Carnival as a Form of Popular Performance

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The practice of carnival, no matter where or when you find it, is richly steeped in tradition and ritualistic practices.  To make clear the juxtaposition of practices within this article, Burke discusses various popular performance practices that have manifested in carnival historically and cross culturally. To start, he mentions that Carnival is often categorized within three different worlds of thought. The first being, as an Agrarian Festival Dating from Pagan Times where “the themes of fertility and renewal” (Bakhtin, 1965, 148-149) are explored.

The second, as a fundamentally Christian ritual. By this, Burke speaks on the direct and obvious correlation with many carnival parades and festivals falling just before lent where through festivities you can enact the Christian expression of carnal feasting… sexually and otherwise… as a means to purify your system through the time of lent and hopefully the rest of the year.

The third world of thought, is what Burke has categorized as “an enactment of world turned upside down, in which what is normally forbidden is permissible and indeed compulsory” (Burke, 8) He briefly introduces food, drink, sex, violence and speaking one’s mind as themes that appear in this ‘Topsy Turvey’ theory which seem to go along with Russian Philosopher and theorist Bakhtin.

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Bakhtin’s work is widely used as ways of analysing ritual practices, but what is applied within this article is his theories on the carnivalesque and the grotesque. In his writings on this Bakhtin attempts to define carnival as a kind of social institution that appears within communal festivities. Essentially the collective group and the individual share in an experience that destabilizes and releases the people from the dominant style of the community through what he calls ‘humour and chaos’.

Or more specifically, through the grotesque. Which is presented as “degradation and disintegration” that comes from the human body. From Bakhtin’s perspective, we see grotesque in carnival through the mass consumption of food, alcohol, and sex. Or, in some cases defecating or urinating. Masquerade and drinking for example, not only appear in the locations that Burke referenced in South America and Africa, but they have manifested in American Carnival as well.

While there are many contemporary American examples of these behaviours presenting in New Orleans Mardi Gras, we’ve decided to introduce you to a rural example in order to further prove that Carnival Practices are popular and transcendent. What you see here is a krewe from rural Louisiana’s Ti Mamou’s annual Courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras Run. Masquerade and ritual inebriation work together in this festival to attempt to achieve a certain aesthetic.

The masked clown like figures you can see are referred to as the Mardi Gras. They cover their faces with masks and wear variations of patchwork clown suits and travel to different locations within their rural town to “beg for charite (“Charity”)... [contributions that come in]...the form of money, foodstuffs, or a chicken that is released and must be captured by the Mardi Gras”. Beginning at 7am and not ending until late in the night, the masked Mardi Gras’ consume large quantities of alcohol at almost every stop throughout the day. That said, the drunk Mardi Gras engage in a kind of ritualized inebriation that allows them to behave in a non-normative way.

Those who are not fully immersing themselves in the ‘topsy turvy’ behaviour of carnival are, in a sense, reminded of social rules while simultaneously gaining the knowledge of what their neighbour may be unhappy with. The drunks are able to shamelessly provide political commentary or sometimes, take on a different form of the grotesque: and attempt to grope women.That said, Sexton states that there is a “fine line between ritualized inebriation and over-intoxication, [as well as] a fine line between serious play and actual conflict and punishment”.

Which, make no mistake, does occur. “Though preconceived notions of social behaviour are stretched to the limit” (Tee Mamou - Iota Mardi Gras Association Webpage) - there are Captains of Each Mardi Gras Krewe whose job is to reprimand individuals if they get out of hand. There are also a variety of punishments - some even as far as unmasking the Mardi Gras publicly. The present danger of getting unmasked during the festival, is not only shameful, but, in my opinion, would evaporates much of the immunity that anonymity through masquerade combined with ritualized inebriation evoke.

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