Barbara Ehrenreich on Collective Joy
Bill Long 10/19/07
The Party Fizzles at Willamette University
For more than 25 years Barbara Ehrenreich, a graduate of the college where I taught in the 1980s, has provided incisive and trenchant criticism, laced with generous amounts of humor and irony, of the American scene. Some of her books, such as Nickled and Dimed, about her attempt to get by on a minimum-wage job, are required reading in hundreds of campuses across the country. She has now broken her own mold by coming out with a book on what she calls "Collective Joy"--the celebratory instinct in humans which, she argues, has gradually been squelched or marginalized in our modern Western culture [Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, 2007.]
She mentioned in her talk last night at Willamette University that she has been working on this book for a decade, beginning it even before she started Nicked and Dimed. This decade-long engagement with a project can sometimes mean two diametrically opposite things for an author. It can mean, on the one hand, that you are so steeped in your subject, and the subject has such allure and complexity to it, that it takes you that long to figure out what you want to say about it. It can also mean that you started work on a project, put it down repeatedly, but decided to pick it up and publish it not because you were that committed to it but that you didn't want to "lose" all your research.
I can't say which of the two (or which variations of the two) is more accurate. I can say, however, that after hearing and questioning her last night at Willamette that she hasn't really thought her subject through very deeply and but has, as it were, produced another Reed College-type "honors thesis." These are often very informative works--well-researched and well-written, but reflect what I would call policy immaturity. That is, they often describe well the history of a phenomenon without having much insight into the way the phenomenon would "work" today. Here is what I mean, with respect to Ehrenreich's talk.
Her Theory of Collective Joy
She builds a case which is rather typical by now in several fields of academia, that at one time in the dark hoary past, as well as up to the 13th century, people celebrated joyously and communally (the same argument is made about the development of Christianity. At one time things were "free" and then the Church clamped down on all the fun...). They danced, feasted, put on masks and costumes. These celebrations show that partying is "hard-wired" into us. But they also show that partying was built into the regular fabric or rhythm of daily life. Somewhere along the line, however, the authority structures decided to clamp down on these celebrations because the parties might be the occasion to destabilize the rule of these folk. So, celebrations were marginalized, collective pleasures controlled, and people told to work, work, work. Celebration went from a participatory to a spectator sport. What we need, according to Ehrenreich, is to recover our sense of collective joy, to return to exuberant celebration, to recognize the pleasurable way that partying makes us who we are meant to be.
She seemed, thus, to want to bring back collective celebration--to make it much more central to our lives in the 21st century. A noble goal indeed, and one that sparked some interest and curiosity in the students last night.
How the Party Fizzled
She was a good speaker. She projected well, had the appropriate amount of animation and humor, etc. It seemed as if she wanted to try to be academically respectable while, at the same time, recognizing that she is no academic. That is ok; populizers are very important. Everyone is a popularizer, depending on the audience and context. But it became clear to me when I asked her a question that she really hadn't thought very deeply about her subject. My question was to the following effect:
"You have mentioned the ways that collective joy was relegated to the sidelines in Western culture and the ways that it is starting to return 'at the fringes' of our lives. Since it is so essential to human existence (as you claim), how would it look in the context of how we spend the most important hours of our lives--such as in an academic context?"
That is, if we want to bring collective joy back into our lives in an important way, how can it be brought back into the tasks that take up most of our lives, into the center of our lives? She admitted quickly, to my surprise, that she hadn't thought about the question. Then, trying to get a few laughs, she said, "I hardly think that chemistry class can be an expression of collective joy..." But then, I responded, "Why?" She was nonplussed and put the question back on me. Actually, I don't mind being in that situation and I suggested a few things, but I should then have asked her for 1/10 of her check for speaking...come to think of it.
My observation and question was a simple one. If joy is hard-wired into us, and if we have long suppressed it, wouldn't the more radical thing (if indeed she is a radical--certainly she is!) be to argue for joy at the essence of what we do every day? Why just balkanize joy by sending it off to a festival after we have worked hard? Why not incorporate joy, joy with others, joy with ourselves, into the rising in the morning, into our lab work, into our seminars, our writing, our lives? That, it seems to me, would be the real triumph of joy.
When I returned to my seat after asking her the question, I realized that many people had already left. People filed out as the students asked more and more questions. Somehow the joy she was speaking about didn't grip the audience. Indeed, if you think about it for a second, the format of the joy-bringer (a lecture), is reflective of a certain theory of education that itself is, in my judgment, largely passe. Education produces joy when many hands are at work. But that is a subject for another essay.
I would think that this foray into joy for Barbara Ehrenreich will be a sincere but short-lived effort. It is like Jim Carrey trying to do serious movies; we would rather see his face assume weird expressions. So, I think we would rather see her tearing down rather than building up--especially when the tools she uses are pretty flimsily constructed.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long