Thursday, January 06, 2005

"Bakhtin and Popular Culture”
Mikita Hoy

Good readers make predictions about what they are about to read. See if you can make a prediction about Hoy’s article from its subtitle: “Heterglottal Novelization.” Doesn’t that sound exciting?

Indeed, Hoy’s article delivers on the promise of its subtitle. Her point is to discuss Bakhtin’s theories, since they are useful to apply in interpreting popular culture. His idea of heteroglossia, meaning that a single word can represent many meanings, is applied to popular culture and is the focus of this article.

Hoy discusses Bakhtin’s idea that “the novel is the key form of” the present because of its ability to adapt its language to various situations—from “high culture” to “low” or “popular” culture” (765-766). Hoy argues that Bakhtin’s system of analysis applies not just to novels, but also to “magazines, comedy, advertisements, popular music, art, and fashion, since in their continual interchange and deliberate fusion of high and low styles, politics, parody and pastiche, comic strip and literature, haut couture and street fashion, they constitute a singular shifting dialogism whose rich carnival of discourse” is a part of that sense of “novelness” (766). It sounds to me like what he’s talking about when he says “novelness” is just an overwrought definition of Postmodernity. I’m still left with the “so what?” question. But let’s read on.

Next, Hoy takes up the idea of “Bakhtin and Genre.” She says that Bahktin doesn’t stop at the idea of styles such as “politics, parody, and pastiche” (766). Also important to analysis is whether “the author/artist/designer is Russian or Polish, Jewish or Catholic, male or female,” etc. For Bakhtin, it’s impossible to “identify specific genres beyond” something like “generic wholes,” since apparently too many diverse situations exist among authors. This connects back to the idea of heteroglossia: language cannot be “a static, communicable representation of the speaker’s intention, but a system bearing the weight of centuries of intention” (767). Further, language can be seen as “negating the uniqueness of personal experience” (767). By way of explaining, Hoy cites Sartre in Being and Nothingness: “the ‘meaning’ of my expression always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify… As soon as I express myself, I can only guess at the meaning of what I express” (767).

If one were to think of that in specific relationship to the question of whether a place can influence the behavior (like the sense of humor) of a person, Bakhtin’s ideas would seem to support an argument against that fact—if he’s saying that there’s no such thing as a collective idea, then that would prove me wrong, wouldn’t it?

Hoy says that we can see evidence of heteroglossia commonly in popular culture magazines such as Arena and The Face. Unfortunately, these are European magazines, we’re not familiar with. What seems to be important about what she’s saying though is that the “heteroglottal novelization” at work in these magazines takes place when they “obliterate the distinctions, on the written page and, it is suggested, in youth society, between igh-artistic noncommercial and mass-pop-consumerist, between street and Parisian fashions, art and advertising, pop and nonpop, poetry and lyrics, comic strip and literature, the marginal and the mainstream” (768). So that’s what Bakhtin calls HN and what we call the study of pop culture.

In the section on “Popular Culture and Carnival,” Hoy says that the “kind of ironic, self-reflecting parody of the dialogism inherent in language is often the style of the traditional fool, who mocks others’ uses of words by using them himself” (770). Hoy gives the example of Shakespeare’s Fool in King Lear. I’m thinking of John Stewart on the Daily Show.

She goes on to discuss the politicization of carnival, specifically way “the cruder, more bawdy, brawling, more obviously mocking forms of carnival bring everything down to a single level.” Here the example is “the wave of new American comedians epitomized by Andrew Dice Clay, whose ‘Comedy of Hate’ consists in ritualistic abuse of audience members” (773). She connects his comedy with folklore and other old methods, calling it “a carnivalesque performance which realizes the theories of the textual and the linguistic carnivalesque” (773).

Similarly, many punk rockers, says Hoy, built their acts around annoying others. She talks about how political carnivalization “revolves around the destruction of images sacred in other, different, often opposing cultural levels and dialogues” (774). That’s definitely what punk rock was about—but it also sounds a little like dark comedy, particularly when she goes on to say that it “smacks a great deal of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque version of deah, which he applies particularly to Rabelaisian burlesque (‘in…the grotesque [clownish] portrayal of death, the image of death itself takes on humorous aspects…)” (774).

So, Hoy’s article is dry, but it deals with some important aspects of Bakhtin’s theories.

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