Carnivalesque windows of opportunity

Two similar ‘carnivalesque’ moments in protest history, consider:

In 1982, during the [Polish] May Day celebrations, members of [the activist group] Orange Alternative dressed up in ridiculous costumes, rented a bus, went to the local zoo, and waved red flags and sang communist songs while ironically demanding “freedom for the bears,” the bear being an obvious Soviet symbol. Although the “protesters” were arrested, they were so ridiculous that the police refused to fine them, particularly because it was difficult to know where to draw the line when it came to this obscure kind of political performance. Additionally, because the government wanted to take advantage of its newfound ability to distance itself from direct Soviet intervention in local economic and political affairs, officials did not want to be seen as returning to the more openly brutal political oppression of the past.


The idea for the turtle people [during the Seattle WTO demonstrations] was the brainchild of Ben White of the Animal Welfare Institute, mainly as a reaction to the fact that the WTO court had overturned a US law passed in 1996 banning the sale of shrimp caught in nets that killed endangered sea turtles. The WTO court’s reasoning was that the law constituted “an unfair barrier to trade.” White thought that a public performance by “turtle people” could send a number of important symbolic messages. […B]ecause unelected courts in newly empowered international government organizations designed to enforce “free trade” were (and are) now able to overturn the laws of nation-states, the turtle people wanted to provide a “street theater [sic] spectacle” to draw attention to this new and relatively unknown form of corporate global governance.

Then as a summary;

These two examples, limited as they are, suggest that the humorless [sic] state has a very difficult time dealing with absurdity, symbolic protest, and the curious blending of the fictive and the real—people becoming turtles, elves becoming “real”—but it has much less trouble violently dealing with more “serious” forms of protest. And perhaps this has always been true.

Really enjoying Michael Lane Bruner’s (2005) ‘Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State’ in Text and Performance Quarterly. Available here (subscription only). He argues that whilst playful protest does indeed work in subverting and inverting typical social roles and power hierarchies they only work during specific ‘windows of opportunity’. In his examples, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 80s and pre-9/11 era USA. Is there a similar window currently open across the UK and Europe? That’s difficult to say. I’m tempted to say yes, only because I think there is a particular ideological objective to be reached for those in power, and ‘serious’ protest arguably is only having a detrimental effect to those involved. At least in the UK that is. Carnivalesque forms of protest (similar to calls for ‘playful protest’) open the door for a wider inclusion of those who otherwise might not have engaged in any protest at all. The ‘seriousness’ of protest can frequently deter those who feel like they need to in some way ‘swot up’ on what they’re protesting about. No doubt there needs to be a certain amount of education involved, but that’s not to say that people should be deterred from heading out onto the streets. I do think carnivalesque forms of protest can help in mobilising people. As Major Fydrych (leader of the Polish Orange Alternative movement) was quoted as saying in Padraig Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (2002);

Orange Alternative “happenings” were “places to learn opposition” and to “discover more political forms of protest.” He argued, “The WrocŁaw street slowly ceases to fear, and through participation in the fun, people learn to support more serious [protest] . . . [and slowly the] fear of detention—usually for a few hours, without serious consequences—evaporates” (190). It was, as Kenney remarks, a kind of socialist surrealism as sociotherapy.

A sociotherapy I’m sure many people in the UK would welcome now.