Monday, December 6, 2010

Bakhtin and Santarchy

So every year I await, with glee, this event.

Since winter of 2005, I have thrown in my lot with ho-ho-hoardes of manic Santas who pick a Saturday in December to gallivant though bars, clubs, and public spaces in the cities of their choice, spreading holiday cheer and purging late-winter angst. Clad in my homemade in-your-face-sexual-gender-queer-faux-cowgirl-fuzzy-raver Santa Suit (google image search "Santa Chaps" for proof), I hit the streets with my friends, feeling as though we're taking part in a contemporary version of the Bakhtinian "Carnival" - the secular social festivals of the European Middle Ages in which traditional class structures were temporarily inverted:

"One might say carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order. It marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed" (Bahktin, Rabelais and his World).

During Santarchy, everyone dressed as Santa is kin. Names dissolve into the sea of intersubjective Saint Nicks, and a strange secular sense of collective power is felt. A red mass united sans political program, Santas hug and make small talk, share spiked cocoa and discuss the intricacies of unique suit-construction. Santas fuck gently with the "muggles" (citizens and bar-goers that generally resemble them on any other day of the week), but have clear policies against fucking with kids or the police.

The trap of counter-cultural rituals like these is that the inversions are only temporary. As every Master's Thesis on the Burning Man Festival must contend with, Santarchy makes us wonder whether impermanent upswellings of culture-jamming collectivity actually challenge the authority of prevailing powers or ultimately reinforce them. Santarchy is of course guilty of most of the charges of contemporary pop culture events: reliance on internet access, unapologetic commercialism, racial-homogeneity, and latent sexism (while fiesty female Santaclowns abound, there are still a few exploitative gropey Santas).

Bahktin maintained faith that the wicked mirth generated by Carnival could ripple outwards and help to expose the "gay relativity" of all human cultural products. My Santarchy apologia relies similarly on my belief that sometimes we are what we pretend to be. Or rather, we have the potential to become more like those versions of ourselves that we strategically assume. My red-suited avatar is a sexually-liberated, gender-queer, loud-mouthed social muse that believes in the power of singing together, drinking together, and momentarily releasing the given name that binds me inside a claustrophobically singular identity. My Santa isn't afraid of death or final papers or Gropey McDrunkenClaus or the surprisingly aggressive SFPD because she has her bearded tribe at her back and peppermint schnapps in her flask.

Unsuited now, I return to my law-abiding, sobriety-favoring, responsibility-bearing graduate student life. Till next year, Santa.

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