Everyone celebrates Mardi Gras their own way, some by avoiding it altogether, but my Mardi Gras lives and flourishes in the streets—streets transformed into space for humans having fun rather than for cars or business.
What is the power of this public Carnival? I think there have been two distinct eras, and we are now entering a third.
Mardi Gras as it existed through the first half of the 1800s was unruly, a day of social levelling in which the poor controlled the streets. James Gill, in his tremendous and tremendously enjoyable book, Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans, reminds us that for our city’s only partially obsolete hereditary ruling classes, “[the holiday’s] real significance lay in the annual reaffirmation of social eminence over merit.” Their Mardi Gras was grand private balls and parties, removed from the hoi polloi.
Swells who went in the streets back then risked being importuned by proles who, through interlinked practices that mixed playfulness and extortion, insisted those with more contribute to the fun of those with less. These traditions, in which ritual or prankery mask implicit menace, are a historical feature of different holidays worldwide. It’s a dynamic of “Please give me something… or else!” This mix of request and threat deserves a name; let’s call it “requette.”
Relatively low along the threat axis is the charivari or “rough music,” a joyful and rowdy gathering in which people, sometimes disguised, make aggravating noise, typically involving banging pots and pans, as a way to express community disapproval of a person or institution. Charivari, historically linked to marriages, is centuries old. It shows up in Shakespeare’s Othello. In Chile, under the rule of Pinochet, it was reborn as “Cacerolazo” and has been seen more recently among populist anti-government and anti-austerity movements worldwide.
Harnett Kane gives an account of charivari in his 1946 book The Bayous of Louisiana. “It is a matter of inequality, or lack of balance, that makes for charivari,” he writes. “A widower of fifty-eight takes a bride of eighteen. Ho-ho, he has a noise coming to him, that one.” Kane describes the members of a Cajun community making charivari outside the house of a wealthy older businessman until he acceded to their demands for “Wine, beer, cake, sausage, cheese and whatever available.”
One step up the ladder is flour-throwing. This still relatively innocuous but obviously quite annoying prank, generally targeting those dressed ostentatiously, was once a widespread Mardi Gras practice. According to William Dillon Piersen’s crucial 1993 survey of African cultural influences in the U.S., Black Legacy: America’s Hidden Heritage, by the 1850s New Orleans’ “respectable people” hid indoors on Mardi Gras to escape “a rabble of flour-throwing African-American and Irish boys.”
This aspect of Carnival in which the poor, emboldened by the anonymity of disguise, coercively petition the rich for redistribution of wealth, remains intact in the Cajun “Courir du Mardi Gras,” where groups of drunken revelers in masks come charging down the driveways of the area’s grandest houses and ask the occupants to give them ingredients for gumbo, which the runners later combine into a grand communal meal. In Shane K. Bernard’s exhaustive history of the Cajuns, he identifies the roots of the Courir as the medieval “Fête de la quêmande,” a celebratory levelling in which the masses mock “the wealthy, the ordained and the well-educated.”
“Theft is part of the tension in the drama of this ritual play, but has no problem turning into ‘enforced charity’ when the runners feel that the homeowner is not giving enough,” Cajun documentarian Pat Mire wrote in a 1992 Louisiana Folklife Festival booklet on the subject.
The requette is perhaps most familiar to us today in the trick-or-treat traditions of Halloween, another holiday involving masks that, in places without Mardi Gras, has at times been similarly concerning to the ruling class. A November 3rd, 1894 New York Times article on Halloween in Washington D.C. deplores the “[b]ands of boys, in which negroes predominated,” showering flour on well-dressed theatre-goers and streetcar riders. In 2012, there were towns in Scotland trying to restrict trick-or-treaters’ access to flour, to prevent kids ringing doorbells and flinging flour on householders.
The Grand Parade
In her terrific, deep-diving 2008 FSU PhD thesis, “Setting the Stage: Dance and Gender in Old-Line New Orleans Carnival Balls, 1870-1920,” Jennifer Atkins also aggregates a great deal of the better writing on Carnival’s class-conflict aspects, including Mikhail Bakhtin’s assertion that the collective voices of the oppressed raised during Carnival render the streets, even if temporarily, “a democratized space.” “In the process of asserting status and power,” Atkins writes, “protests from disenfranchised groups, though performed in the surrealistic carnival world, can be very real threats to society.”
The Irish came to New Orleans to dig canals, and died by the thousands doing so. They were considered less than human; certainly less than white. On Mardi Gras 1856, a group of Irish masquers asked that a pair of well-to-do ship captains buy the mummers drinks and give them money. The captains opted not to share their money with the masquers, and the episode ended with one of the captains being beaten and robbed.
This incident, publicized, caused great alarm. If the dirty Irish were taking such liberties, what might enslaved people of color do? “Carnival broke down the city’s system of racial control,” writes Reid Mitchell in his anecdotal history, All on a Mardi Gras Day. Racial paranoia was rife. 1856 was also the year John Brown was riding around decapitating slaveholders, news no doubt troubling to the ruling class of New Orleans, the world’s largest slave market. Thus, in December of that year, New Orleans outlawed wearing a mask on Mardi Gras. Throwing flour was also outlawed, as was beating drums or blowing horns. It was explicitly illegal “to make any charivari.”
The destituent power expressed through Carnival— anonymous masquers settling scores, the lower classes violating social order— had to be controlled and redirected. If Carnival in the streets was to continue, its power must be put back in the hands of the already powerful. There was talk among the Creole aristocracy of cancelling Mardi Gras, but a group of Americans, showing the entrepreneurial spirit typical of their kind, came up with a better idea. These Americans— not Creoles, not New Orleanians or even Louisianians— created the first organized Mardi Gras parade with floats. Drawing from the work of English poet Milton, the first Comus parade had two floats. One featured Comus, an ancient god of festivity whom Milton cast as a deceiving necromancer, and the other featured the Devil. They rolled in open and unpunished defiance of the bans on masking and music-making.
This form of Mardi Gras, what Piersen calls “grand parade,” came to us from Mobile, Alabama, where, Robert Tallant discovered, it had begun with a clique of Pennsylvania Dutch. Mobile’s contemporary Mardi Gras, a tightly controlled event in which onlookers are corralled strictly behind barricades and public drinking gets you arrested, remains a purer form of the grand parade.
Comus was a success, and grand parades proliferated. These parades’ beauty and mystery awed the crowds into relative passivity, creating a division between the passive subjects who consumed the spectacular parades and those who rode in them. It brought the rich and powerful back into the streets and made them the (masked) center of attention, the focus of public Mardi Gras. The sorcerer Comus enchanted the masses, who became disempowered supplicants, pleading for beads and trinkets from the wealthy float-riders passing above them. The parades had agency; they moved, guarded by the police, while spectators stood watching them go by. The ruling class of New Orleans—the new, American ruling class, not the old Creoles—had made Mardi Gras about themselves, controlling the streets.
The grand parade traditions continued to reflect changes to the city’s rule. When white New Orleanians fled to the suburbs to escape integrated schools, a new black political class took power, and in 1968, Zulu moved from the “back streets” to St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. When the oil boom came along in the ’70s, bringing New Orleans a new wave of richer, newer, gaucher tycoons who saw little point in kissing Rex’s rosy ring or Comus’ wand, the super krewes arose: Endymion and Bacchus, which had out-of-town celebrity “royalty,” the biggest floats, the brightest lights, the most generous throws, and the largest parties, admitting damn near anyone who could afford it.
The Cybernetic Carnival
Are we still in the grand parade era? If you look at membership and media coverage, I think we’ve moved on to something else, corresponding with the rise of a new form of power. Most post-Katrina krewes are decentralized and populist. The new public Mardi Gras, while still organized into parades, is transparent rather than secretive, and self-governs via individuals hewing to group norms in contrast to the older model in which enforcer krewe captains keep unruly members in line.
Krewe du Vieux’s founding predated the era of Cybernetic Carnival, and they’re in many ways a throwback: their mix of scatological and sexual humor with topical satire is, when it works, the stuff of Aristophanes. Much could be said about their subject matter and approach, much of it complimentary, but for the purpose of this article I’m interested in their mode of organization: semi-autonomous smaller sub-krewes, each with a different theme ostensibly related to the year’s larger concept. (Full disclosure: one of KdV’s regular brass bands sometimes pays me to keep the crowds off them during parades.)
Krewe du Vieux functions as network, not hierarchy, with its parade functions spread out among different independent modules: rather than hiring professionals to create their floats, each Krewe du Vieux subkrewe builds its own. The KdV subgroupings could be seen as a form of voluntary association: multiple affinity groups with a common goal (in this case a fun, naughty parade) pool their resources to afford permits and a space in which to build floats. This DIY ethic keeps membership costs relatively low and encourages a flowering of creativity but also, inevitably, a certain degree of intra-parade competition. While this may not sound too sinister, reducing a parade to its component subkrewes is at least a form of atomization. Think of, rather than a factory floor, a “co-working” space full of freelancers.
Of course participation in Krewe du Vieux is still predicated on membership, which still costs money. Why pay to participate in a parade, when you can parade for free? Why limit membership at all?
While there have always been open walking Krewes, especially on Mardi Gras day, I don’t think my own occasional participation in Eris too heavily influences my perception that its 2005 founding and subsequent evolution marked a signal development of the Cybernetic Carnival. Two of Eris’ primary founders were snowbirds, those part-time New Orleanians who come for our mild winter and flee elsewhere during the summer. They told me, in a 2010 interview for the Raging Pelican, that part of the idea of Eris was to erase the division between parade participant and parade spectator, to involve those who felt excluded from parading.
Those who parade in Eris pay no fees, and Eris as it existed for its first six years was barely structured—there was just the band and everyone else. No subkrewes, only individuals gathered into a collective, though often groups of friends collaborated to create floats or group costumes. In Claire Tancon’s 2011 essay “Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility,” she notes that a carnival atmosphere, complete with costumes and revelry, was “a staple of the anti-corporate globalization movement.” Like the summit-hopping protest culture many of its founders hailed from, Eris was always an assemblage of multiple tendencies—artsy-fartsies, various stripes of idealists, rootless thrill-seekers, tinkerers, craftspeople, bohemians of all ages and of course, those for whom any large gathering, be it protest or parade, seemed mostly just good cover for more controversial forms of fun.
But, perhaps because it wasn’t legal, Eris wasn’t widely publicized. Participation was confined to those who were aware of it: if you didn’t know, you couldn’t go. Eris also adopted the mysteriousness of those early grand parades. Who organized a given year’s Eris? Who chose the year’s theme? Those answers, like the identities of most old-line parade royalty, were common knowledge within a narrow social stratum and unobtainable to anyone else. Albeit largely for legal and strategic reasons, the Eris-tocracy, those arguably at the parade’s heart, remained deliberately veiled.
Being surrounded by thousands of extremely aroused, socially awkward, white-collar transplants masquing as clumsily sexualized versions of commercial sci-fi characters is a special if unusually obscure hell.
Whereas the old-line krewes tend to hearken thematically back to classical mythology or dusty works of literature, the 2011 debut of the Krewe of Chewbacchus heralded the rise of new gods and a new canon—commercial movies, television shows, and video games from the late 20th and early 21st century. A self-congratulatory celebration of ascendant nerd supremacy, Chewbacchus is a massive inside joke that’s endlessly entertaining to its participants, one that by design is comprehensible only to individuals who’ve paid not just its token $42 entry fee but the far more punishing dues of having steeped in the global, digitally disseminated “geek culture” of science-fiction TV, computers, and video games.
Councilwoman Stacy Head gushed about Chewbacchus to Wired Magazine in 2013: “It brings that whole comics and tech-y type world that we’re now seeing move to New Orleans, and it gives them something that’s a takeoff on New Orleans and Mardi Gras but it’s focused on a different group.”
Chewbacchus co-founder Brett Powers usually masques for Chewbacchus as “Ghetto Fett” aka “M.C. Ghetto Fett,” a persona blending Comic-Con cosplay with the humor of a white fraternity pimps-and-hos party. He told Wired that Chewbacchus “makes it easy for New Orleans transplants or out-of-towners to ‘show up and have the benefit of being in a krewe without all the formalities.'” In the marketplace of Mardi Gras ideas, Chewbacchus is a clear victor. Their explosive growth leaves no doubt they’ve tapped into a rich and fast-growing demographic vein. Thanks in part to Kickstarter, they’ve already been able to buy up 9,000 square feet of the Bywater to use as their headquarters.
“Chewbacchus is the Future of Revelry,” its website announces. “We are DIY, homemade, homegrown, totally sustainable, GREEN to the gills, and the 1st true OPEN SOURCE parade.” None of these characteristics are unique to Chewbacchus, but that ahistorical sense of themselves as brave pioneers, as both the first and the future, is a hallmark of the millennial Creative Class—brave little Columbuses, discovering “new” lands everywhere they look.
One section of a forthcoming book by the French group known as the Invisible Committee details how TXTMob, a cellphone application invented by activists to coordinate and communicate during protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention, prefigured Twitter. While TXTMob was used by 5,000 people aiming to disrupt the functioning of government, Twitter, a corporation which has sought to brand itself as a populist tool against (non-U.S.) dictatorships, had 232 million active users as of their 2013 IPO. “Technology is not the consummation of technical development,” the Invisible Committee writes, “but on the contrary the expropriation of humans’ different constitutive techniques.” As 21st-century forms of governance draw their inspiration, innovation, and strength from practices appropriated from ungovernable proles—hackers, rioters—so the era of Cybernetic Carnival seeks to appropriate e.g. the irreverence of Krewe du Vieux, reducing that Krewe’s incisive political and social satire to a directionless but consumer-attractive pose of “subversiveness.” Instead of engaging current events or the foibles of the powerful, Chewbacchus participants engage in a post-modern remixing of consumer culture: a Hollywood-film alien mixed with a burlesque dancer mixed with a robot from a Japanese cartoon. It’s the parade version of YouTube Poop, that hyper-popular, hyper-chaotic video mash-up genre comprised of fast-cut, deliberately jarring pop-culture juxtapositions.
It may seem laughable to compare poor wimpy Eris to the mighty Chewbacchus, which dwarfs it in prominence, membership, and most other regards, but I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the early years of the Eris band shared significant DNA with the Infernal Noise Brigade, the performance troupe which came into existence to provide musical encouragement to the 1999 Seattle WTO riots and went on to play at many other protests worldwide. Eris, while self-consciously New Orleans-y in that (now increasingly quaint) fanatical-transplant way, sprang from the aesthetics and tactics of the anti-globalization movement, while the loudest voice in Chewbacchus, its “high priest” and spokesdude, learned to build floats at Burning Man.
This is where we begin to see the steel beneath the whimsical furry glove.
Chewbacchus’ success is tied to its openness and broad-based conceptual appeal. Mountainous dollops of adoring local and national press have won it support from a larger internet-based tech-y “community” eager to see their toy-store touchstones represented wherever possible. Global geek culture has legs; the Ukraine’s “Internet Party,” headed by a computer hacker who’s changed his name to Darth Vader, has made increasingly strong showings in that deeply troubled state’s electoral politics. Isn’t that funny? They’ve been able to buy slick advertising and billboards in major cities in large part thanks to donations from fans overseas. The Internet Party promises, if elected, to make Ukraine’s government into an entirely online “e-government” and institute free wi-fi nationwide. “When I get to parliament,” Vader told the Associated Press, “I will expel all the deputies… Computers will work in their place, and they will fulfill their functions without cease.”
This is where we begin to see the steel beneath the whimsical furry glove. This is cybernetic power, so-called “open government,” in which the functions of the state, including its repressive functions, are distributed among a high-tech citizenry. New York City “Chief Digital Officer” Rachel Sterne in 2011 spoke of striving to “Reach the potential of New York City becoming a platform, like some of the bigger commercial platforms… How can New York City… think of itself the same way Facebook has an API eco-system or Twitter does? …It’s not just the consumption but the co-production of government services and democracy.”
It’s not a change of rulers, but a change in how we are ruled. What this new era has in common with its predecessor is a tightening grip; each new assertion of control becomes more difficult to counter, target or even define. So this new Cybernetic Carnival, with its new gods and newly appropriated methods, more efficiently subdues the once-unruly streets, and begins to eclipse the grand parades. It’s a cheaper, “open source,” DIY Carnival. We buy into its techniques, become invested in its success, and the distributed future of revelry rolls over the old hierarchies.