Author: A Hannah Spadafora
How To Respond To A World On Fire: Party as Protest, Part 1:
It can be overwhelming and taxing for any activist or concerned citizen of planet earth that the world is on fire—from the Amazon to the White House to the unraveling of obscurities hiding corruption, exploitation, and abuse. We live under the eye of disciplinarian justice systems, invasive and micromanaging business practices, a dishonest political regime that throws the safety and rights of marginalized communities under the bus, social judgment that make living one’s existence dangerous for many, and economic policies that reinforce stratified inequality. Billionaires hoard money pathologically, in excess of spendable possibilities, likely in a fantasy of throwing everyone else over to escape the planet they’ve trashed.* There seems to be a nail-biting standoff between, on the one hand: white power bigotry, international sex trafficking rings run by high profile pedophiles, extreme religious, political, and social zealots, and climate change and science deniers—against, on the other hand: reasonable humanists, antifascists, concerned activists, and experts across disciplines leading a charge of accountability against harm of the vulnerable. In these dire days, it may seem that the work we have to do never ends—both the work we are saddled with due to economically unjust systems and the work we must take on to challenge power structures of that harm people by promoting greed and cruelty.
Work is not the only way to challenge unequal and unjust oppressive structures, though. There is also, and I’m serious about this, the duty you have to party. This is not a frivolous statement nor a puff piece, but a sincere suggestion in the latest installment of The Activist’s Platform’s “How To Respond to a World on Fire” article series. The answer here is to erect the spirit of carnival. In honor of pride weekend in Atlanta and Halloween in the United States, readers here are under direct order to party—with a purpose.
Partying as rebellion to authority crackdowns arguably has been passed down since the first secular-spiritual split of events. Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Dancing In the Streets: A History of Communal Joy,” provides a comprehensive historical overview of the movement of dance and carnival into the secular realm. In the 12th century church, ecstatic dance was first recordably recognized by the consolidating Catholic worship organization as a threat to the opportunity for oppressive power. Likely fearing that peasants and ‘primitives’ (their word, not mine) would reach god through ecstatic trance and render priest influence of biblical interpretations unnecessary, charges of paganism were laid, and a ban was set on performing untame dances in sacred space meant for dutiful devotional worship. Much like later military parades, church ceremonies became bureaucratic, status-obsessed, orderly, controlled events.
This was about the time European secular festivals commenced. The church kicked out rowdy celebrations in an attempt to solidify hierarchies and redirect worship to more solemn and serious practice; no longer would the feast of fools mock clerical hierarchy inside the church. Euphoric trance from ecstatic dance and mockery of people holding power were transferred from these original church rites to secular events of carnival, instead. Henceforth, equalizing, freeing, chaotic celebration could be snubbed as pagan, unholy, and sinful. To this end, the church required repentance and leveraged shame to gain obeyance. There was only so much success at this. Moving all festive dancing, non-crucifixion theater, and mocking rituals outside the church led to a modern division of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’—from rituals to festivities, the 13th-15th centuries being “one long outdoor party, punctuated by hard labor.” (Ehrenreich 2006:92)
Controlling groups in power have held strong over time in condemning excessive revelry, in an attempt to maintain the order they have set. Ecstatic dance and the people’s carnival were put down as pagan and primitive in an age of expansion—something found abroad, or in the peasant classes. This didn’t stop participants. In the 1800s, ecstatic dance, possession, and trance rituals could still be found in religious groups despite rulers and members of wealthy countries sending holy, gun-wielding, germ-bringing missionaries and soldiers to convert and claim the rest of the world in the name of god and country—that manifest destiny that gave them permission to kill indigenous people who didn’t comply, first biblical commandment be damned. Local populations of colonized areas in the Caribbean, North America, and Brazil preserved traditions such as Vodou, Shango, Obeah, Santeria, and Candomblé. North American African American Protestant communities (pre/post-emancipation) and indigenous native populations also had similar rites, the latter including the Ghost Dance/Dream Dance. These events are compared by scholars to a long line of similar ritual celebrations of Dionysia (Ancient Greece), Saturnalia (Ancient Rome), Purim (Jewish communities), and other indigenous rituals still found in Africa and Southern America.
The response to local peasant carnivals in Europe from religious authorities was clear: come to church on Sundays to pray for the dancing you did on Saturday night; never confuse the two lest you be guilty of heathenry. God lives in penance, confession, and discipline; if you want to do something other than that, do it elsewhere. This reflected divisions of soul and body, of spiritual practice and worldly profane acts, and of spiritual and secular festivities. As in many traditions, the lay person isn’t expected to be a monk, but is still somewhat guilt tripped for stepping outside monk-like dogmatic adherence.
Ecstatic dance manias were swept up by the inquisition later as a talking point against paganism—a cause to hate-motivate more fervent religiously and politically motivated Europeans to commit genocide and demand assimilation of local populations. In some areas of Europe from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, elites stepped in, humbly changing their station for the night—playing along to keep the peace and show humility. More commonly as time wore on, especially in the 19th century, there was snobbery—it was not an event that respectable European elites often performed, or when they did, it was a class-based, closed event.**
When religious criticisms failed to stop peasant populations falling into dance manias and indigenous populations from performing trance and possession rituals, early racist science was there to take over in condemnation. Ecstatic rituals found outside Europe’s borders were seen by early scholars to be products of mental illness--hysteric frenzies of madness or psychosis. Under this lens, peasants in Europe and the Colonies resurrecting such were clearly in regression and holding Europe back from moving into the age of enlightenment with superstition. This fit right into interpretations of the world where being civilized meant adhering to European ideas of normalcy—shaped by Catholic zealots leading inquisitions in the name of a church wanting power, by monarchs leading ‘conquest’ and colonization in the name of a state entity wanting power, by Protestants interpreting hard work as power to perform duty to god and purify one’s soul, and by the enlightenment era rise of science prompting Europeans to define their own technologies as more advanced while much pseudoscience claimed power before more sophisticated and humanizing measures of study were refined and advanced. Notably, there still is divergence across cultural understandings of various phenomena in people regarding visions/hallucinations, possessions/mental illness, and other things contested by different groups to be psychological or spiritual in origin. This shows that even as western science moves forward, caught on ideas of progress reinforced by enlightenment era politics, there are people still holding close traditions that resist colonization by Europeanized power.
Additional crackdowns against carnival have been performed at the crossroads between religious and economic ideologies. The protestant work ethic emerged from particularly Calvinist ideas that “unremitting, disciplined labor” was good for souls, and that “festivities were positively sinful, along with mere idleness.” (Ehrenreich 2006: 100). Capitalism was born largely from these protestant minds ordering us to delay gratification (particularly relevant in the need to save money), as well as to be disciplined strictly into factory, store, and business work standards of promptness, repetition, obedience, sobriety, and not a single unworked second paid on the clock (often, many unpaid minutes worked off the clock.) Calvinist austerity leaked into the protestant work ethic which spilled over into corporate work practices and schedules that shape our day to day lives. Even far after the rough-and-tumble founding of our country and industrial revolution, far into the information and technology age and past the days of farming schedules, we have yet to adapt our society and work to in ways that benefit the majority of people, the planet, and the survival of diverse ranges of species on planet earth. It is a revolutionary act to step outside the game set out by those who profit at the expense of others suffering.
When elites did adapt rather than shun similar festivities, they did so in poor fashion; rather than mocking power, they mocked the powerless, thus rendering their own secular celebrations quite different from the ones arranged by working people. In Brazil, carnival was (arguably) originally imported by French settlers with formal prohibitions against non-Europeans participation, and involved the sickening use of blackface and slave-costumes. This isn’t the spirit of carnival, however, nor the legacy that has turned carnival into an act of notorious protest meant for lower stationed communities to seize and hold power in ways that explicitly reject and reverse the authoritative status quo.
Contrary to this misinterpreted appropriation, carnival is direct, anti-hierarchical, revolutionary action. For the day or days that it lasts, life as is normally lived is abandoned; the order of things is turned upside down as those in power are humbled and those without power are elevated. Unlike military parades with roots in ancient Spartan and modern military parades (from the French to the Nazis) visuals of conformist attire, synchronized action, and salute to fascist regimes running the show, people-led protests in full blown carnival-turn-revolution events often are more disordered, with diverse expressions of dissent against a single cause welcome. Station is removed or reversed. Extreme mockery and satire of leaders in parade floats, costumery, and jests in public/community speech are encouraged. Enforced propriety may be abandoned for vulgarity of normally censored speech, gender, rank, class, sexuality, and other social statuses are bent and twisted in free reign. Centuries after the first carnival and the first street protests, catholic nuns can join forces with Antifa and Ya Basta protestors at yearly G8 summit protests, despite policy stance and lifestyle differences, united to plead with (notably selective) global leaders for environmental protection and social justice.
Enslaved and peasant populations of the 1300s-1900s seized carnival occasions for rebellion against white power, oppressive political rulers, and debt enforcers such as landlords on many occasions. Africans enslaved in colonies in the Americas from 1688 to the 1800s held festivity days often near Christmas where they donned costumes, demanded the right to dance, sometimes had certain household work taken over by the colonialist plantation owners, and at times danced into the houses, with practices of gift giving done willingly (as perhaps some guilt assuage)—or forcibly, in some events recorded in the Carolinas. On the Eve of Emancipation in 1834 in Trinidad, during celebrations of independence due to the abolition of slavery, a carnival was put on by Africans that parodied local Caucasian militia forces. During the French, American, and Haitian revolutions, carnival festivals turned to politically rebellion, impacting the fights for freedom and rejections of the set order to claim rights of the downtrodden to be protected under law. From dance mania to carnival, these forms of demonstrative protest were small ways to protest invading Europeans elevating themselves to divinely appointed rulers sent to bring ‘civilization’ to citizens of invaded lands with little to no input from local leaders or people.
To fight the oppressive powers has thus been shown over time to not just be about voting, donating, spending, investing, volunteering, and working for change. It’s also about embodying protest in your very existence; stepping outside patterns set by the system’s attempts to constrain you, and notably, partying for change. This may sound insane, but historically, secular festivities have flipped the script on money, power, and authority—both in the revolutionary way participants live on these extraordinary days, transformed into roles and acting on temporary freedom from quotidian life for all it’s worth, as well as in actual revolution measures planned or carried out simultaneous to community celebrations (particularly, carnival.)
Despite elite attempts to crash or co-opt the celebrations by appropriating a thin frame of superficial understanding of the events, it has always meant something different when the festivals have been designed, organized, and performed by groups who use the events ritually to seize unequally held power—whether it be spiritual, political, economic, or social power. This is true both in temporary suspensions of order engaged in for the expanse of the festival, and in more permanent reaches to overturn previous social orders—both in and outside political rebellion, carnival is revolution.
People who care, or people who can’t escape caring, often feel like the weight of the world hangs off a balance beam strung across their backs. Being self-aware isn’t always a gift; neither is being world conscious. We string our identities up in our minds between our self and our ethical devotions—the communities we identify with help locate that self, and the things we stand for shape our political, personal, organizational, professional, and social actions. At times when the chaos of the world is high and much is to be protested, leisure may inspire guilt in activists feeling shamed for not attending to the dire events occurring on the political or world stages. This is a faulty reaction, however. To respond to a world on fire, one must respond in both work and leisure; with one’s whole being. Life’s about balance. Partying as protest shakes up routines locking us into oppression.
Some days it’s necessary to remind oneself that the destructive nature of fire can make way for anything left behind in its path, and that a big enough wave of water—or, perhaps, snowflakes—can staunch every wisp of smoke while uprooting long held inequalities, injustices, and tyrannical practices. Other days, taking the power forward in political rebellion necessitates a step more—embodying fully everything inside you that the system tries to expunge and living it up to tear that system /down/. These collective demonstrations (read: themed parties in selective locations) bring people together with like-valued community to build support networks, celebrate successes, and protest creatively—to gather together for a good time with a cause. This strategy is not without precedent.
So, in between all the work, you are urged: forget struggling in the game that others set the rules for every day. Live in carnival as it was meant to be. Know that parties were preceded by carnivals and that carnivals famously were declared once to be “not a spectacle seen by the people,” but events meant to be lived in, where “everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people.” (Bakhtin 1965:7). Grab the extraordinary days, live it up to tear it down, dance when you ‘should be’ working, interrupt invisibility and identity. Take a cue from the thirteenth and fourteenth century Europeans if you must; blame it on spider bites, ergot poisoning, or a health condition affecting the nerves, but network in joy and energy with community, shove bourgeois ideas of the elite where the sun doesn’t shine by rejecting their advice on how you, as a non-wealthy, non-white, non-straight, and/or non-cis person should live. Chase god in euphoria with disregard for charges of paganism and know in your heart you are a part of a working class that is abandoning post, possessed like so many dancers before, violently thrashing against priests, politicians, bosses, patriarchy, and whatever else that the system can throw in attempt to exorcise the misbehavior. Less joyous work will still be waiting for you tomorrow.
Recommended Associated Reading:
Additional sources linked throughout article.
Original inclusion: * "to survive happily into their old age worrying naught for the next generations welfare or to find immortality in scientific procedures ranging from age reversal promises from medicinal and cyborg enhancements, including but not limited to android consciousness-transplantation that science fiction proposes will be our future." Some reordering of first paragraph sentence order, post-publication.**"This is similar to liberal Greek acceptance of communal ecstasy, not strictly controlled Roman events."
Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) She is trained as an applied social cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), and has experience across the ground level of office, academic, publication, and service industry professions. Previous research projects have focused on justice and human rights, and music fandom. Former classes taught include introduction to anthropology's four subfields (biological, archaeological, social-cultural, linguistic) and student success/first year program classes; these featured themed content on history, performance, ethics, imperialism, biographies, media, and contemporary events. Manuscripts in the works include a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, as well as non-fiction writing projects on Buddhist/anthropological ethics and public policy; visual anthropology and community performance; and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism. These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly.
Article: Party as Protest: Part 1
Series: How To Respond To A World On Fire Column: The Activist Platform