The Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones, recently turned his attention to the Occupy movement and specifically its public fact – the emblematic, Guy Fawkes mask. This mask of one of the one of the archetypal English protestors, mediated through popculture, has come to symbolise recent protest movements. Jones writes,
‘The mask is surreal, self-mocking, funny. In fact it is truly carnivalesque… Carnivals can turn into revolutions… but they usually don’t. In fact, the real meaning of the mask is that modern protest is sophisticated, self-knowing, cunning. It does not necessarily show its true face – and it does not necessarily know or want too much. The world is being shaken by protests against the excesses of finance, but this is not a revolution – it is a carnival. This does not make it false, but wise. Real revolution is bloody and cruel and mad. A carnival is entertaining and opens up questions that cannot usually be asked. Guy Fawkes has become the kind of a carnival of questions. Far from being sinister, his mask is a jokey icon of festive citizenship.’
This juxtaposition of carnival and politics has recently become a staple of left-wing and communist political theory. However, where Jones maintains a neat divide between bloody and pernicious revolution on the one hand and the harmless ‘festive citizenship’ of carnival on the other, theorists have tended to blur the distinction between the two. An extreme example is provided in the manifesto volume, We are Everywhere, edited by the collective, Notes from Nowhere. They write,
‘A deeper imprint was left by the experience of carnival – halfway between party and protest, resisting at the same time as proposing, destroying at the same time as creating… The foundations of authority are shaken up and flipped around. The unpredictability of carnival with its total subservience to spontaneity… ruptures what we perceive to be reality. It creates a new world by subverting all stereotypes… It opens up an alternative social space of freedom where people can begin to really live again.’
Carnivals are here celebrated as one of the most effective means of bringing about contemporary revolution. The implicit claim seems to be: cavorting in a pink tutu is sufficient to effectuate the downfall of the capitalist system.
In recent weeks, a number of student and academics at the University of Liverpool have been attending a seminar hosted by the Department of Philosophy to discuss whether such a claim is quite as ridiculous as it sounds. The seminar was part of the School of the Arts’ own festival celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which also included an evening of readings from the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and a three-day international conference.
At issue in the seminars was the question: is the recent penchant for the idea of the carnival a radical and innovative response to contemporary forms of oppression (whether bankers’ bonuses or police brutality) or merely a nostalgic glance back to a form of life that has not really existed since the Medieval period. For example, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age looks back to the pre-modern carnival as a form of life now lost to us, where the secular time of the working week was suspended in the name of a spiritual fullness. On the other hand, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri see the carnival as only now coming into its own as a result of changes in how we work: the shift from industrial to communications-based labour has meant that trade union-led protest is made redundant. Instead, protestors (or, what Hardt and Negri call, ‘the multitude’) now organise themselves on the lines of a carnival – a spontaneous and open network of relationships.
Behind this recent interest in the carnival stands the great Russian scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s work on Dostoevsky and Rabelais in the 20s and 30s established the idea of a carnivalesque form of life. However, his legacy has been ambivalent. On the one hand, Bakhtin celebrates the carnival as the authentic mode of existence of the multitude when they break free of ecclesiastical and political power structures. The fun and laughter of carnival life liberates. On the other hand, Bakhtin (at least explicitly) laments, like Taylor, the passing of this existence. Critics have speculated, however, that Bakhtin may nonetheless be referring to the Russian Revolution with his idea of carnival: when the people protest, life becomes a carnival. Slavoj Žižek has recently suggested, though, that Stalin’s puges might be a more appropriate context: ‘Today you are on the Central Committeee, tomorrow…’. Once again, we come across the political ambivalence of the festival: it is almost impossible to decide whether it is either liberatory or reactionary.
Perhaps the last word should be given to Shakespeare who in Act 4, Scene 4 of The Winter’s Tale lingers over the carnival atmosphere of a sheep-shearing festival. Yet, rather than emerging out of free and spontaneous liberation, this festive spirit is orchestrated by Autolycus – taking advantage of the shepherd’s abandon to steal their purses. Carnival is here put to the end of making money; it is very much part of the capitalist system, not an alternative to it.