Carnival on the Clipboard: An Ethnological Study of New Orleans Mardi Gras(1)

By Jankowiak, William; White, C. Todd | Ethnology, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Carnival on the Clipboard: An Ethnological Study of New Orleans Mardi Gras(1)


Jankowiak, William, White, C. Todd, Ethnology


Ethnological methods determined that New Orleans Mardi Gras is a time for socializing with friends and family, as opposed to an opportunity to engage strangers in acts of fellowship or communitas. People prefer to be wild or silly within the confines of their own group. Outside of costumed performers or those engaged in ritualistic bead exchanges, the norms of pedestrian behavior are maintained. This study is methodologically innovative as it is the first to obtain a nonfestival baseline in order to distinguish standard, culturally appropriate behavior from that which results from a change in the normative order. Moreover, it is the first to identify the interpersonal contexts in which behavior is inverted, intensified, or remains neutral in street interactions among strangers. (Carnival, communitas, ritual, New Orleans)

In 1991, ABC's television program, Good Morning America, traveled to New Orleans to cover Mardi Gras, interviewing tourists concerning their perception of the city and the carnival. From their vantage point, in the safe confines of the television control booth on Canal Street, hosts admitted that they had not yet had the courage to enter the French Quarter and see what one woman described as the "craziness of the day." The implication was that farther within the Quarter, anything goes and one would see the unmentionable on television. It is conventional wisdom that Mardi Gras is a special kind of festival or carnival which not only tolerates but encourages people to bend, invert, and ignore the standard norms of public conduct. Within this setting, participants experience feelings of playful excitement, good cheer, and warm fellowship that ensure an open posture toward anyone attending the festival. Social scientists, for the most part, have upheld this image of the urban festival.

Anthropologists have long speculated on how ordinary daily activities have evolved into ritual performances, keying on social structure or the highly differentiated organization of social statuses, social roles, and their interrelationship. This analytical orientation contributed to carnival as being conceptualized as a ritual of inversion (Bakhtin 1968; Da Matta 1979; Gluckman 1956, 1962) in which "the proprieties of structure are lampooned and even violated, blasphemy is encouraged, and kings of misrule are crowned" (Rappaport 1999:218). For others, carnival is best seen as an arena for status intensification (Edmonson 1956) whereby social structures are reified and maintained. Most often, carnival is seen as a dialectical dance around the interplay between the processes of inversion and intensification, a paradoxical ritual of rebellion where social rules are seemingly protested or abandoned, seeming to mock social order while actually preserving or even strengthening that order (Cowley 1996; Eco 1984; Kinser 1990; Turner 1977).

Carnival manifests as a "time-out" phase, a time for play (Babcock 1976; Falassi 1987; Manning 1983). Carnival provides an occasion for the representation of stylistic, formal humor (Bricker 1973; Cox 1969; Leach 1961; Steward 1929, 1931) and informal humor (Kugelmass 1994; White 1998). It is a venue for theatrics and spectacle (Beeman 1993; MacAloon 1984; Schechner 1985) and a highly charged political event (Cohen 1993; Davis 1988; Gill 1997). Finally, in its more contemporary gloss, carnival is an arena characterized by social flux and ambiguous meanings (Beeman 1993; Da Matta 1979).

Leach (1961), building on the observations of Mauss and Van Gennep, illustrated how periods of festival correlate with the generalized rules of rites de passage, beginning with a symbolic death, a period of ritual seclusion, and a symbolic rebirth. For Leach (1961:134), festival time is marked by four corollary phases. In the first, the "moral" participant is "transferred from the Secular-Profane world to the Sacred world; he `dies.'" Then comes a marginal state, a time out of time, as it is often called, which is the heart of the festival and where the real fun begins. …

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