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

This post builds on the research article “The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro,” which was published in the February 1999 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

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.

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.