experience represented by carnival is, historically speaking, so utterly untypical. Unless the carnivalesque body is confronted by that bitter, negative, travestying style of carnivalesque thought which is the philosophy of Schopenhauer, it is difficult to see how it signifies any substantial advance on a commonplace sentimental populism, of a kind attractive to academics (183).

Sipple’s (1991)[10] “‘Witness to the Suffering of Women’: Poverty and Sexual Transgression in Meridel Le Sueur’s Women on the Breadlines” in Bauer and McKinstry’s text represents a sort of case in point. On the one hand, Sipple’s historical analysis very cogently examines the social treatment of women who, unlike women prior to the Great Depression in the United States who self-identified as hobos, were demonized in the wake of the Great Depression as ‘unattached women’. In effect, these women who involuntarily found themselves outside of the cultural norms for women tended to more slowly become radicalized or proletarianized because they tended to cling to ideas of women more or less in line with bourgeois ideology, either because that conformed with their previous background or because they took it up as a conceit.

Without naming it as such, Sipple’s analysis, which arose out of le Sueur’s own authorial observations during the Great Depression, interrogates the politics of rectitude, a.k.a., the Devil’s Bargain of assimilation, which operates from the premise that if one conforms to the dominant forms of culture, then one will reap its reward. Sipple through le Sueur show, rather, how women thrived more effectively, even in some of the most straitened situations, the less they clung to certain narrowly classist demands of women. For example, for some women who refused to forego the pleasure of sex, those who resisted as long as possible the threat of sterilization tended to fare better psychically, in an ultimate sense, than those who gave over control of their body in a sexual sense to medical practitioners. Similarly, le Sueur tracks certain women who, out of what we might call vanity or more charitably shame, refused to avail themselves of certain social services, like soup kitchens, and actually starved to death. Sipple contextualizes this by also noting that soup lines were frequently male-only spaces that women only approached at their peril.

Of all of the articles in the collection, this one perhaps most memorably drove the point home to me about what becomes at stake in socio-political changes. Le Sueur, as an avowedly Marxist writer, has few illusions about the value of clinging (desperately) to a bourgeois ideology for the sake of one’s dignity: many women starved to death under that banner. The article makes clear not only how important solidarity remains amongst those beleaguered by a system (and the “social services” within it designed to “help”) in terms of surviving those systems, but also that specifically a DIY ethos must prevail amongst such folks. In terms of generosity about food, this value of solidarity appears everywhere round the globe as a living example, but this reticulates itself much further in the notion of community entrepreneurship. I would say without exaggeration if I had any lingering traces of faith that one should expend energy “petitioning” the powers-that-be for a rust of bread, Sipple’s article unambiguously places any such activity as secondary if not tertiary to building strengths and networks of needs-meeting between people beleaguered by the prevailing social order.

Absolutely a worthwhile article, but one that arrives at its analysis with almost nothing of importance from Bakhtin, except perhaps a shared Marxist base and the author’s loose employment of  Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque. Specifically, Sipple cites as examples of the grotesque the non-conformist women in le Sueur’s stories—like the one mentioned in relation to Boxcar Bertha’s (1988)[11] autobiography who did not count it beneath herself to use her body to connive males into providing her a meal. We may remember that the grotesque, for Bakhtin, represents the (typically jovially) earthy and non-idealized. A classist analysis would snidely dismiss this woman’s dancing as vulgarly lower class, but neither Sipple nor Bakhtin mean anything of the sort. Le Sueur observes, precisely, that women who cannot shake such middle class pretensions often starved to death. But this gives no clear ground why Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque comes into play here.

The grotesque body most typically constitutes a spectacle, and in a context of carnival, the body displays itself (or gets displayed) safely, i.e., generally without any threat of reprisal. It participates, usually in a  celebratory way, in its own grotesque spectacle. For the women represented in le Sueur’s texts and analyzed by Sipple, many of the women experience involuntary spectacularization and even amongst the more radicalized women who embrace their spectacular circumstance, it comes with almost no broader social safety (as in carnival) and may amount simply to sheer bluff or assertion: a brae, human assertion, “I don’t have to submit to your demands about my femaleness”—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

At root, I find a straightforward identification of cultural nonconformism and the grotesque body problematic—and I say this acknowledging I may have unfairly read such an equation out of Sipple’s article. For one thing, Bakhtin’s notion of carnival has its critics, who see the widespread social form it represents as simply one gesture or feint on the part of Power to continue its Power—a “sop” thrown to the masses to enlist their continuing loyalty to the State during non-carnival times. Against this critique, I would offer two points: (1) that by some estimates the amount of time devoted to carnival and carnivalesque social forms in the past exceeds the length of time allotted to us now for our ostensible free time (such as weekends); (2) the belligerent recurrence of festivals, often despite vociferous and ongoing protests by church and secular authorities alike, suggests that Power grew up around Festival, rather than vice versa, so that we might more properly understand the matter (from a historical perspective at least) that the non-carnival time represented to “the masses” their own (free or excited) gesture to Power; again, a social contact that has since gotten torn to shreds by bourgeois impositions around industrialization.  But whoever “got the better deal” in social arrangements pre-dating the rise of industrialization, we may see—for instance in the Chambri culture of Papua New Guinea[12] or any several of the cultures in aboriginal Australia[13]—that non-conformism does in fact pose a perennial cultural problem.

I have to declare what I mean by nonconformism: I mean a desire by an individual to live in a manner deemed so inconsistent with prevailing social values that their interdicted behavior gets suppressed or the individual gets murdered, exiled, or scapegoated. I might hypothesize then, in contrast, that the individual who manages to live in a manner typically interdicted without violence, exile, or scapegoating might represent something like a grotesque body. In this way, a child molester in prison might not get murdered, run off, or scapegoated (as typical) because he has access to tattoo ink, or a sundown town might not murder, run off, or scapegoat one particular African-American as an exception, or a community might make a similar exception for a homosexual, as Alan Moore depicts in his (1989)[14] V For Vendetta.

In North America, more than 130 tribes recognize the cultural form of two-spiritedness as a mode of human sexuality not represented by male or female behavioral codes.[15] But while the Lakota wíŋkte, the Navajo nádleehé, or the Mohave hwame might seem to us non-conformist, it seems equally problematic to designate these forms as cases of grotesque bodies as well, especially given the lofty characteristics (of healer, &c) often attributed to such figures. Amongst with Aravani or worshippers of Irāvāṇ in India, who do often find themselves subject to violence despite very ancient traditions and fully public festivals, a designation of this cultural form as a grotesque body or a non-conformist seems more descriptively apt. Culturally, the aravani generate more spectacle (in a negative sense as far as their safety goes) not entirely unlike the situation for a drag queen or flamboyant homosexual in the United States (and in many elsewheres). Given that Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque body links to  (sympathetically) class-based analysis that exposes how the middle class desires to demonize the poor, the marginalization that shapes the lives of many aravani would seem (again) to justly link the designation grotesque body to their spectacle.

If so, this at least rationalizes Sipple’s use of the grotesque body to describe the women in le Sueur’s texts, whether those women enthusiastically come to reject the middle class values that might have formerly dominated their thinking or continue to struggle in the spider web of those values even as they get deemed a spectacle by the society gazing at them. But this still sidesteps Bakhtin’s meaning when he uses the term. In Zamyatin’s (1922)[16] short story “The North,” when an old women gets described as round as a pot-bellied stove or a samovar and just as warmly accepting all comers into her bed—including lonely husbands and young men who need training in love-making—we  have an authentic image of a grotesque body, because while the woman might represent some counter-image to a (snootily) chaste virgin, her membership in the community has no doubt cast on it; she represents a fixture of where she lives and not a hidden one. In the same way, any interdicted forms of behavior that appear during carnival become at least for the duration of carnival not interdicted—the fool-king farts, the fool-priests fuck publicly in mud puddles, and one must stretch the imagination to imagine who and from how many the noises coming from the haystack originate, &c. If le Sueur’s most radicalized women have some degree of autonomy in their visibility and spectacle, they do so by sheer assertion and in the teeth of the onlooking society that would still reject them.

I say all of this not simply to split hairs over Sipple’s and Bakhtin’s use of the term grotesque body.  Social progress toward fair treatment in the public domain for minorities has proceeded to the extent that what once got viewed as nonconformism (in the sense I described above) shifted to something like the spectacle of a grotesque body (as Sipple uses the term), if not yet to the kind of full social acknowledgment of that body (in Bakhtin’s sense of the word), and finally a category of normalization where even the grotesqueness of the body vanishes (as in the Lakota sense of the wíŋkte, the Navajo sense of the nádleehé, &c).

Just as critics suspect the Power of the state behind carnival, one might examine cultural representations of homosexuals as grotesque bodies (in Bakhtin’s sense), particularly in the literally festive, overtly campy forms usually accompanied by wit n laughter. Such laudatory imagery has an effect of fixing the grotesque boy in place, so that as long as he (the dominant image of this remains “he”) does not revert to the older stereotype (as child molester) and does not get uppity and aspire beyond his station (to full cultural membership, most recently in the form of the demand for recognition of marriage rights), then no reprisals tend to come about. Using this kind of analysis on Sipple’s texts, we might say that so long as the recipient of certain kinds of social services continue to remain needful of those services, without reverting to earlier stereotypes (i.e., the good-time girl with no regard for the consequences of her actions) or becoming uppity and aspiring to higher than her station allows (playing gold-digger to some well-to-do male or simply attempting to get up out of the gutter once and for all), then, again, the Power will permit her grotesque body to remain on (static) display.

Most of the images of women Sipple considers seem more in the first two categories: as vulnerably exposed nonconformists or grotesque bodies (in the non-Bakhtinian sense) equally vulnerable to various hostile social forces, like social service workers, or men in breadlines. Sipple’s insight, as also le Sueur’s, involves (in part) the recognition and development of solidarity between such women, i.e., the development of a sense of community wherein their nonconformist behaviors and bodies would lay the groundwork to become grotesque bodies (in Bakhtin’s sense), because Bakhtin’s sense of the word requires the shared culturality of community to exist in the first place. More precisely, out of this shared communality and thus the collective social force of the women together, their grotesque bodies  in the wider social milieu of culture generally would begin to function as grotesque bodies in Bakhtin’s sense. The spectacle of these women in their non-idealized materiality would parody and disabuse the conceits of middle class pretending, &c.

However, not to overstate things, this restorative confrontation of values requires mutual acknowledgment to play out as Bakhtin desires it to. As soon as middle class women (or men) once again take on airs and start demonizing “the poor” through the lens of their own (absurd) idealization, then the grotesque bodies (in Bakhtin’s sense) revert (i.e., they start getting viewed again as) grotesque or nonconformist bodies: the soulful “earth mama” turns into a selfish “welfare queen”; the voluptuary becomes a slut. But this does not negate Bakhtin’s sense of the term, since Sipple and le Sueur specifically diagnose what a group needs to avoid this kind of dismissal: social solidarity (or community: a united front presented to the judging, hegemonic gaze). In the history of the LGBT movement, the vociferous defense of BDSM asserted by a portion of the lesbian community illustrates well how a group can countermand an edict of nonconformism and assert the justness of its presence in the social and public sphere.

Thus far, I have worried on the problematic side of Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque body to the extent that it (and the notion of carnival with it) may serve to “fix” certain varieties of less-honored forms of culturality at static points in culture: thus, homosexuals (or other minorities) might obtain some degree of social recognition or prestige, but they will still hit some variety of glass ceiling and go no further, no matter who “white” they become. Meanwhile, carnival also allows those “high up” to “slum” from time to time, their privilege allowing them access to (parodied, or culturally insensitive) versions of what the lower classes must live daily—thus, at Chicago Blackhawk games, non-Native people can “whoop like Indians” &c.[17]

But first of all, let me say I don’t feel at all convinced that the priests and viziers and scribes and bishops who “slummed” during festival necessarily did so under any tremendous duress. Whether we like to admit it or not, leaving the weighty task of day-to-day leadership to others represents no small reward in the social contract, so long as we find ourselves still in a social structure where the reciprocal obligations (of high and low) still get honored. At the risk of oversimplifying, I will say that we can find evidence this sort of mutual reciprocity more or less prevailed at times during some forms of feudalism; it seems almost wholly absent from our current capitalist social organization. In fact, just as capitalism portends to sever mutual obligations between individuals (by the introduction of full debt payment with money), the mutual obligations between lord and serf seems similarly to have eroded with the advance of capitalism. I take this fact as the distinguishing distinction, in fact, between “feudalism” (in quotation marks) and the various iterations of capitalism we have seen historically.

I mean by this that the “relief valve” of carnival under “feudalism” did not serve merely as a way to reproduce the advantage for those in Power, as a cynical analysis of it would insist. So long as “the masses” had sufficient social force to confront “the lords” as a grotesque body (in Bakhtin’s sense), then the political transaction of festival would function precisely in terms of that mutual recognition, just as the body of unattached women, massed in sufficient numbers, or the body of homosexuals in the United States, massed in sufficient numbers, could “rise” to the level of an embraced, recognized, or acknowledged grotesque body. And, just as sufficient willful blindness on the part of the “up-n-ups” could permit them to start viewing unattached women not as a Bakhtinian grotesque body (as a group) but as merely a mass of grotesque bodies (as individuals), then similarly as the “lords” became able to view “the masses” as “individuals,” then those others too lost their status as Bakhtin’s grotesque body and became simply grotesque bodies (if not nonconformists in need of exile, scapegoating, or extermination). &c. I suggest, again, that this erosive or corroding force co-occurs with the rise of industrialization.[18]

The perils of getting “fixed” as a grotesque body notwithstanding, we should not overlook the social or public emphasis in the term as Bakhtin uses it. In what I’ve written so far, the visible distinction between a (grotesque) body of people confronting another (non-grotesque) body, in class terms, and the grotesque bodies of (individual) people confronting an individual image of Power makes a world of difference. Precisely because we live in such an atomized and fragmented (individualistic) culture, this makes all the more cogent le Sueur’s unambiguous declaration for solidarity, because only a grotesque body (of people)—rather than a body of (grotesque) people—will likely prevail against the face of Power. This does not mean force must meet force—Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance points to one means, the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins point to another, and successful appeals to the vanity of those in Power also have worked in the past, as have emotional appeals. I only mean to emphasize that the petition cannot come from an individual body; it must originate in a social body (even if, like Gandhi at the very beginning) that social body consists of one person. Or, as Susan Parenti has pointed out, the one Polish worker who, when the union leaders declared they’d lost the strike, refused and said “no, no, no, no, no,” and dragged people back to her, refusing to accept that the strike had ended. And by that action, she caused people not to give up and, further down the road, Solidarność prevailed after all.

To contextualize what follows, however, I must say (1) although the phrase “grotesque body” tends to have a pejorative ring in English, Bakhtin’s sense of it stands as non-negative, and perhaps (arguably) sometimes idealizing in its own way; but also (2) he especially uses it in terms of class, at root, as a kind of corrective “from below” for bourgeois pretense. In what follows, this class element appears only slightly if at all, though it returns at the very end. I ignore it in the following because, in attempting to suss out the relationship between nonconformism and the sense that Sipple uses for the grotesque body, it helps to leave out an explicit class analysis—at least as far as trying to distinguish the terms goes.


While the problem of getting “fixed” as a grotesque (social) body remains a problem, the grotesque soil body also shows its necessity in that without uch a face, then Power has nothing to chasten it, qualify it. No doubt, Power remains eager to turn a blind eye to the presence of demand of any grotesque body. When refusing to look, and in a manner similar to the kind of paranoid thinking Said (1978)[19] ascribes to orientalism, this permits Power to treat people (and peoples) as non-recognizable, as marginalized, or (in times of stress) as people or peoples deserving extermination, banishment, or scapegoating. In the absence of a Bakhtinian grotesque body, Power imagines vulnerable (in Sipple’s sense) grotesque bodies, if not (dangerous) nonconformists who want to destroy our way of life, &.

So we may see, if in a distant way, that the critique of carnival as undesirably reproductive of a status quo functions undesirably as one argument that serves to reproduce the current status quo, because it deludes us that the status of a grotesque body (socially speaking) itself portends an ultimate social stagnation. Aside from the fact that if we managed to engineer a utopia that this would require some means to reproduce that social organization as a status quo, then merely because a mechanism reproduces the status quo does not make it yet undesirable. If the social structure of “feudalism” (I persist in using scare quotes) served at least more legitimately than the current social arrangement (in the United States) to meet the needs of most people, then carnival becomes a desirable mechanism in as much as it reproduces a (more) desirable social organization.

But besides this possibly overattenuated argument, in the absence of an actual grotesque (social) body, then Power imagines one and proceeds to set policy and treat people in light of that (by definition, delusional) fantasy.  But the grotesque (social) body also presents an image contrary to the politics of respectability; it adds a check, if not a refutation of, the Devil’s Bargain of assimilation; it generates a social space where a non-vulnerable non-conformism may dwell and play; and it goes, if Jung’s (1921)[20] notion of individuation has it right—to the very heart of social health itself:

It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution: only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion an collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (¶758).

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that accounts needs the norm for its orientation[21] to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (¶761).

The criticism of the grotesque body as fixed and thus, like carnival itself, providing part of the static structure of a culture sidesteps an important aspect that Bakhtin points to. Or—since one hardly needs defend Bakhtin’s ideas only or forever in the exact form he presented them—we may locate an insight in them that may not dwell inherently in them or even runs, in some sense, contrary to his intentions. To suggest that anyone could statically “fix” the grotesque body points to the kind of gesture of oppression that the grotesque body serves to debunk and undo.

Bakhtin invokes a distinction between centripetal (or culture-building/reinforcing) forces in language and centrifugal (or culture-eroding/renovating) forces in language. The oversimplification of this distinction notwithstanding, I note it to point to Bakhtin’s sense of dynamic interaction and change within culture. That which “fixes” anything does so on anti-human grounds—while culture must reproduce itself, once it starts insisting on reproducing only certain fixed forms, we find ourselves well on the way to totalitarianism. The grotesque and non-grotesque bodies must dialogue or we dwell in an oppression, &c.[22]

Whether Bakhtin erroneously reifies “the folk” as a grotesque (social) body or whether we only misread him that way, we may still avoid the error regardless. In any case, we may see how the desire to fix a given form of grotesque body (social and otherwise) has problematic consequences: the social services delivery systems require a certain kind of addict, a certain kind of homeless person, a certain kind of poor individual or group, or else it withholds assistance. This, of course, resembles exactly any sort of institutional demand for certain forms of being: if you wish to get a replacement river’ license, you must provide some form of proof of your current address, without which you will not receive a new license. We can describe both circumstances (e.g., the social services case and the driver’s license case) as demands for a certain degree of assimilation—and at least outward appearance of conformity, whatever one privately believes in one’s heart, &c.

The primary difference in the examples involves how the petitioner gets viewed: those requesting a license remain full human beings, up to the moment they fail to present the proper (needed) document and then get branded as inadequate, as a grotesque body (“what freak doesn’t have mail proving where they live?”), while those requesting (or finding themselves beleaguered, as le Sueur documents) by social services get viewed as grotesque bodies first, ones that must conform to the institution’s idea of bodily grotesqueness, in order to receive the service that transforms them, in theory, into a full human being.

This all, as a last point in this blog, points to how assimilation fits into Bakhtin’s scheme (if at all). If, as the above shows,  straightforward identification of non-conformism with bodily grotesqueness opens a can of worms, we should expect the same or a similar can to open when we look in the direction opposite from social non-conformism at social assimilation.  I have suggested that non-conformism represents a perennial difficulty in culture and define it as behavior so (viewed as) interdicted that its practice remains unfeasible for those who desire it, such that the cultural response devolves to murder, exile, or scapegoating. The “milder” form of negative social response that permits certain behaviors to continue—whether entirely out of sight (e.g., the octoroon mistress of Southern plantation owners, or the anonymous subculture where married heterosexual men seek out oral intercourse from homosexual men online) or in certain permitted social forms (e.g., drug usage of marijuana but not heroin, the cross-dressing of high school males during Spirit Week, transvestitism in comedy, or nauseating cultural appropriation on Halloween)—involves the sense of the grotesque body Sipple invokes; it is a grotesque body (especially an individual’s) that society does not embrace (as in Bakhtin’s sense), and if it touches it at all, it does so through intermediaries and specialists (like social workers), who tend at best to have only pity for the grotesque body, if not contempt, frustration, and exasperation. The deliberate ghettoization of Sephardi Jews in Israel as a labor buffer between Israel’s dominating culture and the Palestinian people it seeks to destroy represent another case of such an intermediary, but history has no shortage of “fixers” who handle Power’s dirty work.

I do not want to understate the problem of non-conformism; even the most enlightened and tolerant culture would, in principle, have varieties of interdicted behavior it could not bear to persist in the social body. But to worry out the farthest details of this seems less necessary (at the moment) than getting  grip on certain more basic interdictions against soil behavior—specifically (to pick one example) sexuality, or even more specifically: homosexuality. The various exterminations and persecutions (past, present, and ongoing) point up the social issue of non-conformism, and expose the history of homosexuality as grotesque body (in Sipple’s sense). By contrast, the Lakota wíŋkte, the Navajo nádleehé, or the Mohave hwame, and other similar figures, point to assimilated social forms—they no longer represent nonconformisms (indeed, if they ever did), but become a part of the cultural matrix against which one might push non-conformingly.

Imagine a dubious history: at some distant point in the past, a male-bodied person of the Lakota people (or the Navajo or the Mohave) expressed a desire to, or simply behaved, in a culturally female-bodied way.[23] In this particular example, I doubt that murder, exile, or scapegoating resulted, and perhaps not even that sort of non-embracing sense of grotesque bodies (in Sipple’s sense). But even if that occurred as initial reactions to such figures, the present fact of the wíŋkte, nádleehé, hwame, and others in other cultures, suggests that eventually these cultural individuals obtained at least the status of an acknowledged grotesque body (in Bakhtin’s sense). Of course, this evolving sense of cultural reaction and adjustment to an appearance of non-conformism itself needn’t have to have occurred—a cultural alternative may have appeared and found itself immediately embraced. Amongst the aboriginal peoples observed by Spencer and Gillen (1904), they noted how innovations to established rituals had a very slow, incremental process of change very much controlled and overseen by the fully vetted male (elder) members of a tribal group. In the cases observed, the proposed changes usually involved only very small changes; in general, the elders kept a very strict and conservative hold on the content of those rituals that reproduced society, in part because their very knowledge of specific rituals provided their social prestige in the first place. Similarly, amongst the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea, knowledge of secret names constitutes a major basis of claims to power (by men, most often), so anything that threatens to modify the effect of that cultural content would get resisted as a diminishment of their power and social prestige.

I say this only to suggest that the speed of cultural change, at least, may tend to the slower than the faster side. As far as homosexuality specifically in the neighborhood (Australia) as the example cited above:

Indigenous homosexuality has always been an uncomfortable topic to discuss, for Aborigines and their supporters. The reasons are complex but we know that it was practised traditionally, both as a sexual release for teenage boys and young men who couldn’t find female sexual partners, and in initiation ceremonies (from here)

This informational tidbit comes from a much longer article documenting the extent of post-Contact sexual violence in aboriginal communities. I cite it not to ascribe blame, but to contextualize any attempt to understand if someone like the Lakota wíŋkte dwelt amongst the original Australian people. From here, a survey of the essentially scant information gives no evidence of fully adult individuals who occupied some third zone apart from the usual male and female designations, even as various formal and informal sexual relations were documented.[24] Potts (from here) insists:

Other groups believed certain people possessed both male and female spirits in one body. The [sic] were referred to as “Two-One” people – similar to the concept of “Two Spirit” people in North American Indigenous culture. Because of this, they were allowed to engage in relationships where others would not have been (¶2).

We can compare the vagueness of this with the Tiwi Islands, where 4% of the islands’ population consist of sistergirls, the local “general term for transgender and transsexual men” (see here, ¶1). Significantly:

Sistergirls reject early anthropological studies of Tiwi society, which omitted their identity from the texts. Transgenderism has been a part of Tiwi custom since time out of mind, but in the old days the Sistergirls were called “Yimpininni”, and were honoured, rather than subjected to the rape, violence and marginalisation that came with western colonialism. These horrors continue to plague them, and are only increasing with each year that passes (¶4).

Again, whether an “activist phase” occurs in the emergence of a non-conformist social body, whether new cultural forms get taken up immediately or slowly or in some other way, then in the same way that non-conformism (as I described it above) results in murder, exile, or scapegoating (by definition) then conformism results (just as automatically, by definition) in celebration and integration. In one kind of totalizing view of a culture, then, we might note its diversity, which will include (a hierarchy of) celebrated cultural forms and other less-celebrated but not wholly-interdicted forms. In another view of culture, we might see less of a hierarchy, where the prestige of, say, a Lakota wíŋkte or a Tiwi Island sistergirl has no reference to some sense of an “alternative” form of (social body) sexual identity.

In the United States, for instance, the proportionately small numbers of women n people of color as CEOs of corporations, even though people of color and women now participate in greater numbers in US corporations, points to the first kin of view of culture. It seems easy enough to speak of this kind of assimilation of people of color and women into corporate “culture” as grotesque bodies in a sense somewhere between Sipple’s and Bakhtin’s; women and people of color receive a sort of grudging acknowledgment, less hostile or pitying the social service worker’s attitude toward the ragged poor but nowhere beholden to grant full recognition of the Other as Bakhtin advocates. One sees clearly how women and people of culture might band together in Solidarność to present their grotesque social body to the CEO (n dhis pwoer structure generally).

This corporate example drags in a problematic aspect I might have better left out. In general—as also with positions of political leadership, as Margaret Thatcher showed—atypical bodies (women, people of color) tend to asend to these positions by taking on the characteristcs of the typical (white male) bodies in power. The Tiwi Island yimpininni and the like proceed exactly in the opposite way, by creating a new social space where their social body (both as an individual and as a represented of the extended group they have membership in) exists, persists, and thrives.

But once it becomes part of the non-grotesque social body—whether by a dubious and non-total assimilation or by a genuine accommodation by culture to a previously non-recognized mode of social being—this also shifts what constitutes nonconformism in the culture. Doubtless in part due to predominantly male-only research, the often transvestite figure of the shaman represents an accommodated social figure for males but the extent to which societies acknowledged similarly non-conformist females remains unclear. I do not mean by this to ask whether (1) what we call forms of lesbian behavior ever occurred (obviously it did), or (2) if what we call more or less permanent lesbian relationships were acknowledged by cultures (obviously at times they have), but rather where or in what cultures a figure something like the shaman, the yimpininni, &c, ever achieved fully accommodated (not assimilated) status. As one example, among some Balkan people of Albania, women known as burrneshas (or sworn virgins) live strictly as men.

In the burrneshas, we see particularly where a new nonconformism might appear, because the social contract demands the burrneshas promise to remain virgins for life. this, at least, constitutes the necessary social fiction, however reality actually plays out for each individual. But the would-be burrnesha who also seeks to express sexuality openly would fall into an interdicted category. In any case, we can again enjoy the “tension” of almost by reflex viewing the burrnesha or yimpininni as an example of a grotesque body (in Bakhtin’s positive sense, signaled in part by the fact that we must have specialized words to distinguish this social body of people) even though the Balkan culture (and, apparently, to  lesser extent the Tiwi Island culture) do not designate them as grotesque bodies (presumably).

To all of this, we might return the notion of class I have bracketed out through most of this discussion. In trying to make comparisons between aboriginal cultures, present-day Europeanized Balkan cultures, corporate culture, and our own messy heap, to anachronistically apply “class” across such a vast historical span could only obscure things completely. However, if we understand it in not merely economic terms, but as sectors of membership to which one might belong or not, then the statuses of burrnesha, yimpininni, hwame, and so forth, represent culturally accommodated classes just as surely as the bourgeois well-wishing social workers occupy a class distinct from their “poor” clients and just as surely as Arandan men who select a boy-bride from the wrong moiety would find themselves in interdicted hot water as well.

We might propose descriptions for the four (categorical) classes of social body in the foregoing in terms of the interdicted, the transacted, the embattled, and the applauded.[25]

The interdicted (or nonconformist in my sense) comprise those social bodies that culture cannot suffer to live, that it must exile, murder, scapegoat, or (at the very best) refuse to touch and ignore as much as possible. The largest social body of this type involves, of course, the criminal world—and indeed vast portions of the practice of Power stand essentially on this body to get its dirty work done, but it almost always requires invisibility. As soon as this world comes to light, all of the other classes more or less in concert must vociferously deny it, &c.

The transacted (or grotesque bodies in Sipple’s sense) comprise those social bodies that culture feels it must manage, hence it consists often of “managing” (the poor” or having to engage in various kinds of (social-human) transaction with grotesque bodies (in Sipple’s sense). I suspect all mercantile transactions may fall in this category. Also, importantly, the management of prison populations occurs here and not as part of the interdicted (criminal) world. In particular, this class of social body involve the curious tension that the managerial forces cannot honestly desire to do away with their client-population, except that one individual might die because another one will come along shortly. In so-called primary cultures, the closest thing to something like this class (of social bodies) likely encompasses non-adults; in later expanding cultures, slaves. The relation of slavery and transactions between men and women and children comes into play as well.

The embattled (or grotesque bodies in Bakhtin’s sense) comprise that social body that engage, whether with hostility or with great good humor, in a tug-of-war with the applauding class over the definition of what constitutes acknowledged modes of being in the given culture in the first place. By embattled, I do not mean to suggest only open warfare; again, the conduct of the conflict occurs, ideally, in a dialogic way, and this ideal will come about when (if not only when) the social body that confronts the applauding body does so from a sufficient position of strength (not necessarily mere numbers) that the applauding body cannot ignore it. I imagine that inter-cultural contact very often laid the groundwork for this sort of encounter, as opposed to the sort of violence practiced in war that lays a foundation for transacted classes of social bodies.

The applauded (or non-grotesque body in my sense) comprise the dominating social body. It has nothing going for it inherently except that it controls the terms of the discourse (except as it tussles with the embattled class) and thus congratulates itself for its own grandeur, wisdom, and necessity.  As Jung noted,

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life (¶761).

When the applauded class imagines its social norm as absolute, then that norm ceases to serve its purpose. And since the collective norm of any culture does not reduce to the norm only of a group (even the dominating group) within that culture, then a real conflict with the actual collective norm will arise when that individual group’s way gets raised to a norm itself—an approach Jung declares “pathological and inimical to life” and which Said (1978) described in orientalism as psychologically paranoid.

This then shows once more the necessity of Bakhtin’s sense of the grotesque body, apart from (reasonable) worries that it serves merely to reproduce the (undesirable) status quo. Without an embattled class to challenge the applauded class, then not only does the dominant class’s norm become contrary to social health, it also will tend more and more to treat all classes of people as interdicted or transacted. The discourse that insists on calling the recent attack in Tiananmen square an act of terrorism as also the British authorities’s absurd but frightening effort to baldly equate journalism with terrorism represent cases in point, but so does the general extension of the meddlocracy into the lives of nouveau pauvre (thanks to the deliberate and willful act of financial terrorism of 2008) simultaneously with the demands to gut the so-called welfare state.[26]


[1] Bauer, D. M., & McKinstry, S. J. (1991). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. i–vi, 1–259.

[2] Yelin, L (1991). Problems of Gordimer’s poetics: dialogue in Burger’s Daughter. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 219–38. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[3] Hitchcock, P. (1991). Radical writing. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 95–122. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[4] Daly, BO (1991). The central nervous system of America: the writer as in/in the crowd of Joyce carol Oates’s Wonderland. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 155–81. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[5] Berman, J. (1991). A quote of many colors: women and masquerade in Donald Barthelme’s postmodern parody novels. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 123–34. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[6] Schwab, GM (1991). Irigarayan dialogism: play an power play. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 57–72. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[7] Bakhtin, MM (1984). Rabelais and his world (trans. Hélène Iswolsky). Bloomington: Indiana University Press

[8] In addition, the feast also figures prominently:

The feast is always essentially related to time, either to the recurrence of an event in the natural (cosmic) cycle, or to biological or historical timeliness. Moreover, through all the stages of historic development feasts were linked to moments of crisis, of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in the life of society and man. Moments of death and revival, of change and renewal always led to a festive perception of the world. These moments, expressed in concrete form, created the peculiar character of the feasts (Rabelais and His World, 9).

In medieval and Renaissance culture, two kinds of feast prevailed: the official and the unofficial (or Carnival). The former “sanctioned the existing order of things and reinforced it” (9); it consecrated the present “hierarchy, the existing religious, political, and moral values, norms, and prohibitions” (9) by the way of the past. Carnival, by contrast, opposed itself to all of this in a point by point inversion (parody) of everything official: in place of official seriousness, Carnival brought festive laughter; instead of the strictly maintained hierarchy of feudal culture, Carnival reflected absolute equality; instead of official prohibitions on sexuality, speech, etiquette and association, Carnival lifted all bans; in place of official glorification of the past, Carnival festively annihilated it. The suspension of hierarchy had especially profound effects, as it allowed contact between people otherwise completely separated by social designation:

[S]uch free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the life of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind (ibid, 10).

[9] Eagleton, T. (1989). Bakhtin, Schopenhauer, Kundera. In K Hirschkop and DG Shepherd, DG (eds.). Bakhtin and cultural theory, pp. 178–88. New York: Manchester University Press.

[10] Sipple, S. (1991) ‘Witness to the Suffering of Women’: Poverty and Sexual Transgression in Meridel Le Sueur’s Women on the Breadlines. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 135–55. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[11] Thompson, B, and Reitman, BI (1988). Boxcar Bertha: an autobiography. New York: Amok Press.

[12] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press.

[13] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here.

[14] Moore, A., Lloyd, D., Whitaker, S., & Dodds, S. (1989). V for vendetta. New York: DC Comics.

[15] C.f., Roscoe, W. (1991). The Zuni man-woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

[16] Zami͡atin, YI (1968). The dragon: fifteen stories (trans. M. Ginsburg). New York: Vintage Books.

[17] Yes, of course, carnival allows the “poor” to ape at Power as well.

[18] And doubtless other factors as well.

[19] Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[20] Jung, CG (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[21] In Jung’s text, he italicizes orientation and indicates with “(q.v.)” its cross-reference in the glossary.

[22] To hopefully not further muddy the water, just as the form of the content of the mechanism of cultural reproduction does not change even as the content of the forms reproduced must, so does the social structure of the opposition between the grotesques (social) and non-grotesque (social) bodies remain constant even as the content (as well as the members) of that form must vary, more or less continuously. Or, to express this another way, one may think cybernetically in terms of homeostatic living systems, where the notions of form and content lose their (philosophically) conundrumating quality and morph into those key variables necessary to keep the living entity alive (analogous with form) and the sorts of fluctuating changes the organism undergoes to absorb the variety of perturbations (inputs) that it experiences in changes of state (analogous to content).

[23] By suggesting this, I do not propose that Occidental gender-binary notions must have prevailed at the time.

[24] Absence of evidence of course doesn’t constitute evidence of absence.

[25] Obviously, other terms might suffice as well.

[26] A development that resembles a wider application of Reagan’s gutting of funding for public housing and its redirection into funding for housing directed at the not-poor classes.

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