Notes from a Rabelais reading group

by Suspended Reason

Cristóbal hosted a Rabelais reading group recently and put together a supplementary lit packet of Charles Taylor & Mikhail Bakhtin. Those excerpts were one of my highlights of the reading group, so I thought I’d excerpt and add commentary.

We do these things in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels…

— from Taylor’s A Secular Age, quoting an old French cleric

If social structure is the patterned arrangements of role-sets, status-sets, and status-sequences” (Merton, via Turner), anti-structure is world upside down”—a temporary period of normative inversion, both comic and ecstatic, which dissipates the tensions of conforming to social structure day in and day out. We find versions of it in Roman Saturnalia, Mesopotamian festivals, medieval Feasts of Misrule, Greenwich comedy clubs, Dionysian rites, Brazilian carnival, Berghain dance floors, Aztec renewal ceremonies…

Order”—that is, structure—“binds a primitive chaos, which is both [order’s] enemy but also the source of all energy,” Taylor writes in A Secular Age. This implies a an almost bureaucratic deadening, if structure remains in place too long, or too oppressively, which must be revitalized (e.g. charismatically). It’s striking in part because it’s nearly the opposite of the wine skin metaphor, where the pressure of the suppressed builds until bursting. Today, we use broken windows metaphors and slippery slope metaphors to understand the relationship between order and chaos; not all cultures seem to agree on the steam-valve virtue of transgression. Give an inch, cede a mile. This is the POV of Pentheus, teen ruler of Thebes in Euripides’ Bacchae, who ends up torn limb-from-limb by the play’s end. But it is ambiguous whether his demise is the result of gripping too tightly,” or loosening his grip. It seems that, if we reason about complex inexactitude through metaphors like these, we can justify any prescription we’d like by the analogue we choose…

Taylor continues, describing a seasonality of punctuated equilibrium.

The binding [of order] has to capture that energy, and in the supreme moments of founding it does this. But the years of routine crush this force and drain it; so that order itself can only survive through periodic renewal, in which the forces of chaos are first unleashed anew, and then brought into a new founding of order.

Order akin to the lifecycle of an organism. The question for a ruling class is: Is the structure substantially transformed on the other side of chaos? On the other side of dissolution and resolution? Might charismatic leaders mobilize the unbound energy, rebind it to new structure? What does it mean for order to survive” across these little deaths?


As structure breaks down, so too do the roles and hierarchies which separate people, which promote difference over unity. What Turner calls communitas” emerges in its place, a fellowship full of spontaneous creativity. This is, IMO, where theories of anti-structure become a little too romantic for my tastes—but there is a truth in the notion that the artist must drop out” of structure. Must free himself from its cognitive-structuring constraints and work in private; must cycle between periods of solitary incubation and periods of exposure and feedback.

Cycles: A time for society, a time for solitude. A time for order and a time for dissolution. The ecological approach, here, would be to advocate for a heterogeneity of strategies and solutions—for an almost seasonal rhythm, a polytheism of practice. Structure vs anti-structure is a dualist description of this ecology of practice, the idea that there are many diverse ways or styles” of being, that should be dynamically moved between.” (The same merits of frequency-dependent diversity espoused in The ecological perspective.) We are much less seasonal now than we once were, when agriculture dominated the economy, before indoor heating and air conditioning, before cars and office work. But we still see some anemic version of this seasonal ecology of practice in contemporary notions of holiday—the vacation as cyclical retreat, a way of getting away from it all” and recharging batteries,” to use more modern (but still energy-based) metaphors.

No totalizing code, no single best-fitted-all-the-time-way-of-being—either from the perspective of governance, or the perspective of personal wellbeing. A code which brooks no limit” is tyrannical, the spirit of totalitarianism” (Taylor).

All structures need to be limited… Yet we can’t do without structure altogether. We need to tack back and forth between codes and their limitation, seeking the better society…


Perhaps, as RIPDCB has argued, no serious modern intellectual would profess belief in the possibility of a single, totalizing system. And yet I am persuaded by Taylor’s claim that modernity is deeply… invested in the myth of the single omnicompetent code,” and that liberalism itself makes such a claim. Perhaps there is a break between lip service and practice; perhaps the situation has changed since when Taylor wrote A Secular Age 15 years ago. (Liberalism seems less secure than in the oughts; we hear much today of alternative ways of knowing,” though it’s unclear how much this itself is lip service.)

Certainly one consequence of the eclipse of anti-structure was this propensity to believe that the perfect code wouldn’t need to be limited, that one could and should enforce it without restriction.

The above Taylor writes during a discussion of the French Revolution, positioning revolutionary spirit as a complete overthrow, a normative inversion, one tyrannical totalizing code replacing another. This is the utopian” strain of revolution, the notion that the simple negation of existing code can bring about a City of God. Even the festivals designed by French revolutionaries served to uphold and propagandize for the moral code of the new society”—rather than being a release from normal normativity:

The aim of the exercise was not to open a hiatus in the now reigning code, but to give expression to its spirit, and inspire identification with it. The anti-structural elements of Carnival were sometimes borrowed, as in the dechristianization of Year II, but this destructive mockery was directed against the old religion and the ancien régime in general. It aimed to complete the destruction of the reigning code’s enemies, not to suspend the code itself…

We see similar impulses today with the purification” and rectificaiton of comedy, comedy being a form of carnival in miniature—the subversion of manners typically expected in polite society. (“Laughter as the solvent of all boundaries,” is how Taylor describes Bakhtin’s stance.) Revolution is the anti-structure to end all anti-structure.”

A final thought on anti-structure in 21st century America: If Carnival is Catholic anti-structure, then what are the Protestants left with? Visiting the Ringling Estate recently, learning about the history of the circus, I was struck by the way that the circus is perhaps the closest America got to carnival. And yet, rather than become a freak (one who violates normativity), the visitor to the circus pays money to watch the freaks, to eat popcorn in the bleachers and maybe throw some kernels at the performers. A spectator sport, an E Unibus Pluram voyeurism, like television.