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  • 7/29/2019 Carnivalesque Protest


    This article was downloaded by: [Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile]On: 28 July 2012, At: 19:52Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Text and Performance QuarterlyPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

    Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless StateM. Lane Bruner

    Version of record first published: 15 Aug 2006

    To cite this article: M. Lane Bruner (2005): Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State, Text and Performance Quarterl

    25:2, 136-155

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  • 7/29/2019 Carnivalesque Protest


    Carnivalesque Protest andthe Humorless State

    M. Lane Bruner

    Despite the long and generally humorless history of statecraft, institutional forms of

    oppression have periodically been defeated, transformed, or at least temporarily checked

    by carnivalesque forms of public protest. After reviewing the political features of carnival

    and the carnivalesque, along with several historical and contemporary examples of

    carnivalesque political performances, this essay explores the possibilities for progressive

    public transgression and the interrelationships among carnivalesque protest, critical

    democratic citizenship, and state health.

    Keywords: Carnival; Carnivalesque; Civil Disobedience; Corruption; Critical Theory;

    Protest; Humor; Globalization

    Hypocrisy and lies never laugh but wear a serious mask. (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelaisand His World 95)

    Across the centuries, those on the losing ends of the political and economic spectrums

    have periodically counteracted repressive forms of government with carnivalesque

    forms of protest.1 These protests, history suggests, are particularly prevalent when

    those benefiting from rampant political corruption lose their sense of humor, become

    ridiculous in their seriousness, but are incapable, for one reason or another, of

    silencing their prankster publics. There would appear to be important and ongoing

    tensions, then, between the shifting humors of state agents and the productivecapacities of critical citizens, suggesting that a fuller appreciation for the dynamics of

    those tensions is an important step in understanding how challenges to power can

    result in positive political change.

    ISSN 1046-2937 (print)/ISSN 1479-5760 (online) q 2005 National Communication Association

    DOI: 10.1080/10462930500122773

    M. Lane Bruner is currently Associate Professor of Critical Political Communication and Graduate Director of the

    doctoral program in Public Communication in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University in

    Atlanta, Georgia. Correspondence to: M. Lane Bruner, Department of Communication, Georgia State University,

    1052 One Park Place, Atlanta, GA 30303, USA. Tel: 1 404-651-3465; Email:

    Text and Performance Quarterly

    Vol. 25, No. 2, April 2005, pp. 136155

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    What, after all, constitutes humor in a state? Guy Debord, in his discussion of the

    society of the spectacle, argues that the state neverhas a sense of humor, since the state

    is always the ultimately unjust institutional site of law and order in the service of the

    corruptly wealthy and powerful. In his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, for

    example, Debord claims that it is always a mistake to try to explain something by

    opposing Mafia and state: they are never rivals (67).2 However, even a cursory review

    of political history reveals that different states at different times display a range of

    humors, from sick totalitarian states that suppress critical forms of public

    communication to healthy classical republican polities whose citizens enjoy a wide

    range of rights and freedoms, particularly of speech and assembly. One could plausibly

    argue that a states sense of humor is proportionate to the strength of citizens rights

    and freedoms againstthe state, the general openness of government deliberations, thebreadth and depth of political dialogue, and the degree to which state officials are

    legally constrained to tolerate public criticism. Rebellious citizenship, in fact, has often

    been valorized by political theorists and practitioners as something essential for state

    health. Around the time of the American Revolution, for example, it was commonly

    claimed among Whig philosophers that mobs and tumults only happen when there

    is a scandalous abuse of power, and, when revolts were moderate and not a threat

    to constitutional order, Thomas Jefferson famously held that a little rebellion now

    and then was a good thing (see Maier). From such a perspective, healthy (fun!)

    states have citizens who are capable of considerable irony, have ways institutionally to

    manage ambiguity and dissensus, have rich and actively turbulent public spheres, have

    flourishing forms of parodic and/or critical public entertainments, and are led by

    individuals encouraging critical citizenship. Conversely, sick and humorless states arepopulated by strict conservatives who crave certainty and discourage dissensus, have

    anemic and passive public spheres, have bland and diverting forms of public

    entertainments, and are led by individuals who repress critical citizenship.

    Despite the long and generally humorless history of statecraft, it is nevertheless the

    case that institutional forms of oppression have sometimes been defeated,

    transformed, or at least temporarily checked by carnivalesque protests, at least when

    conditions are favorable. Unfortunately, conditions are rarely favorable. While it is

    true that serious protests can sometimes reveal the unjust limits of corrupt states, as

    exemplified by the civil rights movement in the United States, it is far more often the

    case that direct and confrontational public protest is utterly crushed, as tragically

    demonstrated by the massacre of Chinese activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It

    would appear, then, that onlycertain kinds of laughter in certain kinds of situations arethe surest sign of state health (for surely there are situations faced by citizens and their

    state representatives that demand sincere seriousness). Conversely, only certain kinds

    of sober seriousness in certain kinds of situations mark the state in decay (for surely

    there are situations in which agents of state power are unnecessarily serious in order to

    mask their own incompetence or corruption). If this is true, what, precisely, are the

    kinds of laughter and seriousness that tend to make states healthier or sicker? How are

    we to understand political performance and the connections among performance,

    politics, and humor, and what are some of the possible interrelationships among

    Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State 137

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    progressive forms of carnivalesque protest, critical democratic citizenship, and state


    By first exploring the political features of carnival and the carnivalesque, and then

    reviewing several historical and contemporary examples of carnivalesque protest to

    ascertain the conditions required for its success, this essay seeks to address these and

    other questions related to progressive public transgression. Ultimately I argue that

    political corruption leads state actors to lose their sense of humor (i.e., as self-

    interested factions begin to undermine the common interest they simultaneously

    begin to stifle public critique and decry the principle of publicity in general), that there

    are important civic lessons to draw from the similarities between critical political

    theory and the carnivalesque, and that the most effective way of addressing state

    corruption, at least under certain circumstances, is through the creative use ofcarnivalesque protest.3

    The General Characteristics of Political Carnival

    In many parts of the Western world today, for historical reasons related in large

    measure to the Protestant Reformation, popular notions of carnival, when not

    associated with Ferris wheels and stuffed animals, are associated with licentious

    festivals such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Brazil. These diverting

    entertainments and bawdy ce