College Quarterly
Fall 2006 - Volume 9 Number 4
Reviews Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy
Barbara Ehrenreich
New York: Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

In churlish moments, I pretend to despise all popular music written and performed since the Beatles broke up. I don’t mean it. Even as the 1960s were vaporizing, some pretty good stuff was being produced. The early 1970s, for example, gave us some of the early Bonnie Raitt, the Pogues, Leo Kottke and John Hiatt. The album, Slug Line, remains one of my all-time favourites, largely because of Hiatt’s song, “No More Dancin’ in the Streets.” He sings:

Martha and the Vandellas
Taught you how to do as you please
Now all of you idiots
Are dancin’ with the Bee Gees.

That about summed up the rest of the 1970s, but it at least made it plain that there were some people around who hadn’t folded their tents, donned suits and reached for the top. No one had yet proclaimed that “Greed is good!” and American Psycho was still unpublished. Despite Altamont and Kent State, some small bits and shards of optimism remained. Barbara Ehrenreich was just starting out.

A journalist who has suffered attacks from all points on the political spectrum, but most viciously from those whom Americans call conservatives, she has been criticized for both what she writes and how she writes it. With respect to the book here under review, we are told in the New York Times that her “pop anthropology lacks fizz.” A reviewer says that she renders a “celebration of inebriated dance [in] term-paper prose.” She deserves better, and the millions of sales that her long list of books has racked up show that she is not entirely underappreciated.

She writes a lot about issues of importance to what Americans call liberals, radicals and loony leftists.

Her book, Fear of Falling, explored the anxieties of the middle class; Nicked and Dimed examined the conditions of the working poor; Bait and Switch exposed the “futile” pursuit of the American Dream. She also took a feminist look at working women from underpaid domestic workers to exploited participants in the sex trade. Her books are not theoretical exercises. Marxists, feminists and the rest of the usual suspects will not take away a new compendium of obscurantist rhetoric disguised as revolutionary work. Barbara Ehrenreich is simply a journalist and a very good one.

Sometimes, she drifts away from current events and surveys larger themes. Her book on human aggression, Blood Rites, delved into a vast literature on the “origins and history of the passions of war.” Her new book views the other side of that particular coin, namely the “history of collective joy.”

At about the same time as I was being introduced to John Hiatt, I published my first “legitimate” article in a credible academic journal. It was about rock music. It dealt with the alleged tension between Apollonian and Dionysian art. In the end, it came out in favour of a Protean option, the constantly changing and never fully maturing commitment to escape the binary logic of form vs. content, order vs. chaos, beauty vs. sublimity, appearance vs. reality, and dreams vs. drunkenness. If I have a gripe against Ehrenreich’s latest volume, it is that she is still worried about the binary. She takes pains to show us that her celebrations of mass ecstasy are on one side of the great divide between baseball fans in a stadium and Nazis at a Nuremburg rally.

Stressing spontaneity, emancipation and the energetic communal power of the carnivals of Bacchus, she distances herself from the orchestrated and inauthentic fascist event-scenes. She wants nothing to do with lynchings, no matter how much adrenaline they may let loose, no matter how enthusiastic the crowd. This is a pity. The contrasts between blood-letting and the political insurrectionism of the English crowd that historians such as Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm have recounted are not as strong as some might like. Comparisons as well as contrasts are in order.

Ehrenreich is not unaware of this. In her writing is the faint echo of the remark, attributed (fourth-hand through a descendant of his rival, John Adams) to Alexander Hamilton: “Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast.” As Terry Eagleton so nicely put it, she has delivered an “admirably lucid, level-headed history of outbreaks of collective joy from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead. It is,” moreover, “a book that investigates orgies but declines quite properly to join in.” Still, although a sympathizer, she sometimes seems almost ill-at-ease. As Robert Pinsky relates, readers “eager to prefer carnival over hierarchy will wince at Ehrenreich’s blurry, prefatory disclaimer: ‘Not every form of irrational group will be considered here; panics, crazes, fads and spontaneous mob activities do not fall within our purview.’”

Why not? Just as one side’s terrorist is the other’s freedom fighter, so one observer’s “obscene and savage rituals” (the original working title of the book) is another’s charming festival. Or, better, the two opposites are, in truth, conjoined. Says Eagleton: “Dionysus is really an early version of the Freudian unconscious, a place of both hideous trauma and bounteous creativity.” It takes two to properly tango.

What Ehrenreich does emphasize to advantage is the political dimension of street dancing, morris dancing, Maypoles, rock concerts, food riots, folk festivals and assorted fêtes, albeit that she strives to accentuate mostly the positive.

Mocking authority is a constant theme in popular merry-making. Turning (or overturning) the tables on church and state gave at least temporary expression to the seething anger of the oppressed. Whether, therefore, the revelries of the common folk were inchoate rebellions or carefully managed safety valves designed to let off plebian steam is a matter of subtle interpretation that varies with time, place and perspective.

Which leads us to the question: What now?

Collective cultural participation, joining the crowd and demonstrating the unwavering will to party all require individuals to become more than their private selves and to enter into community. Today, however, community is a euphemism for manufactured, artificial and “virtual” association. We speak, therefore, of the business community, the gay community, the arts community, the even the academic community. None of these things exist—PRIDE parades and graduation ceremonies notwithstanding—as much other than sociological constructs. Mostly we are a society of fragmented, atomized and profoundly lonely individuals whose lives swing between domestic telenumbing and workplace displacement. Instead of communal and highly charged libidinal enthusiasms, we allow ourselves to be orchestrated in the frenetic sexual fantasies of singles bars, the choreographed fanaticism of professional sports franchises and the drooling admiration of mindless celebrity—Paris Hilton, anyone? Or, the Donald?

To such pessimism, Ehrenreich offers an alternative, though one that is cast in bas relief. A potent combination of festival and defiance has been around for some time in the cheerful dissidence of the (sometimes suicidal) Yippies and the re-emergent activism of some environmental and many anti-globalization movements. In the extra-parliamentary opposition, there is a strong hint of humour—even self-deprecating humour—plus a hint of sensuality beneath the slogans and some measured bliss upon the barricades. We should therefore applaud the comics amongst us, wary (as Kurt Vonnegut once warned) of the possibility that clownishness can easily become a lubricant for cruel social machines, but also aware that the mirthless gravitas of far too many modern (or postmodern) queer theorists, postcolonialists and new-fashioned Jacobins and Bolsheviks stifles not only lucid thought and limpid expression, but also any hint of the joyful sensuousness that would make the quest for social justice worth pursuing. We can survive a while on the dry wit of a Terry Eagleton and the inspired rants of Air America, but we do rather desperately need the leaven of a few new Abbie Hoffmans to keep our spirits up as the curtain comes down on late capitalism and the future remains unclear in the darkened theatre of the soul.Sang John Hiatt:

Just when things were getting funny
You had to reconsider all of the rules
Now consumer affairs
Has got you dancin’ in pairs
Dressed up like a bunch of fools
Now that there’s no more dancin’
No more dancin’ in the street.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology