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  • Public Performances: Studies in the Carnivalesque and Ritualesque ed. by Jack Santino
  • Cristina Benedetti
Public Performances: Studies in the Carnivalesque and Ritualesque. Ed. Jack Santino. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2017. Pp. ix + 298, introduction, about the authors, index.)

Public Performances is a collection of essays from scholars who have presented at the annual Conference on Holidays, Ritual, Festival, Celebration, and Public Display, organized by Jack Santino, the editor of this volume. The first conference was in 1997; the gathering’s 15-year anniversary in 2011 offered the opportunity to “pause and reflect on the field of ritual studies, and the role and influence of the conference” (p. ix) and to subsequently create this collection. Public Performances is the fourth volume in the Ritual, Festival, and Celebration series edited by Santino and published by Utah State University Press.

Santino’s framework of the carnivalesque and the ritualesque gives this collection its subtitle and provides the volume’s theoretical through-line. First explored in “The Carnivalesque and the Ritualesque” (Journal of American Folklore 124:69–73, 2011), Santino coined the term “ritualesque” as a counterpart to Mikhail Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque” as discussed in Rabelais and His World (Indiana University Press, [1965] 1984). Both terms describe essential elements of public performances that are distinct but far from mutually exclusive. The “carnivalesque” refers to the expressive, transgressive, and temporary inversions that characterize certain public festivities. The “ritualesque” describes the sacralized and instrumental aspects of public display that use the power of ceremonial performance to mark or make social transformations. Moving away from defining events as either carnival or ritual, Santino suggests that the terms “carnivalesque” and “ritualesque” can be used to describe differing aspects within a particular event: often, both are present, and they interact in ways that are unique to each event and its social context. Santino also suggests that, rather than imagining a carnival/ritual binary, we can understand events as existing on a continuum between carnivalesque and ritualesque, depending on their social purposes (p. 14).

This collection offers the opportunity to see how different scholars are instrumentalizing these terms, which is one of its important contributions. Santino writes in the introduction that “it is hoped that the ensemble collection will help point the way, if not to a unified theory, then to a unified field of public display as emergent political popular culture,” and to an understanding of the multiple expressions encompassed by the term “public performance” (p. xiii). In this spirit, the essays in this volume succeed as a stock-taking moment in the study of public performance within the field of folklore. The essays are arranged to progress from traditional carnival to ritual to the ritualesque, and, over the course of the collection, it becomes clear that ritual and the ritualesque are central to many of these studies. The ritualesque takes on this special importance for its compelling applicability to grassroots social phenomena, particularly when groups or individuals earnestly work to transform their social worlds in the face of destructive prevailing norms and powerful institutions. The term “ritualesque” captures the sincere feeling and desire for transformation in contemporary phenomena without collapsing them into the term “ritual.”

Santino’s first chapter stakes out definitions of the carnivalesque and the ritualesque and introduces public space as another crucial dimension of the field of public performance. Public space can be claimed through material assemblages (such as vernacular shrines) or performative forms (such as processions). In either case, Santino says, everyday people asserting [End Page 107] their right to public space convey a sense of popular sovereignty that makes officialdom nervous. Indeed, throughout these essays, we see several examples of institutional actors reacting negatively to these vernacular acts.

The carnival case studies of chapters 2 and 3 both involve the overlapping elements of European carnival traditions and public celebrations in the Black Atlantic. Samuel Kinser provides comparative case studies of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Nuremberg, Germany, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century Port of Spain, Trinidad, which both experienced 70-year periods (“a two- to three-generational surge” [p. 39]) of expansive carnival activity. Roger D. Abrahams compares European- and African-derived festivities in places like New Orleans, Havana, and Rio...


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