Bakhtin, Carnival, and Air Guitar

In Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (this version translated by Helene Iswolsky 1984), he develops a theory of “carnival” in the medieval period. The concept comes from his analysis of a tradition called the Feast of Fools, during which burlesque performances, bodily-rooted humor, laughter-inducing spectacles, and other forms of play took place.

air-guitarThese disorderly carnival activities contrasted with the official, orderly, and royal rituals. They presented a time period in which hierarchies and social roles could be destabilized for common folks—a celebration of the temporary suspension of official order. Bakhtin is careful to not to call these “performances”; rather, he feels that the performer/audience dichotomy fails to grasp the participatory, communal body of people that experience this carnival together. The carnival is not individual; it is shared.

Mikhail Bakhtin probably wouldn’t have considered air guitar to be carnivalesque. He restricted the carnival to a particular time period, even though he traced origins of carnival to Roman saturnalias and other ancient rituals. He remained hesitant to grant carnival status to modern practices, and, in the book’s introduction, he describes changes to this carnival play in the subsequent Romantic period and afterword. But traces of the carnival remain today (he calls this the “carnival spirit”), perhaps in ways Bakhtin did not foresee.

Yet so much of air guitar fulfills his criteria for carnival:

  • the way the judges, performers, and audience member laugh together
  • the way “there guitar gods” (and their guitar gods) have been supplanted by “air guitar gods”
  • the way “air” puns undercut the authority of “real” music jargon
    • air traffic controller = live sound engineer
    • air-judicators = judges
    • master of air-imonies = master of ceremonies
    • the numerous persona names that index real and fictional people (from Aristotle to Shred Nugent)
  • the way the competition brings the judge format to an almost absurdly abstract level
  • the over-the-top performance of fandom from audience members (which collapses the divide between their performance and the stage performer’s performance)
  • the bodily humor

air-guitar-world-championships-6Bodily humor is key. When an air guitar appears on stage, an air phallus may be soon to follow. The gestural line between air guitar and air phallus remains ambiguous. And Bakhtin theorized the body as a key site of humor. He called this the “grotesque body.” He felt that the carnival always focused on new beginnings and the future. The preoccupation with the past, among officials and royalty, made life appear fatalistic, but an emphasis on the future by common folk allowed for a celebration of possibility. The body—and particularly the orifices—could be a site of future possibilities, since it could pass material substances through it and transform them (think: food to excrement). Here’s Bakhtin again:

“Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body…” (26)

In many ways, air guitar, like Chaucer’s“fart jokes” or Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit, hones in on the aspects of the body that are socialized to be suppressed, contained, or silenced–creating communal laughter through temporary boundary transgressions. Although air guitar playing appears to use the arms, it certainly draws a lot of attention to the lower region of the body. In this sense, the performances celebrate what could be there—a potential reality.


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