Whilst on holiday I visited the ruined Maillezais Abbey and was pleased to find that in the 16th Century it had housed Françoise Rabelais, the French writer who wrote extravagantly and subversively about partying and in the process giving us the term Rabelaisian1
On the last day of our holiday, in all innocence we re-watched Do The Right Thing. 2
The next day we returned to Birmingham and watched the news.
Listening to all the opinion and angst swirling around about riots I started to recall a theories of Carnival as the structured, temporary overturning of hierarchies and suspension of conventional rules. In these theories Carnival acts as a social safety-valve which releases the pressure for a long term restructuring of society. It is essentially a party in place of a revolution.
It has started to feel more useful for me to think about the recent riots not in terms of cause simple cause and effect, or as the inexcusable acts of bad people, but as a Carnivalesque convulsion. For those few days the conventional social order was over-turned and rules suspended, a Rabelaisian intoxication griped hosts of people who acted in extraordinary ways. Now their party is over, the Rabble are sobering up, the social order has been restored, normal rules apply again and, because this was not a sanctioned/structured Carnival, those rules are being applied in retrospect. For many the hangover has just begun.3
I’m not sure if this proto-theory gets me anywhere, but it does help the reading of many aspects of events. Participants appeared to enjoy the riots, finding them exciting, exhilarating, subversive, fun. The hysteria sucked people in, reports suggest people found themselves as drunks might, doing things they would never normally consider doing and find themselves regretful for when sober. It is a reading of the riots that allows for them to be apolitical in intent if not in fact.
I am wary of this theory as it suggests a degree of fatalism, but it also allows some to draw a certain comfort from the thought that this is not evidence of the final shredding of our social fabric, but merely part of a irregular cycle of social tension and release, modulated by our contemporary mores.
That this Carnivalesque episode arose unbidden outside any structured context (it was not a Carnival), perhaps indicates that our society’s obsession with control – and by extension commodification (you cannot commodify that which you do not control) – has reduced people’s opportunities for genuine Carnival. Is Friday night at Gatecrasher a Carnival? The Management may wish you believe it but surely a genuine Carnival cannot be under control of The Management. ArtsFest may be fun but it’s not Rabelaisian. Maybe London people couldn’t wait until 28th August (can a genuine carnival have a website?) – but my theory is crumbling, what was this in Birmingham on 7th August? I suspect there are Carnivals and Carnivals.
There we go Riot Theory #1, such as it is.
1 Unhelpfully I have absolutely no memory where I read about Rabelias or Carnival.
2 Rewatching this made me want to see everything Spike Lee has ever made. If you’ve not seen the film here it is in condensed Sesame Street format with full profanity included.
3 Here I am clearly trying to force an etymological link between Rabble and Rabelaisian which frankly does not exist.