Friday, January 26, 2007

Collective Joy

Recent posts on this blog have lamented my extended sojourns in Tallahassee for work at the Capitol. One very good thing about working in Tallahassee is 88.9FM, the local NPR station. I love, love, LOVE 88.9FM. Unlike 90.1FM in Fort Myers, 88.9FM broadcasts NPR programming 24/7. They don't stop talking at 9:00am and 7:00pm in favor of playing classical music. Oh, no. Their broadcast lineup includes all of my old favorites (Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me) and entices with "new" shows I didn't even know existed (Studio 360, The Splendid Table).

With all due respect to Terry Gross, my new favorite is the weekly broadcast from The Commonwealth Club of California. In the last three weeks, I've managed to coincide my departure from the Capitol with the broadcast of this wonderful intellectual conversation. Yesterday, I found myself particularly rapt listening to Barbara Erenreich discuss her newest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

Publisher's Weekly offers this review: "It is a truism that everyone seeks happiness, but public manifestations of it have not always been free of recrimination. Colonial regimes have defined spectacles as an inherently 'primitive' act and elders harrumph at youthful exultation. Social critic and bestselling author Ehrenreich teases out the many incarnations of sanctioned public revelry, starting with the protofeminist oreibasia, or Dionysian winter dance, in antiquity, and from there covering trance, ancient mystery cults and carnival, right up to the rock and roll and sports-related mass celebrations of our own day. 'Why is so little left' of such rituals, she asks, bemoaning the 'loss of ecstatic pleasure.' Ehrenreich necessarily delineates the repressive reactions to such ecstasy by the forces of so-called 'civilization,' reasonably positing that rituals of joy are nearly as innate as the quest for food and shelter. Complicating Ehrenreich's schema is her own politicized judgment, dismissing what she sees as the debased celebrations of sporting events while writing approvingly of the 1960s 'happenings' of her own youth and the inevitable street theater that accompanies any modern mass protest, yet all but ignoring the Burning Man festival in Nevada..."

And there it was: the intersection of the "real" world and the "default" world.

I have been a Burner since 2003 and I would bet my last dollar that Barbara Ehrenreich has never set foot on the playa. To be fair, I haven't read her book; but I would bet she "ignores" Burning Man based on second-hand anecdotes and judgments of others. A popular phrase in our home is, "when you don't know, you're making stuff up." That is a common trap for non-Burners who talk about Burning Man. They don't know, so they make stuff up.

Burning Man is an experiment in temporary community where radical self-reliance is imperative and radical self-expression is revered and expected. Isn't that the point? Participation? Isn't that what drives rituals of joy?

During her conversation with The Commonwealth Club of California, Ms. Ehrenreich related a story about the origin of her own inhibitions around dancing. She seemed to say she became paralyzed by a fear of "not doing it right." She followed that account with a story about her young granddaugthers who, in marked contrast, "know how to do it." They dance and sing and giggle and act silly. They participate. In a way that brings them joy. The dedication of her book, "To Anna and Clara, who know how to do it" underscored for me the importance of participation and made me wonder: if her point is to bemoan the decline of rituals of joy, and to suggest that we as a culture rebel against attempts to suppress this innate quest, then why would she seem to suggest that only certain modern rituals of joy are worthy of our attention? That suggestion is not only contrary to her point about participation, it seems to be her way of saying, "you're not doing it right."

If the point is to pursue joy collectively, then I invite Barbara Ehrenreich to step outside the "default" world of "shoulds" and "ought to's" and join us in the "real" world. I know the 38,000 citizens of Black Rock City would welcome her home with a bear hug. And she may even learn to dance again.

No comments: