Book Review: Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets


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Dancing in the Streets : A History of Collective Joy , by Barbara Ehrenreich
Hardcover - 336 pages
First Edition, 2007
Published by Metropolitan Books

ISBN 0805057234
ISBN-10: 0-8050-5723-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-5723-2

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Book Review


It seems to me that understanding history requires understanding conflict. One author may choose to look at master and slave, and another author may focus on science versus superstition. New from biologist and social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich is a fascinating book that tells the history of people who want to have a good time, festivity and celebration, versus the leaders and bosses who consider it dangerous when common folks get unruly.

Ehrenreich is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books, the most bestselling of which was the 2001 Nickel and Dimed . In January of 2007, Metropolitan Books (an imprint of Henry Holt & Co. of New York) released her latest work, Dancing in the Streets .

She begins with a theme that is mentioned in later chapters as well, the idea that religion is traditionally practiced with song and dance. Anthropologists and sociologists have noticed this similarity among popular cultures of India, Africa, the Native Americans, the aborigines of Australia, the ancient Greeks -- it is considered a sacred ritual when people move rhythmically, possibly wearing costumes, stamping their feet, achieving frenzy and ecstasy.

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Barbara Ehrenreich ,
Dancing in the Streets : A History of Collective Joy

Then the party-poopers arrive. Not infreqently, they work for the government, or someone else's goverment, or someone else's organized religion. The party-poopers come to denounce the sacred revelry as savage and uncivilized, liable to lead to breach of the peace, the devil's work, indecent and obscene, the demise of the work ethic, incitement to riot and rebellion, you-name-it. The British occupiers of Trinidad banned the playing of drums. [177-178] The ancient Roman state repressed the cult of Isis. [55]

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed . A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine. She lives in Virginia.

- From the Publisher


One of the most historically effective examples was when the Catholic Church in the 13th and 14th centuries prohibited feasting and partying in God's house. [Chapter 4] Church leaders were afraid that singing and dancing might give people the dangerous idea that they could approach divinity directly, and the church was "determined to maintain its monopoly over human access to the divine." [84] In a compromise between "obedience and piety" and "riotous good times" [78] the festivities were not banned but rather relocated to outside of the church ediface, establishing the European custom known as carnival. [Chapter 5]

The age of explorers with wooden ships brought about the dual destructive agents of colonialism and missionaries. The Europeans were both repulsed and frightened to encounter "primitive" people, often believers in animism or polytheism, dancing convulsively and apparently "possessed." Europeans could at least understand promiscuity and cannibalism, although they did approve of them, but ecstatic dance they could neither approve nor understand. [6] It was a matter of "guns gainst drums", the case of "imperialism encounters ecstasy." [155]

"So civilization, as humans have known it for thousand of years, has this fundamental flaw: It tends to be hierarchical, with some class or group wielding power over the majority, and hierarchy is antagonistic to the festive and ecstatic tradition." [253]

The author borrows the premise of sociologist Max Weber that Calvinism has been a huge force for making people incapable of experiencing spontaneous enjoyment. [144] As a matter of principle, Calvinism seeks to maintain a certain level of "anxiety". [108] This effect corresponds well, Weber realized, to capitalism's new a "sink or swim" economic system. [143] Post-Reformation theologians assigned themselves the task of "killing carnival". [101]

Dr. Ehrenreich finds that traditional forms of celebration, ecstatic song-and-dance religion, street festivals, are reborn in some of our contemporary phenomena. Audiences of today's rock concerts (Chapter 10) and sports events (Chapter 11) tend to go nuts because they are driven to participate; they refuse to be mere spectators. Ecstatic spontaneity is found in "African-derived American music: blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, and jazz." [164] The festival is there when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson associates bodily movement with religious worship. [218]

However, make no mistake -- be sure to note that the Fascist and Nazi rallies (Chapter 9) were quite the opposite of this tendency toward celebration. The latter were "heavily policed" [202] events intended to expunge individuality and make the people into obedient spectators. They use banners and other symbols to line up the people behind nationalism and hierarchy. The "prototype for the fascist rallies" [188] was developed during the French Revolution by Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jacobins, who were concerned with control over individuals, and considered enjoyment to be a waste of time. [190] The genuine celebration mocks and resists hierarchy and regimentation. So, you see, not all kinds of the madness of crowds are created equal.

Having offered a classification for "fascist spectacles" [181] the author identifies spectacles operating elsewhere. There is a parallel in the subjugation of women, e.g., 1950s-era rules against girls playing sports in school, effectively teaching girls to be spectators. [213] One may compare this to the practice in a militaristic state of giving the people "the military as entertainment" [194] and giving soldiers the "status of performers". [196] Some claification is available by borrowing from the work of philosopher Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle . [250]

Science tries to understand the tendency toward spontaneous celebration. In the 20th century, anthropologists decided to stop calling other societies "savage" and began an attempt to identify the social "functions" of rituals. [10] Other scientists supposed that our brains have a neurological basis for ritual. [26] The anthropologist Victor Turner insisted that festivity should be merely peripheral, merely "liminal" [22] to society, not central to its everyday operation. Therefore, the 1960s hippies annoyed Turner by projecting an "ongoing ecstatic community" while also challenging society's institutions. [221-222]

As did Nietzsche, Ehrenreich uses the symbol of Dionysis to represent our wild side. In Greek mythology, and in the drama Bacchae by Euripides, the aging king Pentheus of Thebes forbade the worship of Dionysus, the god of festivity, of wine, of theater.

In the book's conclusion, Ehrenreich weighs the future and the "possibility of revival." [247] She offers a pessmistic foreshadowing:

"In the at least three-thousand-year-old struggle between Pentheus and Dionysus -- between popes and dancing peasants, between Puritans and carnival-goers, between missionaries and the practitioners of indigenous estatic danced religions -- Pentheus and his allies seem to have finally prevailed. Not only has the possibility of collective joy been largely marginalized to the storefront churches of the poor and the darkened clubs frequented by the young, but the very source of this joy -- other people, including strangers -- no longer holds much appeal." [248]

What we are unfortunately lacking, the author says, is a social movement:

"There is no powerful faction in our divided world committed to upholding the glories of the feast and dance." [249]

Let us see if we can encourage the launch of the right kind of social movement. Let it be a new movement that will recollect the essence of the ancient cult of Dionysis, the medieval Feast of Fools, the maypole dance, and perhaps even the Summer of Love and the Woodstock Generation.

Book review by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

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Book Description from the Publisher's Press Release

From the bestselling social commentator and cultural historian, a fascinating exploration of one of humanity's oldest traditions: the celebration of communal joy.

In the acclaimed Blood Rites , Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species' attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite impulse, one that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

Ehrenreich uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. Although sixteenth-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion." Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, the prelude to widespread reformation: Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites. The elites' fear that such gatherings would undermine social hierarchies was justified: the festive tradition inspired French revolutionary crowds and uprisings from the Caribbean to the American plains. Yet outbreaks of group revelry persist, as Ehrenreich shows, pointing to the 1960s rock-and-roll rebellion and the more recent "carnivalization" of sports.

Original, exhilarating, and deeply optimistic, Dancing in the Streets concludes that we are innately social beings, impelled to share our joy and therefore able to envision, even create, a more peaceable future.

Book Reviews

"Ehrenreich writes with grace and clarity in a fascinating, wide-ranging and generous account."

-- Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

"A serious look at communal celebrations, well documented and presented with assurance and flair."

-- Kirkus Reviews

"Barbara Ehrenreich shows how and why people celebrate together, and equally what causes us to fear celebration. Here is the other side of ritual, whose dark side she explored in Blood Rites. Ranging in time from the earliest festivals depicted on cave walls to modern football crowds, Ehrenreich finds that dancing has been a way to address personal ills like melancholy and shame, and social ills as extreme as those faced by American slaves. Dancing in the Streets is itself a celebration of language-clear, funny, unpredictable. This is a truly original book."

-- Richard Sennett, author of The Culture of the New Capitalism

"A fabulous book on carnival and ecstasy, skillfully arranged and brilliantly explained."

-- Robert Farris Thompson, author of Tango : The Art History of Love

"The same brave, brilliant writing that Ehrenreich has always used to expose the dark underside of human nature, she now employs to illuminate sources of communal joy and bonding that we as a society have historically denied and continue to sweep under the rug. Tracing the long history of Europe's fight against its better impulses, she ends with the return of the repressed-the rock rebellions of the 1960's, the carnivalesque that often pervades protest movements-as she joyously draws ecstasy out of its hiding places and urges us to let it back into our lives."

-- Wendy Doniger, author of The Woman Who Pretended To Be Who She Was

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