The "Carnival Character" of the Present Age...cont.

by Lauren Langman

Carnival Culture

The carnival, a popular celebration of festive rituals and practices emerged in feudal Europe as a moment of peasant folk culture (Bakhtin, l968). The carnival valorized the erotic, the obscene, the lower body, excreta etc. Carnival created a liminal culture of the ludic that granted feudal peasants more pleasurable moments than tilling the soil. The fairs and carnivals were times and places of popular resistance , inversions, sanctioned deviance and reversals of norms that stood opposed to the official feasts and tournaments that celebrated the power of the elites.(5) Typical patterns of hierarchy, deference and demeanor were ignored, indeed repudiated in favor of that which was proscribed and violated boundaries. The ‘sacrosanct’ elites of Church and State were typically parodied, mocked, hectored and ridiculed. The transgressions of moral boundaries was alluring at several levels from the political to the erotic-that are closely intertwined (Stalybrass and White, l985). The carnival was an expression of the Dionysian that Nietzsche claimed was suppressed by the Appollonian (Cf Mafesoli, l992). There was suspension if not reversal of usual codes of morality in favor of valorizing the lower body, excreta, the profane, the vulgar, the grotesque and obscene. These were times of indulgence in wine, song, dance and sex. Alternative meanings could be negotiated as resistances to top down impositions. The carnival as a liminal time and space for ludic indulgence fostered a "collective effervescence" that allowed all passions and desires to emerge-especially otherwise constrained. From Durkhiem’s analysis of Australian religion to Goethe’s comments on Italy or Frazer on the Saturnalia, in such liminal rituals, all that was otherwise forbidden emerged in frenzied form. All taboos of food or sexual access were suspended.

Carnival was not simply a relaxation of sexual repressions and constraints, it was not a riot, it is not chaotic, it was a cultural performance with its own rules, structures and understandings. Following Turner (1969), a social structure as an organization of constraint, dialectically fosters alternative realms apart from the typicality of the quotidian. There is a bifurcation of reality into the normative structure and a liminal anti-structure. The liminal stands apart from the usual as illness stands in opposition to the typicality of health. The ludic carnival culture of the middle ages as a liminal time and site of resistance, valorized the vulgar, the obscene and the erotic Liminal realms are times and sites of freedom, agency (empowerment), equality, licence and spontaneity. The liminal realm is one is often the site for resistance struggles, inversion and repudiation, indeed flouting norms and expressions of acts or feelings that are usually forbidden or taboo. Carnival thus created a liminal culture of the ludic that granted feudal peasants pleasurable moments of indulgence and seeming resistance if only for fleeting moments in marginal, interstitial or even imaginary sites of otherwise prohibited gratification.

Whether one engaged in serious drinking, casual sex or mocking the Bishop or King, carnival was a challenge to the official and the officials, it was a realm where subalterns could find alternative communities that granted dignified identities, recognition, empowerment and meanings apart from everyday life, dominant norms and structures of elite power. Carnival was a time and place where the otherwise prohibited and constrained was valorized and celebrated. It was an alternative to and repudiation of the official culture of the nobility. To parody, to mock, to stick out a tongue, butt or a finger to authority is to give one a sense of power over authority, be recognized by others for so doing and integrated into a community of resistance. Fleeting, perhaps, momentary, but so is life and in the mediaeval era, especially so.

Carnival was a realm of primary process apart from the rational, secondary process demands of a "harsh, brutish and short" everyday life. Whether the bizarre masks, polymorphous perversions or scatological humor, the carnival was the realm of the dream as a wish fulfillment of the child- before the censor (super-ego) could declare repression, mark boundaries and punish transgressions. The representations of the erotic, the profane and the grotesque (the good, the bad and the ugly), rooted in the most archaic depths of the unconscious, found momentary expression, indeed valorization in Carnival where boundaries of wish , dream and reality blurred. These utopian realms of desire, rooted in the universalities of embodiment, prolonged dependency, frustrated desires and eventual death, long antedate particular social orders and their repressions (Bloch, l986 ). The carnival mocked death and for a few moments dulled the fears of death (Becker, l974).

Thurow (1997) has noted the similarity of this new economic reality to the middle ages. The new elites, the cyber lords or elites of the Trans National Class have radically transformed late capital in much the same ways that capital led to the implosion of the feudal world. Thus on the one hand we see growing gaps of income and wealth between the new aristocrats of information gain greater wealth and new serfs of lower echelon services and deskilled production find it harder and harder to survive with the various McJobs of interactive service.. But while the traditions of the Enlightenment and capitalist contradictions would suggest revolution, there is no protest and no critique. Why?

As I have argued, foregrounded by the radical reorganization of capitalism from the industrial production of nations to a restructured form of globalized capital to the mass production and universal mediation of a carnivalesque mass culture and consumption led to the rebirth of the medieval carnival-as a mass mediated simulation-first as farce, then as tragedy. And with this commodified "re-enchantment of the world", we see transformations of culture and character that in many ways reminds us of the medieval social order. Fromm’s insights on advertising, consumption clearly anticipated the changes in social character as consumerism became the dominant moment. In this way, just as feudal/traditional society provided honorific recognition based on family, religious observation, military bravery and personal loyalty, modern capitalist societies grant recognition to the rich, the famous and infamous. I would suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of a new social type, the "carnival character"-although in some ways s/he shares certain feature with the "receptive character of the medieval era. This increasingly typical "carnival character" represents the intersection of global capitalism that universalizes the consumer society with obsessive concerns for amusement that has led to an enfeeblement of the self, a loss of agency that is hidden by a plurality of masks and commodified identities provided by the popular culture (Langman, l992). If the marketing character sold him/her self as a commodity, the "carnival character" is articulated in fantastic forms of consumption.(6)

Carnival Character

The concept of the "carnival character" as the "social character" of our age, brings together a number of perspectives on the nature of contemporary selfhood. Psychoanalytic theory, having now moved away from instinct theory-about 50 years after Fromm had done so-has shifted from a focus on neuroses, compulsions and phobias, to concerns with narcissistic character disorders, borderline personalities and impulse ridden characters. If the "marketing orientation" was the social expression of the phallic aggressive character, the "carnival character" is underpinned by narcissistic pathologies. While I do not wish to dwell on the clinical aspects of psychopathology in terms of etiology or symptomology, I would like to recall Freud’s observation of how pathology and normalicy stood on a continuum. For more modern psychoanalytic thought, the fundamental problems of today focus around a problematic, weakened sense of self, an inner emptiness and meaninglessness that belie outer manifestations of "success" and esteem that represent a false self, a defensive strategy of compensation for what is lacking. Such people, often seemingly charming and endearing, and not infrequently well liked, generally have shallow, attenuated social ties and bonds. Other people exist primarily to give the person recognition or, if the "Others" are seen as powerful people, attachments to them bring a sense of empowerment.(7) Thus they tend to be highly manipulative and use other people primarily to gratify their own need. In the terms of Kohut, people become "self objects" who exist only to serve the needs of a deformed self.

The most typical expressions of the carnival character as the "social character of our age" are an intertwining of self esteem based on ambition/accomplishment expressed in work and self indulgent privatized hedonism in the realms of leisure as means to glean recognition and/or establish relationships. I would however note a major class difference. In the contemporary work place, those at the lower echelons, whose jobs and careers are more problematic, who suffer the "hidden injuries" of subordinate status, are less likely to locate their sense of self in work and/or find their community of meaning among fellow workers as has been the case historically (Cf. Sennett, l972,1998). But do note that while some segments of the elite yet find meaningful identities, dignity and recognition in their work, especially professionals, for increasing numbers of upper level managers and executives, technical elites of the digital world and a variety of upper echelon service workers do not find work as satisfying as it has been in the past. As was previously note, "flexible" corporations, rapid re-organization and short term commitments have undermined the centrality of work and commitment to an organization in favor of "success" in that work. And in this world, success is more often based on images and appearances of success-which may be very transitory and erode in a moment. .

In classical psychoanalysis, character was basically established early life through interaction with parents in which they not only used certain socialization practices, but stood as role models who mediated cultural values. While Fromm paid little attention to the specifics of early family life, his Frankfurt School sometimes colleagues began to chart the demise of the power of the father [parents] compared to larger social institutions such as schools, the State and increasingly, mass media. The modern "culture industries", especially television, film, records (CDs), "edutainment" and "computainment" have infliltrated and colonized childhood to begin instilling consumption based character structure articulated through identities in which various goods, fashions, life styles and cultural tastes/expressions provide the person with fantasied identities, meanings and gratifying experiences in the "shopping mall selfhood" (Cf. Langman, 1993). While the simplistic analyses of academic psychology such as watch violence leading to violent behavior are ludicrous, the truths of media are its commercials and the migration of subjectivity to various dream worlds and hyperealities of consumerism which are ever changing.

Thus just as the images of film and/or television and/or video games change every few seconds, so too are the self presentations of "carnival character" ever changing, as if without a stable core or sense of self. In the academic literature, a number or authors have argued for a more situational notion of selfhood, perhaps its extreme expression in Goffman’s notion of social life a series of momentary self presentations. Indeed this lability of character has become a central theme of modern social psychology. Zurcher’s (19 ) notion of the mutable character and Lifton’s Promethian personhood note that changeability and flexibility are the keys to adaptation. Finally, in the most recent theorizing of postmodern psychologists like Gergen, Samson or Shotter, there is a concerted attack on the very idea of a stable sense of selfhood as little more than a fiction left over from the Romantic era (Gergen, 1991).

The other distinguishing feature of the carnival character is his/her hedonism. For the classical businessman, a product of ascetic Puritanism, the conservation of capital and sperm served to insure long term success. For Weber, the rise of capitalism as a rational economy depended on the systematic repression of traditional and/or affective action. In similar ways, Freud and Elias made similar arguments. For Freud, the secondary process of the rational ego suppressed the irrational primary processes and biological drives of the id. I do not know if Fromm had known Elias, surely they must have bumped elbows at the Institute for Social Research which was on the ground floor of what was also the sociology building. (Though Elias was surely too mannered to bump into people.) From these authors is becomes clear that the rationalization of society, the domination of drives by the ego/superego, and the "civilizing process" were all part of the same cultural moment. And surely it was this constellation in which the carnival culture of medieval society began to wane until it was stigmatized, marginalized and all but disappeared-or was turned into a commodity.

Whereas repression among the bourgeois traders was a critical moment in the transition from feudalism to modernity, once industrialization and mass production reached a certain point in which there were likely to be crises of overproduction, capital needed to invent or colonize new realms. It was in this context that capitalism began to move from the production and transportation of basic goods and raw materials to the mass production of consumer goods ranging from home appliances and cars to prepared foods, fashions, cosmetics and entertainment. It is at this point that the "captains of consciousness" begin to insinuate the desire to spend (on consumer good) into the psyche and colonize desire (Ewen, l976). But the critical thrust of advertizing and public relations was to "buy now"-meaning erode the internalize restraints on savings and thrift. While this process began in the 1920, perhaps the emblematic shift in consciousness took place in the 60's when Playboy magazine heralded the sexual revolution-as another moment of consumer society. While it encouraged occupational success, the sign of that success was consumer sophistication. Knowing which wine went best with Ramsey Lewis and Oysters Rockefeller got the aspiring young (male) executive laid. [Answer- a Riesling or Chablis]

Privatized hedonism as a mechanism of escape

As we saw, for Fromm, the attempts to overcome feelings of anxiety and powerlessness that originated in social conditions led to certain "mechanisms of escape", authoritarian submission, destructiveness and conformity. .These modes of escape were the telling motives for human behavior. Thus Protestantism, Fascism and Consumer society might each be seen as historically specific collective ways that people could find these escapes that overcame feelings of anxiety, alienation and powerlessness. As an ideology, each provided an explanation of the world and specified goals and values that made life comprehensible and meaningful. At the same time ideologies are not just sets of beliefs, but practices and actions. Ideologies, as was argued, are not just cognitive frameworks, but it they have an affinity with a person’s character structure, become internalized and intertwined with character. As Reich put it, once part of character, ideology acts as a material force. Thus in certain historical moments, people would be receptive to and accept values such as God predestined human salvation, valorization of a militaristic Nation State or that shopping brings eternal bliss. But ideologies are not just belief systems but consist of a variety of practices and typical behaviors. In Bourdieu’s framework the habitus qua embedded practices can be seen as the point where ideologies colonize the life world and insinuate character to secure particular historic blocs-see Langman, l998). Thus ideologies, qua beliefs and practices result in certain emotions and feelings. In other words, while Fromm did not accept biologically based drives as the motives for behavior, he saw certain "mechanisms of escape" through which people might overcome or assuage socially based fear, anxiety and/or powerlessness.

Privatized hedonism can be thought of as an ideological justification for a complex pattern that valorizes the consumption of material goods with sign value and/or pursue a variety of experiences provided by the culture industries of globalized capital. These range from its mass mediated affirmative cultures, its carnival cultures, theme parks and the most rapidly growing industry, travel-that often overlaps with the former, eg visits to Graceland or Bramson, or Las Scala or Salzberg for the more sophisticated. It is necessary to back up a bit to note that for most of the workers in late capitalism, work no longer provides a stable identity and/or a basis of meaning.

To be sure the nature of alienation have much changed since Marx first critiqued wage labor. As was earlier noted, our current era of Post Fordist, computer based design and production controlled by the flexible organizations of a globalized TNC, in which most of the economy is based on information and devoted to consumer sales, including the consumption of mass mediated culture has introduced new realities to the nature of work. While the routines of classical production still exist, many of the hard won union benefits and decent wages provided by these jobs have been slashed. At these lower echelons, the mind numbing routines of much factory labor have been supplanted by the mind numbing routines of "interactive service work" typical of fast food, retail sales, etc. (Leidner, l99 ). Not only does the person do mindless repetitive work, but s/he is constantly being surveilled by both the employer and the customer/client who has been enlisted into the service of management-often without even being aware of it (Leidner, l99 ). While the conditions of work for most workers has deteriorated over the last few decades, for the upper echelons of executives, skilled professionals such as computer engineers and even some academics, the more transitory nature of ambiguous work in flexible organizations has upset the notion of a continuous linear life and fragmented it into an plurality of episodic moments that have led to a "corrosion of character" (Sennett, 1998). What is being suggested, to summarize a vast literature, is that work in advanced capitalist societies, increasingly a series of short term episodes, temp work as rapidly growing, no longer provides a basis for community. As complex procedures become ever more computerized and de-skilled, most individuals find less and less of their sense of self and identity in their work. The extent to which so many "decisions" are made on the basis of "expert systems", algorithms and TQM circles, has made the individual ever more powerless in his/her work. Even medicine, once the model of the independent professional, is more and more subjected to the computerization of routine tasks on the one hand and rigid controls by HMOs on the other. Thus the alienation described by Marx, the loss of community, the truncation of self and powerless in face of socially constructed forces yet informs work in capitalist society.

Given the various social factors noted beginning with the transition from production to consumption now in its advanced technological forms, the colonization of childhood by mass media, the carnivalization of that mass media, there has been a transformation of subjectivity. Erotic repression no longer sustains alienated labor and authoritarianism is no longer functional in either the new forms of post Fordist work, the amusing politics of seeming choice or the feel good religions of the "new age".(8) This new articulation of "social character" can be seen as a migration of selfhood from either religion, work or nation that provided compensations and escapes in earlier expressions of "social character". The "carnival character" can thus be seen as a psychic withdrawal from the institutional worlds of work, politics or communities of faith to the pluralities of sites and regions of pleasurable fulfillment in the dream worlds and hyperealities provided by consumer society. The "city on the hill" has become another Los Vegas casino.

I would like to suggest that in our current age, privatized hedonism has become the primary mechanism of escape and the main palliative against anxiety and powerlessness. The many hitherto denied pleasures of the obscene, the grotesque and the vulgar, simulated resistances that neutralized real contestation, eroding what Elias had called the "civilizing process", now serve as the dominant mechanism of escape. As Fromm argued, there were several universal conditions that human beings everywhere face. People everywhere need a meaningful identity recognized by others relatedness and connection, a sense of agency or empowerment, and a framework of meaning and understanding.

1 Identity

For Hegel, the life or death struggle for recognition was the basis of self consciousness. The Master seeks recognition of his very being and his domination over the Slave lest he face the terrors of utter contingency. Hegel’s phenomenology clearly anticipated recent psychoanalytic theories of the importance of recognition in both early development and current functioning. Why else would anyone spend months writing a paper, spend and fortune to go to a conference to get 15 minutes of recognition. Thus it is evident how the need for a meaningful identity-and its recognition is a power human need. For some, it is the most powerful. Membership in an identity granting community not only provide social ties, but a provides sense of selfhood. Taylor (l992) has suggested that the fundamental basis of cultural politics was the quest for recognition and dignity and that in turn gave feelings of esteem, pride and joy . Most groups, whether pre modern nomads, Churches, suburban cub scouts, inner city gangs, modern armies, and even professional associations provide their members with an identity, a reflexive narrative that gives one a locus of meaningful selfhood.

Fromm had argued how the basis of sado-masochism was the pursuit of recognition. In those acts by which one party hurts the other, physically , psychically or both, each person gives the other recognition. Drawing on such insights, Jessica Benjamin (l982) more recently noted how women humiliate and subordinate themselves to glean recognition rather than be ignored. T he conditions of work in the contemporary age of computer based production, flexible production and administration, team work and TQM was noted as a basis for the movement of selfhood from production to consumption, from work the pleasures of consumerism. Thus I would argue that the pursuit of a recognition gleaning identity is one of the most important problems of our age when traditional bases of such selfhood have waned.

In so far as the larger society, Church or nation no long provides such identities, the consciousness industries in general and their carnival cultures in particular provide the person with a number of gratifying identities in privatized sites of culture and consumption. In a society in which fame and celebrity have actually become more important that wealth and power, there are a vast number of heroes/heroines with whom one can identify with and assume an identity. What is important in the present era is how many of these models find their fame through the eroticism and vulgarity of the carnivalesque-Monica L and Bill C, Paula Jones,. Dennis Rodman, Monica, Princes D and Callista Flockhart. The many realms of leisure activity and sites of cultural consumption further provide people with identities and meanings apart from the realm. For the weakened ego of late modernity, further attenuated by the pluralization of the fragmented worlds of the age, the carnival self as an identity integrates the person into a community of meaning and provides a variety of satisfactions, not the least of which is a sense of empowerment.

2 Relatedness

For Fromm, as has been noted, the weakening of social ties, and in turn anxiety, has been one of the major factors that prompted "mechanisms of escape". So too does carnival culture offer forms of community and connection that provide people with a sense of relatedness. But at the same time, many-perhaps most- of these relationships are no longer based on attachments to Church, work, nation or even local community, but are located in many of life world fragments more typically tied to life styles and patterns of cultural consumption. Further, thanks to email, many the social relationships that provide relatedness for the "carnival character" might be thought of as relationships in lieu of interaction. The basis of community in this new globalized, flexible world is less face to face, long term commitment and deep levels of intimacy. While the more superficial form of short term relationships typical of Americans was noted by De Toqueville in the 1820s, and again by Kurt Lewin in l946, pluralized life worlds, many of which are strictly short term such as work and marriage. What is truly interesting and paradigmatic of the "carnival character" is the extent to which relatedness may be based on common audienceship, fandom that use the images and simulations of mass media as a basis of community.

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5 The extent to which carnivals were remittances or safety valves can be much debated. In the contemporary however, even resistance has become commodified, it affords `repressive tolerance'. Thus Bolivia offers Che Guevara tours-and this author has a Che key chain.

6 While psychoanalytic theorizing now focuses on the"false self", "narcissistic character disorders" and the borderline personality, such concepts must be understood as located within a consumer society.

7 There is no similarity between the narcissist who gains a sense of self through a symbiotic tie to a powerful figure, and the authoritarians glorification of superiors and the need for their "love". This is an important clinical question that doesn't concern us here.

8 To be sure there are yet significant numbers of earlier expressions of "social character" that yet endure. The sexually repressed authoritarian personality, a sado-masochistic character type can yet be found in the fundamentalist churches and more rural parts of the country.