High Theory/low Culture: Postmodernism and the Politics of Carnival

By Mendible, Myra | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

High Theory/low Culture: Postmodernism and the Politics of Carnival


Mendible, Myra, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


One of the more exciting aspects of academic postmodernism has been the attention it has generated in popular culture. With the dissolution of what Andreas Huyssen called "the great divide" between elite and popular culture, the image of professors as high-brow arbiters of decorum and taste is now often replaced with another, equally reductive perception: the professor as carnival barker, enthusiastically leading young minds away from the cultural center and towards a sideshow of debased or alien social elements. As theorists of popular culture, we shamelessly cast our gaze on cultural productions that once were "beneath us," recognizing pornography, working-class literature, B-movies, pulp fiction, and soap operas as relevant objects of scrutiny. If, as Huyssen asserted in After the Great Divide, modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, "an anxiety of contamination by its Other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture," then we might say that postmodernism delights in this "contamination" (1). It marks the historical moment when academics climb down from the ivory tower and join the carnival in the streets.

The official sponsor of the carnival was of course postmodernism, that rambunctious child of what Fredric Jameson calls "late-capitalism." In theory, postmodernism initiated a symbolic inversion fraught with carnivalesque implications: the margins became central in Western epistemology and the "low" (the popular, the vulgar) achieved a privileged status in "high" theoretical discourse. Academic discourses have translated Mikhail Bakhtin's observations on the anarchic vitality of the carnival spirit into critical trends that celebrate the decanonization of art and culture. In this discussion, I will examine this celebration of the margins in the context of U.S. cultural centers, focusing on carnivalizing strategies that mask or defer identity, collapse borders, channel dissent, and simulate folk rebellion. In the process, I will critique the role of high theory in the production of a mass-mediated pseudo-festival-a festival in which fresh images of "the folk" are embraced and exploited.

In its institutional context, postmodernism emerged in the '60s as legitimized protest. Its various tactics simulated the transgressive and regenerative vitality of Bakhtinian carnival: rejecting ethnocentric notions of self and nation, proclaiming the arbitrary nature of all hierarchies, and celebrating creolization and eclecticism. By emphasizing the importance of "lower" strata of culture as opposed to the uniform, official "high culture," postmodernists resuscitated a project initiated by Bakhtin's work on carnival. Bakhtin's methodology had rejected the cultural centrism that upheld a social and ethnic hierarchy in Russia during the years prior to World War II. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin argued that Rabelais "summoned all the resources of sober popular imagery in order to break up the official lies and the narrow seriousness dictated by the ruling classes. He did not implicitly believe in what his time `said and imagined about itself'; he strove to disclose its true meaning for the people" (439). Bakhtin's analysis of the carnivalesque sought to revitalize the connection between "high" and "low" culture, a connection virtually ignored in scholarship since the Renaissance. In Bakhtin's view, "the grotesque tradition peculiar to the marketplace and the academic literary tradition have parted ways and can no longer be brought together.... The link with the essential aspects of being, with the organic system of popular-festive images, has been broken" (109).

With the emergence of formerly colonized or marginalized subjectivities, this link is necessarily reestablished. In recent years, the so-called "third world" seems bound to invert a long-standing hierarchy of power by invading the "first"-with its literature, its immigrants, its languages, foods, fashions, and movies. …

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