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Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich [Jun. 6th, 2011|08:13 pm]

Let me start by saying that I think this is the longest I’ve ever dawdled on a review. I finished this book almost a month ago, and I’ve had plenty of chances, even including my budding addiction to Europa Universalis III, to write it. It should have been written about the same time as my review of Mass Effect. So what’s been stopping me?

I think the challenge that I have had in writing about Dancing in the Streets is that it is exactly my kind of book. It was certainly what I wanted to read after my last clunker. The prose moves quickly, the examples are fairly straightforward; the scale is broad without ever losing sight of the focus, etc. So I don’t get the vindictive rush that I get from trashing a bad book, and since I think I can intellectually critique it with some care because it’s “on my level” I feel obligated to try and give it the complicated review it deserves, which takes more time than I usually want to put into these. I don’t have the book with me, so unfortunately this isn’t going to be exactly that review. But I’ve got the time now, and this needs to get done.
So, like I mentioned, it’s a good book. It is the second book I’ve read by Ehrenreich, and I was pleased when it was described by the author as a follow-up to that book, Blood Rites. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as Blood Rites. But it was still fascinating to learn about the widespread origins of human collective celebrations, and to follow her through examples of how the European model of celebrations changed over time. I would have been curious to see more examples from a wider geographical area, because I get the suspicion that the process she describes -of the withdrawal of the social elites from festivals leading to their eventual regulation and dismemberment- was not limited to Europe or European influence. I would think China, in particular, should offer another example of elite withdrawal (especially after the Manchu invasion). But that would have made the text a lot longer, and potentially less interesting.
My biggest complaint about the book is that it is not a neutral study of a cultural/historical phenomenon. Ehrenreich implicitly assumes that public festivals are a Good Thing, and that the increased regulation of them by civil authorities was imposed on unwilling societies by the social elite, potentially in alliance with a small group of religious fundamentalists. But I think Ehrenriech is missing something, or at least not acknowledging something, which is the dark side of the festival tradition. Sure, it might be a great experience to be at a Grateful Dead concert…until a Hells Angel stabs you. I’m sure I could find countless other examples where the social freedom of festivals causes some people to behave not just irresponsibly, but harmfully towards others. I also speculate that the increased regulation of festival behavior, especially in modern times, might sometimes be a result of public outcry following particularly rampant or shocking crimes attached to festival activities. There’s probably an entire additional book that could be written by including that other half, but I think it would make for a more honest narrative.
Also, I have to admit being a little uncomfortable reading certain sections of the book. Ehrenreich is dismissive of what she calls the “isolated” style of modern life, especially in the middle and upper classes. She blames this modern lifestyle, arising in the 16th and 17th century, with starting depression as a psychosocial phenomenon (which I didn’t find very compelling). Since I think I have a particularly “modern” pattern of interaction with the rest of the world, it hit awfully close to home. It also made me personally question whether participating in a civic party would make me feel “more whole”. Well, fortunately, I have actually been to a kind of event she talks about. I attended a major sporting event a few years ago, which she talks about as being a modern appropriation of a festive tradition. I could link to that old journal entry, but instead I’ll summarize by saying that it was interesting, but I resolved that it wasn’t worth the time or the price to go again. I don’t begrudge those that do enjoy going to the spectacle, but I don’t think that regular attendance, even if it were free, would necessarily be an exciting prospect for me.
Which means that I ultimately disagree with Ehrenreich's thesis. But that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book, and getting to feel like I can intelligently critique probably actually helps.

All in all, a great, quick read and highly recommended. I'd still recommend Blood Rites first, and I could say a lot more comparing the two books (and I think Ehrenreich is conscious of how much their subject matters interact), but Dancing in the Streets does stand on its own. Unlike your average reveler.