Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Carnivalesque

Peter Stallybrass and Allon White on the carnivalesque, extracted from The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986):

…in the long-term history from the seventeenth to the twen­tieth century, as we have seen above, there were literally thousands of acts of legislation introduced which attempted to eliminate carnival and popular festivity from European life. In different areas of Europe the pace varied, depending upon religious, class and economic fac­tors. But everywhere, against the periodic revival of local festivity and occasional reversals, a fundamental ritual order of western culture came under attack - its feasting, violence, drinking, processions, fairs, wakes, rowdy spectacle and outrageous clamour were subject to sur­veillance and repressive control. We can briefly list some particular instances of this general process. In 1855 the Great Donnybrook Fair of Dublin was abolished in the very same year that Bartholomew Fair in London finally succumbed to the determined attack of the London City Missions Society. In the decade following the Fairs Act of 1871 over 700 fairs, mops and wakes were abolished in England.

By the 1880s the Paris carnival was rapidly being transformed into a trade show cum civic/military parade, and although the 'cortege du boeuf gras' processed round the streets until 1914, 'little by little it was suppressed and restricted because it was said to cause a traffic problem' (Pillement 1972). In 1873 the famous Nice carnival was taken over by a 'comite des Fetes', brought under bureaucratic bourgeois control and reorganized quite self-consciously as a tourist attraction for the increasing numbers who spent time on the Riviera and who were finding neighbouring San Remo's new casino a bigger draw. As Wolfgang Hartmann has shown (1976), in Germany in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, traditional pro­cessions and festivities were rapidly militarized and incorporated into the symbolism and 'classical body' of the State. This dramatic transform­ation of the ritual calendar had implications not only for each stratum of the social formation, particularly for those which were disengaging themselves from ongoing practices, but for the basic structures of symbo­lic activity in Europe: carnival was now everywhere and nowhere.

Many social historians treat the attack on carnival as a victory over popular culture, first by the Absolutist state and then by the middle classes, a process which is viewed as the more or less complete destruc­tion of popular festivity: the end of carnival. In this vision of the complete elimination of the ritual calendar there is the implicit assump­tion that, in so far as it was the culture of a rural population which was disappearing, the modernization of Europe led inevitably to the super­session of traditional festivity - it was simply one of the many casualties in the movement towards an urban, industrial society….

But, as we have shown, carnival did not simply disappear. At least four different processes were involved in its ostensible break-up: frag­mentation; marginalization; sublimation; repression.

Carnival had always been a loose amalgam of procession, feasting, competition, games and spectacle, combining diverse elements from a large repertoire and varying from place to place. Even the great carnivals of Venice, Naples, Nice, Paris and Nuremberg were fluid and change­able in their combination of practices. During the long and uneven process of suppression (we often find that a carnival is banned over and over again, only to re-emerge each time in a slightly altered fashion), there was a tendency for the basic mixture to break down, certain elements becoming separated from others. Feasting became separated from performance, spectacle from procession: the grotesque body was fragmented. At the same time it began to be marginalized both in terms of social class and geographical location. It is important to note that even as late as the nineteenth century, in some places, carnival remained a ritual involving most classes and sections of a community - the disen­gaging of the middle class from it was a slow and uneven matter. Part of that process was, as we have seen, the 'disowning' of carnival and its symbolic resources, a gradual reconstruction of the idea of carnival as the culture of the Other. This act of disavowal on the part of the emergent bourgeoisie, with its sentimentalism and its disgust, made carnival into the festival of the Other. It encoded all that which the proper bourgeois must strive not to be in order to preserve a stable and ‘correct' sense of self.

William Addison (1953) charts many of these geographical marginalizations in the English context in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Within a town the fair, mop, wake or carnival, which had once taken over the whole of the town and permitted neither outside nor outsider to its rule, was confined to certain areas and gradually driven ­out from the well-to-do neighbourhoods. In the last years of the Bury St Edmunds Fair it was 'banished from the aristocratic quarter of Angel Hill and confined to St Mary's and St James's squares' (Addison 1953). In and around London:

‘Both regular and irregular fairs were being steadily pushed from the centre outwards as London grew and the open spaces were built over. Greenwich and Stepney were the most popular at one time. Others - Croydon's for example - came to the fore later when railways extended the range of pleasure as well as the range of boredom, until towards the end of the nineteenth century London was encircled by these country fairs, some of which were, in fact, ancient charter fairs made popular by easier transport. ... Most of them were regarded by the magistrates as nuisances, and sooner or later most of those without charters were suppressed. Yet such was the popularity of these country fairs round London that to suppress them in one place led inevitably to an outbreak elsewhere, and often where control was more difficult. As the legal adviser to the City Corporation had said in the 1730's, 'It is at all times difficult by law to put down the ancient customs and practices of the multitude.' (Addison 1953)

In England the sites of 'carnival' moved more and more to the coastal periphery, to the seaside. The development of Scarborough, Brighton, Blackpool, Clacton, Margate and other seaside resorts reflects a process of liminality which, in different ways, was taking place across Europe as a whole. The seaside was partially legitimated as a carnival­esque site of pleasure on the grounds of health, since it combined the (largely mythical) medicinal virtues of the spa resorts with tourism and the fairground. It can be argued that this marginalization is a result of other, anterior processes of bourgeois displacement and even repres­sion. But even so, this historical process of marginalizalion must be seen as an historical tendency distinct from the actual elimination of carnival.

Bakhtin is right to suggest that post-romantic culture is, to a con­siderable extent, subjectivized and interiorized and on this account frequently related to private terrors, isolation and insanity rather than to robust kinds of social celebration and critique. Bakhtin however does not give us a convincing explanation of this sublimation of carnival. The social historians, on the other hand, tend not to consider processes of sublimation at all: for them carnival came to an end and that was that. They tend not to believe in the return of the repressed.

But a convincing map of the transformation of carnival involves tracing migrations, concealment, metamorphoses, fragmentations, in­ternalization and neurotic sublimations. The disjecta membra of the gro­tesque body of carnival found curious lodgement throughout the whole social order of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. These dispersed carnivalesque elements represent more than the insig­nificant nomadic residues of the ritual tradition. In the long process of disowning carnival and rejecting its periodical inversions of the body and the social hierarchy, bourgeois society problematized its own relation to the power of the 'low', enclosing itself, indeed often defining itself, by its suppression of the 'base' languages of carnival.

As important as this was the fact that carnival was being margina­lized temporally as well as spatially. The carnival calendar of oscillation between production and consumption which had once structured the whole year was displaced by the imposition of the working week under the pressure of capitalist industrial work regimes. The semiotic polari­ties, the symbolic clusters of classical and grotesque, were no longer temporally pinned into a calendrical or seasonal cycle, and this involved a degree of unpredictability in moment and surface of emergence. The 'carnivalesque' might erupt from the literary text, as in so much surrea­list art, or from the advertisement hoarding, or from a pop festival or a jazz concert.

Carnival was too disgusting for bourgeois life to endure except as sentimental spectacle. Even then its specular identifications could only be momentary, fleeting and partial- voyeuristic glimpses of a promiscu­ous loss of status and decorum which the bourgeoisie had had to deny as abhorrent in order to emerge as a distinct and 'proper' class.

Photos from Notting Hill Carnival: top from 1976 Carnival riot, bottom from August 2008 at the Good Times Sound System (sourced from Flickr, picture by Berg's Eye View).

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