Bakhtin’s transformation, through which the folk population

Bakhtin’s Carnival, ‘a pint of tripes’

A large amount of material has been published on humour (Bevis 2013, Weitz
2009, Billig 2005, Good 2002, Dentith 1995, Legman 1969/2006, Feinberg 1967,
Freud 1905/1966), with some focus on China (Davis and Chey 2013, Clasquin 2001). However,
none is more appropriate than that of Bakhtin to analyze the phenomena of Errenzhuan. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin developed Aristotle’s theory of laughter,
as a unique characteristic of the human species which acts as the ultimate
wisdom and power of the human being, and applied it in folk carnival. To
Bakhtin, laughter is not an abstract form but a highly interactive process between
actor and audience. It is a simultaneous uncrowning and renewal, a gay
transformation, through which the folk population defeat the authoritarian
commandments and prohibition of death and punishment after death, hell and all
that is more terrifying than the power exists on earth (Bakhtin 1984: 69-122).

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Although Bakhtin articulated the transformational
power of laughter, he did not idealize the folk art form. In fact, he refers to
the peasantry grotesque realism as ‘a pint of tripes’, which is ‘blasphemous
rather than adoring, cunning rather than intelligent; they are coarse, dirty
and rampantly physical, revelling in oceans of strong drink … and endless
coupling of bodies’. However, Bakhtin highlights the essence of ‘a pint of
tripes’: the stomach, intestines, belly are the very essence of life and
revival. Through the grotesque realism, the folk manages to ‘build its own
world in opposition to the official world, its own church versus the official
church, its own state versus the official state’. This folk grotesque laughter gave
man consciousness and a new outlook on life, which defines the path of truth,
symbolizing the ultimate victory of human kind (Bakhtin 1984: 90-141).

Laughter is the key essence of Errenzhuan, through which the official
world is mocked, power is reversed and the folk obtain victory. ‘A pint of
tripes’ has been the main reference of Errenzhuan
and the focal debate of Errezhuan’s
value in contemporary China. This paper argues that the grotesque images and
sexual reference of Errenzhuan
represents the vitality of folk life. Once the grotesque realism is eliminated
under ideological direction, Errenzhuan
loses its essential folk power of defiance and renewal. The ability of the Chinese party-state to maintain market monopoly
lies at its role as ‘central bank’.

 

‘Central Bank’

The phrase ‘central bank’ was coined by the
famous French cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who devised the concept of
capital to measure social hierarchical power (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).
Bourdieu’s capital is not limited in the monetary sense, but expands to a wide
range of exchange forms. Whilst in Western countries the most
valuable capital forms are economic and cultural, in socialist regimes such as East Germany and the Soviet Union, Bourdieu argued that the
government can withhold all forms of capitals, monopolize market and act as a ‘central bank’ (1998). In these countries, the most
powerful capital forms were political and symbolic capital, the unequal distribution of which is the source of the observable differentness
in patterns of consumption and lifestyles’ (1998: 6, 16, 42).

China, a regime
structured on the Soviet model, has many examples of making new elites through
party-state redistribution of political and symbolic capitals, such as Errenzhuan. The initial rise of Errenzhuan in the new millennium was the result of direct CCP support
through re-allocating resources, which included access to CCTV – which is under
the tight management of the CCP (Zhu and Berry 2009) – and the selection of
Zhao Benshan as a representative of the National People’s Congress, the highest
political status a Chinese citizen can acquire. It was through
such redistribution of political and symbolic capital that Errenzhuan was able to convert these political and symbolic capitals
to economic and cultural capitals, granting Errenzhuan
peasant artists a new elite status and the art form a nationwide entertainment
industry.

Power is based on
recognition, which is why the dominant group is eager to produce and reproduce their culture and
beliefs. Misrecognition, on the other hand,
is what Bourdieu calls the function of ‘symbolic violence’, which he defines as ‘the violence, which is
exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity’ (1991:167). In other words, agents are subjected to
forms of violence (treated
as inferior, denied resources, limited in their social mobility and aspirations), but they do not perceive
it that way; rather, their situation seems
to them to be ‘the natural order of things’. Folk grotesque
images and speech are the essence of folk culture, through which to mock the
official culture and generate symbolic victory and renewal of the masses
(Bakhtin 1984: 21, 141). Upon receiving new
political and social status, Errenzhuan
artists become the ‘servants of the state’ and they lose the folk power of
mocking and challenging authority. This wittingly or unwittingly exploited
position is an act of symbolic violence.
It is within the party-state role of ‘central bank’ that Errenzhuan as a cultural industry is development.

 

Cultural
Industries with Chinese Characteristics

When Adorno first coined the phrase Culture Industry in the 1940s, he did
not use it to celebrate a new economic opportunity, but the entrapment of
artistic value. Adorno
criticizes the capitalist market and profit driven production which led to the
merging of both high and low cultural forms: ‘under capitalism all production
is for the market; goods are produced not in order to meet human needs and
desires but for the sake of profit, for the sake of acquiring further capital’
(Adorno 1991: 5). Adorno
therefore reminded readers not to take the phrase ‘industry’ too literally as
it referred to the standardization of cultural forms, which lead to both the high and popular art forms losing their tradition
and spirituality (Adorno 1991:
100). 

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