Carnival & Pomp – Revolutionary & Counter-revolutionary?

This post follows on from an earlier post, and seeks to answer the question with which that one ended:

Are any of these spectacles (Gombey’s, Pomp or Carnival) ‘revolutionary’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ (or have such potential), and what is meant by such anyway?

In order to answer the main question (are any of these spectacles revolutionary or counter-revolutionary), one must first answer what is meant by these terms in the first place.

Revolutionary & Counter-Revolutionary Theory

In my earlier post I quoted, at length, an extract from a work by David Harvey. In one of his key works (if not the one that made his name), Social Justice & the City, he actually provides a useful review of these terms (in relation to theory).

I won’t quote him in his entirety (he devotes a whole chapter to it, and the themes run through the entire book), only the most concise extract that I can find, from his ‘further comment’ section of the chapter ‘Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory’:

There are three kinds of theory:

(i) Status quo theory – a theory which is grounded in the reality it seeks to portray and which accurately represents the phenomena with which it deals at a particular moment in time. But, by having ascribed a universal truth status to the propositions it contains, it is capable of yielding prescriptive policies which can result only in the perpetuation of the status quo.

(ii) Counter-revolutionary theory – a theory which may or may not appear grounded in the reality it seeks to portray, but which obscures, be-clouds and generally obfuscates (either by design or accident) our ability to comprehend that reality. Such a theory is usually attractive and hence gains general currency because it is logically coherent, easily manipulable, aesthetically appealing, or just new or fashionable; but it is in some way quite divorced from the reality it purports to represent. A counter-revolutionary theory automatically frustrates either the creation or the implementation of viable policies. It is therefore a perfect device for non-decision making, for it diverts attention from fundamental issues to superficial or non-existent issues. It can also function as spurious support and legitimisation for counter-revolutionary actions designed to frustrate needed change.

(iii) Revolutionary theory – a theory which is firmly grounded in the reality it seeks to represent, the individual propositions of which are ascribed a contingent truth status (they are in the process of becoming true or false dependent upon the circumstances). A revolutionary theory is dialectically formulated and it can encompass conflict and contradiction within itself. A revolutionary theory offers real choices for future moments in the social process by identifying immanent choices in an existing situation. The implementation of these choices serves to validate the theory and to provide the grounds for the formulation of new theory. A revolutionary theory consequently holds out the prospect for creating truth rather than finding it.

Also relevant is the subsequent passage:

A theoretical formulation can be, as circumstances change and depending upon its application, move or be moved from one category to another. This suggests two dangers which must be avoided:

(i) Counter-revolutionary co-optation – the pervesion of a theory from a revolutionary to a counter-revolutionary state.

(ii) Counter-revolutionary stagnations – the stagnation of a revolutionary theory through failure to reformulate it in the light of new circumstances and situations – by this means a revolutionary theory may become a status quo theory.

But there are also two important revolutionary tasks:

(iii) Revolutionary negation – taking counter-revolutionary theory and exposing it for what it really is.

(iv) Revolutionary reformulation – taking status quo or counter-revolutionary formulations, setting them into motion or providing them with real content, and using them to identify real choices immanent in the present.

Revolutionary & Counter-Revolutionary Spectacles?

How might this be applied to the question of spectacle, specifically as it relates to those of Gombey’s, Carnival and (military, including majorettes) parades?

Obviously the above extract addresses theory rather than spectacle, and it’s not possible to directly force it to apply to spectacle – although it provides some insights and directions.

One could propose:

1) Status quo spectacles – these seek to maintain order, to perpetuate continuity. To reinforce the status quo as, well, the status quo. 

2) Counter-revolutionary spectacles – these either celebrate (and so reinforce) power against any perceived threat, to underline the superiority of the power and State against the threat (say, for example, a military parade celebrating the suppression of a slave revolt or the defeat of a strike); or they do not claim to be anything more than spectacle, but generates false consciousness (a diversion of focus away from revolutionary tasks/criticism) or serves as a social ‘release valve’ for social pressures that might otherwise find their manifestation through revolution.

3) Revolutionary spectacle – these directly challenge the status quo and propose a potential rupture from the status quo; they propose an alternative vision and build the capacity for revolution (through developing consciousness and/or demonstrating the power of ‘the people’ to act for themselves).

Application in the Bermuda Context

Gombey’s and carnival originate as revolutionary spectacles, more or less. They upended social convention, defied formal power and the State. But was the carnival wholly revolutionary, or was it perhaps also counter-revolutionary – or even both at the same time? In as much as the carnival originates as a social convention via the Church (albeit one ‘hijacked’ and adapted by the same social pressures from which the Gombey’s orginate) – in as much as carnival was tolerated – can it not be seen as a social ‘release valve’ form of spectacle, and thus counter-revolutionary, as spectacles go?

The more formal spectacles of Bermuda’s calendar – May 24 parade, Peppercorn ceremony, Queen’s Birthday parade, other military parades, even the Ag Show – all these are essentially ‘status quo’ spectacles, even if some originate more as counter-revolutionary spectacles (primarily the military ones, and those more obvious tied to power and the State, such as the Queen’s Birthday parade).

Are Gombey’s and Carnival still revolutionary? I argued in my previous post that they are not. At least not wholly. Where they subject to counter-revolutionary co-optation or counter-revolutionary stagnation? Without a detailed historical analysis of either phenomena it is impossible to give a definitive answer now – however it seems clear they have transformed away from revolutionary spectacle and, at the very least become status quo spectacle. In some instances – or arguably – they could indeed be seen as counter-revolutionary spectacles.


It seems fair to say that Carnival at least is more about commercialism than the revolutionary rupture it initially threatened. Yes, it is ‘a party’ and doesn’t claim to be anything more – but that’s precisely the point, it has lost the revolutionary spirit it once embodied.

Is this the whole truth of the matter? No. Carnaval

Only in the broad, the ‘social’ aspect could it be argued to be the case, to have lost the revolutionary spirit. To the individual – primarily the active participant, but also the active observer – the spectacle can be understood, can be lived, as emancipatory, as a defiant act, as a momentary rupture from the status quo (at multiple levels, racial, class, sexual, gender, age, etc). And this moment – however brief – can be sufficient for the revolutionary transformation of the self, of a development of a consciousness other than that of the status quo, of acceptance of the status quo and a fear of the other.

Carnival may serve as a social release – and as such in a counter-revolutionary way – and Gombey’s may be a neutered caricature of their original defiantly revolutionary origin, but they both retain the potential for revolution. This may begin at the individual level, but the potential exists for sufficient individual ‘revolutionary moments/transformations’ to reach a critical mass and reassert the revolutionary potential they first manifested.

Of course, the revolutionary spectacles of ‘people power’, of the strike, of the demonstration, of the popular occupation and – ultimately – the revolutonary seizure of power itself, retain their revolutionary spirit, and remain the most potent vehicle for consciousness and revolutionary change.

For clarity, none of this is an attack on the introduction of carnival in Bermuda, or the organisers or their intent. That it was attacked by representatives of the ‘church’ indicates that the revolutionary threat to the establishment, the status quo, remains, and it was that criticism which got me thinking of the question of spectacle, and what social meaning or potential could emerge from the introduction of carnival in Bermuda.

Can carnival in Bermuda be an agent of social change? Yes.

Could that social change be revolutionary? Yes. However it can also be an agent of only superficial change, just as much as an agent for revolutionary change.

The question is what kind of change one wants, and after deciding that, after bringing it into awareness, does that change how one experiences and approaches carnival?

Similarly, does such a theorising of the spectacle that is the Gombey’s serve as a step to reclaiming their revolutionary potential, reclaiming it away from their Disneyfication?





3 thoughts on “Carnival & Pomp – Revolutionary & Counter-revolutionary?

  1. I would say, in such events, the point would be if the spectacle of carnaval is contributing in building hegemonic formations or counter-hegemonnic ones. I am not familiar with Bermudan context, in Turkey there is no carnaval culture, but there are quite a few festivals. They usually re-produce the existed. However, I would say resistance in 2013 in Turkey created a carnivalesque spectacle which contributed in building counter-hegemonic perspectives.

  2. Pingback: Some thoughts on Carnival | "catch a fire"

  3. err… the only thing de “Bermudan” is into is booze, soca & half naked dancers.. ..they would’t know a “hegemonic formations or counter-hegemonnic” from a G string

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