The Suppression of Collective Joy

posted Monday, February 5, 2007        

From Counterpunch at http://www.counterpunch.org/gardner01272007.html

January 27 / 28, 2007

Barbara Ehrenreich at the Commonwealth Club

The Suppression of Collective Joy

By FRED GARDNER

Barbara Ehrenreich made a quick visit to San Francisco last week to promote her new book, “Dancing in the Streets.” Her noontime talk at the Commonwealth Club Jan. 18, excerpted below, was attended by about 100 people, mostly women. The subject was the suppression of collective joy, a historical trend that might seem abstruse -who but an insightful sociologist would try to name and explain it?- but which has affected every one of us directly. “‘Collective joy’ is a clunky term,” Ehrenreich acknowledged, “but it’s the best I could come up with.”

Almost a decade ago, before Ehrenreich’s forays into the labor force recounted in “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch,” she got interested in human bonding. Not sexual bonding, she explained, and not just the kind that holds families together, but:

“the kinds of bonds that hold communities together and can even bring strangers together… Ritual, organized ways that people can make each other not only happy but joyful, delirious even ecstatic… Dancing, music, singing, feasting -which includes drinking- costuming, masking, face paint, body paint, processions, dramas, sporting competitions, comedies…

“These activities are almost universal. When Europeans fanned out across the globe from the 15th to 19th centuries conquering people, they found rituals and festivities going on everywhere from Polynesia to Alaska to Sub-Saharan Africa to india. Everywhere there were occasions for dressing up -often in a religious context but not always. The Europeans were horrified by what they saw and described it as ‘savagery’ and ‘devil worship.’ They thought it showed the inherent inferiority of indigenous people that they could let go in this way. The truth is, these traditions were European, too, but forgotten. The ancient Greeks had a god for ecstasy, Dionysus. Women especially worshipped Dionysus…

“There is evidence that Christianity until the 13th century was very much a danced religion. The archbishops were always complaining about it. When dancing was eventually banned in the churches it went outside in the form of carnival and other festivities that filled the church calendar. In 15th century France, one out of four days of the year was given over to festivities of some sort. People didn’t live to work, they lived to party…

“Going back 10,000 years we find rock art depicting lines and circles of dancing people. There is evidence that this capacity for collective joy, especially through synchronized, rhythmic activity such as dance, is hardwired into humans. It’s part of our unique evolutionary heritage. Chimpanzees can get excited and jump up and down and wave their arms, but they’ve got no rhythm. They can’t dance. They can’t coordinate their emotions…

“The evolutionary scientists say it was probably this capacity that allowed humans to form groups larger than kinship groups -large groups that were essential for defense against predatory animals and eventually against bands of other humans. The techniques -the dance steps, the musical instruments, the costumes- are cultural, but the capacity for collective joy is innate. We are hardwired to be party animals…

“Why is there so little collective joy today? Why is our culture bereft of opportunity for this kind of thing? Mostly, we sit in cubicles at work and we sit in our cars. If you mention ‘ecstasy’ people think you’re talking about a drug. The cure for loneliness and isolation and despair is Prozac… The simple answer is: the ancient tradition of festivities and ecstatic rituals was deliberately suppressed by elites -people in power who associated this kind of frolicking with the lower classes and especially with women…

“The Romans had their own Dionysus worshippers in Italy and they slaughtered them in 60 BC with the kind of ferocity they later directed at Christians… The Protestants were the real killjoys. They just wiped out that entire calendar of festivities from the Catholic church and outlawed dancing and masking. Around the world it was mainly missionaries who crushed the ecstatic rituals of indigenous people. In this country, slave owners banned not only reading and books, they banned the drum. They understood that in these kinds of rituals people found collective strength. A similar thing happened in 18th century Arabia with the rise of Wahabist Islam, the antecedent of Al Qaeda and Saudi Islam. Their main enemy was not Christians or Jews so much as it was the Sufi tradition within Islam which is ecstatic and involves music and dance.

“Elites fear that disorderly kinds of events could turn into uprisings. And this fear is justified. Whether you’re looking at European peasants in the late middle ages or Caribbean slaves in the 19th century, they were using festivity and carnival as the occasion for revolts.

“A second reason that comes with the industrial revolution is, of course, the need to impose social discipline. It’s hard to take agricultural people or herding people and convince them that they should get up and work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and then spend the seventh day listening to boring sermons in a church. To discipline the working class and slaves was a huge enterprise.”

Festivity has been replaced over the centuries by spectacle -”something you watch or listen to but you do not participate in directly.” As examples Ehrenreich cited the transition “from danced Christian worship to the masque, a drama going on on stage,” and football, which originally “was played by hundreds of people on a side. It was a mass sport in which whole villages took on other villages, men women and children. It was a melee that got tamed into football where a few participate and most watch. Spectacles involve your eyes and ears, not the muscles of your body, and they require no creativity on the part of the spectator. The creativity has been centralized.”

People keep trying to reinstitute festivity because, Ehrenreich emphasized, “we were meant to get up and move.” She recalled “the rock rebellion of the 1950s and ’60s -the kids in the audience refused to sit still. They kept lifting up out of their seats. Police would be called. But the kids would get up and dance as soon as the police turned their backs.” Other examples include “costuming, even if it’s only wearing the team colors or a cheesehead. Face paint -what could be more ancient. The wave… In Latin America you get people bringing their drums to the stadium and dancing in the bleachers…

Ehrenreich remarked the emergence of entirely new festivities such as Burning Man, the Love Parade in Berlin (at which a million people have danced in the streets), and the transformation of Halloween into a grown-up celebration. In response to a question about San Francisco’s efforts to contain the partying on Halloween, Ehrenreich said that repression has often been rationalized in terms of maintaining public safety and order -”too much noise, that kind of thing.” Almost as an afterthought she added, “a lot of the repression of what goes on in clubs is carried out in the name of the war on drugs.” (Ehrenreich is a former board member of NORML.)

Ehrenreich’s scholarship (even her throwaway lines contain the seeds of PhD theses) doesn’t keep her from waxing lyrical. She concluded by reading a passage from “Dancing in the Streets:” “Walking along the beach in Rio we came upon members of a Samba school rehearsing for Carnivale -four-year-olds to octogenarians, men and women, some gorgeously costumed and some in tank tops and shorts -Rio street clothes. To a 19th century missionary or a 21st century religious puritan their movements might have seemed lewd or at least suggestive. (Missionaries always called indigenous people lewd.) Certainly the conquest of the streets by a crowd of brown-skinned people would have been distressing in itself. But the samba school danced down right to the sand in perfect dignity, rapt in their own rhythm, their faces both exalted and shining with an almost religious kind of exaltation. One thin, latte-colored young man dancing just behind the musicians set the pace. What was he in real life? A bank clerk? A busboy? Here, in his brilliant feathered costume, he was a prince, a mythological figure, maybe even a god. Here, for a moment there were no divisions among people except for the political ones created by Carnivale itself. After they reached the boardwalk, bystanders started following in without any indication or announcements, without embarrassment or even alcohol to dissolve the normal constraints of urban life, the samba school turned into a huge crowd and the crowd turned into a momentary festival. There was no quote point to it, no religious overtones, no ideological message, no money to be made. Just the chance -which we need much more of on this crowded planet- to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.”



Leave a comment