Spectrum recently posted a series of videos by Adventist college students participating in the viral video craze known as the “Harlem Shake,” encouraging readers to vote on which school “does it the best.” The films contain not only scenes of students dancing—a traditional Adventist taboo—but scenes of students engaging in bewildering frenzy and mayhem to a grinding techno beat with a single Spanish refrain: “Con los terroristas, ey shake, ey shake, ey, ey, ey.” At one Adventist university, a male in dark sunglasses straddles a young woman on her hands and knees wearing a saddle and spinning her head in circles to the accelerating beat of the music. At another, men wearing masks of animal heads and death skulls similar to Mexican luchadores—and often little else—perform lewd, violent, and comically absurd acts with each other and with objects ranging from a skateboard to what appears to be a bloated fish.
Reactions to the videos on Spectrum were predictably polarized. “Conservative” consternation and apocalyptic scripting (“The shaking of our church has started”) was matched by glib and unquestioning “liberal” approval (“Give us a break! We just want to have fun”; “Jesus would have a rousing good time”). Before rushing to any conclusions about what these eruptions of imitative chaos on Adventist campuses might signify, I suggest we try to situate them in broader cultural and historical perspective.
Carnival and Chaos
In his acclaimed 2007 book, A Secular Age, the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor (building on the work of Bakhtin, Victor Turner, Natalie Davis, and others) devotes a surprising number of pages to the phenomenon of the medieval Carnival and similar festivals of misrule in numerous cultures. At certain periods in many pre-modern societies, the normal order would be temporarily suspended, reversed, inverted, or undone. Fools would be made king for a day. Boys would be given miters and anointed bishops. The authorities would be openly cursed and mocked. Young people—especially unmarried males—would be granted license to engage in sexual and even near-violent transgressions of accepted moral codes.
Yet all of this mockery of good standards, decency, and virtue was paradoxically in support of order and morality. The guardians of virtue permitted and even encouraged Carnival (although there were always stern moralizers who tried to suppress the traditions) because they understood that structure needs anti-structure and that society needs escape valves. “The weight of virtue and good order was so heavy, and so much steam built up under this suppression of instinct,” Taylor writes, “that there had to be periodic blow-outs if the whole system were not to fly apart.”
There was a deeper meaning, though, to these occasions of socially sanctioned and ritualized mayhem. In the medieval social imaginary, chaos is dangerous and must be contained, but order constantly threatens to become rigid, repressive, and deadening. Order can therefore only survive by being periodically plunged back into the energies of primal chaos—back into those ungoverned and ungovernable forces that are always present beneath the surface and that supply society with its creativity and dynamism. Without any allowance for temporary disorder, anarchy, and misrule, life would become unbearable and political and religious orders would become totalitarian.
Conversely, without a larger framework of shared meanings that might redeem the chaos, Carnival would simply turn into nihilism. Carnival in the medieval Christian calendar was immediately followed by 40 days of Lent. The word “carnival” comes from the Latin carne vale: “farewell to flesh.” Carefree indulgence or “letting go of oneself” was only socially or morally intelligible as the first step toward a more profound self-renunciation.
The Broken Carnivals of Secular Modernity
In the modern period, the balance between structure and anti-structure that held medieval society together within an overarching cosmic order and universe of shared symbolic meanings came unraveled. The radicals of the French Revolution incorporated Carnival-like holidays into their avowedly atheistic, de-Christianizing project. But unlike the earlier festivals, the goal of the new days of mayhem was purely destructive. They were not meant to celebrate or strengthen social bonds by reminding the rulers of their shared humanity with the commoners in a world of both sacred and secular, earthy realities. Instead, they were designed to do away with the old morality once and for all, to shatter any sense of the sacred so that only the secular remained, and to denounce the enemies of “liberty.”
In this disenchanted, post-Enlightenment climate with its emphasis on materialistic rationalism, many secular thinkers were as disturbed by Carnival as puritanical religious leaders had been in ages past. One result was a growing split between popular and elite culture. Another was the rise of sterile, bureaucratized and “disciplinary” societies resting upon the notion of a sharp private/public divide. The felt human need for anti-structure or “letting off steam” that had previously been acknowledged and incorporated within the shared sacramental life of the entire community was replaced by highly individualistic and atomistic modes of consumption and pleasure seeking.
In liberal societies today, according to Taylor, we thus find two kinds of events that vaguely recall but also radically deny the spirit of Carnival. First, protest movements employ the carnivalesque (puppets, theater, masks, etc.) in their denunciations of corporate capitalism and the established order. But their goal is not the preservation or restoration of the social fabric in the medieval tradition so much as a refashioning of society along lines that are totalizing, moralistic, and utopian in the tradition of the Jacobins. If their leaders were to gain power and not compromise on their principles, Taylor suggests, history teaches us that their “play” would quickly turn into political nightmares.
The second kind of event that partially evokes the Carnival in a secular age are those forms of mass entertainment that include elements of organized mayhem, violence, or chaos, including sporting events, rock concerts, raves, and holidays like Spring Break and Mardi Gras in which mostly young people behave with varying degrees of abandon in mob-like and often sexually charged atmospheres. These spectacles are permitted by society as forms of “private” amusement, and they provide at least some release from the banality of much of modern life with its soul-deadening office parks, strip malls, and suburban wastelands.
Unlike the medieval Carnivals, however, socially permitted “mayhem” today is almost entirely devoid of social or political significance; typically serves pure market values and corporate interests; promotes narcissistic brands of self-expression that for all their colorful flourishes are in fact forms of dull and witless social conformism; and cannot be explained or experienced in terms of any public meanings or values beyond secular liberalism’s one highest value: the right of every person to do whatever they please as long as no one else gets hurt.
Starving for Real Carnival
With this inadequate but hopefully suggestive genealogy of the Carnival in mind, we might now venture some thoughts on Adventists doing the “Harlem Shake.”
First, the “conservative” or fundamentalist response, marked by tedious moralizing and hysterical handwringing, is entirely out of proportion and more than a little hypocritical. These videos reveal nothing about ourselves that we didn’t already know. That some Adventist college students do inane and experimental things that cross the boundaries of good sense, good taste, and good dancing should come as no surprise to anyone. It has been so since time immemorial, including in ages far more religiously devout than our own. Let those who have never “let themselves go,” even mentally or in the privacy of their bedrooms, cast the first stones. The real reason people are scandalized, I would suggest, is because—thanks entirely to the technology of the internet and new social media—what was done was done in public.
At least, however, the “conservative” reaction has retained the sense that some kind of meaning might actually be at stake in the world we live in. “Liberal” incredulity that anyone could call into question the behavior of young adults having “fun” betrays a disturbing inability among those who see themselves as the champions of progressive thought to think in anything other than secular platitudes. What these videos illustrate is neither the depravity of Adventist college students nor the inconsequential and innocent antics of youthful joie de vivre. Rather, they expose the incoherence of the post-Enlightenment private/public divide, and the joyless and imitative culture of expressive individualism that fills the vacuum when sacramental meaning—and so true Carnival—is lost.
—A graduate of Atlantic Union College, Ronald Osborn, Ph.D., is a Bannerman Fellow with the program in politics and international relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse.