People Get Ready

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Carnival and revolution

Posted by schroeder915 on March 30, 2006

Can New Orleans’ carnival tradition be extended into the realm of radical transformation of society and government? Can New Orleanians stage a revolt that ripples through City Hall, Baton Rouge, the halls of Congress, and the Oval Office? Can New Orleanians finally shine light on the debacle of doublespeak and lies coming out of the White House that are devastating lives and communities?

Consider the following excerpted essay by Umberto Eco:

Carnival, in order to be enjoyed, requires that rules and rituals be parodied, and that these rules and rituals already be recognized and respected. One must know to what degree certain behaviors are forbidden, and must feel the majesty of the forbidding norm, to appreciate their transgression. Without a valid law to break, carnival is impossible. During the Middle Ages, counterrituals such as the Mass of the Ass or the coronation of the Fool were enjoyable just because, during the rest of the year, the Holy Mass and the true King’s coronation were sacred and respectable activities. The Coena Cypriani quoted by Bachtin, a burlesque representation based upon the subversion of topical situations of the Scriptures, was enjoyed as a comic transgression only by people who took the same Scriptures seriously during the rest of the year. To a modern reader, the Coena Cypriani is only a boring series of meaningless situations, and even though the parody is recognized, it is not felt as a provocative one. Thus the prerequisites of a ‘good’ carnival are: (i) the law must be so pervasively and profoundly introjected as to be overwhelmingly present at the moment of its violation (and this explains why ‘barbaric’ comedy is hardly understandable); (ii) the moment of carnivalization must be very short, and allowed only once a year (semel in anno licet insanire); an everlasting carnival does not work: an entire year of ritual observance is needed in order to make the transgression enjoyable.

Carnival can exist only as an authorized transgression (which in fact represents a blatant case of contradicto in adjecto or of happy double binding — capable of curing instead of producing neurosis). If the ancient, religious carnival was limited in time, the modern mass-carnival is limited in space: it is reserved for certain places, certain streets, or framed by the television screen.

In this sense, comedy and carnival are not instances of real transgressions: on the contrary, they represent paramount examples of law reinforcement. They remind us of the existence of the rule.

Carnivalization can act as a revolution (Rabelais, or Joyce) when it appears unexpectedly, frustrating social expectations. But on the one side it produces its own mannerism (it is reabsorbed by society) and on the other side it is acceptable when performed within the limits of a laboratory situation (literature, stage, screen …). When an unexpected and nonauthorized carnivalization suddenly occurs in ‘real’ everday life, it is interpreted as revolution (campus confrontations, ghetto riots, blackouts, sometimes true ‘historical’ revolutions). But even revolutions produce a restoration of their own (revolutionary rules, another contradicto in adjecto) in order to install their new social model. Otherwise they are not effective revolutions, but only uprisings, revolts, transitory social disturbances.

In a world dominated by diabolical powers, in a world of everlasting transgression, nothing remains comic or carnivalesque, nothing can any longer become an object of parody (see Animal House: but finally Blutarsky becomes a U.S. Senator).

Umberto Eco, “The frames of comic ‘freedom’,” _Carnivale!_, Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Berlin: Mouton, 1984.

Nod: Steve Q.

Related: Disaster, Carnival, and Revolution

6 Responses to “Carnival and revolution”

  1. Adrastos said

    Very thought provoking. Thanks for posting that. Glad to see that you’re for a choice not an Ecco…

    That pun is so bad that I might have to use it on my blog and link to you.

    Btw, the Carnival concept sounds like something Shane Landry my District B candidate might say. I think that he’d even understand it as opposed to Dollar Bill’s lackey, RGP

  2. Marco said

    As a non-New Orleanian, I’ll contribute gas money or whatever to fuel the revolt. I do believe it’s coming to that.

  3. Rob said

    Nuevo Orleans Libre!

    Always nice to see Bakhtin mentioned. For more, go here.

    On a tangential note, Carnival, as practiced in Rome as Saturnalia or in Babylon as the Saecea (sp?), seems a variation on the ancient ritual of human sacrifice to ensure survival (harvesting, planting, or something else tied to a food source that happened cyclically). In the earliest practices, the victim was probably a volunteer, who’d get to run roughshod over society’s rules (sleeping with everyone’s wives and eating everything in sight) for a limited period of time before being designated the god or his son and killed. In some cases, the victim would be “king” for a day (or week or whatever). It’s likely that this is where the mock king found in Saturnalia, for example, originated. And, you know, the passion of the Christ.

  4. Tara said


    Wow! This post took me back to the heady days of graduate school when I thought I wanted to become a Joyce scholar.

    This is a fascinating observation to make about NOLA at this time. I have often wondered how one makes sense of a city that, for better or worse, is known for being perpetually in carnival mode? Of course there is an element of truth in that: great night life and music scene, wonderful celebrations and affirmations of life, culture, and art, and mostly friendly folks year ’round.

    As a former resident, I can say that this is a perception versus the reality–that is the notion of NOLA always being in carnival mode. The perception is perpetuated by the media focusing on Bourbon Street antics. It’s such a small slice of life in New Orleans, especially for the regular, working person.

    I have often wondered if that lingering Carnival spirit could be an influence on the city’s history of corrupt govenerment and mismanagement. Carnival precludes lawlessness–rules are broken and breaking them is overlooked.

    Yes, this is truly a provocative post. I am busting out some Rabelais this weekend to think about the city in this context. Thanks for the soul food 🙂

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  6. Interesting use of Ecco’s thoughts, and so very true.

    I live each and every breath in violation of the “rules”. It’s my nature, and what I have believed for almost five decades. One must always push the envelope in order to become themselves and fulfill their destiny.

    This is what all of us here must do in order to save our city.

    This is what it means to “be Human”.

    This is what New Orleans is…

    Carnival IS Civil Disobedience. It’s time we practice that tactic each and everyday. This is the only way we can get this place repaired.

    Reparations for all New Orleanians

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