Sunday, May 13, 2007

Our Pale Imitation of Life

This weekend I'm reading Barbara Ehrenreich's new work on the demise of ecstatic experience and why it matters. It's called Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. This is a much better and more ambitious book that the title suggests.

Collective ritual that creates altered states of consciousness is something that has existed in cultures throughout the world since the beginning of recorded history. Its subversive aspects and inconvenience to capitalist production has, in most instances, led to its repression and virtual extinction. This, says Ehrenreich, has been an incalculable loss. The range of human experience is radically impoverished, and our unmet desires are exploited by less salubrious forms of collective immersion.

A few decades ago, a recording of the Balinese Ramayana Monkey Chant made a huge impression on me. When I saw photos of several hundred men seated in a tight circle, obviously transported by the experience, I thought, this is what is missing from our lives. This sort of group ecstasy is what we all hunger for, whether we realize it or not.

This surrender to the group can be experienced joyfully as a form of religious experience, or, in the form of Carnival, a subversive loosening of restrictions that creates cohesion. Or, it can take the more negative forms of nationalism, or its more extreme form, fascism. Bill Buford's remarkable Among the Thugs, which takes an immersion journalism approach to European soccer riots, offers yet another negative example of where this longing to lose oneself in the crowd can lead.

I'm only a bit more than halfway through the book, so I'm not sure if Ehrenreich goes here, but I think the desire to lose oneself in the collective is hardwired, and goes to the core of what it means to be human. We've been socialized to think of ourselves as a lone self, but somewhere, deep within each of us, lives the intense desire to merge with our tribe. The absence of this experience is part of why so many of us seem so tragically lost, and are so willing to be swept away by those who would profit from our emptiness.

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