Introduction The essays below were originally published inInside the Live Reptile Tent(Chronicle Books, 2001) to accompany photographs by Jeff Brouws. The Craig Krull gallery has selections of editions of Jeff’s sideshow photographs. The photos below are all from the Library of Congress and are not copyright protected. Inside the Live Reptile TentPhotos by Jeff Brouws. […]
This use of historicity engages heritage management in the larger power arena of cultural production, valuation, and consumption. Here is where heritage management decisions will ultimately succeed or fail. Heritage management proposes to add value to the cultural assets of a city. It can do this in either (or both) of two ways: by legitimating the antique value of the thing being managed, or by adding value its current manufacture. The former, antiquarian, impulse—the desire to produce monuments, historical parks, and museums—is generally (mis)taken as the main strategy for heritage management. And in Japan, where new building construction is viewed as a type of urban panacea, this impulse is particularly attractive to city leaders.
Rather, I want to suggest here that heritage management should look first to support practices which unify the place and its past with its everyday life in the present. This unity signals the active resonance a place has with its history.
It would be difficult to understate the importance the word ‘reflexivity”, in various uses, has acquired in the social sciences today. It is absolutely central to the debate about the conditions of late/post modernity: about modernity as an increasingly reflexive order wherein the “loops” of reflexive knowledge range from internal, personal “self-awareness,” to interpersonal, familial and social relationships, to global corporations that target trends in local markets by tracking innovations and reflexively appropriating these into new products. Reflexivity is the outcome and the input into the global knowledge industry. And it is the quiet voice of “self-help” that resists the influence of expert systems, reappropriating expert knowledge into the personal life project.
I do not here wish to present yet another argument about the need for cultural critique in the social sciences. I hope that the social sciences have gotten past the idea they cannot or should not be so engaged. After all, the peoples under study do this all of the time, and it is their reflexive critiques (or their lack), in and of the practices they do that makes up much of what social science might well consider one of its primary objects of study.
We commonly use their critiques (or the lack of these) to make our academic points. Realizing that we obligated to them for the use of this, perhaps the best way to repay this obligation is to then develop other critiques that are not available to the communities where we go as ethnographers, and to return these to the communities in some fashion. And here the “digital age” offers new conduits that connect in two directions: to and from the field. For example, by linking webpages ethnographers and communities can join into a common network of action and critique.
Under and over and around all of the ballyhoo, the sights and the sounds of carnival carry us away from our fears to where we confront simple, elemental risks. These present you with places—the banners and booths, the rides and the games—as a terrain of desire and risk. These images tell the story of the carnival as a site of contest and trial, the far edge of what the body can experience. They take you into the heart of the carnival, where once throbbed the pulse of every special weekend and holiday adventure. The carnival aesthetic you see here is over 100 years old, and as new as fresh paint. Those of you who cherish carnival memories will find much in here to spark a smile. And the rest will get a taste of what is still out there waiting for you.
Note: The photographs in this collection are from the Library of Congress and/or the Flickr Commons.
The midway brings the child’s life into a new focus and reminds children when to be fearless. We need to help our children seek out the risks that make them stronger. And we need a carnival where adults can also learn to laugh. Today, perhaps more than before, we need the carnival to show us our limits and help us push these to new levels. So, next summer, when the carnival comes to town, make a beeline for the midway. Plan your own carnival collision. For a few bucks and the grit to climb on board, you can step away from the perpendicular and find new footing in the preposterous. And in 50 years you can tell your grandchildren how dangerous life used to be before virtual-reality computer simulations replaced today’s mechanical contrivances.
The history of the architecture of American amusement has yet to be fully appreciated, and there are many misconceptions about its place in the twentieth century. For most of this century, carnival style was pushed to the margins of the city and also within the practice of “modern architecture,” even though there is no architecture arguably more modern than that of the mechanized midway. While modernist houses and office buildings were designed metaphorically as machines, carnival architects designed actual pleasure machines and dressed these in a cosmopolitan architecture of amusement. The modernists stripped their buildings of Victorian ornament, while amusement park designers piled ornament upon ornament, and then covered the whole shebang in millions of lights. Here was architecture as a machine for marveling.
The carnivalesque is as much a mood as it is a moment. It is an itch, a tickle, a sly wink at the rest of life. Most forms of comedy tap directly into this pool of whimsy. For the Czech writer Milan Kundera, the carnivalesque is the “unbearable lightness” that life and writing must, at all cost, cling to. For the anthropologist Victor Turner, it is life transformed from the indicative to the subjunctive mood, where all things possible can become visible. The Russian cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin claims that we have lost the Medieval carnival spirit and with it, an entire other mode of life. But perhaps he counted too much on the claims of modernists who figured that science and reason would, sooner or later, leave nothing to laughter. He also notes the oppressive power of authorized seriousness in modern times, and he looks for ways to reverse the arbitrary equation of importance with tragedy. Most of all, Bakhtin searches for a serious way of laughing.
Most historical accounts of this time point to technological and industrial changes as the era’s defining moment. Electrification put factory work on a 24-hour day, which required transportation and other services to operate late into the evening and resume early in the morning. The social fabric of the illuminated city stretched to cover the night as day. Such changes, however, are only a part of the picture of early urban modernity in America.
The story of the American traveling carnival tells us something about ourselves It shows us that we are today living, as we have long lived, well within the glare of the lowly midway. Our memories of carnivals remain vivid: weekends we took as kids to amusement parks with the family, chattering and trembling in anticipation, clinging to mountains of cotton candy balanced on a stick and then clutching at the sleeve of an older sibling when the coaster hit the top of the first incline. The annual carnivals that showed up every year in our own neighborhoods, in that vacant lot over by the railroad tracks, where one day there is nothing but litter and weeds and the next, towering metal contraptions with names like “The Zipper” and “Tilt-a-Whirl.” The films we’ve watched, where carnival settings have offered hundreds of places for second-act shenanigans, where hapless victims are always in imminent danger, and where the hero and heroine find the occasion for that first kiss. Our weekly visits to malls and to theme restaurants that borrow shamelessly from this carnival heritage, creating a visual midway with a Cadillac half-buried in its façade, or a neon jungle of flashing signage on its walls-the same kind of signage that lit the original Midway Plaisance in Chicago in 1893 and was later transplanted to roadside tourist traps to lure the gullible off the interstate.