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The Carnival Complex Part I

Published: 
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

One of my standing assignments as a reporter on the culture beat about 18 years ago was to cover the launch of Carnival. Some time in the mid-1990s, when the, uhm, enterprising Alfred Aguiton was chairman of the NCC, a new, hard-nosed approach to the festival emerged: business, business, business. The strategy: invite foreign journalists, touris’ like fuss’ time, sell broadcast rights, music, and pretty much sell anything that wasn’t nailed down. An adjunct to this new approach was the academic slant: Carnival was t’ing to read an’ write ’bout, and it was no less than We Identity! A few conferences sprouted abroad, one of which I managed to go to (in San Francisco) where I saw the first stirrings of this movement. The academic thing has since come into a kind of flowering in the regional and international academe. In the 1990s, as expected, the “business strategy” boiled down to winin’, ole talk, and clownish ineptitude in execution. But the ideas and strategy persisted. Of course they were helped by the UNC having the temerity to get into office in 1996 and throw the PNM and its Grenadian and Vincentian base into trauma, and straight into the folds of “de traditions.” The post-1996 rediscovery of all things Carnival was put in hyperdrive from 2002-2010, and POW! Now, everyone believes the Aguitonian propositions, by virtue of volume of articulation and endless repetition, and a stifling of any serious critique. (By which I mean me.)

It is now called the “Carnival Complex” according to Dr Susan Burke at an event hosted by the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at the UWI on February 3. The occasion was the Th?nk series organised by the DCFA to investigate multiculturalism and the Carnival. The Carnival (she said) is now a “magic mirror” which allows us to integrate our social, artistic, economic, existential, and various other lives. And this is where the State and UWI (and UTT) would place it in our lives: dead centre and all round. The presenters included Dr Louis Regis, who began with the proposition that “Carnival is a Creole bacchanal.” And how we loitering in “Creole space”—a term Earl Lovelace coined (or borrowed from somewhere) which is now a theoretical plinth for the complex. Regis also proposed a re-historicising of Carnival to remove the taint of its violent 19th century character, invoking secret societies etc, as part of the chaotic-seeming mosaic which was misinterpreted by evil colonials.
Regis used the term “Creole” in an anodyne way: to refer to that which is of Trinidad—aka all o’ we is one. All o’ we except Ravi Ji, who was present to provide the now obligatory insider/outsider “Indian” perspective—he took it to mean something else. Ravi Ji’s understanding of the term “Creole” seemed to be a signifier of not-Indian, or not-Brahmin, or not-Hindu. He said he had played mas, had brought in the tassa, and saw it as a non-conflictual, and indeed harmonious part of his being an Indian, Brahmin, and a Trinidadian. But he didn’t know about the multiculti business, which seemed like the Afro-Creole hegemony under another name—I’m liberally paraphrasing here.

Pat Bishop, who seems to be an omnibus authority on these things, was also present, to give the Afro-Saxon position: Carnival is everything, everywhere, all the time. Multiculti is, ahm, nothing ruh-ea-lly—humbug and all that. More specifically, “Carnival is located in the media which access the powerful supra-mundane forces which...have always seemed to people to make the difference between life and death.” And as for attempts to study it theoretically, “this kind of writing is in and of itself a kind of masquerade...mere words put on a mask of theory and critical thinking...the intellectual, deprived of a costume now inhabiting the academic environment in ways less persuasive”. Gillian Moore (“practitioner and student” of de cult-yere) was there to provide the standard export package: Carnival, J’Ouvert, as inversion of the status quo, catharsis, crucible, tossing the obligatory brickbats at the “bikini and beads” and celebrating the “traditional mas.” And last (at least the last person I listened to) was Steve (“Homi”) Ouditt who, using the dastardly “theory,” looked at Carnival as art. He read an essay of Rawle Gibbons’s against an interview given by Minshall. Gibbons, in his essay, had commented on the inability of the judges of a Carnival event to adequately assess the mas they had seen, because they did not have access to a necessary perspective, knowledge and/or consciousness. Minshall had said it was not possible to assess a work of mas’ as a work of art, and/or that no one had ever done so with his own work, because the necessary texts, rules, critical precedents, and poetics, did not exist.

At the question time, I pointed out the following:
1 These ideas (Carnival as money maker, spirit of the people, and magic mirror) continue to be disproved in praxis, but yet continue to be proposed as models for action, as if they will miraculously yield different conclusions or results.

2 The complex’s rhetoric is wielded as if it were axiomatic (ie, accepted, proven and constituted of valid facts), without theory, establishing argument and counter-argument, or any kind of credible empirical evidence. Indeed, there is much evidence that just the opposite of all these contentions is/are true.

3 Why, in 20 years, are no new questions being asked? Why is Carnival not being studied in less obvious, more fruitful ways, as, for example, an emotional phenomenon?

I had to keep my remarks short because, you know, freaks and wannabes come out at these things to try to hijack them and make speeches disguised as questions at the end. So though I found the answers I got from the panel to be inadequate, I could not elaborate. But I can now: in the next few columns, I will examine each of these Carnival complex propositions (economic, historical, ontological, emotional) in some detail. Readers may visit my blog, trinidadmediaartsculture.blogspot.com for a more elaborate report on the conference, and a link to YouTube where I uploaded videos of the main presenters’ talks. (Or go to YouTube and search the channel: TriniData.)

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