Carnival culture

Authored by: Karen Bettez Halnon

Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  July  2010
Online publication date:  September  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415474450
eBook ISBN: 9780203891377
Adobe ISBN: 9781134026159


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Long the territory of literary scholars, historians, and anthropologists, the study of “carnival” is gaining visibility in cultural sociology because of the analytic purchase it yields on questions of aesthetics, performance, and power. This essay begins by contextualizing carnival historically and describing carnival’s two best-known manifestations, Brazilian carnelevare and North American Mardi Gras. I then elaborate on the concept of carnival culture by discussing its commodification and commercialization, from New Orleans’s yearly festivities to shock music scenes. To plumb the conceptual depth of carnival, the body of the essay is divided into three parts, each of which integrates important recent scholarship on a distinct topic. The first (pp. 203–205) probes how carnival is traditionally understood as an instance of “liminality” that in these terms offers participants both a “second life” and a “second voice.” The next part (pp. 205–207) elaborates on a debate that crosses nearly all carnival studies: whether carnival’s “second life” fulfills positive or negative functions, and whether carnival reinforces or challenges oppressive features of the everyday status quo. The third part (pp. 207–208) delves into the more esoteric terrain where carnival and postmodernism meet and concludes with a discussion of how the supposed implosion of meaning—and therefore the absence of “safety valves”—in postmodern society gives way to a no-exit “Clockwork Orange” dispersion of carnival in haphazard and violent forms. The essay concludes by considering future directions for carnival culture studies.

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