A performance of great interest occurred on Sunday, June 14, in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. A person wearing a Trump mask—which, according to Amazon, is made from "high quality latex," has "a mouth hole for easy speaking and drinking with a straw," and costs only $12, offered spectators a mauve pool noodle to bash him with. The Trump-masked person held a sign that read: "IM THE BIGGEST COP with the littlest hand It’s my birthday PLEASE HIT ME WITH THIS NOODLE." A good number of people accepted the offer and let rip on Trump's head, shoulders, arms, legs.
One might read this performance as form of therapy, which it undeniably is. But I want to situate the catharsis interpretation in a theory developed by the 20th century Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. The theory, which is described in a number of Bakhtin's books, the most notable of which is Rabelais and His World (1965), concerns the social function of the medieval carnival. They were not, as many might believe, just about European peasants having a good old time (music, dance, colorful costumes, bawdy humor, full-belly laughter, lots of beer, cheers), but a space that subverted the social order. A quick examination of this theory will disclose a number of echoes between the medieval carnival—which Bakhtinian scholars associate with the African-inflected O Maior Show da Terra (Rio de Janeiro), and Mardi Gras (New Orleans), and Caribana (Toronto)—and certain features of CHOP/CHAZ.
A person dressed as @realDonaldTrump is asking people to beat him up with a pool noodle while “fuck Donald trump” plays. It’s kind of kinky. #CHOP #CHAZ pic.twitter.com/kRftENaGbq
— Chase Burns (@chaseburnsy) June 15, 2020
The UK political theorist Andrew Robinson described the key components of Baktian's interpretation of the carnival and its origins in Ceasefire:
The popular tradition of carnival was believed by Bakhtin to carry a particular wisdom which can be traced back to the ancient world. For Bakhtin, carnival and carnivalesque create an alternative social space, characterised by freedom, equality and abundance. During carnival, rank (otherwise pervasive in medieval society) is abolished and everyone is equal. People were reborn into truly human relations, which were not simply imagined but experienced. The body is here figured not as the individual or ‘bourgeois ego’ but as a growing, constantly renewed collective which is exaggerated and immeasurable. Life manifests itself not as isolated individuals but as a collective ancestral body. This is not, however, a collective order, since it is also continually in change and renewal. The self is also transgressed through practices such as masking.
Later in the essay, Robinson explains the defining event of a Bahktian carnival:
In [the] carnival... hierarchies are overturned through inversions, debasements and profanations, performed by normally silenced voices and energies. For instance, a jester might be crowned in place of a king. The authoritative voice of the dominant discourse loses its privilege. Humour is counterposed to the seriousness of officialdom in such a way as to subvert it.This is the key carnivalistic act: the begger, the person occupying the lowest rung of the medieval social order, rises to the top. The begger is crowned the king. And the implication of this crowning is that a person in power becomes a fool in the carnival's inverted social order.
Some have read this aspect of the carnival—the way it turns the normal world upside down—as a kind of communal therapy, a way of getting all of the pain and abuses suffered during much of the year out of the community's system in one big discharge of disorder. There is, as you can see, commonalities with this Bakhtinian interpretation, whose explanatory power cannot be easily dismissed, and some of the activities at CHOP/CHAZ, such as the masked Trump performance and the assembling of markets whose shelves are stocked with free goods. What is up in the zone is down outside of the zone.
But this inversion is not without a number of problems and dangers that the tagline for Seattle's radical Red May event exposes: "Take A Vacation From Capitalism." Though much of what happens in Red May certainly happens outside of it, the tagline gives one the impression that once the anti-capitalist conference is done, we return to our normal lives of capitalist work and consumption. All of this talk about increasing democratic representation, dismantling neoliberalism (which is now entering its necro-economic stage), and challenging the ever-growing power of finance capital can all be dropped once the vacation is done. This is indeed what happened at the end of a fleeting medieval festival: its king was dethroned and became a beggar for the rest of the year. Is this the future of CHAZ/CHOP? To go the way of a Bakhtinian carnival?
And so, one of the dangers CHAZ/CHOP faces, which I describe in a previous Slog post, is it could evolve from its political origins in a cycle of Black Lives Matter protests instigated by the murder of George Floyd into an economic opportunity for real estate investors. (The Vancouver BC urbanist Charles Montgomery calls this end-state the happy city—urbanism sans progressive or socialist content.)
#CHAZ / #CHOP - Good Morning. Looks like @seattledot is in the CHOP this morning building wooden structures to cover cement barriers for artists to use to paint on. Several other upgrades occurring as well. pic.twitter.com/c5GwzqFYC8
— Omari Salisbury (@Omarisal) June 16, 2020
The other is it ends like a carnival, whose fool, Jenny Durkan, returns to her seat of power in the City Hall.
The answer to this and other questions of the like, I think, is found in the rice terraces of the Indonesian island of Bali. There is here a system of irrigation that, for thousands of years, has tied the volcanic land to human temples.
The rice farmers meet regularly in the water temples to discuss the management of the elaborate irrigation system: What is working? What is not working? What should we increase? What should we decrease? The organization of these meeting is called subak. But here is the interesting thing about these temple meetings, at least in their traditional context: all who participate in them are equal. There is no farmer who has more to say than another, no matter what their status might be in the world outside of the subak.
J. Stephen Lansing, an American anthropologist and complexity scientist, describes this Bali organization in his 2006 book Perfect order: Recognizing complexity in Bali:
Farmers also belong to organizations devoted to the management of rice terraces for which we must use the Balinese word subak, because no equivalent term exists in English. Subaks are egalitarian organizations that are empowered to manage the rice terraces and irrigation systems on which the prosperity of the village depends, and they too have frequent meetings that are governed by the same strict democratic etiquette. Between them, the village and subak assemblies govern most aspects of a farmer’s social, economic, and spiritual life.There is a linguistic element to these meetings. All members speak in the "self-deprecating high register of the Balinese language" because this affirms "the personal dignity and the jural equality of his fellow villagers." Out of the subak, the low speak like the low, and those on top speak like those on top. The hierarchy, then, is not at the center of the society, the economy. It is for what's not essential. But once it comes to what matters to the community, democracy must rule. All are equal.
I know this is not a perfect order. I know it has its problems. But it does throw an explanatory light on the limits of the carnival. The subak is a space of actual power; you enter it, and you become a king. Here is where your decisions really shape the course of the economy, of the community's livelihood. When a subak ends, a Durkan returns to the toil of the fields.