Time out or Time in? – Carnival as a World Elsewhere

Milla Cozart Riggio

James J. Goodwin Professor of English

Trinity College, Hartford, CT.


"Despising…the City, thus I turn my back. There is a world elsewhere."

Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 3.3.134-35


Carnival and the Carnivalesque have become virtual synonyms for moments of transgressive disorder. Key elements of the "carnivalesque," seen from this perspective, are liminality ("time out of time"), inversion ("the world upside down"), binomial oppositions ("Carnival vs. Lent"), riotous excess, and a kind of cleansing disorder. Under the influence of Mikhail Bakhtin and anthropologists like Victor Turner, "carnival" and the "carnivalesque" have been defined as dangerous but also seductive. A mode of parodic cultural inversion, Carnival is seen as a time when the "other" reigns over but also beckons the civilized "us" in what has been described as a "tenuous, subjunctive, paradoxical celebration" [Manning 1983]. Within this paradigm, the cultural function of Carnival has been much debated: Does it serve as a Marxist-tinged release valve, insuring safety and social continuity by letting out the steam of rebellion and revolt? Or is it subversively curative, working change to the social order through its moments of excess and its penchant for violence?

It is not my intention to enter this debate, though if I were to do so, it would be to say that the polysemous nature of Carnival dictates answers of "yes," "no," and "it depends" – on the location, the occasion, the time – to each of the contradictory questions above. The explosion of festivity in the pre-Lenten seasons of many cultures does – as those who participate almost always claim – "free up" its revelers, releasing them from the workaday world, from constraining rules of behavior, from middle class propriety. And it has also, at times, served as a vessel for ritualized, sometimes sublimated, sometimes overtly threatening violence. As Richard Schechner has argued, pre-Lenten Carnival is both a top-down and bottom-up festival—historically both elite (often in the form of fancy masquerade balls) and popular (street revelry, music, masquerading, theatricality). Wherever it occurs, Carnival elicits an ongoing tension between Respectability and Vagabondage, the real battles of Carnival not so much between Carnival and Lent as between propriety and vulgarity. This is, of course, why Carnivalesque festivities can occur at many different calendrical times: in England, on May Day or Midsummer; throughout the Americas, on Emancipation holidays, labor days, and other occasions in which the opposition between that which is deemed Respectable and the Vagabondage that challenges the very concept of respectability are ritually opposed to each other.

These, to me, are the givens of Carnival, whether in Europe or the Americas. What I want to dispute is the idea that, however you define it, Carnival is itself liminal. That in temporarily taking over the streets, it is suspending order, taking time out. Looking at Carnivals of the Americas, and especially the Carnival of Trinidad, I will focus not on what Carnival negates but on what it affirms -- not on those elements of order and control that are suspended, inverted, or temporarily discarded but on its visible manifestation of "a world elsewhere."

In one sense the opposition I wish to define is inherent in Turner’s concepts of "societas" and "communitas," – societas as the world of public order, law, government, as the term implies "society," and "communitas" as that communal place where things "flow," in the midst of which one loses a sense of the boundaries drawn by society. These terms and concepts are useful, as they draw attention to the distinction between community and all that it represents (family, neighborhood, sometimes even ethnic ghetto) and the public world of vocation, government, enacted law and order. However, because Turner regards "communitas" as a liminal place, a threshold where the rituals of passage are enacted in a "time out of time" world, Turner’s concept is at bottom antithetical to mine. I want to turn his photo negative, in which "communitas" is always the dark shadow defined by its opposition to "societas," into a positive: to define the world enacted in Carnival not in terms of what it opposes but, more affirmatively, in its own terms, of what it enacts, to see history, as it were, not as the story of either the conquering or the subjugating of people by institutions but as the encoding and imprinting of genetic and cultural legacies.

There is no time to trace the history of Carnival in relationship to the growth and development of Industrialism in Europe and throughout the world "colonized" by Europeans, though that history is vital to the argument I am making. Carnival represents and exemplifies values that pre-date and were challenged by the development of the "clock," especially the time clock of factory work, the emergence of the "weekend" as a time of release from work, and of modern industrialized life. It belongs to the world of so-called "traditional" societies in which a man [or woman] "lives in remembrance of one festival and in expectation of the next," a place where time is measured not by the ticking of a clock but by the birth and growth of children, by eating, playing music, and generating mythic fantasies of many kinds, as well of course as finding ways to sustain life and provide food and shelter. In this sense, while this world must acknowledge the need for a means to livelihood, it is not itself defined by vocation or a commitment to sustaining public institutions.

On the other hand, this world is neither, at bottom, agrarian nor, in essence, Saturnalian. Carnival is not essentially rural. Though often celebrated in small villages in the countryside, it developed in and with urban culture. Nor did it originate in the Roman Saturnalias, despite a faux history that often "traces" such origins. In celebrating sexuality and fertility, Carnival celebrates the birth of children (often, it is said, by producing them; in what we may call "carnival culturals," birth rates are normally assumed to go up dramatically nine months after Carnival). Its violence, sometimes sublimated into competition and sometimes overtly territorial and real – at least as it is manifest in Trinidad and, I suspect, throoughout the Americas –, encodes the resistance of a community, or a communally bonded group, to outsiders. For example, those freed from enslavement may ritually rebel against their ex-masters (or, as in the 1881 riots in Port of Spain against the Police that represented the British government), or more locally, those that live on one side of Henry or French Street fight or compete against those that live on the other side. Sometimes such contests involve oppression and resistance, and such resistance is famously part of the hidden agenda of Carnival in the Americas. At other times, rivalries are more like those in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, contests between territorially generated communities, motivated not by oppression but by the claims of family, neighborhood, or the need to protect a bounded territory. In Trinidad, such groups have always taken the form of what are called "bands," stickfighting bands, steel bands, masquerade bands, in a term that owes more to the paramilitary idea of a band as a territorial "gang" than to "band" as "performance group."

In the short time allotted to my paper, I will first acknowledge that the form of Carnival differs throughout the Americas (sometimes invested in drama, as in Uruguay; sometimes in specific forms of masking, and sometimes in masquerading that does not involves masks, as is often the case in Trinidad), but as far as I have observed, with consistent features: rituals of competition, an emphasis on sexuality and feasting, and an undertone of regulated or ritualized violence. I will not attempt to impose the Trinidad model in any sense on Carnival in another region, for the particularities and differences are significant. But I will identify some elements of Trinidad Carnival that I believe affirm the essential values of community, present throughout the year, that Carnival manifests and to offer these as elements of a potentially new Carnival paradigm.

First, I will point to the infrastructure of Carnival itself. Overall, it is a highly organized, structured, financed, and for the most part economically controlled activity, despite the fact that there are always individuals fighting for recognition, making their own costumes, generating their individual "mas." Thus, Carnival has it own internal order, one that counters and even competes throughout the year with the [other?] capital enterprises at the base of most modern economies. Carnival is, to begin with, then, a multi-faceted industry of its own. And in Trinidad, it has become arguably the largest export of the country.

But it is not the economics of Carnival that I want to emphasize. Instead, I will point to the way in which Carnival simultaneously licenses excess and maintains order: its principles of internal decorum gounded in certain concepts of respect, of internal control, of a principle of order. People spend what they earn all year on a Carnival costume precisely because that costume manifests in itself a kind of value that is at base opposed to consumer society. I will focus on the nurture of children, on the community base of operations and camps (both very small and very large), on the rhythm of an event that begins on Three Kings Day and ends squarely on the stroke of midnight on Ash Wednesday but that is a culturally eclectic, not a Catholic, celebration.

The battle as it is being waged in Trinidad now is between the desire of many Trinidadians to claim their place in the world symbolized by multinational companies, the workaday world of times clocks and factories. As part of its triumph over the so-called "traditional" society, the forces that control the public world would, and have attempted to, coopt Carnival, to market it as the symbol of the nation. This paper will argue that such an effort in itself contradicts the basic nature of the festival. "Trini time," the refusal to work by the clock, is not simply a lazy disregard of that which matters. It is a time that runs by the sun, keyed not to rhythms of work but to that which still governs the Trinidad year: Seasons of festivity.

NOTE: Because of the time constraints of a conference paper and because of my wish to illustrate my paper with video, slide, and photographic exhibits, I will be forced to present the paper essentially as an abstract, fleshed out slightly in terms of the particulars of the manifest community.


Milla Cozart Riggio

James J. Goodwin Professor of English