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Dancing in the Streets: A History of…
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Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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I liked this and found it an interesting read. Ehrenreich presented some historical events in an unusual light - the rise of Protestantism as a reaction against the increasing disapproval by the Catholic Church of public celebration being the main example. I was also fascinated by the idea, provocative although not well-supported, that the early Christians were shaped by Dionysian cults, because the Roman Jews were also followers of Dionysus. I'd love to see some more evidence along those lines - it's definitely not a modern article of Jewish faith.

That said, there are some substantial criticisms I could make. Looking at a couple thousand years of European history through a single narrow lens is interesting but not at all convincing - I don't believe the author thinks she's found the key to all history or anything, but the presentation is shaped that way and I found it thin. Secondly, the Eurocentrism - which she explicitly apologizes for and explains - is tedious. Certainly for someone who's more a journalist than a serious historian or anthropologist, focusing on Europe is the path of least resistance, but it's not nearly as compelling. My third big objection is that she makes very little effort to make her thesis relevant to modern life. She discusses sports, briefly, mentions Halloween literally in one offhand remark, and doesn't touch on flash mobs, the effect of the internet, modern religious or secular holidays, or anything else in the current day at all. I'd be happy to read a second book focused on that, to be honest - maybe happier than I was with this one.

To be clear, I liked and enjoyed the book, and it gave me some interesting things to think about. A work of major scholarship it is not, but it's worth a read. ( )
  JeremyPreacher | Mar 30, 2013 |
I enjoyed this. A lot of it is speculative, as the author herself admits. Really, how could it be anything else - how precisely would one go about proving, for example, group dancing helped to build social cohesion among Neolithic hunters? But I'm okay with the speculation.

One reason I'm okay with it is that Ehrenreich doesn't make over inflated claims about what she's doing. She's entertaining some theories and raising some questions based on her reading on the subject. She's not pretending to have the last word. Which seems fair enough to me.

Also I'm okay with it because the questions and speculations are kind of fascinating. Was life different for people when public dancing and celebrations were a regular and frequent part of their lives? What were the social and emotional functions those celebrations played? Why have they declined where they have declined, and how has that changed people's experience?

Interesting things to think about. Interesting historical tidbits, strange parallels and commonalities, all of which to me at least are great loads of fun. Regardless of whether the questions are entirely answerable. ( )
  bunwat | Mar 30, 2013 |
Four out of five stars for the idea, two out of five stars for execution. Ehrenreich's introduction to Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy points out a quizzical disconnect in modern Western culture. We put an awful lot of time and effort into studying depression, malaise, the things that make us happy and the things that isolate us, but very little effort into studying the things that make us happy or which bring us together. Ehrenreich traces the history of expressions of communal joy and ecstatic communion—and the suppression of those celebrations—from prehistoric times through to the present day. In general, I think she makes some good points here. Why is it that modern Westerners can conceive so easily of strong bonds between individuals but less so between groups? What have we lost in the search for individual freedom? There's definitely fodder for thought and for discussion in the ideas Ehrenreich raises.

However, I cannot recommend the methodology which Ehrenreich uses here. She admits at the outset that there is a bias in the sources towards the history of the West, yet makes little attempt to correct that tendency in her own writing. Moreover, what little discussion she has of non-Western cultures largely comes from Western sources. The subtitle of this book should really be A History of Collective Joy in the West.

Ehrenreich may also have read broadly in order to read this book, but she does not seem to have read deeply, and much of the secondary scholarship on which she draws is shockingly dated, dating from the 50s and 60s. E.R. Dodds' work is foundational for a lot of recent scholarship, but it's also been superseded in many, many ways—the man died in the 70s! Why does she reference his work and not Peter Brown's? (Surely a more influential scholar in the field of late antique religion, whose work would, I think, be illuminating on this topic, even if he never directly addresses it!)

I suspect, based on the chapters on medieval Europe (the area with which I'm most familiar) that this partly proceeds from a selective choice of/reading of the sources, and partly from the fact that she seems not to have read much secondary material not directly relevant to the topic. I think that a knowledge of Caroline Walker Bynum's work on food and the body in the Middle Ages, for instance, would have changed her characterisation of the medieval Mass and how laypeople participated in it. Similarly, greater familiarity with scholarly terminology on Ehrenreich's part would have strengthened her work—when historians or anthropologists refer to things as "liminal", that does not mean, as she seems to think, that they are dismissing something as marginal or unimportant, but rather that it gains in power or possibility because it straddles the margins of more than one sphere. It's not so easily categorised.

(I listened to the audiobook version of this. I greatly enjoyed the reader's style and verve, but I really wish that she'd taken the time to clarify the pronunciation of non-English words before the recording. The French in particular made me wince.) ( )
  siriaeve | Apr 19, 2012 |
I've enjoyed other books by Ehrenreich and figured that this would be a take on public celebrations like Carnivale and sporting events. These things get a mention toward the end of the book and Ehrenreich makes a (convincing) case that what passes for collective joy in modern times is merely a shadow of the ecstatic experience of our ancestors. Ehrenreich goes way back to prehistoric peoples by way of the "primitive" cultures encountered (and destroyed) by Europeans in the Age of Exploration. Early Christianity seems much more lively due to it's overlap with the Dionysian cult. And while today we fear crowd ecstasy due to it's association with Italian Facist and Nazi rallies, Enrenreich deconstructs what were actually carefully staged performances rather than expressions of the mob mentality. Overall this is an interesting analysis of a fascinating topic. ( )
  Othemts | Aug 10, 2010 |
Fun book! ( )
  mana_tominaga | Oct 4, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805057234, Hardcover)

From the bestselling social commentator and cultural historian, a fascinating exploration of one of humanity's oldest traditions: the celebration of communal joy

In the acclaimed Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species' attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite impulse, one that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

Ehrenreich uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. Although sixteenth-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion." Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, the prelude to widespread reformation: Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites. The elites' fear that such gatherings would undermine social hierarchies was justified: the festive tradition inspired French revolutionary crowds and uprisings from the Caribbean to the American plains. Yet outbreaks of group revelry persist, as Ehrenreich shows, pointing to the 1960s rock-and-roll rebellion and the more recent "carnivalization" of sports.

Original, exhilarating, and deeply optimistic, Dancing in the Streets concludes that we are innately social beings, impelled to share our joy and therefore able to envision, even create, a more peaceable future.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:50 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Cultural historian Ehrenreich explores a human impulse that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing. She uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. Although 16th-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks to medieval Christianity. Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites. The elites' fear that such gatherings would undermine social hierarchies was justified: the festive tradition inspired uprisings and revolutions from France to the Caribbean to the American plains. Yet outbreaks of group revelry persist, as Ehrenreich shows, pointing to the 1960s rock-and-roll rebellion and the more recent "carnivalization" of sports.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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