Thursday, March 28, 2013

Book Review: Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich

(Don't forget to go enter my giveaway for a copy of Andrew Bowen's Project Conversion!  If you haven't entered yet, you're running out of only have until midnight tomorrow!  Click here to find out how to enter.)

Barbara Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets is less a history of collective joy, as the subtitle states, than it is a history of the restriction, suppression and de-legitimization of collective joy.  It speaks to the increasing isolation many people across the globe, and particularly in the first world, experience.

Collective joy is a term, and an experience, that is fairly foreign to most of us today.  Dr. Ehrenreich describes ecstatic rituals, bacchanalias, festivities, and group dancing from cultures such as the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and various indigenous tribes around the world, including vestiges such as Carnival that survived until the Middle Ages.  In the past, these experiences bound groups together in expressions of community and commonality.  They provided opportunities for individuals to synchronize their goals and actions with the group, to reach a state of communion with the Divine, to escape from the sometimes almost unbearable stress of daily life.

Dr. Ehrenreich finds strong connections between social and religious hierarchy, especially those imposed by colonial imperialism or church structure, and the suppression of expressions of collective joy.  For example, in response to "dance manias" that took place in the late Middle Ages, interpreted now by some historians as a physiological response to the extreme psychological stress of poverty and the Plague, the Catholic Church attempted to crack down on such "unseemly" public displays.  "Nothing is more threatening to a hierarchical religion than the possibility of ordinary laypeople's finding their own way in to the presence of the gods."  Eventually, these festivities were banned piece by piece.  "The loss, to ordinary people, of so many recreations an festivities is incalculable; and we, who live in a culture almost devoid of opportunities either to 'lose ourselves' in communal festivities or to distinguish ourselves in any arena outside of work, are in no position to fathom it."

Interestingly, she also connects the repression of such collective festivities as "a by-product of the emergence of capitalism."  She explains further: "The middle classes had to learn to calculate, save and 'defer gratification'; the lower classes had to be transformed into a disciplined, factory-ready, working class--meaning far fewer holidays and the new necessity of showing up for work sober and on time, six days a week."  While peasants worked hard as well, of course, their work was generally seasonal.  "The new industrialism required ceaseless labor, all year round" and "there was money to be made from reliable, well-regulated human labor."

Dr. Ehrenreich discusses some modern events that include elements of this collective joy.  She mentions the fascist rallies of the 1930s, but points out that they were spectacles, rather than festivals, and were "designed by a small group of leaders for the edification of the many."  Instead of the participatory element so vital to the expression of collective joy, spectacles "offer an inherently more limited experience." Spectators "are not there to be seen, except as part of an inert mass."  Gatherings like "hippie rock festivals" (think Woodstock) are getting closer to the original experience of collective joy, and certainly served as a rejection of "mainstream mid-twentieth century culture [which] was deeply restrictive of physical motion in general."  As rock music became "the rallying point of an alternative culture utterly estranged from the dominant 'structures'", rock festivals recreated Carnival as an expression of that alternative, less restrictive culture.  She also draws some parallels with today's sports events and the carnival atmosphere that surrounds major games or competitions.

Mostly, Dr. Ehrenreich postulates, what has been lost with the opportunity to experience collective joy, is a sense of deep one-ness with others.  "In today's world, other people have become an obstacle to our individual pursuits."  Highlighting studies that show a decline in every kind of group activity, she notes that "intellectuals regularly issue thoughtful screeds on the missing glue in our society, the absence of strong bonds connecting us to those outside our families."  Perhaps, if we can find our way back to that collective joy, those bonds will start to form again.

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy
by Barbara Erhenreich
ISBN: 9780805057232
Buy it from Amazon (hardcoverpaperbackaudiobook).
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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