Conclusion: Carnival, the Public Sphere, and Performance in Place

From: Haunted City

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143 Conclusion Carnival, the Public Sphere, and Performance in Place On New Year’s Day 1995 the Philadelphia Department of Recreation moved thousands of reluctant mummers from Broad Street to a new, downtown parade route wending past many of the city’s most famous tourist attractions . In Max Raab’s film Strut, a 2001 documentary on the Mummers Parade , mummer Ed Kirlin describes how he and the other members of the Froggy Carr Wench Brigade responded to this change. On the way to their starting position, Kirlin and his seven hundred white, male, cross-­ dressed confederates had to go through a really ritzy neighborhood, and apparently lots of guys were stopping to pee, and the people who lived in the neighborhood were appalled. If the city had any sense they woulda put some port-­ o-­ johns along the way because you can’t march three miles, drink beer the whole way, and not have to pee. It’s not our fault! So by the time we got to the parade route, the police captain was furious . . . and when we got to Fifth and Market [Streets], he ordered that our beer be confiscated, and when our captain protested , he was arrested. . . . He got arrested at Independence Hall, right in front of the Liberty Bell, and by the time we got to Eighth Street, word spread through the group that Tooth [Renzi], our captain , had been arrested, so we all sat down in the middle of the street—­ all seven hundred of us—­ and the Pirates [another wench brigade] heard what was happening. They brought their beer truck up, so we all started drinkin’ right away. . . . Tooth was in jail, we sat down and said we would not get up until they released our captain . . . . One of our guys . . . knew the superintendent of the police, and he said to him, he said, “you got four hundred cops out here, we got twelve hundred guys. It’s gonna take every cop you have in the city to arrest everybody and, you know, it’s gettin’ that way, it’s get- 144 haunted citY tin’ ugly.” Now it’s still only 9:00 in the morning! So they let Tooth go, and it was like Gandhi had arrived on the scene.1 This showdown between the Froggy Carr wenches and the Philadelphia police echoed the mummers’ 1964 sit-­ in to protest the city-­ imposed ban on blackface—­ although unlike their counterparts thirty-­ one years earlier, the Froggy Carr wenches were not blacked up. In the spirit of Philadelphia’s burlesque parade tradition, Froggy Carr and other mummers wench brigades use gender inversion to assert social and political power from below. In so doing, they constitute a public—­ not through the rational discourse of the Habermasian public sphere but rather through the carnivalesque symbolic vocabulary of popular street performance. This mode of publicity bears a formal resemblance to Paul Gilroy’s politics of transfiguration, through which disenfranchised racial and ethnic groups enact new forms of collectivity and resistance in a “partially hidden public sphere” of their own.2 And this formal resemblance poses a theoretical problem, insofar as the Froggy Carr wenches harness the politics of transfiguration to reinforce white male privilege, successfully placing themselves above the law. The Froggy Carr wenches make a queer sort of public, situated somewhere between Habermas’s normative conception of the public sphere and the minoritarian alternatives to bourgeois publicity celebrated by scholars like Gilroy. In a passage redolent of Gilroy’s comments on the politics of transfiguration, Michael Warner argues that “counterpublics . . . structured by alternative dispositions and protocols” can and do emerge “against the background of the public sphere,” enabling “new forms of intimate association , vocabularies of affect, styles of embodiment.”3 Without discounting Gilroy or Warner’s generative theories of (counter)publicity, the sit-­ in by the Froggy Carr wenches suggests that performances of social and symbolic inversion can also forge conservative and exclusionary publics, even when these publics take a direct stand against official authority. In New World Drama, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon posits the “performative commons” as a more robust model than the public sphere for performance historiography in the Atlantic world. In her view, “the ‘sphere’ model implies that a boundary delimits the space of the sphere, but the precise nature of that limit is often not addressed by those who envision the public as a sphere: what, for instance, lies beyond the edges of the sphere?”4 Pace Dillon, I contend that any public...