M.D.: I’d like to take up a thread we dropped a few paragraphs ago: carnival’s role in Brazilian culture. For Anglo-American cultural theorists, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theorization, in Bakhtin and His World, of the transgressive aspects of medieval carnival has been useful in cracking subcultural codes; cultural-studies adherents have used Bakhtin’s understanding of carnival as the World Turned Upside Down to make sense of rituals of resistance and rebellion through style in the age of mass media and consumer culture. Have Brazilian critics likewise used Bakhtin to tease out the tangled threads of carnival, specifically the ways in which it is at once transgressive and repressive? Transgressive because it’s a playfully perverse challenge to Catholic morality and right-wing cultural conservatism; repressive because it’s at the same time an officially sanctioned outlet for social tensions, underclass discontent that might find more politically incendiary expression if it weren’t defused through what Herbert Marcuse would have called the repressive desublimation of carnival. (When’s the last time you heard that formulation invoked?!) Carnival’s cultural significance must’ve been especially fraught during the military dictatorship.
GA: As far as I’m aware, the work of Mikhail Bakhtin is more popular here among linguists. Bakhtin developed an exciting formula for the carnivalization of literature, perhaps drawing more from phenomenology than from Marxism, since his theory condenses the perception of an expanding life in the realm of folk culture, in a relation complementary and simultaneously at odds with the institutional regulatory machines. Through Rabelais, Bakhtin reveals how the culture of the Middle Ages emerges, launched by the amazing potency of everyday activities in which the grotesque, impregnating itself with humor, becomes subversive. Being locked in the mechanism of ritualistic inversion, Bakhtin’s carnivalization operates as a relief valve for social pressure, thereby reassuring the underlying social hierarchies.
That, essentially, is the thesis that DaMatta draws upon in his classic “Carnavais, malandros e heróis” (Carnivals, Rogues and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma), published in 1979. DaMatta even analyzes the carnival in contradistinction to parades and processions, precisely as proposed by Bakhtin, placing it among the rituals founded on the principle of inversion, while placing the National Week and the Holy Week processions among the ones more obviously reassuring the hierarchical structure of society. (Strangely, DaMatta does not quote Bakhtin and does not acknowledge him explicitly as the source of his theoretical approach.)
Carnavais was originally received with discomfort. But its anthropological view invigorated the Brazilian academic world, then in thrall to Marxism and engaged in the fight against the military dictatorship. It’s DaMatta’s anthropological approach that undoubtedly accounts for the great richness of Carnavais; at the same time, this selective focus is the book’s Achilles Heel. Influenced by Structuralism, DaMatta isolates his analysis from history. His book is a magnificent portrait of carnival, but one that is embedded in the specific anthropological context of Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 1970’s.
In Carnavais, DaMatta extends his experience in Rio de Janeiro to the entire Brazilian universe. Therefore, one can’t find in his book a single word about carnival in Salvador, Recife, etc. And keep in mind that every Brazilian city has its own different carnival. In Salvador, there are blocs, afoxés, and trios elétricos, and there are no samba schools or parades at the sambódromo, practices that define carnival in Rio de Janeiro. [Editor’s Note: Blocs, or blocos de carnaval, are groups who lead smaller parades that invite public participation; afoxés, or blocos afoxés, are groups whose African-inspired costumes and hymns of praise to African deities known as orixás mark them as believers in Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian syncretic religion; and trios elétricos are trucks outfitted with mammoth sound systems and stages for live musicians, typically trailed by dancing crowds.] In Olinda and Recife, there are also frevo and maracatu, two different popular rhythms. And so on.
Generally speaking, the Bakhtinian thesis championed by DaMatta is correct and applies to every carnival, from New Orleans to Olinda. But the challenge is to go beyond universalism, understanding the specifics. Carnival in Salvador, for example, deepens the inversion, if one takes into account that it happens on the street, not in the controlled space of the sambódromo, and that it isn’t strictly divided between the bleachers and the display areas. The spectacle in Rio de Janeiro, which goes so well with T.V. coverage, does not exist in Salvador, where a kaleidoscopic spontaneity is established that is impossible to document in its full intensity with TV cameras.
Besides, as the poet and critic Antonio Risério has pointed out, if the carnival argument follows the inversion of everyday inequalities, it also has the function of exaggerating those inequalities, dramatizing them. In the Salvador version of carnival, which DaMatta ignored, this dramatization was enacted by the afro-blocs: the afro-canivalesque entities that, in the ‘70s, represented the desire for an only dreamed-of social equality. These Blackmestizo entities both re-signified and added value to the ethnic past in the context of a mixed-race present, underlining a future in which rights should be attained and consolidated. As Risério argues, carnival gained intensity and importance in Salvador from the 1980s onward; as a result, Bahia (the Northeastern state of which Salvador is the capital) was never the same.
Since then, there’s been an assimilation of this Blackmestizo carnival by the authorities and by the tourist industry. But, far from being seen as a defeat, that granted the symbolic values that were intrinsic to the Blackmestizo version of carnival strength, in the sense that they were now being shared by the white society. (This is more or less what happened with samba in Rio de Janeiro during the second quarter of the 20th century.)
MD: You’re arguing that politically radical and socially transgressive impulses still flicker beneath the tourist-friendly surface of carnival. But haven’t its politics, pagan as well as populist and, as you point out, pointedly post-colonial, been brought largely to heel by commercialization? Or does that argument just cede too much imaginative space to the Culture Industry?
GA: The Salvador carnival, today, is dominated by a powerful cultural industry. And many street spaces are sold, privatized for the duration of the party. Following the carnival path for blocks, cabins are built, accommodating all tastes and every class. But I think that this is part of the natural evolution of the party as it grows in public visibility and needs to make itself economically viable.
We’re talking about a party that celebrates the national identity and is absolutely open to anyone. In Rio de Janeiro, as well as in Olinda or in Salvador, any foreigner is welcome. More than that, he or she is quickly integrated into the party. In Salvador, there are many foreigners crowding the cabins or going with the flow in the avenues. Therefore, there is in carnival a peculiar synthesis between the idiosyncratically local and the universal, covering itself in glam in the hedonistic world of today.
Here, DaMatta gets it right when he sees that carnival, even when supported by the tools of bourgeois symbolic production, is profoundly anti-Puritanical, because it invests in the glorification of the female, the veneration of the male nude, the celebration of hedonism, the invocation of sensuality, opening the door to the erotic and embracing the possibility of sex without reproduction.
In recent years, the space reserved for religious celebrations has been shrinking: Lent is becoming a bourgeois holiday with vestiges of its spiritual component lingering in Good Friday. Carnival, on the other hand, is expanding, beginning earlier and ending later every year, not to mention the ever more frequent off-season carnivals, such as the Micaretas, celebrated in small towns throughout Brazil’s northeastern states.
Someone could read this praise to the hedonistic antipuritanism of carnival as a domesticated way to release political pressure in a world dominated by mass consumerism, an outlet destined to confirm the status quo despite its momentary inversion of hierarchies. True, but it’s far from the whole story.
As Risério reminds us, the people who party at the carnival are flesh and bones. Their affective and sensorial experiences cannot be locked up by the rationalistic prison of binary logic. Through carnival, crowds almost always express themselves in a peaceful, joyous manner, which is especially relevant in a world haunted by security paranoia. As Camille Paglia, who experienced carnival in Salvador in 2009, observed, there is no parallel in the U.S. to the freedom of movement shown by crowds in the Salvador carnival. Reclusive conservatives, such as José Ortega y Gasset, were wrong to not recognize the masses’ capacity for self-regulation; crowds can be not only decentralized, but also peaceful. In a world where police shoot dead a young man running to catch the London metro, a world where police don’t allow people to stop for a few minutes to chat on the sidewalk, carnival emerges as a remarkable reply to the culture of security paranoia. There is much more here than a passionate defense of freedom. I’m convinced that the excessive regulation of our daily lives is sterilizing us, dumbing us down.