Barbara Ehrenreich on the Importance of Collective Joy

Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Dancing in the Streets, is surprisingly optimistic. A "history of collective joy," it explores the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture -- and explains why modern Americans have grown so resistant to ... well ... having fun together.

Ehrenreich links the epidemic of depression to our growing lack of group bonding rituals (think church, feasts and carnivals). She also explores how, throughout the ages, group celebrations have brought people together in a spirit of solidarity, joy and union, helping to fight both oppression and depression. From the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion," Dancing in the Streets traces the roots of the very human need to dance, sing and revel together -- and how these sorts of festivities can be vehicles for social change.

AlterNet spoke with Ehrenreich via telephone.

Tell me how the idea for this book came to you, and why you wanted to pursue it.

I started working on this book 9 years ago. It wasn't like right after Bait and Switch I decided I wanted to do this. It required a huge amount of research. The [original idea] came from some questions I had about humans, and my species.

After writing another macro-historical book about war (Blood Rites), I was interested in the bright side of human bonding. Not the bonding of humans in opposition, but how bonding holds a community, and even strangers, together.

We are a very social species. I was reading about it for months and months, but came across this universal pattern of ecstatic rituals -- it's hard to think of any society that doesn't have them. They all seem to feature these ingredients of costuming, dancing, masking, face/body painting, feasting ... techniques that people in widely different cultures have used to generate joy. Why have we got so few [ecstatic rituals] today?

In a nutshell, generalizing over many cultures and times, these sorts of activities have been suppressed by elites -- according to class, race, gender -- because the [rituals] came to be seen as disruptive, subversive and even dangerous. They were seen as antithetical to the social discipline that came to be expected by mass society.

Class and issues of power are a huge part of this. In the Caribbean in the 19th century, carnival would be a huge part of slaves' revolts.

Why did you think the time was right to publish it now?

This isn't timed to anything specific, but I think it's very important for people involved in social movements to think about [this stuff]. I'm struck by the ways that, in the last 67 years, there has been a carnivalizion of protest. Especially in the anti-globalization movement -- there's been an increased amount of music, face painting, and costuming at demonstrations.

People want to experience collective joy and solidarity in artistic and fun ways. The other thing that's larger, in a way, is that if we are going to have an ecologically sustainable world, it can't be about giving up things we have now -- cars, plastic. We need to think about positive gains we can have. How can we find joy in ways that don't just involve trashing the environment? [In this book], here it is.

In modern America, where do we stand on the collective joy scale?

Well, it's interesting to me how sports fans have managed to carnivalize sports events -- consider rhythmic activities like the wave -- turning sports from something where you just sit and watch athletes, into something where you're a participant in a great big collective event. We had an outbreak of this in the rock rebellion of the 1950s and '60s, where a new kind of music invited people not to sit still anymore ... to turn an event into a participatory event where you can get up and dance with other people.

America also experiences this in the Pentecostal religious movement, with people achieving trance states. People creating completely new holidays and occasions out of nothing -- Burning Man is the best example. And the Berlin Love Parade, where a million people have danced in the streets. Halloween, in gay culture, has become more of an adult celebration, but it's not necessarily political ...

Do people experience collective joy differently in different parts of the country?

Every culture has its own context, whether it's seen as religious or recreational. But the ingredients are universal: dancing and music; costuming, masking or face painting.

In our culture, face painting has become the universal mark of having a good time, from children's birthday parties to sports events. Then there's feasting and wine ... There can be a procession through a town or village. Sports events, theater, mockery of the authorities; those are worldwide.

Which modern cultures tend to be most open and encouraging of collective joy?

Latin America, Brazilian culture, African [culture]. Trinidad has a huge carnival; it's less commercial.

Why do you think modern America has gotten so resistant to experiencing communal joy? Are we too solitary and self-possessed for our own good?

Yeah, and I think we are paying the price for it with the epidemic of depression. I talk in the book about how [depression in this country] has reached epidemic proportions. People are isolated.

It's not that all human problems would be solved if we got out and danced together, but it's a classic, prehistoric method of people bonding together. We don't do it anymore ... or not enough.

Can you expand on that? You write in the book that the "death of carnival might have contributed directly to the epidemic of depression."

I was struck by the ways that traditional festivities got wiped out, most dramatically in northern Europe. Around the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of Calvinism, you had clergymen and physicians talking more about melancholy -- how they were seeing it in more people. I thought there must be some connection, but I didn't want to oversimplify.

I concluded that ecstatic rituals were a cure for depression -- you can see that in many cultures. An example of a culture that uses it as a cure is some North Africans -- if a woman were to take to her bed and become depressed, family would call in a zar healer who would bring in musicians and healers to engage in days and nights of ecstatic dancing, and soon the woman would get up and join. Some cultures would see this as a cure for melancholy. We do drugs instead, both antidepressants and illegal drugs.

We have never lost the capacity for collective joy. It's part of our nature. But if you look at how little we get to exercise it ... if we compare ourselves to the French in the 14th century, with Saint's Days and this huge calendar of festivities, we just don't do it very much, if at all.

This [lack of festivities] represents a triumph of the powerful, and their idea that you have to work all the time. This is a recent [development]. Historically, peasants worked when they had to, when they had to plant or harvest. When they didn't have to work, they worked on having a good time -- planning festivities, costumes, dance steps; great expressions of human creativity.

Can you provide some historical examples of authority figures trying to suppress ecstatic rituals that were viewed as dangerous or disruptive?

The book maps out this repression. One striking example is the repression of Dionysian worshippers in ancient Rome; it was an extremely bloody repression. Dionysus was the god of ecstasy, who required that his worshippers engage in revelry and drink wine and enter trances of dancing. Women were chief among his worshipers. This alarmed the authorities ... charges were brought; they hunted and killed the worshipers of Dionysus.

In the Christian era, it's been a long battle against the 'common people' who thought the church should involve music, dance and revelry.

Things got much worse with the Protestant era, and the crackdown on Saint's days, festivities, holidays and sports.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

It's a big thing to come across a lost tradition. I want people to own it and rediscover it. I want people to say, 'Hey, this is a human skill and tradition, and we can generate joy without commodities -- without someone setting it up for us.'

What are your favorite ways to experience this sort of pleasure?

If there's an occasion, a party, I'll dance and enjoy it a lot. I'm not a good dancer, but that's not the point. One of the things I hate about the TV show "Dancing with the Stars," which I have watched a few times, is that it's so intimidating about dancing ... It's very judgmental and critical. They're featuring couples dancing, which is a very late addition. In the 16th century [couples dancing] became big; it's innately more threatening than dancing in a line or circles, which is the more traditional thing to do.

How can progressives use collective joy to help motivate people and promote our causes?

People who are working for change need to think about how to make their events draw on the solidarity and creativity of lots of people together. That's been happening ... but it's something we need to address. Bringing art and culture into politics is a way to express what we are seeking, what our vision of the world is.

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