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UKUncut, Morris Dancing, and Carnivals

June 3, 2011

This post is mostly inspired by the following description of a morris dance from a 1583 book called Anatomie of Abuses by Philip Stubbs, and its clarification by Claire Sponsler (I’ve modernised the spelling for ease of reading):

Thus all things set in order, then have they their Hobby-horses, Dragons and other Antiques, together with their bawdie Pipers, and thundering Drummers, to strike up the Devil’s Dance withall, then march these Heathen company towards the Church and Churchyard, their Pipers playing, their Drummers thundering, their stumps Dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their Hobby-horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng.

Sponsler then summarises the rest of the passage as follows: “Stubbes goes on to complain that the dancers would enter the church, disturb the sermon, and then go into the churchyard, where they would dance away the day and night.”

When the overlap between morris dance and “quasi-criminal acts such as ritual trespass, robbery, and riot” is also considered, we get a picture of a practice far more iconoclastic and threatening to the status quo than the rather eccentric pastime of real ale drinkers outside country pubs that is conjured up by the phrase ‘morris dancing’ today.

Although this subversive image of the dance is impossible to verify, since Stubbes was a conservative, and morris dancing had been around for (possibly) hundreds of years before his complaints were recorded, it does point to a narrative familiar in all iconoclastic practices. Initially, the practice is genuinely threatening, but it rapidly becomes normalised into the structure of the Saturnalia, or the later Feast of Fools, where those in power granted their inferiors impunity to usurp authority for a brief period – a kind of ‘release valve’ for potentially revolutionary sentiment among those who are oppressed.

A more contemporary example of this progression/regression can be seen in Edinburgh’s Beltane festival. In 1988, the first year of Beltane’s revival, it was partially, if not substantially, conceived as protest against the anti-rave legislation found in Thatcher’s Criminal Justice Bill. Today, although still a wonderful spectacle, it exists far more as a tourist draw, with a well-marked delineation between the performers who dance with all the abandon you’d expect, and bored looking tourists who stand totally still, maybe drinking, and snapping away with camera flashes, distanced from any possible subversion by their own disinterest.

How does this connect to UKUncut? Like this: If Beltane and morris dancing are examples of how subversive actions become normalized within dominant power structures, whether as release valves or occasions for associated profit, they can be seen as analogous to the traditional a-b protest march. As controversial as it is among traditional left-wing circles, the ‘Stop the War’ march demonstrated that pure marching and rallying is permitted since it is merely a token gesture: people feel empowered, that they’ve ‘had their say’, that they’ve taken ever recourse available to them. Protest marches are akin to Saturnalia, a moment of empowerment to prevent any serious build up of opposition.

In Edinburgh at least, UKUncut is proving that it does not conform to this narrative, or at least not yet. In entering stores and shopping spaces for the purpose of drawing attention to the negative activities of these brands, rather than the ‘expected’ purpose of consumption, they are doing the modern equivalent of bursting into the church during the sermon. The increasing instances of political policing against them (see the Edinburgh Uncut blog for details) show that this iconoclasm is coming to be seen as more than just ‘letting off steam’, and that there is a serious attempt to suppress it, and thus re-naturalize it within the narrative of ineffectual protesting.

Rather than let this happen, UKUncut can continue to desecrate the hallowed halls of capitalism. In doing so, they have the potential to subvert the expected sequence of protest being a momentary release of public frustration which allows the government to claim it has ‘listened’ without making any quantifiable difference to policy. However, as they do so, they will come up against the resistance of steam building up in a confined space – more political policing, more arrests, more intimidation.

Here again, they can learn from the history of subversive performance. Mikhail Bakhtin is known for his theorizing of the ‘carnivalesque’ – a space in which, like the Saturnalia, opposition to the prevailing order can be displayed, but, unlike it the truths revealed and the ideologies challenged remain challenged. This happens through the employment of humour and ridicule – by the force of laughter.

UKUncut have this in spades, and this is what, were Scottish legal precedent not a complete joke, would make it utterly impossible to obtain a prosecution on the charges of ‘Breach of the Peace’ brought against Edinburgh Uncut activists – due to their good nature and humour (including the comedy club inside BHS), members of the public were not ‘alarmed or upset or tempted to make reprisals at their own hand. Laughter is thus a potent weapon, an inclusive force to bring the public onside and keep them there. As Bakhtin argues: “Laughing truth […] degrades power.”

So laugh on, UKUncut – you could even stage a protest dressed as morris dancers!

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