Book Notes: Dancing In The Streets

Dancing In The Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich
Read Aug 19, 2020 - Aug 25, 2020

This book looks at the history of festivals and rituals involving dancing, singing and other ecstatic practices through a lens of power dynamics. The central question is why these rituals were often supressed or outright outlawed, only to emerge anew in a different form.

Ehrenreich believes that the supression of what she calls “collective joy” is a political tool of control. She writes in the conclusion: “When one class, or ethnic group or gender, rules over a population of subordinates, it comes to fear the empowering rituals of the subordinates as a threat to civil order.”

The reading is engaging and draws interesting parallels between military parades, rock concerts, modern sports events and more. Ehrenreich makes repeatedly the point that a key function of festivals is creating a solidarity between participants, which is an idea that feels particularly relevant in August 2020. She writes: “Festivity – like bread or freedom – can be a social good worth fighting for.”

Book highlights

To the “self”-admiring Western mind, any form of self-loss – other than the kind associated with romantic love – could only be pathological. And that is how modern psychology has tended to categorize it.

From an elite perspective, there is one inherent problem with traditional festivities and ecstatic rituals, and that is their leveling effect, the way in which they dissolve rank and other forms of social difference.

Historians until recently referred to these ecstatic alternatives somewhat pejoratively, as “oriental religions,” in the usual attempt to locate the sources of the “irrational” somewhere far outside the West, and blamed them in part for the empire’s eventual decadence and decline.

Leaving aside Christ as the generic pagan victim god, we find far more intriguing parallels between Jesus the historical figure and the specific pagan god Dionysus. Both were wandering charismatics who attracted devoted followings, or cults; both had a special appeal to women and the poor. Strikingly, both are associated with wine: Dionysus first brought it to humankind; Jesus could make it out of water. Each was purported to be the son of a great father-god – Zeus or the Hebrew got Yahweh – and a mortal mother. Neither was an ascetic – Jesus loved his wine and meat – but both were apparently asexual or at least lacking a regular female consort. Both were healers – Jesus directly, Dionysus through participation in his rites – and both were miracle workers, and possibly, in Jesus’ case, a magician. Each faced perssecution by secular authorities, represented by Pentheus, among others, in the case of Dionysus, and Pontius Pilate in the case of Jesus. For what it’s worth, they even had similar symbolic creatures: the fish for Jesus, the dolphin for Dionysus.

Both, in fancier words, upheld what has been called a hedonic vision of community, based on egalitarianism and the joyous immediacy of human experience – as against the agonic reality of the cruelly unequal and warlike societies they briefly favored with their presence.

The widespread occurrence of mocking rituals would almost suggest some human, or at least plebeian, instinct to playfully overthrow the existing order – whether as a way of harmlessly letting off steam or, at some level of consciousness, rehearsing for the real thing.

Festivity – like bread or freedom – can be a social good worth fighting for.

The middle classes had to learn to calculate, save, and “defer gratification”; the lower classes had to be transformed into a disciplined, factory-ready, working class – meaning far fewer holidays and the new necessity of showing up for work sober and on time, six days a week. Peasants had worked hard too, of course, but in seasonally determined bursts; the new industrialism required ceaseless labor, all year round.

Protestantism, serving as the ideological handmaiden of the new capitalism, “descended like a frost on the life of ‘Merrie Old England,'” as Weber put it, destroying in its icy grip the usual Christmas festivities, the maypole, the games, and all traditional forms of group pleasure.

“Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, “that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place.” This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the inner self, and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous “I,” separate from, and largely distrustful of, “them.”

But in the late sixteenth century, upward mobility was beginning to be possible or at least imaginable, making “deception” a widespread way of life. […] You might not be a lord or a lofty burgher, but you could find out how to act like one.

Which is preferable: a courageous, or even merely grasping and competitive, individualism, versus a medieval (or, in the case of non-European cultures, “primitive”) personality so deeply mired in community and ritual that it can barely distinguish a “self”?

It is no coincidence that the concept of society emerges at the same time as the concept of self: What seems to most concern the new and supposedly autonomous self is the opinion of others, who in aggregate compose “society”.

Urbanization and the rise of a competitive, market-based economy favored a more anxious and isolated sort of person – potentially both prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures. Calvinism provided a transcendent rationale for this shift, intensifying the isolation and practically institutionalizing depression as a stage in the quest for salvation.

What is achieved through such rituals, in a purely functional sense, is an intense feeling of solidarity among the participants – at least all accounts suggest as much – and solidarity is the basis of effective political action from below.

But in any assessment of the impact of European imperialism, “techniques of ecstasy” – ways of engendering transcendence and joy from within the indigenous group itself, without any recourse to the white man’s technologies or commodities – must at least be counted among the losses.

Fascist spectacles were meant to encourage a sense of solidarity or belonging, but in the way that they were performed, and in the fact that they were performed, they reduced whole nations to the status of an audience.

But the rock rebellion was also something simpler and ostensibly less “political” – a rebellion against the role of the audience.

Sports events can be thought of, quite apart from the game, as a medium for generating collective thrills – a not entirely reliable one, since some games are dull and one team must always lose anyway, but in at least one way more effective than many rock concerts. […] Sports stadiums, however, are round, so “the spectator confronts the emotion apparent on the faces of other spectators.”

So how can civilization be regarded as a form of progress if it precludes something as distinctively human, and deeply satisfying, as the collective joy of festivities and ecstatic rituals?

The aspect of “civilization” that is most hostile to festivity is not capitalism or industrialism – both of which are fairly recent innovations – but social hierarchy, which is far more ancient. When one class, or ethnic group or gender, rules over a population of subordinates, it comes to fear the empowering rituals of the subordinates as a threat to civil order.

Hierarchy, by its nature, establishes boundaries between people – who can go where, who can approach whom, who is welcome, and who is not. Festivity breaks the boundaries down. The classicist Charles Segal put it this way: “As Apollo imposes limits and reinforces boundaries, Dionysus, his opposite and complement, dissolves them.”

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