Friday, December 31, 2010

Dancing in the Streets- a history of collective joy (Book 52 of 100)

Those of you who read this blog regularly know how much I enjoy the books of Barbara Ehrenreich. Indeed, 2 of her books Bightsided and Bait and Switch are already part of my 100 book odyssey, Her book, Dancing in the Streets: a history of collective joy is a followup and in this case antithesis of her book Blood Rites, which I haven't read and is about the reasons we go to war and how group dynamics impacts them. Until now, I had no interest in reading it. Perhaps I might now.

Being a person who is interested in dance I was amazed to discover the role a dance played in the expression of ancient cultural joy. She said that ancient cultures “danced and understood dancing as an activity important enough to record on stone.” In the lives of the ancient civilizations, dance was not a secondary activity, as it is today. In ancient cultures, language was “subservient” to dance. While other primates use language in various forms to communicate, only homo sapiens dance. The author says the reason for this is that dance is pleasurable enough for others to do the required actions to complete the work. She further theorizes that there was “sexual selection for the ability to dance well”.

But all this dancing and collective joy seeking changed suddenly during the roman empire and into the days of the early Christians, as well. Indeed, the roman god Dionysus was seen by different people as both representative of both Jesus and Satan. Calvinism especially limited festivities, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes, in much the same that sara Vowell did in last book I reviewed, The Wordy Shipmates. The Calvinists and the capitalists were apparently in bed together. Limiting festivities benefited both groups.

Carnival, that is, festivity, has been linked with revolution since time began. Such festivities often involved “rituals of inversion” where higher class people would for a time become the servants of the lower class. Such class jostling often led to revolutions. For example, 35% of slave revolts are reported to have occurred during the Christmas season, when people are off their guard. Additionally, who can forget the giant puppets at the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999? I was watching from my parent's house in Pennsylvania, but I can still recall perfectly clearly those giant puppet heads. As Ehrenreich puts it, “protest movements have reinvented the carnivalesque”. As an activist, I think this is true and I'm glad of it.

Although this book was very informative, parts of it just made me sad. Did you know, for example, that there are 35,000 articles on depression and only 400 on joy? Did you further know that depression if the fifth most diagnosed illness in the united states? In the early part of last century, there was a disorder called melancholy. I'm not quite sure if this is depression, but it sounds like it. The author speculates, and I agree, that part of the reason for this increase in depression was the removal of joyful events like town festivals. Society lacked the ability to experience the “thrill of the group”. In fact, it was encouraged that people who suffered from melancholy ought to engage in festive behavior, meaning things like good company and sports several times a week. But for society as a whole, it was thought that collective excitement was “synonymous with evil”.

The first really big return to festivity was the rock rebellion of the 60's, when, of course, there was also a bunch of political upheaval occurring. Rock and roll was of course opposed by many authoritarian forces, including the nazis. According to the leader of the black panthers, most white teenagers were “zombies” who were using rock and roll as a way to “reclaim their bodies”. Indeed, rock and roll as an art form had endured “the middle passage and centuries of enslavement”. Nowadays, rock has been bought out, of course, by corporations, and as the author notes, there is “no better way to subvert a revolution” than to join it with money making.

I like this book. I've only highlighted what I feel are the most important ideas here, but I'm sure you'll get more out of it if you read it for yourself. I rate this book an 8.25 out of 10. it lacks much of what I've come to enjoy in Ehrenreich more participatory work, which is Nickel and Dmed, and Bait and Switch, which were more humorous overall. However, the author's voice still shines through a bit. It's definitely worth the read.

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