I vividly remember being at a slumber party in middle school and dancing with my friends to our favorite music. Together we moved, feeling the beat and vigor of the music. I didn’t feel tired, but instead kept feeling increasingly swept up by the collective energy. I remember losing all sense of time, thoroughly engaged in the pleasure of moving. Gone was any self-consciousness or concern over how I looked and acted, which was quite a feat for a teenager, however temporary. For a few hours, I was able to lose myself in the communal joy and celebration.
Turns out this experience wasn’t just an instance of kids having fun at a party, but part of an age-old, historical practice of collective ecstasy that human beings engage in. In her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the history of group festivities and the emotions these celebrations engender. This book is in some ways an extension of Ehrenreich’s previous book, Blood Rite: Origin and History of the Passions of War, which looked at the human propensity to communally engage in war. In examining the flip side of human gatheringstheir potential to bring joyEhrenreich asks, If we possess this capacity for collective ecstasy, why do we so seldom put it to use?
This is a loaded question, but suppositions aside, the history of group festivities makes for fascinating reading. Ehrenreich draws on extensive historical and anthropological studies demonstrating humanity’s wide-ranging propensity to engage in group rituals and festivities. Even prehistoric rock drawings in different geographic locations have been found to show dancing stick figures. It is speculated that group rituals once served a reproductive function, as well as an evolutionary one, be it banding together when looking for a potential mate or defending against predators. As a result, Ehrenreich observes, we have evolved to derive pleasure from group movements:
Evolution would have led to stronger neural connections between the motor centers that control motion, the visual centers that report on the motions of others, and the sites of pleasure in the limbic system of the brain. The joy of the rhythmic activity would have helped overcome the fear of confronting predators and other threats, just as marching music has pumped up soldiers in historical times.
It may be this evolutionary tendency that explains why group gatherings transcend cultural boundaries. Particularly interesting are the ways early Christianity still contained many aspects of earlier ecstatic traditions. Ehrenreich’s examination of the parallels between Jesus Christ and the Greek pagan god Dionysus is especially compelling. Just as Christianity drew from earlier religious elements like singing, chanting, and movement, the image of Jesus incorporated several features from pagan religion.
Yet celebration comes hand in hand with forces that seek to repress it. Often, efforts to suppress festivities were an attempt by elites to assert social control. “From an elite perspective, there is one inherent problem with traditional festivities and ecstatic rituals, and that is their leveling effect, the way in which they dissolve rank and other forms of social difference.” Banning dancing or other forms of revelry was commonly a form of religious control, and political and religious leaders could rely on one another to maintain restrictions to keep social order. Distinctions between “savage” rituals of native people and the “civilized” manners of the colonizers were made to rationalize the colonization (and often annihilation) of native cultural practices. Ehrenreich also finds a remarkable parallel between the suppression that took place with the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the Wahhab movement in Islam. In spite of vastly different societal circumstances, the same kind of rationale and tactics are used to stifle festive traditions.
Ehrenreich is less successful when she argues that the rise in depression at our current point in history can be attributed at least in part to the decline of traditional festivities. She notes how the suppression of festivities coincides with the appearance of “melancholy” or what would today be termed “depression.” Ehrenreich also cites the larger factors of urbanization and the rise of individualization within a market economy as contributing to this rise in depression.
Many theorists have speculated that the decline of communal societies has contributed to depression and other mental disorders, and Ehrenreich makes a credible case that the specific loss of ecstatic rituals has had a direct impact on the development of these afflictions. However, it’s a stretch to cite this development, and not the larger project of Western civilization, as the key source of neuroses. I’m also not convinced, given what is now known about the biological and neurological origins of depression, that the emergence of depression is merely a result of this historical moment and the cultural changes that followed.
I also found Ehrenreich’s choice of modern group festivities to be limited. Ehrenreich does discuss rock concerts and sporting events, but bemoans the overall lack of such gatherings in today’s society. Yet Ehrenreich mentions nothing at all about the numerous online communities, from MySpace to Flickr to virtual communities for special interests. Arguably these online communities do not provide the level of physical engagement and movement of traditional gatherings, but many online groups conduct both online and real-life gatherings, blurring such traditional distinctions. Consider three-dimensional virtual worlds, such as Second Life, where people design their personal avatar that moves through a virtual world entirely constructed by virtual community members. Or interactive video games where players are actively engaging their body and movements within simulated graphics, sometimes with other players. The sheer number of people playing these games suggests their possibilities as types of participatory, collective diversions.
Still, Ehrenreich’s book is an engaging read for its in-depth exploration of the history of collective ecstatic traditions. While the frequent citing of examples and quotes sometimes makes for disruptive reading, the breadth of Ehrenreich’s sources provides lots of interesting points and opportunities for further investigation and insight. And although Ehrenreich overstates the current absence of festivities, it’s worth noting the book’s dedication to her two granddaughters, “To Anna and Clara—you know how to do it,” referring to their free-spirited dancing. We’d do well to remember the exhilaration of children dancing away without inhibitions and keep in mind our evolutionary capacity for collective joy.
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