"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

26 Nov 2011

Cynicism and Carnival


Parallels between the current 'occupy' movement and carnival are obvious enough, even though, unlike Cynicism and Carnival, they would seem to lack the comedic element that defines these other modes of dissent. Yet Alan Moore, co-creator of the now iconic and smirking mask which originates (albeit unwittingly) from his 1982 series V for Vendetta, says that use of the mask "turns protests into performances", further suggesting that although protest marches are usually thought of as grueling and dismal, they should and could be "tremendously enjoyable". Slavoj Žižek also draws parallels between the 'occupy' movement and carnival when he urges the protesters to fall in love with the hard and patient work of breaking down taboos (the very essence of Cynic askesis) that will oblige the rest of society to think of alternatives to the capitalist structures we take for granted. Apart from providing anonymity for the protesters, Moore's sneering mask provides the perfect mirror to the bankers' own self-satisfied and smug demeanor.
     The Cynics drew heavily on ancient carnival traditions as a model for their philosophy and lifestyle. The main feature of carnival was the reversal of normal positions in societysuch as the fool or clown dominating the proceedingsand a license to indulge in behaviour that would not have been tolerated in other circumstances. In carnival mode, one could mock the king or queen and ridicule and pour profanities on other public figures and deities. Whether it was one’s essential way of life or a way of letting of steam on festive occasions, the outcome of both Cynicism and carnival was to suspended the laws and prohibitions that determine the structure of civilized, mannered society. This had the levelling effect of freeing people from socio-hierarchical positions of rank, age, property, etc., and liberating them (if only temporarily in the case of carnival) from normal restraints and restrictions. Probably predating the development of sophisticated speech, the difficulty posed by the language of carnival in classical or modern discourse is that it cannot be adequately translated into verbal language. The sensuous orgy of carnival would only have received qualified approval by the Cynics. Their own licentiousness was meant not so much to liberate desire as to shock, to deface the currency of peoples’ affectations, not to compensate for it. The upside-down society of carnival was the Cynics’ bread and butter, their everyday life, not some wild interlude away from mundane realityperpetual carnival rather than perpetual revolution was their ambition.

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