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Method and Theory in the Study METHOD

&THEORY in the
of Religion 26 (2014) 44-73 STUDY OF


Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics

Alessandro Testa
Facolt di Scienze della Formazione, Universit degli Studi di Messina
Via Concezione 6-8, 98122 Messina, Italia


This article discusses several recent approaches to the study of festivals and points out
in which ways certain theories of power can be fruitfully applied to better interpret
both historical and contemporary festivals. The structure of the text is tripartite: in
the first part, I present a brief, critical history of the studies in order to construct a
genealogy of the category of festival (and of its criticism); in the second part, I discuss
certain major speculations on power and reflect upon their applicability to the study
of festivals; in the third part, I present some case-studies and investigate the politi-
cal dimensions of festivals by applying and problematizing, to selected examples, the
theories discussed in the second part. Concepts as power, hegemony, function,
playground and others are explored in their implications and (re)discussed in the
attempt of both delineating different ranges of theoretical issues and developing new
methodological attitudes.


festivals public events power religion and power rituals political anthropology
anthropology of religions

I Introduction

The aim of this article is to discuss and assess several recent approaches to
the study of festivals as well as to point out in which ways certain theories of
power can be fruitfully applied to better understand and deeper interpret both
historical and contemporary festivals. However, in order to do that, I think it
is necessary to indicate what I intend by the term festival, a category widely

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 4|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341260

Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 45

used in secondary literature but one that is loosely determined in its concep-
tual implications.
Festival is a comparative category constructed by the juxtaposition of sev-
eral characteristics. What associates phenomena so distant in time and space
such the Babylonian Akitu, the medieval carnival of Nuremberg, the American
potlatch and the contemporary Italian Festa della Repubblica? While it would
be impossible to compare them abruptly or to find a c ommon denominator
or essence, it is nevertheless possible, to juxtapose these phenomena on the
basis of formal similitudes, functional aspects and similar cultural patterns.
The aim of this comparison is far from being the reification of the category
of festival by providing it with meta-historical, transcultural dimensions and
must be intended as solely functional to a preliminary outlining of the range of
phenomena which will be discussed in this article.1
The similitudes and patterns which can be extrapolated by a comparison
of festivals that have been or can be studied through an historical or ethno-
graphic investigation can be summarized as follows:

1)The public dimension.

Although the meaning of the term public should be contextualized, to my
end it is sufficient to say that by it I intend to point out a dimension of collec-
tive participation which lead to the involvement, in the moment/place of the
festive event, of a significant number of peoples or representatives of classes/
categories of people within a given human group.

2)The ritual dimension.

Every festive event is characterized by ritual or highly-formalized perfor-
mances that are usually based on either a hierarchical organization of the
event or traditional features. The homeostatic calendar dimension of festivi-
ties is linked to the ritual one, and is assured by means of reiteration, tradition
and hierarchy. However, if there is always a ritual dimension in festivals, the
contrary is not truethat is to say: there is not necessarily a festive dimension
in every ritual. The more or less ritual manipulation of certain culturally rel-
evant objects (masks, res sacrae, political symbols, etc.) during festive events
can also be brought back to this pattern.

1 On the contrary, the category of festival itself will be subjected to a critical review in the pages
which follow. However, the necessity of the recourse to similar categories (festival, ritual,
myth, etc.) to describe and interpret social realitiesdespite their evident inconsistency if
placed under the light of cultural relativismsubsists, and is discussed in Bonnell 1980.

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3)The festive atmosphere.

This aspect is related to psychological reactions that occur in the case of the
gathering of a large number of people. The more or less conscious perception
of otherness (or of a different quality) of time and spaces during festive
events is probably deeply influenced by these psychological reactions. The
mention to the non-ordinariness of time and spaces of festive events brings us
to the next point.

4)The festive behavior.

Festive non ritualistic behavioral patterns must be conceived as opposed to
ordinary ones. They are usually characterized by exuberance, exteriorization
of sentiments, the expenditure of goods or other anti-economic/anti-utilitar-
ian attitudes, amusement, grotesque or excessive acts/performances or the
systematic inversion of social norms. These features do not necessarily coexist
in the same event.

5)High rate of cultural codifications.

Different spheres of social life (economic, religious, political, sexual, etc.) are
involved in the space/time of the festive event, which, in these terms, can
rightly be conceived as a total social fact. Together with the already men-
tioned dimension of non-ordinariness, this omnicomprehensiveness pro-
duces symbolic value: studies of festive events almost always end (or begin)
advocating the festive poetics and practices to be symbolically/socially promi-
nent, which means, to be more meaningful, representative or relevant than
ordinary ones.

Describing and interpreting festivals on the basis of these generalizations must

nevertheless be critical and aware of their relative nature. The observations
of this article consciously place themselves within an intellectual interstice
produced by the tension between essentialization of a category as the result
of (any) comparison and the de-essentialization of that same category on the
base of ethnographic and historical contextualization and cultural relativism.

II The Construction of an Essential Category

Writing a history of the festival or its intellectual study is not among the aims
of this contribution.2 Studies of festivals, especially their description among

2 An exhaustive history of studies on Festival (intended both as a social transcultural fact

and as a theoretical notion) is still to be written. However, interesting and critical indications

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 47

primitives, are as old as anthropology itself. Moreover, the so-called festival

has long been a major subject in other social sciences (such as social psychol-
ogy [see, for instance, Le Bon 1988 {1895} and Freud 1922] and sociology [see,
for instance, Durkheim 1912]) as well as in philosophy (consider J.-J. Rousseaus
Lettre M. dAlembert sur les Spectacles, 1758 [Rousseau 2003], which in many
ways still functions as a historical study).
Early comparative approaches in the fields of anthropology and history
of religions have made religious festivalsalong with mythologyamongst
the most privileged and investigated topics. In particular, these approaches
that are largely oriented towards a comparative transcultural juxtaposition
of different historical events considered as festivals are often taken from
ancient, medieval and modern history. Of especial interest were the so-called
survivals, which generated several exemplary studies, such as that supplied
by J. G. Frazer in his The Golden Bough (1906-1915).
Likewise Emile Durkheim, the French socio-anthropologist, was prob-
ably the first scholar to conceptualize the festival as a central social fact in
the life of primitive societies (1912). In the work of Durkheim festival was
recognized as a transcultural phenomenon that represented a central cul-
tural experience for a given community to represent itself and its social life.
Durkheims pupil, M. Mauss, in his well-known essay about gift-giving and
exchanges (1923-1924), addressed the socio-economical features of the cir-
culation of goods in certain non-western societies. He coined the expres-
sion fait social total to describe not only the act of exchanging gifts as such,
but the entirety of social features involved in it. Thus, since this exchange
of gifts in the societies studied by Mauss was usually part of a chain of broader
events roughly conceivable as festivals, the festival in itself became, by synec-
doche, the total social fact par excellence for many scholars.
While Frazer, Durkheim and Maussto quote only the most relevant schol-
ars interested in festivals, in those early yearstheorized and wrote their most-
influential works, folklore studies spread all over Europe. Popular festivals were
amongst the most visited themes in the vast literature of folklore, especially in
Catholic or Latin countries as Spain, France and Italy, where popular festivals,
in particular in non-urban contexts, had still a great relevance.3 The evaluation

for such a history can be found in Isambert 1982, Handelman 1990 and in the introduction to
Palumbo 2009.
3 Important examples of these Latin scholar tendencies are the monumental work of
A. Van Gennep on French folklore (1937-1958)a work deeply concerned about rituality
and festivitiesand the more Frazer-oriented work by P. Toschi about the popular origins of
Italian theatre (Toschi 1955); the latter is still considered a classic on the history of carnivals
and carnival-type festivals in Italy.

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of this relevance, the tendency to collect survivals that certified the strength
of festivals traditions and the comparison with old historical examples of fes-
tivals in European societies led to the assumption that festivalsespecially
those characterized by a temporary inversion or subversion of social rules such
as carnivals or New Years Day-like festivalswere among the most important
moments in the life of pre-industrial traditional (both ancient and contem-
porary) societies (Caillois 1963 [1939]; Eliade 1949; Lanternari 1959). After all,
it was argued, Latin countries descend from Romans, and Roman religion was
the religion of rituals and festivals par excellence (Kernyi 1940: 3; and its still
considered as such: Scheid 1998: 29). Furthermore, some old or long-practiced
festivals like New Years Day or the patronal village feasts or carnivals were often
taken as examples of how social facts could keep their relevance despiteor
rather because oftheir long-term history. Even in more recent literature,
these kinds of festivals are still considered to be of the greatest importance
(Ario 1997; Baroja 1985; Burke 2009; Valeri 1979).
In the comparative history of religions, the importance and the longevity
of certain festivals have mainly been explained as the result of the intrinsic,
radical otherness of the time of the festival, a qualitatively different moment
in social life expressed through the calendrical organization of time. In this
rather functionalist perspective, festivalsespecially those of the ancient
worldbreak the line of ordinary time, thereby symbolically and cyclically
reenacting the passage from the disorder of the origins of the mythical past to
the order of present cultural life (see Brelich 1966; this idea is still present in
Massenzio 1998).
A kind of hidden sensibility, however, had filtered through these studies:
together with the doubtless historical reality of the importance of certain
festivals in certain cultures, together with the theoretical refinement of the
methodological tools to broach the study of them with, together with new
ethnographic researches opening new windows on the social reality of festive
events both in Western and in Non-Western societies, the above-mentioned
theoretical sensibilities developed a dark-side. In fact, beyond the statement
that festivals have cross-culturally been a meaningful, relevant social phe-
nomenon, certain scholars, starting from the assumption that festivals were
the most important cultural moment in traditional societies, have tended
to over-interpret some historical and ethnographical data or to read it on the
basis of essentialistand sometimes irrationalpostulations.
The connection between festival, community and the sphere of the sacred,
already stressed by Durkheim and highlighted by Caillois, was emphasized by
the historians of religions M. Eliade (1949) and K. K ernyi (1940), two scholars
deeply influenced by the irrationalist theories of phenomenologists such as

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 49

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) and Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950) as well as by
the philosophy of F. Nietzsche.4 Eliade and Kernyithe former being one of
the most read historians of religions of the last centuryoriented the under-
standing and the exegesis of festivals towards the investigation of some pre-
sumed archetypical dimensions in them. For Eliade and Kernyiand many
of their pupilsthe great festivals in traditional societies (namely, for them,
ancient civilizations; non-urban and non-industrial European communities;
non-western cultures) were amongst the very few cultural experiences that
transcended the mere circumstantial, historical dimension to reveal instead
the underlying power of the so-called Sacred. Since festivalsespecially the
New Years Day ideal-type of festivalenacted an orgiastic, ecstatic, and col-
lective psychological disposition, they permited a ritual renewal of the entire
cultural cosmos. The festival, transculturally conceived, thus became a privi-
leged cultural fact where the essential experience of the Sacred could be lived
by people and subsequently observedthrough either an ethnographic or a
historical investigationby the Western student, who could point out, behind
the infinite variety of the festivals, one common essence.
On the basis of these theoretical considerations, the total, essential and
almost mystical sense of the festival was reviewed by F. Jesi, who, in partial
disagreement with his mentor Kernyi, came to conceive of the festival as a
unique and incomprehensible object of study. In Jesis opinion, the quality of
the festive experience of traditional peoples was epistemologically inconos-
cibile (unknowable) for non-traditional observersnamely social scientists
and historians because of their bourgeoisie nature (Jesi 1977).
The perception of the festival as a total, peculiar, inherently meaningful
phenomenon was therefore, for many scholars, rather obvious, and almost a
definitive conclusion especially in the fields of historyand a nthropology
of religions, to the extent that even an author usually much more methodolog-
ically cautiousand even critical towards the essentialist approachessuch

4 Nietzsches speculation on Dionysus, in particular, has been deeply pervasive. Dionysus

is generally considered the god of festival, metaphorically (but sometimes even histori-
cally) speaking, the god of ecstasy and ritual madness, a theological representation of the
nocturnal, violent, disordered, orgiastic manifestations of human life (the archetype of
Indestructible Life, as Kernyi has called him). In this extent, and to speak in Nietzschean
terms, Apollo would represent the opposite pole: Apollo, symbol of order (ordinary time) ver-
sus Dionysus, symbol of disorder (extra-ordinary time: festival). It is virtually impossible to
assess the cultural extension and relevance of the haunting, persistent and more or less con-
scious presence of Nietzsches conception of dionysism in the interpretation of festival(s),
and it would certainly be inappropriate to discuss that presence in this paper; however useful
observations related to that issue can be found in Pisi 2003 and Testa 2010a.

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as V. Lanternari came out, in a late article, with the following sentence: In

a broad historical and anthropological sense, festival can be considered as
an autonomous phenomenological category of culture (V. Lanternari 1997:
259). With Jesi and Lanternari, the irrational feature had disappeared, but the
uniqueness of festive experience remained.

III Different Approaches and Criticisms

The historical path sketched so far must not be taken as linear. Rather, the his-
tory of studies about festivals is full of divergences and disagreements. The dif-
ferent tendencies observable in it must not be conceived as consequentialin
a logical or chronological orderbut rather as crossed, often divergent as well
as sometimes parallel or juxtaposed. Nevertheless, the main general tendency
I have outlined has probably been the primary and the most influential for
the greatest part of 20th century. However, some English anthropologists inter-
ested in rituals and festivals started to diverge significantly from this tendency
rather early on: they represent significant exceptions to it. Later on, other theo-
retical paradigms would contribute to the final overtaking and the partial dis-
qualification of the main tendency outlined in the previous section.
In the English-speaking world, beginning in the fifties with the works of
M. Gluckman (1963) and V. Turner (1966), we see a turning point in the field
of ritual studies.5 Although their approaches are certainly different, they both
focused on the relevance of certain festivals and rituals in the construction
and function of social dynamics and on their role in the maintenance or in the
contestation of social order. In particular, Turners model of the nature and
the mechanics of ritual structurea model which improved and completed
some earlier intuitions of A. Van Gennep (1909)would have a great influ-
ence, although not immediately and, especially, not in Southern Europe. In
fact, European studies were mostly oriented towards the study of folklore or
festive popular culture, which at the time followed especially either the struc-
tural paradigms or the classical comparative approaches.
In the late sixties, M. M. Bakhtin (1984 [1965]) affected greatly the histori-
cal and anthropological studies about carnivals and carnival-type festivals.
This influence is considered to be an important step towards a new intellec-
tual posture that focused on the political dimensions in traditional festivals.
For Bakhtin, European popular medieval and modern carnivals were moved
by an intrinsic charge of rebellion that manifested and dramatized social

5 For a very good critical compendium on ritual studies see Bell 2009.

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 51

conflicts. Bakhtins interpretation was both politically oriented and focused on

understanding the political dynamics enacted during medieval and modern
Work such as Bakhtin led some to abandon the model of the Sacred or
the search for an essential nature that would presumably lie somewhere in
the symbolic depths of traditional festivals. The main representatives of the
so-called Manchester School (Gluckman and Turner) contributed to this turn
both by furnishing new methodological tools with which to study festivals
and by contrasting the functionalist assumption of the immovability of social
order and the homeostatic function of its manifestations. Scholars (especially
in the fields of folklore and social history) started to focus on matters related to
the conflicts, the rifts, and the entropy in social order observable in festivals or
in rituals characterized by a festive dimension.
The seventies witnessed the rise of other methodological paradigms
that greatly affected the study of festivals. The interpretative turn in anthro-
pology, largely promoted by C. Geertz, was an important shift. For our
concerns, Geertzs celebrated study on the Balinese cocks fight (1973) repre-
sented a spur for new experiments in the investigation of public rituals. With
Geertz, we are far from the search for essences, archetypical symbols or meta-
historical realities hidden in the folds of human experience. Rather, the thick
description of a given social phenomenon would allow the ethnographer, in
Geertzs opinion, to decode the meanings embedded and codified in social
practices. It was a call both for a new tension in doing fieldworkfor the
anthropologistsand for a refinement of the interpretative tools with which
to study social realitiesfor social scientists in general.
Two French social scientists also contributed to this renovation of meth-
odological and theoretical paradigms in social sciences: P. Bourdieu and
M. Foucault, whose influence has been remarkable and is still dominant in
social sciences and humanities. Bourdieu and Foucault never addressed fes-
tivals or festive culture as an autonomous field of study, but their theoretical
paradigms could be usedand have been usedfruitfully to examine festi-
vals, as we shall see below.
In Latin countries, the study of festivals had, in the meantime, grown sig-
nificantly, becoming a major area of study.6 As already stated, new or dif-
ferent methodological proposals on the study of festivals and related topics
penetrated Southern Europe quite slowly. Nevertheless, if Italian studies on

6 It is in this intellectual moment and context that the first work on the history of the studies
on festivals was produced, with a manifest tension towards a critical deconstruction of the
notion of festival as known and used particularly in France and in Italy: Isambert 1982.

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the festive sphere in non-Western societies were still rather rare and poor,
Italian theories and studies on European popular culture or folklore (Storia
delle tradizioni popolari) were, on the contrary, well-developed and strongly
established. In Italy, the majority of studies on festivals followed the tendency
highlighted in the first section of this paper. Many works focused on the car-
nival; others, on more general topics such as the festive behavior (Lanternari
1981; Solinas 1981). Among the dozens of titles on carnivals produced in Latin
European Countries, four of the most innovative deserve to be mentioned
here: Baroja 1985; Bertolotti 1991; Fabre, Camberoque 1977 and Le Roy Ladurie
1979. The former represents the first attempt to give an all-embracing over-
view, both historical and anthropological, on the carnival; Fabre, Camberoque
1977 is relevant in terms of ethnographic strategies proposed for observing and
interpreting living carnivals and is now considered a classic of the French
post-structural Ethnologie de lEurope; Bertolotti 1991 and Le Roy Ladurie
1979 are examples of a particular kind of historical anthropology called micro-
history. They approached the study of their specific carnivals from new per-
spectives, giving a new breath to historical anthropology of popular festive
culture by addressing explicitly the issue of the political dimension in popular
Others studies, from different intellectual points of view, have further con-
tributed to redirect the essentialist conceptions about festivals and, in particu-
lar, about popular festivals. Here we can quote the ethnographic experiments
of C. Gallini (1971) about Sardinian religious festivals, the innovativeness of
some of the studies contained in Bianco, Del Ninno 1981a book devoted to
the semiotics of the festival, an experiment already undertaken, but with less
success, in Mesnil 1974or the attempt of classification and categorization of
Italian popular festivals on the basis of formalistic and structural criteria by
L. Mazzacane (1985).
Nevertheless, it is principally in recent Italian scholarly literature that this
tendency towards a radical rethinking of the theoretical and methodological
issues in the study of festivals has been particularly acute and evident. In the
last twenty years new conceptual and methodological tensions about festivals
have come into being, mostly as a reactionor at least a critical attitudeto
the traditional Italian interpretative perspectives. I believe that this Italian
turn should not be underestimated nor go unrecognized. However, in spite
of its pertinence, this tendency and the publications in which it has been
developed have had no echoes, with very few exceptions, in the international
debateand at least for now.

7 Most of these last Italian and French studies had actually already assimilated the issues pres-
ent in the literature that we shall discuss in the fourth section of this paper.

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 53

P. Apolito has given a critical account on European classical literature on

festivals in his Observations for the ethnography of festivals (Apolito 1993).
Starting from a very brief but reasoned history of the study, he assesses the
issues related to the psychology of the festive behavior (to use Lanternaris
expression) in non-irrational terms. He then reviews several different para-
digms about festivals as an operational category, inquiring about the validity
of the holistic notion of festival to identify the ever-changing, multiform and
irreducible social substance of festive-like events in the post-modernity.
It is only in the first decade of the new millennium, however, that a radical
methodological and theoretical turning point has been promoted in Italy by
B. Palumbo and F. Faeta.
In his monograph on the poetics and politics of cultural heritage in east-
ern Sicily (Palumbo 2006 [2003]), B. Palumbo articulated his uneasiness about
the usual Italian way of interpreting festivals. Faced with the problem of fes-
tivals and public events during his fieldwork, Palumbo found out that it was
hard to find useful methodological tools for the study of Italian festivals in
Italian scholarly literature, and that he had to find these tools elsewhere, espe-
cially in English-language study (he was, for example, the first Italian scholar
to apply Handelmans tripartite system to an Italian case). Palumbo also
reported the lack of ethnographic depth in Italian studies on festivals, despite
the fact that festivals are among the main research fields in Italian so-called
domestic anthropology (that is to say, in Italian anthropological studies on
Italian contexts).
F. Faeta focused his criticism on two main objects: a) Italian demolo-
gia or storia delle tradizioni popolari (folklore); and b) the theorization of
F. Jesi, whom we encountered in the first section. Faeta demonstrates how
Italian studies of festivals, in the second half of the last century, have culpably
ignored the foreign scholarly literature about the same topic. The ignorance
of new methodological approaches towards the study of festival went along
with the effects of rooted ruralismothe typical Italian predilection for the
study of rural, marginal contexts, typically on the basis of a romantic, nostal-
gic vision of traditional rural world, seen as more spontaneous, genuine and
filled with cultural meanings(Faeta 2005: 155). The negative synergy of these
intellectual tendencies led to a deep methodological and theoretical hiatus
between the Italian studies on festivals and those produced in other coun-
tries (especially in English-speaking countries). As for the reaction to Jesi, its
extent is already evident in the title of Faeta article: Un oggetto conoscibile
(a knowable object) as opposed to the notion of unknowability stressed by
Jesi (1977).8 Faeta writes that the festivalas well as any other aspect/fact of

8 Actually some critical observations on Jesis model are already present in Apolito 1993: 25-29.

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social lifeis not an object beyond the possibilities of our understanding, but
on the contrary a phenomenon that can and must be understood by a critical,
reflexive and theoretically well-informed ethnographic practice. Furthermore,
he introduces both the necessity of giving more attention to the concrete
social practices (agency) of the agents in the moment of the festival, a ques-
tion neglected by Italian studies and that Faeta wishes to be revaluated espe-
cially following the theoretical suggestions by P. Bourdieu and other theorists
of social agency.
The discussion on the methodological gap between Italian and non-Italian
studies on festival and on power dimensions in them has been laterand
quite recentlyresumed by P. Palumbo (2009). As well as Faeta, Palumbo
addresses the influence of ruralism and of the taste for archaism and primitiv-
ism typical of the Italian anthropology of 20th century, but he also does a his-
tory of these influences, inferring that they were rooted in Italy because of the
strength of well-established academic currents like the storia delle tradizioni
popolari or the storia delle religioni. For Palumbo, the monopolistic interest
for survivals, rituals, and religious features in festive Italian culture has been
the result of the presence and intellectual impact of those currents, which in
his view are eventually responsible for the Italian anthropological backward-
ness in the study of festival. What Palumbo strongly suggests at the end of his
introduction is to abandon, at last, those methods and the theoretical models
that sustain them in favor of an ethnographically oriented study of the power
relations in festivals.9

9 It is to be mentioned here that another crucial interest in the field of the studies on fes-
tival developed, more or less collaterally and contemporaneously to the Italian tendency
introduced in the second section, in Italy as well as elsewhere in Europe: the interest on
the relationships between traditional festivals and contemporary ones, with a primary focus
not necessarily on the aspects linked to power, but rather on the dimensions of the per-
formances, the constructions of identity, the production of meaning(s), the manipulations
and reinterpretation of symbols; in short with the aspects of continuity or discontinuity
observable in festive manifestations come to the modernity from the past. In Europe, in the
last decades, old or traditional festivals have been re-interpreted, re-functionalized, re-
enacted according to the needs of our contemporary times, doubtless radically different from
the ones of pre-modern or pre-industrial Europe. Studies on this phenomenon of reuse and
revitalization of traditional festivalsa phenomenon that shows several similitudes in spite
of the cultural differences of the places where it occurred and occurscan be found already
in the Seventies (Gallini 1971; Fabre, Camberoque 1977; Padiglione 1979), although it is only
from the eighties onwards that this tendency in the field of anthropology becomes really
relevant (see Ario 1997; Bindi 2009; Boissevain 1992; Bravo 1984; Grimaldi 2002; Faeta, Ricci
2007; Sordi 1982; Testa 2010b; 2011; 2012; some of these studies, like Bindi 2009; Boissevain
1992, also discuss openly, from an ethnographic as well as comparative perspective, matters
related to the power dimensions of festivals).

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 55

All the works mentioned so far in this second section have contributed, in
different times and ways, to refuse, partially or sometimes totally, the univo-
cal, essentialist category of festival constructed in the works mentioned in
the first section. Influenced by different paradigms and approaches such as
the longue-dure studies, the semiotic glance, the deconstruction of theo-
retical notions, the incommensurable realities described by ethnographic
monographs, etc., in the last years the category festival has turned from a rei-
fied and apparently solid intellectual building into an ice statue that melts
under the light of historical contextualization and anthropological relativism.
Nevertheless, we continue to speak about festivals, to study them and to refer
to them practically in the same terms. We all know what a festival is despite
the fact that we lack an holistic definition of it. This contradictory nominalis-
tic dimension in social sciences seems to be an inherent, ineliminable aporia,
but, after all, writing culture [cannot be done] without naming and compar-
ing things, without formulating concepts for naming and comparing things
(Wolf 2001: 386).

IV A (Re)Turning Point in Theory and Method: Don Handelmans

Models and Mirrors

Models and Mirrors. Towards an anthropology of public events, by D. Handelman

(1990) marks a crucial moment in the history of studies on festivals.10
Handelmans thoughts and methods derive both from an assimilation of the
lesson of the so-called Manchester school and from the theoretical outcomes
of the interpretative and reflexive turns of the seventies and the eighties.
Handelmans approach to the study of festivalsan approach that addresses
both historical and ethnographic examplescan be described as a neo-func-
tionalism deeply concerned with the features of power.
According to my reading, the three main questions that Handlman asks
himself in his study of several historical and ethnographic examples of
rituals/festivals/public events (The Palio of Siena, the Christmas mumming in
Newfoundland, the State ceremonies of Israel, the Dance of Man of the Tewa,
etc.) are: 1) what kinds of relationships are there between the structure and the
function of an event and the social order of which the event itself is a product?;
2) In what terms may this relationship be explained?; and 3) Is it possible to con-
struct a formalized paradigm which points out and explains the different kinds
of interactions between public events and the society in which they occur?

10 In Handelmans book the notion of public event is often used as a synonym of public
ritual and festival, although those two terms/notions are also present in the book.

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These three questions are related to a more fundamental one: why study festi-
vals orto use Handelmans own terminologypublic events? Handelmans
answer is as simple as it is effective: for the ethnographer, public events are
privileged points of penetration into other social and cultural universes (1990:
9), and this is possible because of the strong function that public events have in
every society. In effect, a key-concept in the work of Handelman is function. In
his opinion, no anthropological enquiry can avoid it: the functional relation-
ship lies at the epistemological core of any concepts of public events (1990:
12), and this is because public events are characterized by a profound dimen-
sion of codifications of values, beliefs, practices. As a consequence, the codes
by which relevant cultural features are expressed are embedded in a meta-
design (Handelman 1990: 7 and passim), to be conceived as the general logics
of the structure of an event. This meta-design can be connectedor rather is
functionalto three different patterns or models. In effect, despite the title of
the book, Handelmans interpretative proposal is tripartite. He develops three
macro-categories of public events, each of which stands as a representative
model of a kind of relationship between a given event and the social order in
which it comes into being. The models have been conceived to be adaptable to
any historical or ethnographic context. I will continue to use the word event,
according to the authors choice, but actually also the word/notion of festival
may define (almost all) the cases described or theorized by Handelman.
The first typology is events-that-model the social reality. Events ascribable
to this category permit one to operate in social life, and to change something in
it. These events are therefore characterized by a transformational dimension:
the actions performed in them are codified in the reality and affect the world.
For instance, rites of passage or public exorcisms can be considered examples of
events-that-model, because both dramatize and cause a change that shapes
one or more members of the society. These events are also characterized by a rela-
tive predictability: the ritual performances in them are not casual but causal, and
their purpose is to cause an expected or desired change in something: an event-
that-models must have predictive capabilities [...], it contains futures in itself
(Handelman 1990: 28). Conflicts or rebellions can be dramatized in such types
of events.
Events-that-present are events that reflect, by giving a standardized and
predetermined image, the social order or some aspects of social reality in
which they are imagined and lived and for which they are functional; The
event of presentation holds up a mirror to social order (Handelman 1990: 48).
No conflicts or transformations are brought or dramatized by these events:
they are supposed to show, justify or glorify the order as it is. They are the most
suitable forand used byhierarchies, because their purpose is to maintain,

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 57

legitimize and strengthen the status quo. It is not by chance that they are rep-
resentative of totalitarian regimes.
Events that represent social reality (events-that-re-present, the third type)
are constructed differently and are functional to different scopes: if events-
that-present are axiomatic icons of versions of social realities, then events that
re-present do work of comparison and contrast in relation to social realities
(Handelman 1990: 49). Intuitively, the ideal-type of this category is the car-
nival, and in fact Handelman choses the medieval carnival of Nuremberg to
exemplify it. Performances like masking and mumming are perfect manifesta-
tions of events ascribable to this typology inasmuch as they express a distorted
or ideal (but more often distorted, negative) representation of the society or
of some aspects of the society. Events-that-re-present express how the soci-
ety should or should notor might or might notbe, whereas events-that-
present show how the society is (or must be).
It is quite evident that each of these models can be referred to as more
functional (but not exclusively functional) to different cultural tendencies:
events of presentation seem associated especially with modern, bureaucratic
states; events of modelling with tribal and traditional people; while events of-
representation tend to an association with traditional, hierarchical societies
(Handelman 1990: 77).
Handelman does not consider these three models as concrete examples
of certain kinds of events, and in fact he underscores that these typological
aids are meta-designs of public events, not the events themselves (1990: 23).
Handelman is extremely critical of his own proposal and often, in the long
theoretical introduction to his book, he tries to anticipate the objections that
might arise. It is he himself who enlightens certain weaknesses of his system,
suggesting not to consider it as decisive or motivated by dogmatic aims (1990:
As for other issues related to power or to the politics of festivals present in
Handelmans speculation, I will address them more explicitly in the last sec-
tion of this study.

11 There have been several reactions to Handelmans theorization: he answers some of

these critical reviews and deepens certain theoretical aspects of his tripartite model in
the preface to the second edition of his book (Handelman 1999). For an application of
Handelmans paradigm to an Italian festive casean application described as fruitful as
well as problematicsee Palumbo 2006: 303-306.

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V Analytics of Power

We have read that, for Handelman, festivals and public events are privileged
points of penetration into other social and cultural universes (and I would
stress: not only in other but even in familiar cultural universes). This argu-
ment likely comes via V. Turner who argues that the anthropology of perfor-
mance is an essential part of the anthropology of experience. In a sense, every
type of cultural performance, including ritual, ceremony, carnival, theatre and
poetry is an explanation of life itself [...]. Through the performance process
itself, what is normally sealed up, inaccessible to everyday observation and
reasoning, in the depths of sociocultural life, is drawn forth [...] (1982: 13).
Considering festival as a privileged moment in the social life of a community is
an opinion shared even by authors who belong to different fields of research:
Thomas Pettitt, a historian of late-medieval English literature and theatre, has
written that social history has learnt to appreciate festival as a valuable win-
dow on society and its structures (Pettitt 2005: XXI).
Social universes, sociocultural life, social structures: these expres-
sions, quoted in the last lines, have belonged to the historical, sociological and
anthropological vocabulary for more than a century. As we have seen, the main
focus in the study of the realities behind them has switched, with time, from
general cultural, symbolical, religious topics to the one of power and the ways
in which and by which power relations express, control, characterize social
manifestations (such as festivals).
Nevertheless, the concept of power itself is ambiguous and has been
intended differently by different theorists. There is no such a thing as a con-
ventional definition of power as a phenomenon of social life or, at least,
as a notion used in social sciences. Power is a concept present in the entire
history of Western political philosophy, and has been formulated in diverse
and often contradictory ways. It goes far beyond the scope of this paper to
propose an outline of the notion of power, though a theoretical digression on
power seems necessary in order to justify and establish my use of the concept.
Hence, I will briefly point out the main theoretical references for a conception
of power useful for festive studies, the first of which is doubtlessly found in
the thought of the first theoretician who made of power his main concern and
who explored it in modern and scientific terms: K. H. Marx. However, an even
greater influence in the construction of the conception of power in anthropo-
logical terms and in its use in the field of festival studies has had the Italian
Marxist thinkerand founder of Italian Communist PartyA. Gramsci, espe-
cially through his theory of hegemony, developed in different passages of the
Quaderni dal carcere (2007 [1951]).

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 59

There are two main dimensions in the Gramscian formulation of the con-
cept of hegemony. The first one is related to the commonsensical sense of the
world, which comes directly from the meaning the word had in ancient Greek,
namely the predominance of one political entity over another; the second one,
much more fruitful from a theoretical point of view, is about how this predomi-
nance is possible, and, for instance, how it is possible for dominant class(es) of
a given society to maintain their control over the dominated one(s). It must be
said that at the basis of this theoretical concern, for Gramsci, stood the ques-
tion of why, in capitalistic societies, the classes of workers had not risen up
against their exploiters, as predicted by Marx. Gramsci answered himself: it is
because the hegemony is not only political, but also cultural. As D. Strinati has
written about this feature of Gramscis thought, dominant groups in society,
including fundamentally but not exclusively the ruling class, maintain their
dominance by securing the spontaneous consent of subordinate groups,
including the working class, through the negotiated construction of a politi-
cal and ideological consensus which incorporates both dominant and domi-
nated groups (1995: 166). Cultural hegemony, in Gramscian terms, is both the
domination itself and the result of more or less conscious strategies of social
engineering implemented by the dominant classes/groups/strata to maintain
the domination, through the subtle and non-necessarily coercive imposition
of their vision of the world, over the subordinate classes/groups/strata.
There is actually another link between Gramscis thought and the field
of festival studies: starting both from the general suggestions on hegemony
present in Gramsci 2007 (1951) and from the ones about folklore in Gramsci
1991 (1952), Italian ethnologist A. M. Cirese (1966, 1973 [1971]), followed by
L. M. Lombardi Satriani (1974), A. M. Di Nola (1976) and then, closely, by oth-
ers, developed a theory of a structural demarcation which, although expressed
slightly differently by these scholars, can be summarized as follows: accord-
ing to Gramscis estimation of folklore as the philosophy of the subaltern
classes (1991 [1952]), popular culture started to be conceived and theorized
as the more or less coherent and homogenous culture of subaltern classes in
opposition to the culture or hegemonic classes. This model had been some-
how present even in previous theorization of popular culture (in the one of
Bakhtin for example), but had never been structured in rigorous theoretical
terms (as, for instance, in the reference handbook Cultura egemonica e cul-
ture subalterne, Cirese 1973 [1971]). According to this development of origi-
nal Gramscis ideas, folklore is to be conceived as one of the main cultural
outcomes of deep structural and social differences: the set of beliefs and
practices of the lower classes throughout the history of Europe. According
to this perspective, the folklore had therefore an inherently contestativeif

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not subversivecharge, representing the main cultural dimension of one of

the two cultural poles in the very polarized Gramscian-oriented conception
of hegemony applied to European contexts. This paradigm was thenand
roughly in the same termsborrowed by French historical anthropologists of
the Middle Ages (Le Goff 2000 [1979], Schmitt 1988) and then by many schol-
ars interest in popular culture in medieval, modern and contemporary times
(Burke 2009 [1978]; Clemente, Meoni, Squillaciotti, 1976; Di Nola 1976, just to
quote few examples),12 and it was since then declined, adjusted or nuanced
differently according to different needs for different topics or fields of research.
I shall return below to the relevance of the paradigm of cultural hegemony for
a critical anthropology of festivals.
Like Gramsci, P. Bourdieu constructs part of his theory upon that of Marx.
Here we will focus only on one part of his vast, outstanding production, namely
on his formulation of capital(s) as a crucial point in his speculation about the
nature and the dimensions of power in society as well as a theory useful in the
field of festival studies.
Bourdieu distinguishes three main types of capital: 1) economic capi-
tal, 2) cultural capital, 3) social capital. He writes: capital can present itself
in three fundamental guises: as economic capital, which is immediately and
directly convertible into money and may be institutionalized in the forms of
property rights; as cultural capital, which is convertible, on certain conditions,
into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the forms of educational
qualifications; and as social capital, made up of social obligations (connec-
tions), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and
may be institutionalized in the forms of a title of nobility (1986: 242).13 For
Bourdieu, these capitals or sub-forms of a sole Capital are the product and at
the same time the currency in the market where the objects and the relation-
ships that regulate the mechanisms of the reproduction of the social structures
and hierarchies are traded. This social dynamics of reproduction is possible
mainly because capitals are partially cumulative, partially transmissible and
partially convertible into each other. How that can be of a methodological use
in the study of festival will be pointed out later.

12 For an early assessment of the methodological relevance of this paradigm, see Isambert
1982: 62-72; more recent and exhaustive are Strinati 1995 and the introduction to Burke
13 Bourdieus theory of capital(s) is absolutely preeminent in his thought, to the extent that
he considered the structure of the distribution of the different types or subtypes of capi-
tal at a given moment in time represents the immanent structure of the social world
(1986: 241).

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 61

As previously stated, another French theorist, M. Foucault, has been explic-

itly and deeply concerned by the notion of power. It is not simple to assess
Foucaults ideas on power inasmuch as during his intellectual career Foucaults
views on power changed significantly. Initially, he used power as a relational
factor produced and enacted in a complex set of social processes, not only
as the empirical result of the action of an individual, a given social class, the
statealthough this feature is not neglected in Foucaults literature (see, for
instance, Foucault 1975). Foucault later developed new methods and even a
new academic language in the will of exploring the dimensions of power but
without the King (1977: 125). For him, power seems to be a multiform thing
that exists and operates in social life, giving validity to the systems of truths,
founding the legitimacy of discourses, shaping the conception of human body
as well as shaping human body itself and the ways it is conceived and manipu-
lated. In its factual expressions, Foucaults power can be a violent and repres-
sive force as well as a positive condition for the stability of social life and the
production of knowledge. Foucault never theorized power in definitive terms
or bonded it to a univocal definition. Power is something that underlies and
gives lymph to his writings as well as it does in social life.14 To what extent and
how Foucaults speculation on power might be useful for a better understand-
ing of the dynamics of festival will be stated in the next section.

VI Feasts of Power15

Festivals are always embedded in moments and places given (given by the
calendar mostly, and mostly according to the tradition or other forms of
social habits). As such, festivals can be considered as a privileged modality for
the socialization of space and time, as A. Appadurai has written (2001: 233);
a sort of super-social moment in which space and time are filled with
non-ordinaryalthough fully socially relevantmeanings. And the experi-
ences of time and space themselves are always related to power.
J. Le Goff has rightly argued that only the charismatic holders of power
are the masters of calendar: kings, clergymen, revolutionaries (Le Goff J.
1979: 501).16 It is therefore not a chance if calendrical reforms have always

14 An anthology of Foucaults writings explicitly consecrated to the theme of power is

Microfisica del potere (1977).
15 In this section, I will focus rather on European cases, which are more familiar to me.
16 In his outstanding essay on calendar and historical calendars (1979), Le Goff often
broaches the issues of the political control of time. By the quoted synecdoche kings,

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been resisted or openly refused by subaltern classes (Le Goff 1979; Grimaldi
2002): festivals depended on a calendar, and whereas the hegemonic classes
manipulated the calendars with more or less freedom and according to given
circumstantial needs or interests, traditional festivals based on a calendar were
on the contrary the most important moment in popular culture, as we have
seen. However, with the passage from the pre-industrial world to the modern
(industrial or post-industrial) world, the relevance of calendrical dimensions
of festival has been radically involved and transformed. I would not go as far as
V. Valeri, who argues that the social time, which was mainly cyclic and revers-
ible in the traditional world, becomes mainly irreversible and numeric: Swiss
clocks are our festivals (1979: 949). Nevertheless, it is doubtless that the con-
ceptions, the perceptions and the practice of festivals have radically changed
in the last two centuries. Certain social functions accomplished by the festivals
in the traditional world are today accomplished by other social events: the cul-
ture of clubbing, discothque and other forms of leisure or rupture of ordinary
time and b ehaviorespecially under the shape (still calendar!) of week-end
eventsare probably good examples (see Testa 2011).17
The festival remains a major social phenomenon, especially in the life of
the most macroscopic product of modernity: the nation-state, and its main
condition/effect: nationalism. The power dimension of festivals in the modern
world cannot be approached without considering the issues of nationalism
and the cultural strategies of nations. Festivals and public events are nowa-
days almost always placed under the direct or indirect surveillance of the main
emanation of the power of the nation-state: bureaucracy. The recent anthro-
pological awareness of the bureaucratic tendency to gaze at, infiltrate and, if
possible, control all the aspect of social life does not allow us to underestimate
its power in the perspective of a deep investigation of festive dimensions in
contemporary Western world.18

clergymen, revolutionaries, Le Goff refers probably to the three most important calendar
revolutions in the history of Western world: the calendar reform by Julius Caesar, the
Gregorian reform by Pope Gregory XIII and the calendrier rpublicain imposed during
the French Revolution.
17 The transformations and the discontinuities to which the festival has been subjected in
the last two centuries have been studied from different perspectives (as already pointed
out: see the literature quoted at the end of note 9).
18 Reflections on the power of bureaucracy and its immense role in shaping the modern
state are already present in Marx. M. Weber gave an early, important contribution to
the matter (1978 [1922]). In the anthropological debate, M. Herzfeld has given a major
contribution (Herzfeld 1992). D. Handelman, pushing some Herzfelds arguments on an
extreme conclusion, has written that bureaucracy is a structure of hegemonic conscious-

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 63

As we have already assessed, D. Handelman has deeply explored and con-

ceptualized the relations between festivals and national/bureaucratic logics
in several works (Handelman 1990; 1999; 2004; Shamgar, Handelman 1991),
focusing on the role of public eventsespecially mirror-events, the second
type according to his paradigmin the hegemonic reproduction of an ideo-
logical image of the society to be shown and participated by the society itself.
Handelman convincingly demonstrates that even apparently loosely orga-
nized or spontaneous festivals, such as the carnival of Rio de Janeiro, are actu-
ally deeply penetrated by bureaucratic substances and moved by bureaucratic
dynamics. Thus, this pervasiveness of nation bureaucracies and their will of
controlling as many manifestations of social life as possible allows Handelman
to bridge two apparently incomparable cases: despite its [the carnival of Rio
de Janeiro] exciting allure, the distance between this carnival and the totalitar-
ian spectacles has narrowed considerably (1999: XXXIX). After all, totalitar-
ian Western regimes were as bureaucratic as the ones that had preceded and
followed them, not to speak about the case of Soviet Union, whose powerful,
Kafkaesque bureaucracy is proverbial.
When bureaucracy meets a very hierarchical social order and when parox-
ysmal nationalistic sentiments permeate society, as in the cases of totalitar-
ian regimes, the moment of festivaland public events in generalgains
even more power of representing and solidifying hierarchies and order. The
liturgical solemnity of public manifestations during Fascism has been deeply
investigated in all its social, political and symbolical implications by E. Gentile,
who has proposed the notion of sacralization of politics (2003) to describe
its effects. The ritual, almost religious dimension of the cult of the Duce or
of the Fascio Littorio during public gatherings functioned both as an expo-
sition of power of the hierarchy and of its highest point (the Duce) and as
a machine to produce sentiments of participation, solidarity, patriotism and,
thus, consensus.
Similarly, in his outstanding study on the nationalization of the masses,
G. Mosse (2001) has argued that the consensus for the Third Reich and the
veneration for Hitler were constructed and reproduced constantly by a set
of discourses, symbols and practices enacted by the hierarchies for the scope
of maintaining and rooting the control over German masses. The martial
solemnity of Nazi parades, the sacral aura that surrounded Hitlers speeches,
the living participation of hundreds of thousands of people created a synergic

ness in the modern world (1999: XXX) and that the bureaucratic practice is constituted
through the invention, use and modification of taxonomies that generate and change
social realities (1999: XXXI; see also Shamgar, Handelman 1991).

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atmosphere that inspired sentiments of order and brotherhood amongst the

German people, finally reunited under the symbol of the Swastika. Parades,
gatherings, national festivals wereand must berigidly ordered, coordi-
nated and organized just as rigidly ordered, coordinated and organized was
and must beGerman society, army and hierarchies. Public events truly were
(hegemonic) mirrors that projected an image of the order of the Third Reich.19
The symbols manipulated and implemented in totalitarian public events
represented the structured elements of a social engineering that, in the last
analysis, was meantconsciously, probably for the first time in historyto
orientate and control the psychology of masses. The main purpose was, obvi-
ously, to raise consensus by raising sentiment of nationalism and, by doing so,
reproducing the social order created with the rise of the dictatorships. In these
terms, the collective experiences as such (regardless of their specific nature),
became politically relevant.20
In democratic nation-states, as already mentioned, festivals and public
events can function similarly, namely as mirrors of social order, although with-
out certain of the above-mentioned features that are proper of totalitarian
states. However, it must be said here that festivals can function not only as a
vehicle of sentiments of nationalism or consensus, but also for contestation
and resistance, especially among minorities.
For example, in 2008 the carnival of Notting Hill, Londonwhich is sup-
posed to be the second biggest carnival in the world, after the one of Rio de
Janeiro (Malik 2011)ended with violent riots. Actually disorders and violence
seem to have been quite usual in this carnival, not only in the last years (Malik
2011), but also in the last decades: the riots of 1976 have been studied by several
scholars (see, for instance, Jackson 1988). Both in the seventies and recently, the
disorders have been caused by what the media have called the London black
youthmainly of Caribbean originswho have several times transformed a
loved, massively participated carnival into an arena in which social tensions

19 Nazi and Fascist cases are not unique, of course. Other historical examples could be
quoted, and, if it is true that popular festivals have been of the greatest importance dur-
ing medieval and modern times, it is equally true that not all festivals were exclusively
popular or, better, symbolically relevant only for lower classes; on the contrary, it has been
demonstrated that festivals and their ceremonies were used as manifestations of power
by the upper classes in any medieval society (Mnd 2005: 11), and in modern era as well
(Burke 2009: 270).
20 Studies on the relations between nationalism(s) and festival(s) are growing in the last
years. It is not the scope of this script to review all of them. I have already quoted certain
examples that I consider particularly significant. However, exhaustive references will be
found in the bibliographies of Handelman 1999; 2004 and Palumbo 2009.

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 65

were dramatized. The festival was used for political or pseudo-political pur-
poses in spite of its (apparent) non-political nature. Regarding the Notting Hill
carnival disorders of 1976, it has been written that carnival as a contested event
that expresses political and ideological conflict (Jackson 1988: 214), began to
be used as an organizing mechanism for protest and opposition (216).21
More quiet but equally filled with social tensions are festivals like the mod-
ern feste padane promoted by the Italian party Lega Nord (Norher League)
or the traditional festivals in the Basque Country. These festivals express senti-
ments that go in different directions in the highway of nationalistic sensibility:
on one hand they deny the hegemonic nationalist discourse, that is to say the
discourse of the political state identity in which they come into being; on the
other hand, they affirm another type of nationalism based on the sentiments
of cultural identity and virtual political independency. In these contexts, festi-
vals are among the very few moments in which these sentiments can be freely
expressed and exposed.
Tendencies towards independence embedded in festivals, when they
oppose a form on nationalism to another one, like in the above-mentioned
cases, are linked to another form of politics of festivals: the construction of
identity through tradition(s). There are numerous historical and anthropo-
logical works about the politics of tradition in the making of culturalthere-
fore politicalidentities (Herzfeld 1982; Hobsbawm, Ranger 1983; Handler
1988; Palumbo 2006). Tradition, especially in the form of re-invented or

21 There are several interesting similitudes between the riots of the Notting Hill carnival in
1976 or 2008, the rising which took place in Romans, a French village, during the carnival
of 1580 (Le Roy Ladurie 1979) and the masked protest of a group of communist peasants
during the carnival of Governolo, in northern Italy, in 1950 (Bertolotti 1991). Examples
could be multiplied, but these ones are particularly representative. Carnival, in Europe
as well as elsewhere in the places where it has been imported, is still the most multiform
and unpredictable type of festival, as it has been for centuries: although it represents
exemplarily the third type in Handelmans paradigmnamely an event-that-re-presents
social orderand, above all, the safety-valve or social control theory (Burke 2009:
286), its symbolical and political malleability allows all kind of manipulation even nowa-
days. In fact, the carnivals quoted above and in the last lines of the text fit with each of
the two other types of Handelmans typology: the carnivals of Notting Hill, Romans and
Governolo, through the subversive violence that characterized the former two and the
contestative nature of the latter, functionedpartially at leastas events-that-model
society, or, better, as events that tried to model society inasmuch as their charge of social
protest stressed and put under pressure the social order; whereas the carnival of Rio,
insofar as it has been institutionalized through bureaucratizationas Handelman has
shownbecomes, paradoxically for a carnival, a mirror of the social order in which it
takes lieu.

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re-functionalized oldor supposed sosocial facts, is a major social tool

used to create and structure identity; and the traditional manifestations par
excellence are rituals, ceremonies and festivals. An interesting case in the field
of the politics of festive traditional culture is the Notte della Taranta, a folk
music festival held every summer in Salento, southern Italy, and studied by the
anthropologist G. Pizza (2004) amongst others. Despite the traditional imagi-
nary to which it refers, this festival has been literally invented some years ago,
becoming quickly a major social phenomenon with important economic and
political implications in the area. In this case also, the festival produces sen-
timents of locality, authenticity, cultural community and belonging amongst
participants, sentiments which usually go either in the direction of localism
(conceived as a tendency more or less opposed to nationalism) or of national
pride for the cultural diversity and the peculiarities of the nation.
On the first of December 2011, Romania celebrated its 93rd Independence
Day. Thousands of people gathered around the Arcul de Triumf in Bucarest.
However, despite the festive intention and atmosphere and despite the big
popular participation to the military parade and other celebrations, the politi-
cians, amongst which the Prime Minister and the President of Republic him-
selfnamely the highest representatives of the Statewere severely booed
during their speeches by thousands of people protesting for the economic
condition of the country: the mirroring, hierarchically-set function of the fes-
tival was wasted by the reaction and the contestation of people. The order was
ridiculed and put under pressure in the very moment of its self-celebration.

Today, the festival is the playground where the ethnographer can discover,
observe and participate in the actions of the social agents in their manipulation
and use of symbols, in the negotiations of political interests and claims, and in
the expressions of the inner tensions that lie within a given social context. The
metaphor of the playground is useful to imagine the concrete moment/place
of the festival in which social agents (or social classes) operate according to
different purposes and often regardless of the function or the nature of the
festival itself. An event when/where the agency of agents and social structures
can either collimate or collide. In fact, festivals, conceived as deeply codified
and meaningful moments in the social life of a given community, are obvi-
ously charged with tensions embedded in social expectations, political claims,
religious passions, individual emotions, and so on; tensions whose force can
either support or destabilize the hegemonic order and its functional imagi-
naries. Thus, the playground of festival is a catalyst of power, and history has

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Rethinking the Festival: Power and Politics 67

shown us that, in the very moment of the play on the ground, this charge
of power may be discharged, often with dramatic results. To this effect, the
outcome (or the ultimate function) of festivals is inherently unpredictable,
in spite of the usual fixity and apparently indolent, perpetual return of festivals
in the circular time of seasons, culturally ratified by the calendar.
As for the historical research regarding festivals, the task might be the same:
a critical reading of sourcesof any kindaware of the issues highlighted
so far and attentive to the power dynamics which were enacted in past festi-
vals should permit to better understand and interpret how social agents oper-
ated power relations and how and why changes happened in time. However,
examples in historical studies about power dimensions in festivals are already
numerous, as we have seen, (for an overview on historical studies on festivals,
see Mnd 2005).
Thanks to the recourse to the methodological tools shaped by Gramsci,
Foucault, Bourdieu and Handelman, the power dimensions of present or past
festivals can be evaluated differently and more deeply.
From a Gramscian perspective, festivals can be conceived as a means by
which hegemonic groups express and transmit their set of values and their
vision of the world, enacting, more or less consciously, a strategy for the pro-
ductionand the acceptationof culturaltherefore politicalsubordina-
tion, which is necessary for a hegemonic order to survive and reproduce itself.
On the other hand, festivals can be used as a means of resistance or of cultural
awareness by subaltern groups. Power is therefore produced in the dialectics
between these two main poles of social structure, and festivals are amongst
the cultural manifestations in which these dialectics can be expressed and
Similarly, in Foucaultian terms, contemporary festivals can be considered as
devices for the expression and the use of power. But Foucaultian power is not
or rather not onlyembedded in a given social class; it is rather a dimension
which underlies any manifestation of social life. Foucaults micro-physics of
power drives the researches to know that power dimension is there, and that
discovering and interpreting it is only a question of how deep the researcher
is disposed to go into the study of his/her case: particles of power are always
present in the folds of highly-socialized moments as festivals in the shape of
actions based on discourses, knowledge, scientific conventions, uses of the
Bourdieus considerations on capital are useful to understand how social
agents and their capitals affect the logics of festivals. Bourdieus capital open
a window on the factual, procedural dimensions of the politics of festivals:
a festival is always organized or promoted or just lived, participated, acted

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differently by different social agents. The capitals are useful to understand why
some agents have more power. To make some virtual examples: in the case of
organized, commercial festivals, the representative of, say, a sponsoring com-
pany will certainly have more decisional power inasmuch as his/her economic
capital is higher than others; in the case of a traditional festival, an anthropol-
ogist will declare what is the deep, true meaning of the festival inasmuch as
his/her social capital is higher than others; in the case of an official festival, a
politician will have the privilege and the right of exposing him/herself in front
of the public and mark the beginning of the celebrations inasmuch as his/her
social capital is higher than others. It goes without saying that the processes
roughly exemplified so far produce and reproduce hierarchies, that is to say, a
formalization of power relations amongst social agents.
Uses of Handelmans theories are less problematic, because his method-
ological contribution was explicitly meant as a tool for the study of festivals
and because his tripartite paradigm has been shaped to be applied to different
cases. Furthermore, Handelman has thoroughly studied the political relations
between nation-state and festivals, which makes his approach relevant as well
as very practical and useful for contemporary cases.
We have seen that the idea of festivals as spontaneous manifestations of a
genuine popular sensibility or as the manifestations of some hidden dimen-
sions of human experience just fade out under the light of more critical
approaches. I will not negate or underestimate the relevance of the study of
elements linked to the religious or the emotional sphere as well as of the sym-
bolic aspects, the continuities or the ruptures that can be observed both in the
present and in the time.22 However, in this article I have tried to point out the
sphere of power as a relevant one to be explored in the study of festival.


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