Perfor(m)ative Bodies and Signs: Reading the Carnivalesque in Salman Rushdie’s Fiction


  • Rajni Rajni Department of Indian and World Literatures, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India


Rajni is working as a research associate for a project on disability studies at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. She recently graduated from the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India with a Ph.D. in English. She was part of a program on Collaborative Research in Humanities at Queen’s University, Belfast (UK) during 2014. From Panjab University, Chandigarh, she has a Masters degree in English. Her areas of research are Bakhtin, Body Studies, Contemporary English fiction, Disability Studies, Popular Culture and Postcolonialism.


The thesis addresses two issues: perforative and performative aspects of somatic and semiotic fields in fiction. Examining the life-worlds framed by select writings of Salman Rushdie, it attempts to trace the figuration of the carnivalesque, one of the central ideas proposed by Mikhail Bakhtin. Janus faced image, which emerges as a signature figure in the course of inquiry and is spelt out in the conclusion, evinces the innate instability of such a split of these two fields, enabling a space for pluri-singularity, which is at once, an in-betweenness. Further, using certain critical strategies of intervention, it explores the ambivalent zones emerging from the intersections of the bliss of aesthetic and the allurement of mundane, and the ones between active remembrance and forced forgetfulness. This has been examined through a reading of multiple narrative structures, assemblages of texts and textual moments that narrativize discursive structures, blending creative, critical and theoretical reflections. 

Figuration of the carnivalesque has been studied in the realms of drive, form and act. Hence, the thesis focuses on three strands, namely, desires, body images and actions. Each Chapter focuses on specific texts or groups of texts in order to trace the manifold dispatches emanating along the lines of various ruses and tropes on these lines. To explore the nature of the carnivalesque, it identifies the various frontiers, of bodies and signs, and their perforation to examine and follow the structure they form: a structure in the making that opposes fixity and finalization. 

The tripartite structure of the thesis studies various borderlands that are fundamental to Rushdie’s writing. These are the spaces where carnivalesque emerges; I call them frontiers. I argue that carnival emerges in such frontiers, in the in-between space. These become significant in exploring the trajectory of carnivalesque as it is grounded on the fundamental premise of ambivalence, i.e. touching of the frontiers. Carnivalesque is effected in such spaces. The Chapters examine these three frontiers as the intersecting points that put the texts chosen into dialogue amongst each other. 

Starting with the premise of the rhyzomic flows of desire, the thesis tries to trace the various moments of their interruptions identifying diverse passageways of percolation, fragmentation and encapsulation. People, just like things, leak into each other, further refiguring into splinters and transfiguring into multitudinous collages in the course of becoming. Exploring the polarized body, Bakhtin situates it in the zone of possibility and indecisiveness. Desire emerges in this zone, then moving along the axes of gratification/discontentment that enters an unending loop from where it progresses into the state of either perforation or repression, or further moving towards seduction. The second Chapter engages with this movement, which constitutes the carnivalesque. Transgression is very much inherent to this mode, and remains dissipated throughout.

The absorbent body confers these flows the materiality and serves as contour over the continuum of becoming. Grotesquerie becomes the referral point to explore the logics of dismemberment, re-assortments and thresholds. Remembrances of dismemberment, when they accumulate corporeally found protrusions, often mould into an elephantine structure, as it is explored in the third Chapter. Further, trying to unravel the corporeal turn of discourses of being, it addresses the question of thresholds, the shared contours and the frontiers of being which are central to the grotesque ontology. Bodies, says Jean-Luc Nancy, do not inhabit matter or discourse; rather they inhabit the limit, the gap which functions as the basic proposition for inquiry here. This is also the mid-point, point of convergence as it were, of somatic and semiotic that are involved in the constitution of open bodies. 

Along with the pursuit of remembrances of dismemberment and thresholds, the study further engages with the remembrance of silence as against the terror of sound; as John Cage asserts, no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound. This becomes a significant gesture in sketching the frontiers of silence vis-à-vis sound/noise. This can be seen also as an act of figuring the alterity, which is the focus of the last section of the third Chapter.

This alterity is crucial in the formation of performative subjectivity. The dialogic self comes into being by taking the other into consideration, which is the focus of the fourth Chapter. It explores, what I call, non-integrative subjectivity emerging from the narrativization of remembrances, fictions recounting the life-world. Destabilizing the relation between the signifiers and the signified is one of the primal moves of fictionality. As an act of displacement, this destabilization of the significatory function is directly linked with the taking possession of a discourse. This is the central chiasm that is at work here. The driving force of this chiasm is fantasia. This is explored through three frames of fabulation, simulation and forgery- in relation to carnival. Carnival is the stuttering and the sauntering act of the participant. With stuttering comes the word, in turn an utterance and thus a tale. Signs further make a leap into the fictional world, often a fictional leap into the magic world. With lurking comes the subject of uninhibited participation. 

Concluding remarks invoke the signature figure of Janus, a figure of the equivocal nature of the sign, in the spirit of Bakhtin. A body, for him, either in the form of corporeal or as an oeuvre, i.e. an assemblage of signs, remains incomplete, open ended, lending itself for an infinite possibility of transformation. It reinforces one of the basic propositions of the present study: the function of perfor(m)ative (world)-views. Bakhtin proposes the Janus face as a propounding image for the carnivalesque, for non-polarized worldviews: to extend it further, it is about plurivocality of discourse, non-totalizing nature of the structure. Taking the challenges of contemporaneity into consideration, as an extension of the insights from the thesis, concluding remarks hint at the possible trajectories of engaging with the posthuman condition constituted by technological interruptions, by the machinic interventions that amputate and rattle the frames of embodiment.

The thesis signs off with the metamorphosed figure of Hermes with that of Janus, which is also suggestive of the infinity of interpretation, of becoming in terms of Bakhtin. My attempt is to engage with one of its nodes/moments, a reading of Rushdie’s fiction through the frames of bodies and signs, having the carnivalesque as its referral point.