Monday, January 29, 2007

"The Suppression of Collective Joy"

Here is an interesting article (actually annotated excerpts from a recent talk) about a new book by Barbara Ehrenreich that looks quite fascinating. She uses the phrase "collective joy" to capture all the different ways that human beings have bonded, have physically created moments of ecstatic togetherness. She describes these as "ritual, organized ways that people can make each other not only happy but joyful, delirious even ecstatic... Dancing, music, singing, feasting -which includes drinking- costuming, masking, face paint, body paint, processions, dramas, sporting competitions, comedies..."

One of the features of modern society is that it has been quite successful in suppressing opportunities for collective joy. Festivity has been replaced by spectacle, doing by watching, actively creating by passively consuming. Yet human beings still yearn for it -- to do, to create, to be together rather than apart -- and it leaks through the social barriers in all sorts of ways all the time.

This speaks to me about the deep connections between what some consider to be the separate spheres of so-called "cultural" political issues and more obviously "economic" political issues. At heart, they all about the use of the brute force of necessity ('cause we all gotta eat) and the insidious training of religio-capitalist "should" to get us all doing what people with power want us to be doing rather than what we ourselves wish.

Ehrenreich said:

Why is there so little collective joy today? Why is our culture bereft of opportunity for this kind of thing? Mostly, we sit in cubicles at work and we sit in our cars. If you mention 'ecstasy' people think you're talking about a drug. The cure for loneliness and isolation and despair is Prozac... The simple answer is: the ancient tradition of festivities and ecstatic rituals was deliberately suppressed by elites -people in power who associated this kind of frolicking with the lower classes and especially with women...

Most of us don't have much time in our lives because of this ridiculous cultural expectation that you should get up every morning and work. And work defines you, it's the measure of your worth as a human being...

Elites fear that disorderly kinds of events could turn into uprisings. And this fear is justified. Whether you're looking at European peasants in the late middle ages or Caribbean slaves in the 19th century, they were using festivity and carnival as the occasion for revolts.

A second reason that comes with the industrial revolution is, of course, the need to impose social discipline. It's hard to take agricultural people or herding people and convince them that they should get up and work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and then spend the seventh day listening to boring sermons in a church. To discipline the working class and slaves was a huge enterprise.

Personally, I have deeply internalized the protestant/capitalist training against such collective, ecstatic doing. I'm not sure I would or could easily participate if I were to stumble upon such a thing. But I sure feel the revulsion at the atomization to which we are subjected and a powerful pull towards the kind of celebratory, collective, creative, yet individual-affirming social that a return to such collective joy would (have to) entail.


Spartacus O'Neal said...

Living life well is revolutionary. Hakim Bey writes about it; Native Americans are still fighting for the right to do it. Jamake Highwater asserts it's part of the sacred dimension within all mankind's heritage for those willing to dig that deep.

Scott said...

And not just living it well, but recovering an understanding of what "well" means that allows us to go beyond our imposed identities as nothing more than passive consumers!

rfs said...

Scott, I caught you smiling during the parking meter party at hamilton car free day 2000...surely that counts for something! :)

Scott said...

And not just smiling...I think I might even have been tapping one or two of my toes, albeit unobstrusively inside my shoe. 8)