Encyclopedia of Body Adornment

By Margo Demello | Go to book overview

B

BAKHTIN, MIKHAIL

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) was a Russian philosopher and literary scholar, whose work on the French renaissance poet François Rabelais is useful to understanding many current body modification practices.

Born in Russia, Bakhtin attended St. Petersburg University during the time of the Russian Revolution and, in 1941, submitted a dissertation on the French Renaissance poet François Rabelais while at the Institute of World Literature in Moscow. Because his professors found his ideas too controversial, he was denied a doctorate (he instead received the degree of Candidate), and his dissertation, Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance was not published until 1965 (renamed Rabelais and His World).

Two of the focuses of Rabelais and His World are carnival and grotesque realism.

For Bakhtin, European carnival represented for peasants an arena in which the styles and values of high culture could be inverted, thrown on their head, and ultimately debased. Carnival is marked by drunkenness, rowdiness, and bawdy sexuality, all of which lie outside of and threaten the dominant social order. More importantly, carnival is free and utopian, in marked contrast to the increasingly regimented morality of the Renaissance, with participants feeling part of a larger collectivity. Bakhtin also demonstrated that the utopian elements found in popular-festive forms are always expressed in material bodily form, thus such festivals are marked by images of sexuality, birth, feasts, slaughter, cursing, violence, and defecation; what he called “material bodily affluence.” Bakhtin writes further, “in the atmosphere of Mardi Gras, reveling, dancing, music were all closely combined with slaughter, dismemberment, bowels, excrement, and other images of the material bodily lower stratum.”

The combination of sexuality and excrement, and death and renewal, is a primary feature of what Bakhtin calls the grotesque concept of the body. The grotesque body—which is open, secreting, protruding, and unfinished—is everywhere present in the world of body modifications. Tattooed bodies, pierced bodies, and surgically altered bodies can be seen as always in progress, their borders open and extended, and through the acquisition of more tattoos, piercings, or surgery, they are literally bodies in the act of becoming.

Because much of contemporary body modification is either oppositional in nature, or at the very least contrary to socially accepted ways that the body can be used, Bakhtin’s work can be used to understand how the types of bodies that are acceptable within the contemporary Western social order—clean, white, unaltered, and unmarked—are opposed to the stretched, tattooed, pierced, and

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Encyclopedia of Body Adornment
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Entries vii
  • Guide to Related Topics xi
  • Preface xv
  • Introduction xvii
  • A 1
  • B 23
  • C 55
  • D 91
  • E 93
  • F 109
  • G 125
  • H 139
  • I 155
  • J 167
  • L 175
  • M 181
  • N 197
  • O 207
  • P 211
  • R 229
  • S 233
  • T 255
  • W 291
  • Y 295
  • Z 297
  • Resource Guide 301
  • Bibliography 305
  • Index 319
  • About the Author 327
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