May 19, 2010

Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich

Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich

Dancing in the Streets is a fascinating blend of social and cultural history, anthropology, mythology, sociology and informed speculation, in which Barbara Ehrenreich traces the history of what she calls “collective joy” from the ancient world to our age. By “collective joy”, Ehrenreich means the kind ecstatic group experience that is commonly associated with ancient mystery cults, with non-European religious traditions involving music and dancing, and, in the modern world, with rock and roll concerts or with sports events.

Ehrenreich begins with an overview of ancient mysteries (readers of The Secret History will be familiar with the kind of experience described here), followed by a history of early Christianity, of Carnival traditions in Medieval Europe, of their repression during the Reformation, and of Europe’s expansionism and its consequences for other cultures – all of which lead us to where we are now. Ehrenreich suggests that there were socioeconomic reasons for the culling of ecstatic traditions: as society became increasingly hierarchized and the modern market economy began to demand more competitiveness from its members, there ceased to be a place for the no-barriers experience of collective joy.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed Dancing in the Streets so much was because I really connected with Barbara Ehrenreich’s voice. I loved her sensibility and her outlook, and I grew to greatly admire her intellectual honesty: she never sounds forceful when making her points, she never fails to acknowledge potential weaknesses in her arguments, and she never ignores the questions her hypotheses raise in the hopes that nobody else will think to ask them either. This is especially important because this book is, as I said, somewhat speculative in nature, and nothing annoys me more than authors pressing forward untested (and often untestable) hypotheses as if they were facts. Fortunately, Dancing in the Streets completely avoids this pitfall.

Another one of my favourite things about Dancing in the Streets was the fact that it made me confront Western society’s deep distrust of communal experiences. This is very much a book about the dissolution of community, but not in the way we usually think of it: it’s about the loss of those moments in which we feel the full power of our common humanity. In our day and age, most of us are terrified of the idea of losing ourselves in a group or crowd. We’re very much attached to our individuality, and we tend to be quite suspicious of large groups. I loved the fact that Dancing in the Streets made me ask myself why. Why is getting lost in a crowd or identifying with a group such a bad thing? Why are collective experiences perceived as less genuine or desirable than solitary ones?

I often notice that to call something collective is to discredit it. This can be seen, for example, in expressions such as “hype” or “trend”. When we refer to something as a trend, we usually imply that it’s merely a trend. “You’re only wearing that outfit / listening to that band / reading that book because it’s trendy right now,” we usually say. And by this we mean to imply, “You’re only following the crowd, and your fondness for this particular thing is therefore not genuine.” Anything that involves a mass is somehow thought of as inferior to a solitary choice. This is also visible in the fact that people often use the term “mob mentality” to demean, ridicule or dismiss a group of people they happen to disagree with – the logic being that no right-thinking individual could possibly adopt such a position. Therefore, it must be the degrading effect of the mob clouding people’s wits.

But why can’t a large group of people affect or influence one another, follow one another to an emotional place, share a feeling or a fondness for something, and have that experience be as powerful and genuine as any solitary emotion or insight? Identifying with a group doesn’t necessarily mean we have been brainwashed or have lost our ability to reason for ourselves. Barbara Ehrenreich looks at what she calls collective joy as more than a force that shapes or manipulates behaviours or opinions, and as much more than a mere outlet for social discontent, which is how it’s traditionally thought of. She thinks of it as the kind of experience that gives us “the chance, which we need much more of on this crowded planet, to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.”

Of course, there are historical reasons for our distrust of groups and of collective ecstasy: among them are racism and anthropocentrism and the association of this kind of rite with “primitive” peoples; the elites’ interest in maintaining class and other social barriers that benefit them, and which collective joy tends to dissolve; and, more recently, the example of the terrifying Nuremberg rallies in the 1930’s. One of the legacies of fascism, Ehrenreich says, is that it has led us to believe that “groups are inherently dangerous.” But as she also points out, fascist rallies were not truly collective experiences: the crowd were spectators, not participants. This missing active involvement is what modern carnivalised sports events and rock and roll concerts have tried to bring back, with varying degrees of success.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s theory is that the loss of opportunities for moments of collective joy has led to an “epidemic of melancholy” that first began in the seventeenth century, and coincided with the emergence of what we’ve come to think of as the private self. She’s the first to acknowledge that this is impossible to prove, of course, as we cannot travel back in time and conduct surveys to then compare the number of cases of depression before that time, then, and now. But speaking at a purely intuitive level, it does seem to make sense that a greater emphasis on individuality and competition would make us more prone to depression and anxiety. I’m not sure if I’m completely convinced by Ehrenreich’s hypothesis, but it’s something to think about.

I notice she has written another book, Blood Rites, which is a sort of dark companion to this one and traces “the history and origins of the passions of war”. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Interesting bits:
The notion if “personal space” and the horror of other people’s bodily processes that set limits on human physical interaction in our own time arose, originally, out of social anxiety and distrust.

So highly is the “inner self” honored within our own culture that its acquisition seems to be an unquestionable mark of progress—a requirement, as Trilling called it, for “the emergence of modern European and American man”. It was, no doubt, this sense of individuality and personal autonomy, “of an untrammelled freedom to ask questions and explore,” as the historian Yi-Fu Tan put it, that allowed men like Martin Luther and Galileo to risk their lives by defying Catholic doctrine. Which is preferable: a courageous, or even merely grasping and competitive, individualism versus a medieval (or, in the case of non-European cultures, “primitive”) personality so deeply mired in community and ritual that it can barely distinguish a “self”? From the perspective of our own time, the choice, so stated, is obvious. We have known nothing else.

This was rock and roll’s heritage: a participatory experience, rooted in an ecstatic religious tradition: black rock, or “rhythm and blues,” performers of the 1950s and ‘60s—including such stars as Little Richard, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and many others—acknowledged their obvious debt to black music, often moving effortlessly from religious to secular songs and back again. (…) The early rock audiences who stomped and jumped on their seats to dance were announcing, whether they knew it or not, the rebirth of an ecstatic tradition that had been repressed and marginalised by Europeans and Euro-Americans for centuries.

Unnoted at this time was the way antirock commentary almost precisely echoed the language that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europeans had used to denounce the “native” ecstatic rituals they encountered during their phase of imperialist expansion. Aware only of its black roots, the enemies of rock attacked it as “jungle music,” “tribal music,” and even, weirdly, “cannibalistic.”
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)

(PS: Dear Patrick Ness fans – did this post make you think of The Land by any chance? It did me too.)


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book from a social perspective. I really enjoyed The Secret History so perhaps I'll have to check this one out. Oh to have more reading time in a day!!

  2. Elise: Sigh, I'd kill for more reading time. Just to clarify, though, because I don't want to mislead anyone: the ancient mysteries are only mentioned briefly at the beginning of this book, and they're given a much less sensationalist treatment than in The Secret History. I did love that book, but you know. I don't think fans of one will necessarily like the other, but I mentioned it because it's a point of reference most people are likely to have.

  3. What I like about your blog, Ana, is that I can learn all about this book I'll probably never read.

    Interesting thoughts, though, especially having spent some time in Japan where group mentality plays a big role.

    Personally, I love the feeling of being swept up in something with a group of people. I think, for example, it's a huge chunk of the joy in loving books like Harry Potter and TV shows like LOST. In fact, when I was at the LOST celebration last week, I was grieving the loss of community right along with the show. I know it's probably not exactly what she's talking about there, but maybe it's a little taste of it.

  4. I'm sure you *know* and I'm sure it doesn't bother you in the slightest that I'm itching to go pull this off the shelf right this minute, don't you? ;) I have to admit that I'm not sure exactly what I expected this book to be like, but it sounds really fascinating.

    If anything I've ever experienced would qualify as collective joy, it would definitely have been Grateful Dead concerts.

  5. This idea of collective joy is pretty relevant to people who study religions, I guess. So here, I found a great argument to legitimize adding this to my wishlist! ;) I was reminded of this by Debi when she said she experienced collective joy at concerts, because rock concerts and soccer games are often compared to the former collective religious gatherings.

    What appeals to me most about the book though is that you said you could connect with Ehrenreich's voice. I love it when that happens in non-fiction books.

    Also, the title is hard to resist, don't you think?

  6. Hmm, I must admit that it sounds interesting. Thanks for mentioning this book, Nymeth!

  7. Sounds fascinating, thanks for the review. Definitely one I'm adding to the wish list :)

  8. Very interesting concept & discussion. I think for America, I feel we can point to a place in time when the "collective" began to take a negative turn & that was with the "group think" that led to the Challenger disaster. The concept of 'group think' go such a negative connotation that it began to be seen as the weaker form of intellectual thought. Obviously this is different than what is merited in social situations, but still, I think the parallel is there.

  9. What a thought provoking book. I think we all need to "belong" somewhere so a sense of community is important whether we want to admit it or not.

  10. I love Barbara E. I've read Nickel and Dimed and also This Land is Their Land, and I thought they were both excellent, albeit a little repetitive. She definitely has courage and compassion, and I have always been impressed that, given the topics she chooses, she has such a wide audience. I will be especially interested in this one, because it sounds like it tackles some of the same subjects as In Pursuit of the Millenium, which was a landmark study, but very academic. It is an important subject thought that could definitely stand being "popularized."

  11. This is a really interesting topic, and one that I haven't thought much about in years, though I do agree that the collective spirit does tend to suffer in this age of individuality. I remember going to rock-concerts in my younger years, and just feeling a sense of awe that all the people surrounding me me, were much like myself, sharing the joy of the music and the experience of joining together in a huge mass to celebrate what I can only call a sense of togetherness and oneness. Very powerful review, Nymeth. It sounds like a book I'd like to get my hands on!!

  12. So a flash mob is a good opportunity for a moment of "collective joy"? I think that explains why the recent Ohio State one went "viral" on YouTube. It is, literally, dancing in the street...or the new student union.

  13. What an absolutely fantastic premise for a book! I'm not sure if the book covers it, but the difference between collective emotion and collective intelligence intrigues me. I know why people are terrified of "group think"; but I think that conformity of thought is quite different from something like collective joy.

  14. I'm really curious: have you experienced collective joy, Nymeth?

    I'm both pleased and astonished to find that someone has taken the subject that occupied my mind for a good part of my teens and twenties and turned it into a book! It sounds like an enormous project: source material must have been scattered all over the place.

    Ehrenreich should be a good chaser for John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven (a faux-solemn sensationalized treatment of Mormonism, which hardly needs it).

  15. I must admit that Barbara Ehrenreich really turned me off with Nickel & Dimed. It's also interesting that she states we have been in a state of melancholy since the 17th century (yikes!) when her last book is about how Americans are too positive of thinkers. Those seem at odds to me, unless Americans are always let down by their positive thinking?

    I also think she has the propensity to blame EVERYTHING on the "modern market economy" which annoys me.

    So, er, I guess... I won't be reading this book!

  16. Amy: I think that actually IS close to what she's talking about. I love that kind of sense of community too, and I missed it after the last HP book.

    Debi, I hope you enjoy it - and I think you will.

    Iris: She does tackle early religious experiences quite extensively, and does link them to modern day rock shows and sports events. I think you'd enjoy this quite a lot!

    Andreea and Amy, you're welcome. I hope you enjoy this if you decide to pick it up :)

    Elisabeth: The book is more about collective emotional experiences than rational decisions, but I can see how the parallel makes sense, yes. And it sounds like that would be a contributing factor.

    Kathy: I absolutely agree!

    Jill: I need to read more of her books ASAP! I know just what you mean about her courage and compassion.

    Zibilee: I know that feeling very well - it's one of my favourite things about live music <3

    Jeanne: I think I expressed myself poorly, as the book doesn't at all suggest that flash mobs are in fact good things. I didn't mean to imply that it did.

    Trisha: It doesn't cover it (the focus is more on emotion than thought), but I agree, that IS intriguing.

    Trapunto: I have, at music shows - not at *every* concert I've been to, but when it does happen, it's such an amazing feeling.

    Aarti: She doesn't say we've been in a state of melancholy since the seventeenth century; she suggests that maybe depression and anxiety have been more common since then than they were previously. Also, the modern market economy is presented as one factor among many. I haven't read her book Smile or Die, so I could be wrong here, but from what I know it's more about how people feel *pressured* to think positively than about them being happy all the time. So that really doesn't strike me as contradictory at all.

  17. Argh, please ignore me if any of the above sounds grumpy. Long day :P

  18. I'm so interested in Ehrenreich's perspective on issues and the premises of her books always sound so challenging without being overly confrontational (although 'Smile...' certainly sounds like there's a lot of anger that went into its creation). While like you I'm not sure how far I'd go along with the hypothesis that individuality causes greater depression (although I'd say that increased competition, which you could argue is a capitalist exploitation of individuality, sounds like a likely factor in increased isolation)it really gives some substance for you get your teeth into. I wonder if she mention peoples suspicion of promiscuity, or rebellions at such gatherings making them less popular over time? Seems reasonable that big gatherings would still carry those associations over from historical gatherings like Bachannalies (ick can't spell) and groups of religious dissenters.

    One thing I wanted to pick up on was a bit of your quote where she says that Galileo risked his life defying Catholic doctrine. While Galileo went against the churches teachings he did so while remaining a very religiously devout man and tried to accomodate the churches wishes as much as he could without compromising his ideas when writing his main dialogue. His ideas were revolutionary and contrary to religious teachings, but I'm not sure he can be characterised as defiant.

  19. I admit I didn't like Nickel & Dimed much so I haven't paid much attention to her other books. Well, that and the fact that unfortunately I don't read much non-fiction but this is certainly an interesting topic. Actually I think Blood Rites sounds even more interesting to me. You'll have to keep us posted on that one when you get to it.

  20. Test (because I got e-mail notifications for comments by Jodie and Iliana that seem to have vanished :S)

  21. I've never read a book about this topic and would love to! All of the aspects - from psychology to anthropology - sound too interesting to pass up.

  22. You see...this is when it's really BAD to have a Nook!! Cuz I can go buy this right now :/

    This sounds so good and like something that I would really enjoy living in New Orleans. We "dance in the streets" for everything. Even for funerals (not for all, but some) there will occasionally be jazz funerals where it becomes a celebration and a jazz band will play while the community walks around the coffin and dances and smiles remembering the person. Sounds like a wonderful book Ana! Thanks for letting us know about it :)

  23. It is interesting how individualism has helped us to fear collectivism and also succeeded in breaking down communities. This sounds like a thought provoking book. I think I read some of her stuff in college in my Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage course but I can't for the life of me remember what it was!

  24. Barbara Ehrenreich is a most interesting writer. I don't always agree with her, but I know she's done her homework. This sounds like a very interesting book. What does she do with Jung's theory of the collective unconscious?

    Guess I'll have to read this book to find out. Thanks for the thorough and honest review.

  25. (Hooray, the missing comments are back!)

    Jodie: Yes, she does cover the association between large gatherings and sexual promiscuity and political insurrection quite extensively. Interestingly she says that even the original Bacchanalia were likely not sexual in natural, and the belief that they were was part of the process that would lead to their repression. That's a good point you made about Galileo. I notice that when she says that she's quoting someone else - I wonder how she feels about it?

    Iliana: Between you and Aarti I'm hesitant about Nickel & Dimed, but I will read Blood Rites at some point and report back :P

    Chris: Argh, the awful temptation of the Nook...sorry :P I think that's fascinating about New Orleans culture :)

    Kathleen: That course sounds absolutely fascinating!

    ds: She doesn't mention Jung, but I have to confess I'm not a fan, so I didn't notice his absence. I think you'd enjoy this book regardless, though! I felt the same way as you: I might not always agree with her hypotheses, but I admire the way she always grounds them.

  26. Oh gosh, this sounds like a really interesting book! I love learning about other cultures and sociology and anthropology. And if the author writes it in a way that is entertaining, too, then even better! This is going straight to the top of my TBR list!

  27. I've not read any of Ehrenreich's books yet, but I've been waiting for the longest time for Smile or Die to become available at the library. I will be adding this one to the ever-growing TBR list I'm compiling from your reviews.:)

  28. This is exactly why Louisiana is the happiest state in the US! It is because we are champions of collective joy, even when everything that is going on is terrible. We are passionate about football, and we are steady having enormous festivals to celebrate everything we can think of to celebrate - Mardi Gras, rice, jazz, strawberries, crawfish - I wonder if those festivals would count. Because I know we are not getting our scientifically proven happiness from good mental health care or economic prosperity. :P

  29. Ooo I love that idea that the Bachannalia may not have been sexual in nature. I mean all the gods were associated with sex in someway then, but Bachuss' main seedy association was with drinking and revelling, not specifically sex. I think that's probably a spot on theory, especially as there was a Roman festival celebrated only by women where men would hide indoors because the women could get quite aggressive and it's kind of made out to be about sex, rather than female power in some books.

  30. Rebecca: Considering you like all those things, I think there's no way this one would go wrong for you, Rebecca!

    Violet: I hope you enjoy this one, and I look forward to your thoughts on Smile or Die when you get to it. As someone said above, it sounds a bit like an angry book, but I'm quite curious about it.

    Jenny: Ehrenreich would definitely agree that that's the reason why :P As I was telling Chris, I find that aspect of Louisiana culture fascinating!

    Jodie: She mentions the violence of some of the rites and suggests that they might have had to do with hunting originally - it was the one time of the year when the women were allowed to get out there and do what the men normally did, and people weren't too comfortable with the thought that they were in fact just as capable. Possibly that was why they were made out to be about sex, as that was an easy way to make them seem disreputable and eventually forbid them, which was what happened. As you can probably tell, I could have read a whole book on this :P


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