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?




‘Carnaval’ & Pomp – Or spectacle, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary?

Spectacle, Carnival & Pomp

I was reflecting a bit more last night about my post on Lefebvre’s ‘for and against the street’ in relation to the matter of carnival and the controversy around it.  I kept remembering a line from a book I’d read but couldn’t remember all of it or what the book was – fortunately it came to me over breakfast like a kiskadee’s call hits when feeling moldy…

It’s a bit from David Harvey’s interesting ‘Paris, Capital of Modernity‘, from the chapter Consumerism, Spectacle and Leisure, discussing the Belleville Carnaval; here’s the relevant extract:

Spectacle, even that of the city itself, has always been fundamental to urban life, and its political aspects have long played an important role in the construction of legitimacy and social control. There had been no lack of spectacle under the July Monarchy, but much of it escaped social control by the authorities. Sunday excursions took the workers outside the city limits to the bars and dance halls of places like Belleville, culminating in a ribald and riotous evening descent back into the city center.  The fear lurked that spectacle of this sort could all too easily lead to riot and revolution. This was particularly true of the Carnaval in the week preceding Lent during the 1840s, characterised as ‘the last, exuberant fling of pre-industrial theater of excess which cut hard against the nascent ideologies of the metropolitan city.’ The ‘promiscuous mixing and reversals’, the cross-dressing, the temporary loss of class distinctions, threatened the social order. Carnaval ‘too rudely mocked the careful modulations between spectacle and urban menace staked out across the city. In making gestures, looks and appearances both more explicit and more explicitly counterfeit, in mixing them pell-mell as if no ill would come of the brew, it called the bluff of the Boulevard des Italiens, the Chaussee d’Antin’. The authorities and those bourgeois who were not drawn into the frenzy were fearful and horrified.  The macabre carnavelesque way in which the the bodies of those shot down on the Boulevard des Capucines on that February evening of 1848 were paraded around the city as an incitement to revolution drew upon such traditions. This, then, was what the socially controlled spectacles of the Second Empire set out to displace. The aim was to transform active players into passive spectators. The Belleville Carnaval declined during the Second Empire through a mix of displacement, active repression, and administrative shifts (such as the incorporation of Belleville into the city through the annexation of 1860). The troublesome image of ‘the descent from Belleville’ remained, however, and when it was finally resurrected in the late 1860s, it was with the clear intent of ending Empire and making revolution.

But Second Empire spectacle went far beyond imperial pomp. To begin with, it sought directly to celebrate the birth of the modern. This was particularly true of the Universal Expositions. These were, as Benjamin remarks, ‘places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity’, occasions on which ‘the phantasmagoria of capitalist culture attained its most radiant unfurling’. But they were also celebrations of modern technologies. In many respects, imperial spectacle dovetailed neatly with commodification and the deepening power of the circulation of capital over daily life. The new boulevards, besides generating employment, facilitated circulation of commodities, money, and people. The expositions drew massive crowds from the provinces and from abroad, stimulating consumer demand. And all those spectacles took skill, labour, commodities, and money to mount. The stimulus to the economy was therefore considerable.

Initial Thoughts

From a Bermudian perspective – and ignoring the wider concepts of ‘spectacle’ – my mind here automatically goes to thoughts of the contrast between Gombey’s (and the more recent introduction of ‘carnival’) and our military parades (and an argument could be made that our majorette troops fall within the wider field of ‘military’ parade, in their uniforms and regimented orchestration).

One embodies elements of the ‘wild’, the ‘unknown’, ‘chaos’ and a departure from social norms – the Gombey’s in particular include the aspects of anonymity and a defiant celebration of the sub-altern African and First Nations heritage of our people – sub-altern in relation to the European aspects of our society which is de facto normative and dominant in terms of cultural expression. The Gombey’s are our original form of the ‘carnival’, augmented now with the introduction of a carnival proper (though divorced from the religious time-table in our case, where Catholicism has never been dominant and unable to support a more traditional carnival system to date).

The other embodies ‘order’, ‘regimentation’, ‘discipline’ (not that the Gombey’s do not require discipline, but it is of another form) and is general a spectacle of pomp, a celebration of power and the State.

Of course in Bermuda the two have somewhat lost their original impulses – although the loss is greater for the Gombey’s and (from it’s inception) carnival.  Our ‘pomp’ is less about a demonstration of power and the State as it is a manufactured production for tourism (as well as simply ‘tradition’). It does, however, retain the role of demonstrating power and the State all the same. The Gombey’s – and now carnival – are less a defiance of power and the State today, and are more a tourist and/or entertainment production, while retaining the element of ‘tradition’.  But it’s more revolutionary potential, it’s defiance, has been neutered for the most part. It’s edge has been lost in accordance with its acceptance – its co-optation – by capital and the State.

‘Cyborg’ Carnivals?

Carnival itself, is, in Bermuda’s case, wholly manufactured.

Whereas our sister islands far to the south have a carnival rooted in the Catholic tradition (like that described by Harvey above), which combined with the same elements of defiance (to slavery, to White supremacy, to power, to the State) of which the Gombey’s originate to create the potentially revolutionary carnival spectacle, we did not have such a tradition. Catholicism has always been dominated here by Anglicanism, and Bermuda has not changed hands between Catholic and Anglican powers (and thus retained ‘Catholic’ traits) – we’ve been Anglican dominated since inception, with dissenters exiled or suppressed.

Bermuda’s carnival is novel, wholly manufactured, by Bermudians who have experienced carnival to our south and yearned for its replication, its reproduction, in the Bermudian context. Our carnival is not organic – it is artificial. And essentially designed from a business plan, for the sake of consumption, of creating an event. This does not mean that it is not possible of becoming a ‘cyborg’, of incorporating and becoming partially organic ‘of the people’ in time – and may already have done so with its inception.

This is not a criticism of our carnival, merely an observation, that our carnival is manufactured, is artificial, can only ever aspire to become a cyborg. It is divorced – at its birth – from the organic revolutionary character of its inspiration, and retains the ‘revolutionary’ aspect more in superficial form than historical connection. Although revolutionary – and organic – potential can accrue to it all the same, over time.

Revo or Contra?

Which brings to question whether any of these spectacles can be seen as revolutionary or counter-revolutionary (and what is meant by these terms anyway)?

For space considerations I’ll continue this as a second post.