Dancing in the Streets

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Book: Barbara Ehrenreich. Dancing in the Streets. A history of collective joy

Discussed by Alan Moore at http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2007/07/dancing-in-the-.html


Pat Kane [1]:

"Dancing in the Streets is a genuine triumph of popular critical scholarship, in which the human tradition of collective celebration – from the survival tactics of hunter-gatherers, to this year's Burning Man festival in Nevada – is given its rightful and enduring due. The range of references amassed, and the punchy elegance of her prose, makes this an essential purchase.

One of the book's dominant themes concerns the loss of the link between collective joy - dancing, music and physical expression - and religion. Ehrenreich reminds us that the root of 'enthusiasm' means "being filled with or possessed by a deity". There has been a long struggle (most notably through Protestantism) leading us to today's pallid, sit-down "faiths". They suppress the Dionysian sense that you don't just believe in your gods, you know your gods: "at the height of group ecstasy, they fill you with your presence"

For good evolutionary reasons, Ehrenreich would want religions to be far more festive, carnivalesque and boundary-crossing: it was only the early hominids who believed in huddling close to the family and its defensive values, while humans "had the wit and generosity to reach out to unrelated others". Yet given the way that, for its adherents, the new religosity most often serves to assuage fears of social and cultural chaos, it seems overly hippie-chick to imagine that a new uprising of Dionysiacs will soon emerge to spiritually re-express our human nature.

Despite these caveats, there are so many rich departure-points arising from this highly original book. Ehrenreich's account of the destruction of local and non-Western traditions of carnival by imperialism is powerful and chilling. While our Puritans at home sought to destroy the celebrations of labourers and peasants, in the colonies it was often easier just to "destroy the celebrants". Chapters on fascist rallies ("a spectacle, not a festival; its attendants were audiences, not crowds"), and the epidemic of melancholy in the 18th century - linked provocatively by the author to the war on festivity - are bravura displays of erudition.

And her main charge against our lazy understanding of the importance of communal ecstasy (and I would say, of play in general) is well worth making. Far from being an explosion of dangerous, mindless disorder, carnival and festival is often highly structured and disciplined, a form of ancient social cohesion that we should honour. The political hoo-ha over the London Olympics revolves almost precisely around whether its primary worth is as a participatory, regenerative festival, or a costly and inert one-off spectacle. I'm sure our Olympic bosses would profit from a deep immersion in the pages of Dancing in the Streets.

"Is there no other way to unite society other than through spectacles and force?" she asks. "Where is the constituency for collective joy itself?" (http://theplayethic.typepad.com/play_journal/2007/05/dancing_in_the_.html)


Carnaval is a festival that really is not given to the people, but one that people give to themselves

- Goethe

"At some point, in town after town throughout the northern Christian world, the music stops. Canival customes are put away or sold; dramas that once engaged a town's entire population are cancelled; festive rituals are forgotten or preserved only in tame and truncated form, the estatic possibility, which had forst been driven from the sacred precincts of the church, was now harried from the streets and public squares

The loss, to ordinary people, of so many recreations and festivals is incalcuable, and we, who live in a culture almost devoid of opportunities either to "lose ourselves" in communal festivities or to distinguish ourselves in any arena outside of work, are in no position to fathom it." (Ehrenreich, cited by Moore above)