10th February 2008
There is a history of chaos, of disorder, of disorganization; a history of overturning, unmaking, destroying, tearing down; a history of the unleashing of human desires and dreams; a history of license and the pleasures of untrammelled, unrestricted behaviour. There is a history too of the attempts to stop this. There is a history of the forcible imposition of order and rule; a history of the eradication, expellation and punishment of its opposite; a history of attempts to convince us that disorder is unnatural, undesirable, dangerous, destructive and evil; a history of the replacement of its forces with safe, simulated forms that reinforce rather than challenge the established order. These histories are not separate, for disorder and order and misrule and rule are intimately connected. They come together in the history of the festival. The festival’s form and fate helps us understand both the productive role of disorder and the reason why western societies grew less and less able to countenance the eruption of its energies. It explains how we created the permanent profane of a completed order and of a controlled everyday life, what we lost when we did and why the festival still remains our most radical – and human – possibility.
Our starting point here is French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s 1912 book the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which built on his nephew and pupil Marcel Mauss’s earlier work on sacrifice (1899) and magic (1902) in ‘primitive’ societies. One of Durkheim’s most important contributions to this tradition is his discussion of the religious division of the world into two opposed categories, the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ – the former representing the mode of being of the divine or holy, the latter constituting the realm of everything outside this, the everyday world of ordinary existence and individual life. For Durkheim we live, lost and alone, in the profane but we desire the experience of the sacred, hence societies exist in two phases: that dispersed state in which economic activity predominates as individuals and small groups work to live and accumulate, and those moments of collective union, when communities gather in periodic, organised religious festivals to express, renew and reproduce their collective ideals.
These festivals are transformational. ‘The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant’, Durkheim says: ‘Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation’. Thus in the collective excitement each member is raised up beyond their individual lives. Though not a genuine transcendental force, the experience of the sacred is a real one, giving rise to a higher, more fully-human mode of being against which the individual life appears impoverished:
It is not difficult to imagine that a man in such a state of exaltation should no longer know himself. Feeling possessed and led on by some sort of external power that makes him think and act differently than he normally does, he naturally feels he is no longer himself. It seems to him that he has become a new being … And because his companions feel transformed in the same way at the same moment, and express this feeling by their shouts, movements and bearing, it is as if he was in reality transported into a special world entirely different from the one in which he ordinarily lives, a special world inhabited by exceptionally intense forces that invade and transform him.
In the ‘general effervescence’ of the festival, ‘people live differently and more intensely than in normal times’, Durkheim argues: ‘man himself becomes something other than what he was’. In the ‘communication’ of the sacred individual isolation is overcome and ‘a real communion’ is achieved. Repeated for weeks, such experiences lead him to believe two incommensurable worlds exist: ‘In one world he languidly carries on his daily life; the other is one that he cannot enter without abruptly entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world and the second, the one of sacred things’.
Spread through Mauss’s teaching, Durkheimian social anthropology was influential on a new generation of thinkers in the 1930s, including those who formed ‘The College of Sociology’ from 1937-39, a group whose stated aim was the study of ‘sacred sociology’: ‘the study of all manifestations of social existence where the active presence of the sacred is clear’. It was one of its members, Roger Caillois, who developed the most systematic ‘theory of the festival’ in his 1939 work, Man and the Sacred. The festival, Caillois writes, is ‘a paroxysm of life’, cutting violently into the ‘anxious routine’ of everyday existence. Standing apart from the profane, these festivals:
‘… oppose an intermittent explosion to a dull continuity, an exalting frenzy to the daily repetition of the same material preoccupations, the powerful inspiration of the communal effervescence to the calm labour with which each busies himself separately, social concentration to social dispersion, and the fever of climactic moments to the tranquil labour of the debilitating phases of existence.’
This is ‘a time of intense emotion and a metamorphosis of … being’: a time, Caillois says, of prodigality, excess, gift-exchange, sacrifice, destruction, frenzy and celebration, removed from the world of profane life.
What Caillois adds to Durkheim’s analysis is an emphasis on the festival’s meaning and its fate. For Caillois the festival is more than a re-enactment of the ancestor-spirit’s founding of the world. Rather, in donning the masks and personas of the ancestors and acting out the creation-myth, the festival becomes the actual event itself. As Caillois says, ‘no clear-cut distinction can be made between “the mythical base and the actual ceremony”’. This the festival is not an imitation or commemoration, but instead a ‘return to the beginning of the world … to the powers which at that time transformed chaos into cosmos’. Through this return the profane world that gets old, declines, accumulates waste and wears out and dies gains access to the original fertile, creative powers of the primordial age and is made anew.
The festival, therefore, returns its participants to the primordial era of creation, to ‘a time in which the order of the universe is suspended’. It is a time of feasting, sexuality, debauchery, violence, extravagance, waste, destruction, normlessness and the overturning of laws, precisely because, as a time of chaos prior to the founding and ordering of the world, no norms or laws have yet been established. This metamorphic experience of excess and being stands fundamentally opposed, therefore, to the profane world of order, taboos and rules and of labour, routine and social roles and duties. It is, Caillois concludes, ‘the paroxysm of society, purifying and renewing it simultaneously’.
What we take from Caillois’ theory of the festival is the idea of a metamorphic transformation and experience of a higher mode of being in the festival that stands opposed to the everyday, dull, profane world of isolated individual life and labour; the idea of a delirious frenzied explosion of energies and passions and the pleasures of its license that shatters the rules, conventions and structures of the profane world; and the idea that this force of chaos is originary, productive, positive and fundamental to human and social existence in re-founding, reinvigorating and regenerating the world. Caillois’ festival reveals that the explosion of disorder into an order that has grown overly secure, over-confident, old, stale and unhealthy is not only necessary but is the expression of our highest being. Order cannot be renewed unless it is overthrown and we cannot experience what it means to be fully human without participating in the festival of its overturning.
Traces of these festivals survived in early western civilization. The Greek Athenian festival ‘Cronia’, held in honour of Cronus, god of grain, in late July/early August celebrated ‘the golden age’ when Cronus ruled the world and people did not have to work, being fed by the earth’s abundance. Reflecting a time before order, the festival was marked by social egalitarianism, freedom from work, feasting and games. The distinction of masters and slaves broke down with slaves being considered their equals: as the Roman playwright, Lucius Accius says, ‘In nearly all fields and towns they happily feast upon banquets and everyone waits upon his own servants’. The same traditions continued in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, devoted to Saturn, again a god of grain believed to have ruled in the golden age. Held from 17th December (running through to the 23rd), it began with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and was followed by a public banquet and ongoing festivities. As befitting a time before order, the festival was marked by gift-giving, gambling, dice-playing, drunkenness, gluttony, libertine behaviour and a carnival atmosphere. Again, social norms, rules and rank were overturned, with slaves being given a banquet or being served by their masters and having the liberty to abuse and disrespect them. Some sources refer to a King of the Saturnalia who issues whatever commands he likes in this chaotic world and must be obeyed.
Saturnalia survived until the 4th century CE, with elements being incorporated into the Christian Christmas and New Year traditions. Links can also be drawn to the European medieval Christian festival of the ‘feast of fools’, celebrated by the clerics and laity from late December to 1st January, which lasted from the 5th-16th century CE. In it, again, power was reversed and overturned. As Harvey Cox explains:
‘On that colorful occasion, usually celebrated about January first, even ordinarily pious priests and serious townsfolk donned bawdy masks, sang outrageous ditties, and generally kept the whole world awake with revelry and satire. Minor clerics painted their faces, strutted about in the robes of their superiors, and mocked the stately rituals of church and court. Sometimes a Lord of Misrule, a Mock King, or a Boy Bishop was elected to preside over the events. In some places the Boy Bishop even celebrated a parody mass. During the Feast of Fools, no custom or convention was immune to ridicule and even the highest personages of the realm could expect to be lampooned.’
License, buffoonery, the attack on authorities, the promotion of chaos – even if appearing in an attenuated form, all of this links these festivals back to that spirit and force described by Caillois.
It was the Feast of Fools that the Russian literary-critic Mikhail Bakhtin had in mind when, independently of Caillois, he developed his own theory of ‘the carnivalesque’. Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, written by 1940 though not published until 1965, takes as its theme the ‘boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations’ that ‘opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture’. This folk culture, with its carnivals, comic spectacles and rituals had an important place in the life of medieval man, he says, constituting ‘a second world and a second life outside officialdom’, that people directly lived:
‘Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. Such is the essence of the carnival, vividly felt by all its participants.’
Whereas the carnival returned people to ‘the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance’, in contrast the official feasts and celebrations created no second life, instead sanctioning and reinforcing ‘the existing pattern of things’. Monolithically serious, incapable of laughter or disorder, their aim was the maintenance of a given, controlled order and its structures. The festive character, however, was ‘indestructible’, hence it had to be tolerated and even legalized outside the official sphere, finding expression in popular folk culture.
Promising ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order’, the carnival ‘marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions’. It was this overturning of hierarchies, Bakhtin argues, that enabled ‘truly human relations’ – ‘a special type of communication impossible in everyday life’. It was also this overturning of hierarchies that the Christian church increasingly saw as blasphemous. Criticism of the Feast of Fools and similar events mounted and Ecclesiastical authorities finally banned it in the Council of Basel in 1431. By the time of the Council of Trent (1545-63) the practice had died out. As Cox says, in its attack on power:
‘The Feast of Fools … had an implicitly radical dimension. It exposed the arbitrary quality of social rank and enabled people to see that things need not always be as they are. Maybe that is why it made the power-wielders uncomfortable and eventually had to go. The divine right of kings, papal infallibility, and the modern totalitarian state all flowered after the Feast of Fools disappeared.’
The demise of the feast, Cox argues, ‘signaled a significant change in the Western cultural mood: an enfeeblement of our civilization’s capacity for festivity’. Order, he says, would no longer tolerate ‘such strident satire’.
Bakhtin and Caillois also saw the end of the festival as a historical loss of a mode of relations, life and renewal. The Durkheimian tradition, especially, felt its contemporary absence. They attributed its decline to the scientific revolution that had turned the world into an object for a subject’s knowledge, the Protestant Reformation that had made the individual the centre of the sacred, the industrial revolution that had completed the disenchantment of the world by seeing it purely as inert matter and raw materials, and the rise of a capitalism whose devotion to the utilitarian employment of all matter, energies and effort led to a permanent profane aiming at the maximum yield of labour, products and profits.
Such a society, Caillois argues, cannot tolerate the festive outpouring of energies and the interruption to the profane world of labour-time. ‘general turbulence is no longer possible’, he writes, hence the festival is replaced by safer forms such as fairgrounds and modern carnivals that simulate the sensations within controlled boundaries that pose no threat to the economic order. Most famously, Caillois argues the festival as the coming-together of society is replaced by ‘the vacation’, which, in separating people from each other, represents, he says, ‘not the flow of collective life but its ebb’. It’s no coincidence that the most important heir to the Durkheimian tradition was the philosopher Jean Baudrillard whose career was devoted to the critique of the loss of human relations and meaning and their replacement by simulacra: by a system of sign-objects and media images and messages that eclipsed and was consumed as the real. The permanent profane ends, therefore, with the totalitarian control of everyday life and all our experiences and relationships.
Against such a perfected system, we will always dream of the license, the upheaval, the pleasures of the festival. Even Marxism fell for its charms, with the idea becoming a touchstone of the post-war, Western Marxist critique of consumer capitalism. Looking for an alternative to the ‘bureaucratic society of controlled consumption’ that had colonized the whole of everyday life, Henri Lefebvre turned to the festival as a revolutionary ideal. Writing in Everyday Life in the Modern World (1968), Lefebvre explicitly theorizes the revolution’s overcoming of alienated everyday life and revival of human relations and experience as ‘a liberation from the quotidian and the resurrection of the festival’. The same Durkheimian ideas would permeate the writings of the Situationists too. Debord, Kotanyi and Vaneigem’s 1962 ‘Theses on the Paris Commune’ declared ‘the Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century’; the 1966 S.I. pamphlet, ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’ ended with the claim ‘Proletarian revolutions will be festivals or nothing, for festivity is the very keynote of the life they announce’, whilst Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 The Revolution of Everyday Life announced, ‘Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society’.
But the festival is not the revolution. It is simultaneously more conservative and more radical than that. It is conservative because it ultimately does not change anything: it overturns order but it does so in order to regenerate and renew it. For just as the festival itself is inevitable, so too is its end, for the sacred is temporal and cannot be lived for long. The profane world will return and the energies, license, and pleasures of the festival will end to be replaced once again by order, by structures of power and by new or renewed authorities. Unlike the teleological process of revolution – that secular, political version of Christian eschatology – there is no final state to realize but rather a continuing cyclical exchange between disorder and order. But this is also precisely why the festival is more radical than the revolution. The revolution is a burden. One must work for it, establish the conditions, build the consciousness and organize and mobilize the masses. It is always further away than where we are and requires a political labour. The revolution is something one must wait for; something whose preparations, rules and ideological code one must obey.
The festival is different: the festival does not wait. Indeed, the festival is the radical potentiality of every moment. Every relationship, every communication, every situation can be transformed in the moment through disorder, license, pleasure and the overturning of rules, conventions, order and rank. There is no order that cannot be disrupted, no authority that cannot be lampooned or undermined and no situation that cannot be transformed by chaos, confusion, disrespect, fakery, stupidity, disobedience, jokes, laughter and provocation. It is this that the avant-garde recognized in the early 20th century, in the Futurists’ serate and the Dadaists’ cabarets and stunts, and it is this too that every prankster, hoaxer, griefer and troll instinctively understands today. There is always the chance to act and always the chance to connect through chaos. The festival is simply the creation of a second world, the eruption of license, the sharing of pleasure, the overturning of the everyday order and the communion of the chaotic.
Arguably, it was a festival that inaugurated Anonymous.
The hacking collective emerged from the image board 4Chan, originally established in 2003, whose ‘anonymous’ members engaged in a range of pranks and trolling activities including ‘raids’ on other sites. The most famous raid was on the children’s virtual world Habbo Hotel in July 2006 when, in protest at perceived moderator racism, hundreds of /b/ board users converged on the site, creating identical grey-suited, afro-wearing, black avatars who disrupted conversations, blocked access to the pool (repeating ‘pool’s closed, due to AIDS’) and formed themselves into swastika shapes. It was partially to make a point; partially to piss people off, and mostly for fun. The group-lulz of these raids led, however, to a growing awareness of the ability of 4Chan’s ‘anons’ to act collectively and strike at those who opposed their hacker ethics and internet ethos.
Their first major target was the Church of Scientology. When a video of Tom Cruise gushing embarrassingly about Scientology was leaked onto Youtube on 14th January 2008, the Church tried to force websites reposting it to take it down. Simultaneously loving the lulz and offended by the strong-arm attempt to censor the internet, 4Chan went into action with a trolling campaign that included blocking Scientology’s telephone lines, phoning in with prank calls, ordering pizzas for delivery, sending black faxes to use up their ink, and launching DDOS attacks against their websites. On 21st January a video message was uploaded to Youtube entitled ‘Message to Scientology’, featuring, for the first time, a computerized voice speaking the words, ‘Hello leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous…’ The group had decided that their organisation should be destroyed, it said: ‘for the good of mankind; and for our own enjoyment, we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form’. It was followed on the 28th by another video, ‘A Call to Action’, calling for a day of real-world protests against the church on 10th February.
On the day over 7000 people protested in at least 100 cities worldwide. Unsure how many people to expect when they arrived, demonstrators were surprised to find hundreds of others marching on Scientology buildings, wearing V For Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks, chanting slogans (‘Don’t drink the Kool-aid!’, ‘Religion is free’, ‘We want Xenu’) and internet memes (‘Long cat is long!), and holding placards and banners (including the reassuring ‘Don’t worry. We are from the internet’) in a real-life ‘raid’. Protestors played Rick Astley through boomboxes and chanted ‘never gonna let you down’ in a live Rickroll of the church. In Tel Aviv Palestinian and Israeli protestors stood together and even held each other’s flags. London was claimed to have around 600 protestors whilst Los Angeles had up to 1000. Everywhere there was a carnival atmosphere as internet ‘anons’ met each other in real-life. As one commentator in the documentary We Are Legion said: ‘All of a sudden you’re not alone. You are with fucking five hundred others, they all know the same jokes as you, they all clearly have similar interests to you. Here’s your culture. You meet your own people finally’.
With the turnout including a significant number of women, there was even a hint of the sexual license of the primitive festival. As one commentator says, ‘And you know there were a lot of these guys who weren’t socially good. They were very awkward, they still lived at home at 23, half of them virgins, and I’ll tell you the amount of those people who got laid from these protests happening is in the thousands … that would not have! For years probably…’. It was a festival that consolidated a new movement and a new anti-political politics: a politics of the lulz, a lulzism that would soon shake governments and exasperate and annoy the authorities and keepers of order.