The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro

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"Luiza Burnet: Queen of the Drummers." January 16, 2009 via Fotopedia.

Ritualized spectacles are integral to the production and reproduction of national images of identity. What, then, is their relationship to the inequalities existing within nations, such as divisions of race, gender, or class? Within these tensions, who owns national spectacles? And can they be stolen? In “The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro,” Robin E. Sherriff examines the historical rise and fall of Rio’s samba carnaval as seen from the hillside shantytowns on the city’s outskirts. Sherriff finds that the carnaval, widely perceived as an enchanting metonymic representation of Brazilian national culture and its ideal of democratic racial politics, can also be seen as a spectacularly metonymic embodiment of racial exclusion and political control. 

Sherriff begins by tracing the history of the carnaval, demonstrating how this collective symbol of surpassing racial and class boundaries is in fact the product of racialized struggles for public space. Originating in the 1840s through the efforts of elite residents of Rio, only the rich were originally allowed to parade in carnaval, making “the people” spectators. This annual ceremony gradually became more open in the 1880s, despite legal persecution of samba musicians; eventually, by the 1930s, the municipal government began subsidizing the participation of escolasde samba (samba schools), composed largely of the poor and people of color from the hillsides. Such subsidies came, of course, on the condition that participation be harnessed to the service of representing mainstream national ideals of “democracia racial.”

Yet the ideal of carnaval as an open and inclusive ritual of nation-wide celebration has since faded away. In 1984, the Rio de Janeiro municipal government enclosed the once effusive outdoor festivities within the safe and economically profitable confines of the massive Sambodromo- at this point, Sherriff’s informants tell her, the “real carnaval” came to an end. Replacing overt exclusion and repression with commodification and profits, the people of the hillsides had been priced out of their own party, left with just a few glittering costumes from carnavals past.

The duality captured in the tension between carnaval’s ideals of inclusion and the reality of exclusion is further apparent in hillside residents’ views of this spectacle. Sherriff notes that the “theft of carnaval” was the sole context in which interviewees were willing to express their experiences of and views about racism within Brazilian society. One resident, speaking of the upper-class bleaching of carnaval commented, “It is because they are preferred… they can’t samba at all!” (18) Yet despite their exclusion from carnaval, hillside residents remained fascinated by this spectacle and its nationalist imagery- not in the sense that it represents Brazil as it actually is, but rather Brazil as it ought to be. 

Sherriff’s examination of the “contrary history” below carnaval’s spectacular images of harmony and unity highlights important issues in the study of ritual, particularly in relation to power and inequality. How are rituals created and developed over time? How do they disguise, legitimate, and even reproduce inequalities and exclusion? Who can exercise control over or “own” a ritual, and what is at stake in such ownership? Residents' fascinatingly ambivalent relationship to this stolen carnaval furthermore highlights the dual nature of the spectacle as at once exclusionary yet ideologically alluring, playing a central role in the legitimation and reproduction of social inequalities.

About the Author

Robin Sheriff is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Hampshire. Her research examines the politics of discourse and narrative, stratification and inequality, race/ethnicity, and culture and globalization in Brazil and the United States. Her publications include Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil (Rutgers University Press, 2001).

Additional Works by the Author

“The muzzled saint: racism, cultural censorship, and religion in urban Brazil” in Maria-Luisa Achino-Loeb, ed. Silence: The Currency of Power. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.

Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

“Exposing Silence as Cultural Censorship: A Brazilian Case.” American Anthropologist, March 2000, Vol. 102, No. 1, 114-132.

Related Readings

Andrews, George Reid

1991     Blacks and Whites in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1988. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Chasteen, John Charles

1996     "The Prehistory of Samba: Carnival Dancing in Rio de Janeiro, 1840-1917." Journal of Latin American Studies 28:29-47.

DaMatta, Roberto

1984     "On Carnaval, Informality and Magic: A Point of View from Brazil." In Text, Play and Story: The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society. Edward M. Bruner, ed. Pp. 230-246. Washington, DC: American Ethnological Society.

Debord, Guy    

1994 (1965)  The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Fontaine, Pierre-Michel, ed.

1985     Race, Class and Power in Brazil. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, UCLA/University of California Press.

Harris, Marvin, and Conrad Kottak

1963     "The Structural Significance of Brazilian Racial Categories." Sociologia 25:203-208.

Henfry, Colin

1981     "The Hungry Imagination: Social Formation, Popular Culture and Ideology in Bahia." In The Logic of Poverty: The Case of the Brazilian Northeast. Simon Mitchell, ed. Pp. 58-108. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Queiroz, Maria Isaura Pereira de

1985     "The Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro, or the Domestication of an Urban Mass."Diogenes 129:1-32.

Raphael, Alison

1981     Samba and Social Control: Popular Culture and Racial Democracy in Rio de Janeiro. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University.

Interview With the Author

Kevin Carrico: What has inspired your work in the field of ritual, and in what ways does your work contribute to the study of these issues?

Robin Sheriff: My initial inspiration for this essay was a straightforward ethnographic one:  while living in the slum community I call Morro do Sangue Bom, I was continually struck by the depth and complexity of my informants’ attachment to the carnival(s) of Rio de Janeiro.  As any anthropologist knows, carnival is as much an idea or a collection of (possibly contradictory) ideas, as it is a cultural event.  As a ritual, a dramaturgy, a spectacle, or a total social fact, carnival is a fertile site for theorizing collective action.   Although I sidestep, in the article, the theoretical debate about whether carnival functions to “domesticate the masses” or serves as a rehearsal for revolution, I was privately plagued by the question during my fieldwork.  In truth, I had hoped to uncover the latter in the course of my research but feared that I was mostly observing the former.

Like the Israeli broadcasts described by Kaplan in the present collection of online essays, whenever and wherever samba tunes from previous carnivals were re-played in Rio, a collective mood immediately fluoresced.  I observed one such occasion when Nelson Mandela, soon after his release from a South African prison, visited Rio.  With half a dozen friends from Morro do Sangue Bom, I went to hear his speech.  Mandela’s arrival was delayed by many hours and the outdoor arena was packed with thousands of people who were growing more restless by the minute.   When the silence was finally broken by amplified music—samba tunes of carnivals past—people heaved a collective sigh of relief, raised their hands to the sky, closed their eyes, and swayed to the hip-bumping rhythm that they knew so well.  Everyone, it seemed, was transported to carnival-land, a shared, utopian-stoned state of mind.  I had seen it many times.  The link I had hoped to see made that night—a link between apartheid in South Africa and the more muted but nonetheless damaging forms of racism in Brazil—never really materialized.  It seemed that the politics of resistance that Mandela stood for, and the nudge toward open dialogue that his visit might have provided were smothered by the soft-focus, intoxicating fog of carnival nostalgia.         

There were two personal insights that grew out of the disconnect between my informants’ rhapsodizing about the “true” carnivals of yesteryear and my own disenchantment with everything carnivalesque.   The first idea, to my good fortune, figuratively slapped me in the face while I was still living in Morro do Sangue Bom.  Despite the fact that high-stakes anthropology, like high-stakes carnival, is about the manipulation of grand ideas, I realized that fieldwork is, above all, an opportunity to learn how to shut up and listen.  The revolution-versus-domestication question did not preoccupy my informants when they fell into the carnival-swoon nor even when they discoursed brilliantly and passionately on its politics. What did preoccupy them was the question of who, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, were carnival’s rightful stewards?  And what had become of that impossible-to-describe magic that had once carried them through what were years otherwise marked only by the sheer and sometimes desperate endurance of the working poor?   Their questions, the ones close to their hearts, became the central issues that I tried to address in this article. 

The second insight, a direct outcome of the first, also began while I was in the field.  But like the peeling of an onion, however, it has many layers and so it has kept my mind busy and painfully smarting ever since.  This insight was/is my evolving awareness not just of the poignancy of my informants’ observations about the theft of carnival but also the theoretical acuity of those observations.  Their emic take was not antithetical to the argumentation of social theory at all—it was an expansion and an illustration of it.  On re-reading the article, I see that my informants’ focus, while incorporating the hypocrisies of racism in Brazil, illuminated a much broader and deeper sea change that was and is occurring everywhere.  The shift from the old street carnival, in which the line between performers and audience was blurred, to the new, commoditized spectacle that was packaged for a ticket-buying, passive audience—this transformation reflected, and embodied a new stage of advanced capitalism.  Carnival-as-spectacle serves as a metonym of the changing social relations, expanding economic exchanges, and re-wiring of cultural sensibilities that are now so highly mediated and managed the world over.   

We see multiple elucidations of this theme in the writing of M. M. Bakhtin.  Writing directly about European carnivals in Rabelaise and his World (2009/1965), Bakhtin speculated about the implications of a shift from a peoples’ raucous street festival to a managed mock-rebellion.   From that we might surmise that carnivals have always been a site of struggle and contestation, as well as potent metonyms of deeper socio-political processes.  Yet, to an even more uncanny degree, my informants’ comments about what they were witnessing in Rio echo the theoretical assertions of Guy Debord, the French writer and filmmaker who insisted that we were embarking on a new age in which “all that was once lived has become mere representation” (1967/1994:12).  The “spectacle,” Debord insisted in the 1960s, was replacing genuine social relations, such that what we now observe is “a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (Ibid).  

I can now hear, and make sense of Debord’s aphoristic rants in the stories I was told in Morro do Sangue Bom.  As people in Morro do Sangue Bom led me to understand, there was something about the locally-scaled, collective, cottage-industry production of carnival and its culmination in a grandly intimate, to-hell-with-it-all surrender that worked, that made it all worth it, that brought people together in ways that were genuinely revivifying, and reuniting.  To say, as my informants did, that the magic and communitas of the old street carnival have been stolen and degraded  through commercialization is not mere nostalgia, nor the post-hoc invention of an authenticity that never existed.  It was an urgent warning about the sucker punch that is advanced spectacular capitalism. 

Recently I had occasion to revisit, via cyberspace, the Rio carnival when I was invited to deliver a paper for the 2010 AAA meetings.  In my Internet wanderings I saw in pixelated color everything that my informants and Debord had been talking about.  The endlessly televised spectacles, the titillations of celebrity culture, the over-baked scandals, the pseudo-rituals of commodi-carnival fetishism—everything entailed in both my informants’ cultural critique and Debord’s vision—seem now to have colonized much of the space and time that we used to call local culture. 

My informants in Morro do Sangue Bom were canaries in the global coalmine.  I certainly stand by my assertion that exposing racism in Brazil is now as important, or more important, than it ever was, but I’m not at all sure that I gave adequate emphasis to the underlying implication that in some ways, local identities and cultures may ultimately be subsumed or swallowed by global economic pressures and processes.  I fear that one must be positioned low on the economic food chain (who else lives in real communities anymore?) to notice what’s happening.  And the rest of us aren’t listening to those people.   As with the paying audiences of the hyperreal, over-produced and elaborately packaged carnivals that we now have, most of us, most of the time, are too boob-toobed, too entertained,  too distracted, and  too overworked to notice the sleights of hand that people in Morro do Sangue Bom saw so clearly.  

Kevin Carrico: How do you see the topic of ritual to be relevant at this moment in time?

Robin Sheriff: We can define “ritual” in many ways but as the articles in this online collection attest, whatever it is, it remains the bailiwick of anthropology.   Way back when, we sharpened our theoretical teeth on ritual, especially in those sites where capitalism and colonialism were expanding and dramatically altering, if not altogether swallowing, a diversity of cultural landscapes.  I might suggest, and many have, that new rituals are constantly being churned out of the maelstrom of colliding cultures and the processes of globalization—though whether they are rituals in the senso stricto of say, Gluckman, Douglas, Turner or Geertz, is often hard to precisely determine.  I think it isn’t merely sentimentalism or romanticization that would prompt me to point out, along with my informants in Morro do Sangue Bom, that in many times and places, ritual, real ritual, is giving way to spectaculization.

For the present purposes at least, we can juxtapose ritual to spectacle and say that ritual is collective behavior that accomplishes something in the real world, that orchestrates embodied forms of intimacy and solidarity.  Unlike spectacle, ritual heals, at least for a time, the loneliness of everyday life.  It touches us in more than metaphorical ways.   We once thought of rituals as a primary feature of “pre-capitalist societies” but since there is no such thing anymore, we might call them “extra-capitalist.” Like my informant Daniel suggested of samba, rituals can only be understood as gifts, meaningful not because they have exchange value, but because they don’t.   As Chao points out in her analysis of shamanic ritual in China, rituals can truly succeed or they can fall flat.  As Lyons suggests, they can re-inscribe power and police boundaries, or as Cymene Howe points out, they can open closets and a great deal more besides.  Much no doubt depends not just on how they resist, collude, or tangle with capitalism, media, technology, spectacle, and the state but also on the unfolding of local histories. 

I might suggest that as professional observers of the intimate, we strategically background what has been the foreground for theoreticians such as DeBord, Foucault, Baudrillard, Boorstin and McLuan.  But this is precisely our strength: in documenting and theorizing ritual and its kindred behaviors, we often wind up flashing between background and foreground, focusing now on the map and then on the territory, recording not just the voices but the silences too.  We flesh out what are frequently aphoristic and arid theoretical discussions.  

Part of the reason we don’t generally perceive or quite understand what thinkers like DeBord and McLuan were talking about is that we tend not to have in our possession a contrasting case with which to compare ourselves.  The management, packaging and spectacalizing of our own cultures become invisible to us.  As  I suggest in “The Theft  of Carnaval,” my informants’ words were a kind of salvage ethnography.   Besides offering a cri de coeur, they offer a contrasting case.  I hope we have learned from the naivety of the early Boasians but on one level, at least, our present task as anthropologists is not so terribly different from theirs.  Sometimes what we are observing—a  ritual, let us say—is dying as we are observing it. Or it is undergoing an adjustment, a downsizing, or even a transformation.  Or our informants talk about and grieve something that they lost before we got there.  We still need, just as the Boasians did, to shut up and listen.  (Think now, in this context, of Papa Franz’s preservation of a Kwakiutl dance by imitating it from his own memory, with his own body, on what now looks like artistically elegant black and white film. It came to that.)  Sure, the televised cliché, indeed the spectacalizing of the “Disappearing World” is by now ubiquitous, a mediating image, something we can laugh at and ironize.  But just the same, the stories we hear are real and they are about real things. 

What we do with those stories matters.  When ethnographies work, they function as a prod to the imagination. They invite us to question the notion that our present social, economic, and political arrangements are the best or the only ones possible.  They manage somehow to challenge, I hope, our submission to the image and stir up a re-commitment to the real.  In the age of distraction and passivity, we may need these alternative worlds—even if they are themselves second-hand representations—now  more than ever.

Related Links

Official Carnaval site and guide

"One of the greatest elements of the Rio Carnaval is that it not only provides entertainment for many people around the world but it also gives a chance to learn about the true culture of Brazil. Carnival is very important to the Brazilians, it sums up their culture."

Official Sambodromo site

"The Sambodromo is the "stadium" of samba. It consists of the Parading Avenue (the samba runway) and several independent concrete structures for the spectators (the bleachers) both sides along the Parading Avenue.

The Sambodromo was designed by Brazil's world-famous architect, the modernist Oscar Niemeyer. It was purpose-built for the Samba Parade and was inaugurated in 1984."

Carnaval tickets online

“Paying just a little bit more makes a big difference when it comes to the view”

“Insider’s Guide” to Rio de Janeiro and Carnaval

“Meet the Sambadromo: The Samba Parade became too big for improvisations. Until the mid-eighties bleachers were assembled and disassembled every year on Av. Presidente Vargas. Samba Schools longed for and deserved a more professional site to perform.”

The international journeys of Carnaval:

Austin, Texas“

samba, costumes, and wild abandon- Brasileiro style in the heart of Texas”

San Francisco, California

“Live Your Fantasy”

Carnaval exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe

"Carnival, Carnaval, Carnevale - What is the origin of these words and the rowdy festivals associated with them? The earliest mention of a Carnival celebration is recorded in a 12th-century Roman account of the pope and upper class Roman citizens watching a parade through the city, followed by the killing of steers and other animals. The purpose was to play and eat meat before Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Catholic Lent - the forty-day fast leading up to Easter. The Latin term carnem-levare - to remove oneself from flesh or meat - was used to refer to the festival.

The pre-Lenten celebration grew in popularity over the next few centuries, spreading to other European cities and rural communities. Italians eventually shortened the name to Carnevale - flesh farewell - and the word was translated into Spanish and Portuguese as Carnaval, into English as Carnival, and into German as Karneval. Other terms are also used for the festival such as the English - Shrove Tide (fasting time), the German - Fasching (fasting), the Swiss-German - Fasnacht (night before fasting), and the French - Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). All of these names allude to the feast before the fast and many 16th and 17th-century celebrations included a mock battle between Carnival and Lent which symbolized this transition."


Brazilian Carnaval- Rio de Janeiro

Goddesses of Carnival de Janeiro: Queen of Samba Drums: samba dance

Beauties of Carnaval in Rio 2010

Rio de Janeiro’s Breathtaking Samba

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Carnaval is widely recognized as "representing Brazil." What rituals or other symbols represent your country, and what about these rituals or symbols makes them so central to national identification?

2. Following up on the previous question, Sheriff points out that carnaval is dually metonymic of Brazilian, representing its allure as well as its darker social forces, such as racism and exclusion. Do the national rituals or symbols noted in response to the previous question contain a similar contrary history?

3. Sheriff's paper examines the "theft of carnaval," highlighting often overlooked issues of owenership and exclusion within the study of ritual. How might this framework be applied to the analysis of other rituals?

4. Sheriff uses the term "national spectacle" to describe carnaval. What is the distinction, if any, between ritual and spectacle?


Bakhtin, M. M. 

2009/(1965)  Rabelais and His World. Helena Iswolsky, trans.  Bloomington, In: Indiana University Press.

Debord, Guy    

1994/(1965)  The Society of the Spectacle. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans.  New York: Zone Books.

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