Battle in Print: Questioning the carnivalesque

Ashley Frawley, 7 January 2010

Many commentators have remarked, almost in passing, on the carnivalesque nature of protests in recent years. In fact, during the writing of this piece, it was difficult not to notice the peppering of coverage surrounding actions planned around the Copenhagen climate summit with phrases like, ‘behind the blue face-paint and carnival atmosphere…’ (BBC News, 2009), and ‘the city centre will become a carnival of parades…’ (Independent, 2009). Yet few have considered the particular commonalities shared between carnival and contemporary protests in greater detail or considered the implications that such ritualised displays of dissent may have in terms of representing a dynamic process for social change.

Carnival as ‘Revolution’

In many cases this comparison is not unwarranted, as many groups actively seek to recreate the carnivalesque in their protest actions. For example, one author writes that contemporary forms of ‘direct action’ ‘do-it-yourself’ protest are ‘finally breaking down the barriers between art and protest’ and that, ‘new forms of creative and poetic resistance have finally found their time’ (Jordan, 1998: 129). A broad range of groups, from the ‘Biotic Baking Brigade’ (which uses public ‘pieing’ as their weapon of choice) to Reclaim the Streets, attempt to emulate what they see as the subversive nature of the carnival:

‘From the Middle Ages onward, the carnival has offered glimpses of the world turned upside down… [It] celebrates the temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order; it marks the suspension of hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions’ (BBB, 2004:39; RTS, 2002).

Such groups have described their use of carnival as:

‘an attempt to make Carnival the revolutionary moment. Placing “what could be” in the path of “what is” and celebrating the “here and now” in the road of the rush for “there and later”... It is an expansive desire; for freedom, for creativity; to truly live. This desire, for the present social order, is revolutionary’ (‘Reclaim the Streets!’,1997).

For many practitioners, including those who participated in 1999’s ‘Carnival Against Capital’, carnival’s appeal lies in its being ‘halfway between party and protest’ bringing together the ‘volatile mixture of carnival and revolution, creativity and conflict, using rhythm and music to reclaim space, transform the streets, and inject pleasure into politics’ (Notes from Nowhere, 2003: 174). It is a ‘ludic protest’ offering flexibility, the expression of a diversity of identities, encouraging ‘people to enjoy and imagine other possible worlds’ and ‘solicit contributions to a counterculture fantasia, or a human community garden’ (Bogad, 2006:55).

Even those outside of activist movements have celebrated the growing propensity for demonstrations, regardless of their outcome, to represent expressions of ‘collective joy’ in modern societies which apparently share fewer public rituals (Ehrenreich, 2007: 260). Moreover, unlike many of the sources cited above, not all actions resembling carnival do so with such consciousness of purpose. So common have carnivalesque themes in protest become that it is difficult to imagine an action which does not demonstrate some aspect thereof, from masking, dance, music and street theatre at April’s G20 protests to a lone attendee at an oil refinery strike clad in a grim reaper costume (and to whom a fellow striker had yelled, ‘the placard would have been enough!’ [Black, 2009]).

Indeed, protests may play a similar role in modern social structures as former public rituals like the carnival of feudal times, but whether one is consciously mobilising what one theorist calls ‘tactical carnival’ (Bogad, 2006) or, like the lone grim reaper, merely going through the motions because ‘that’s what one does’, the effect is nonetheless more likely to be the complete opposite of what most practitioners probably have in mind.  As will hopefully become clear momentarily, far from being ‘revolution itself’ as the introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin’s oft-cited volume celebrating the subversive nature of the carnivalesque would have it, it is about as ‘revolutionary’ as a new hair product, and equally anti-capitalist. That is, not only do the vast majority of such demonstrations by and large fail to threaten the existing order, but they are actually both part of and reflective of that order, and further, act as a reaffirmation of existing hierarchies and social structures.

Carnivals Against Capitalism

It should be noted that although this critique might be extended to a broad range of protest, I recognise that not every action has lofty aims of bringing down the existing social order. However, with activists brandishing placards and banners reading, ‘System Change, Not Climate Change’ and ‘Abolish Capitalism Now!’, one wonders how the actual realisation of such goals might be accomplished with anything less than a ‘revolution’ of a very different sort than those involving hairspray and collective displays of public frustration.

In addition, more and more there is a propensity for the ends to be subordinated to a primary concern with the means—to planning actions, responding to a perpetual state of crisis and raising awareness and converts. What precisely a movement hopes to achieve in the long run and how best such a goal might be attained seems a peripheral (and sometimes altogether absent) consideration. As one commentator has pointed out:

‘It seems we have very little idea of what it might actually require to bring down capitalism. As if all it needed was some sort of critical mass of activists occupying offices to be reached and then we’d have a revolution…’  (‘Give up Activism’, 2001)

If those carrying banners proclaiming that, ‘Capitalism isn’t working—another world is possible’ truly believe their own words, the first step is to realise that, personally liberating though it may be, it may actually be little more than a subtle reaffirmation of capitalism in the guide of protest.

Anthropology of Ritual and Protest

Any anthropologist would be keenly aware of Victor Turner’s 1969 thesis concerning the role played by what he termed the ‘liminal’ in social rituals, and the propensity for ritualised public expressions of dissent to reaffirm and sustain the existing social order. In particular, his description of what he calls, ‘rituals of status reversal’ bears a striking resemblance to protest actions and demonstrations of the present day. For Turner, these rituals are characterised by their ‘liminality’: lying at the threshold ‘betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial’ (Turner, 1969: 95).

In them, hierarchies are temporarily inverted and normal codes of behaviour suspended. ‘The stronger are made weaker; the weak act as though they were strong’, often engaging in mimicry, masking and public castigation of structural superiors (ibid.: 168). Although such events may be calendrical or cyclical in nature, they can also erupt during times when those superiors are perceived to have so disrupted the ‘balance between society and nature that disturbances in the former have provoked imbalances in the latter’ (ibid.: 184). If this description reveals a number of striking parallels, then it is likely that the two also share many of the same functions. According to this conception, whether calendrical or arising at moments when ‘the whole community is threatened’ due to ‘historical irregularities’ altering the ‘natural balance between what are conceived to be permanent structural categories’, carnivalesque demonstrations of dissent perform the function of ‘bringing social structure and communitas into right mutual relation once again’ (ibid.:178). That is, for all the attempts to rehabilitate the notion of carnival as a subversive practice intrinsically valuable in its representation of resistance and ‘modelling of a different, pleasurable and communal ideal’, its essential problematic remains. Namely, ‘its failure to do away with the official dominant culture, its licensed complicity’ (Stallybrass and White 1986:19).

This would not be so problematic however, if it were not for the fact that demonstrations seem less and less to act as a symbolic tool in a larger repertoire of resistance than a go-to method for a vast array of causes. At the risk of being far too pessimistic, it is important to delineate clearly the limits of this type of activism and to point out that ‘doing’ cannot be a substitute for ‘thinking’. Serious change cannot be effected without action, but ‘aimless hyper-activism’—doing because ‘something must be done’—can actually channel energies away from any seriously progressive project aimed at large-scale social change. Moreover, while many actions have an immediately recognisable carnival-like atmosphere (ie, mask, music, dance, etc.), even those that appear more serious may nonetheless possess many of these aforementioned qualities. In order to draw out some of these parallels, it is necessary to look in more detail at three aspects of carnival that are becoming more and more commonplace in protest today—liminality, the suspension of norms and codes of behaviour and the ritual inversion of hierarchies—and to consider their role in sustaining the existing social order.

1. Liminality

The liminal is defined as the ‘in between’ state set temporarily apart from the normal pace of everyday life. It is an event in the life cycle of a society whose transience arises from the fact that its social purpose is not to actually overthrow existing hierarchies but to therapeutically engage in role play, to act out revolutionary emotions as a form of catharsis, providing a ‘discharge of all the ill-feeling that has accumulated’ (Turner, 1969: 179).

So unreflectively is the term ‘temporary’ used by many protest movements when describing their aims to ‘open up spaces’, or to, in the words of a banner unravelled at a Camden street party/demonstration in 1995, ‘RECLAIM THE STREETS—FREE THE CITY’, that it would be easy to believe that such actions are really, ‘challenging official culture’s claims to authority, stability, sobriety, immutability and immortality by cheekily taking over a main traffic artery’ (Jordan, 1998: 141). However, it is precisely its temporary nature that leads to the exact opposite end.

Interestingly, while Bakhtin was writing his now famous Rabelais book to which so many practitioners trace the roots of their ‘revolutionary’ acts of subversion through carnival, another early Soviet thinker Anatoly Lunacharsky warned that ‘carnival is a safety valve for passions that otherwise might erupt in revolution’, an occasion which allows the lower orders to ‘let off steam in a harmless, temporary event’ (Docker, 1994:171). Indeed, when the liminal phase comes to an end, it is often the case that frustratingly little ground has been gained. When the ‘ludic’ protest disbands, spaces that had been freed up for temporary countercultural demonstrations of resistance are harmoniously handed back to the hustle and bustle of everyday life and commerce.

2. Norms and laws are suspended, public spaces are given over to the common people

During carnival, ordered spaces are given over to disorder and mockery and traditional norms and expectations of behaviour are lifted. The streets are taken over by the festivities and in some places city halls are given to courts of ‘fools’. Women might cut men’s ties or kiss any man that comes their way, and everywhere the rules of modesty and order, both written and unwritten are temporarily suspended. Hierarchical societies dissolve into ‘communitas’ (a transient community of equals formed from an otherwise stratified social structure) and those structurally subordinate are given license, during that liminal sphere of time, to break the rules in an act of ritualised transgression.

Similarly, in many protest activities, the streets are given over to the festivities, to the marchers and demonstrators. Those who would not normally associate often intermix and intermingle in a playing out of communitas and, as in the sanctioned carnival, the ordinary social norms and order are temporarily suspended. Often, participants attempt to make their rule breaking more visible, through risqué dress, costuming, impromptu dance, performance and other art. However, contrary to what many proponents assert, this mobilisation of carnivalesque forms does not, as one author writes, ‘break the rules in order to make them more visible’ and in so doing, ‘open up paradoxical space’ and the ‘opportunity for critique’ (Rhodes, 2002:135), but rather it implicitly strengthens the very rules it hopes to transcend.

It is when rules are broken that their necessity becomes all the more vivid. In our daily lives we usually fail to appreciate the importance of structured narrative in communication until someone breaks the unwritten codes that render that communication coherent. In the same way, when the abandoned placards have been swept up and the first cars and pedestrians are released from the bottleneck to take back the formerly ‘liberated’ streets and town squares, the city seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief as the normal routine resumes unscathed.

The stark contrast between order and disorder serves as a reminder of why the streets aren’t ‘our streets!’ (as protestors at the G-20 shouted while clashing with police) to do with what we like (or, to an outsider, alienated from the display, what ‘they’ like). Moreover, as Zizek (2003) illustrates using The Matrix as a metaphor, like the countercultural heroes of the film, one might think that liberation is being practised through the act of breaking natural laws, but the paradox is that these ‘miracles’ are possible only if we remain within the virtual reality sustained by the Matrix and merely bend or change its rules; our ‘real’ status is still that of slaves’. The question becomes then, whether to perform a ‘postmodern strategy of “resistance”, of endlessly “subverting” or “displacing” the power system, or a more radical attempt at annihilating it’ (Zizek, 2003). However, unlike the film, the breaking of rules and the temporary liberation of space are often described as being ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ in and of themselves, and the larger questions are so subordinated to practice that even asking them has become taboo.

Ritual inversion of hierarchical roles and the castigation of superiors

As previously mentioned, in the liminal space of the traditional carnival, the usual hierarchical roles are reversed. In the Rhineland a woman dressed in black storms the city hall and is given the key to the city by the mayor; elsewhere, a mock king and queen are paraded through the streets or a cast of fools might parody an assembly of their governors. Similarly, in protest activities, these themes may be accomplished in a number of ways, from theatrical performances to costumes, masking and mimicry. A protest in July against the UK’s complicity with Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip, which made its way through Hyde Park, saw some protesters donning anti-semitic dress and acting out ethnic stereotypes, while others, dressed as skeletons and holding plastic severed limbs, engaged in a symbolic dance in front of a blood soaked Israeli flag. At the G20 march protesters dressed as bankers, businessmen and top hatted capitalists. Elsewhere, a group of mock ‘pro-capitalists’ march in suits or gowns and pearls, spraying champagne while holding a giant banner that shouts, ‘Capitalism Rocks!’ accompanied by signs reading, ‘Money is My Life’ and ‘Privatize More Stuff!’

In a description of the aforementioned Gaza Strip protest, one commentator captioned a photo of a portrayal of a particularly taboo anti-semitic sight with the remark that, ‘Protesters were unfazed by this scene’ (Rothschild, 2009). As we have already seen, typical social norms are lifted in the transitory liminal sphere of the protest/carnival. A symbolic realm is created where people are given licence to castigate their superiors, to break taboos, act out revolution and ultimately to discharge the accumulated tensions in a display where all can get their just deserts.

An ethnographer writing in the 1960s describes the Hindu festival of Holi as one in which a highly structured society dissolves into a communitas, and the low are given license to candidly confront and castigate their superiors for their accumulated sins. ‘In front of whose house was a burlesque dirge being sung by a professional ascetic of the village?’ the anthropologist describes, ‘It was the house of a very much alive moneylender, notorious for his punctual collections and his insufficient charities’ (Marriott in Turner, 1969:187). In 1920s Ghana, eight days were given over to a time when ‘the perfect lampooning of liberty was allowed’, scandal placed on a pedestal, and villagers allowed to freely shout the faults of superiors and inferiors alike without the threat of punishment (Bosman in Turner, 1969:178). Paradoxically however, this ‘purifying power of mutual honesty’ has the effect of ‘regenerating the principles of classification and ordering on which social structure rests’, since through levelling, the liminal phase reminds and implies that the high could not be high unless the low existed (Turner, 1969:180). As Turner writes,

...nothing underlines regularity so well as absurdity or paradox. Emotionally, nothing satisfies as much as extravagent or temporarily permitted elicit behavior. Rituals of status reversal accommodate both aspects. By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle. By making the low mimic (often to the point of caricature) the behavior of the high, and by restraining the initiative of the proud, they underline the reasonableness of everyday culturally predictable behavior between the various estates of society (1969:176).

Furthermore, the use of symbolic objects, masking and other forms of symbolic dress serves as a visual representation of the hierarchical role reversal where the low are temporarily empowered in a ‘world turned upside down’ (but even, it should be noted, this temporary empowerment is illusory since it is ‘licensed or sanctioned by the authorities themselves’ [Sales, 1983:169]). Second, it takes the power out of those objects by identifying with them, since ‘[t]o draw off power from a strong being is to weaken that being’ in our perceptions of it (Turner, 1969:174). This counts not only for our mimicry of our superiors who have become a threat to us, but also for the identification with similarly threatening but unseen objects. So for example, protestors paint their faces blue and mimic a giant blue wave marching through the streets. In turning the threat into a carnival, fears that may act as a driver are dissipated and aggressors are made into harmless caricatures.

Unable to understand our problems and fearful of their consequences, we

‘mobilize affect-loaded symbols of great power. Rituals of status reversal, according to this principle, mask the weak in strength and demand that the strong be passive and patiently endure the symbolic and even real aggression shown against them by structural inferiors’ (ibid.:176).

Through the submission of superiors to levelling mechanisms (think of the police lined up along a parade route, the space given over for the protest) it submits superiors to levelling mechanisms, sustaining the illusion that ‘we’ are the ones who hold the power and ‘they’ are truly accountable to us.

Unequal societies inevitably create tensions, and thus the greater the drift of the very high from the very low, the greater the potential for accumulated tensions to erupt. Thus, the growth in such carnivalesque outbursts are less a measure of the strength of a resistance movement than a measure of the degree of deviation from the foundational ideal of ‘communitas’—the illusion that underneath a hierarchical society everyone is nonetheless equal—and the reality of the hierarchy itself.

Demonstrations are a popular form of protest precisely because they are not revolutionary, because they do not threaten the social order but nonetheless allow for the discharge of tensions, which is allowed and sanctioned because such channelling of grievances make them ‘easier to police in the long term’ (Sales, 1983:169).Thus, in role playing our powerfulness, the roles of ‘citizens’ and ‘representatives’ are reaffirmed through role reversal so that the representatives are subject to the will of the people instead of the other way around. Just as in the examples of non-Western rituals and festivals, structure is ‘cleansed’ of the ‘accumulated sins’ and reborn the day after the festival.

The Discharge of Discontent

These three aspects could be extended to include other elements like the reaffirmation of tradition—wherein demonstrators play out non-violent rituals of protest not because it is the best way to achieve an aim but because it reaffirms the founding myths of Western (capitalist) societies as achieving revolution by peaceful means. However, these three form the core of a striking parallel between carnival and protest demonstrations as functional elements of unequal social structures. Demonstrations form a valuable part of any resistance movement since, as previously mentioned, nothing can be achieved without action. The problem arises when action becomes a substitute for deliberation. In order to solve a problem, the majority of one’s energies should be devoted to understanding it. Should an anti-capitalist movement or a movement to stop a war use the same tactics as one which hopes to raise awareness of breast cancer?

This perfunctory use of public displays reveals both a disorientation with regard to social issues and a paucity of thinking about the future. Many of the valuable elements revealed in contemporary protest movements—the creativity of direct action tactics, the sheer mass of people who care enough to leave their houses, the value and necessity inherent in opposition itself—are ultimately diffused and dispersed through aimless activity that can name no common enemy and thus claim no common goals except to share in collective discontent. Indeed, as the protests surrounding the Copenhagen climate summit attest, participants came from a varied milieu, from climate activists to indigenous peoples, denouncing markets, consumerism, animal cruelty, the power wielded by the global north, and so on (Kanter, The New York Times:2009). Discontent is a valuable driver toward social change, but if people truly want the goals emblazoned on their placards, it is not enough to overturn a social system. Displays of anger and resistance are not ‘revolution itself’; unless channelled toward a rational consideration of the problems that face us, they risk being dispersed in a display that actually upholds the system it is supposed to challenge.



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