Natures Carnival Paradox And Play

Why, particularly during an historical period in which American society was undergoing intense urbanization and industrialization, would the tropes of nature continue to haunt— even dominate—an urban space whose fortunes hinged increasingly upon the mechanization of play? Interrogating the ubiquitous presence of nature-totems at the carnival, the fair, the circus, the exposition or the amusement park is an exercise in scrutinizing the obvious. Such symbols have become so familiar in this context as to render their analysis almost absurd. If a carousel didn't contain wooden animals, what would it contain? The question of what purpose a spinning platform of faunal effigies serves in the first place springs less readily to mind.

On the face of it, the question seems to answer itself: people go to carnivals to experience pleasure, and nature can be immensely pleasurable—amusing, absurd, surprising, strange, exciting, frightening, unexpected, familiar, dramatic, shocking, noble, sensual, comforting, edgy, weird, silly, awe-inspiring, entertaining. External nature is quintessentially carnivalesque. But I believe there is more to nature at the carnival than mere pleasure, and that pleasure, like the carnival, is itself far more complex than it appears on the surface. The pervasiveness of nature totems suggests that carnivals constitute one of a plethora of spaces where human beings congregate not only to gaze upon nature as spectacle, but to struggle with and work out their often contradictory and conflicting relationships with it. I believe that the key to understanding the significance of nature at Coney Island lies both in the essence of the carnival itself as well as the shifting material and ideological relationship between an increasingly urbanized population and the American landscape at the close of the nineteenth century.

The carnival has been described by many social critics as a sort of "safety-valve", an edge-space containing all the tensions of shifting modernity that allows people to challenge constricting social traditions:

Carnivals are gross celebrations of foolishness in which proper, hardworking people participate in ritual transformations that call into question the certainty of their conscious perceptions and prove the reversibility of the social codes (legal, religious, financial) upon which their lives are based. The transgression of these codes, coupled with a basic human nostalgia for childlike symbolism and play, act as a sort of release valve, or social vaccine. A taste of irrationality is introduced so that society can shore up its defenses and then continue its normal life undisturbed. The transgressions of the carnival or the amusement park are not immoral. On the contrary, they service to reconcile social decorum with the primal human urges that threaten disruption on a more dangerous level. In other words, transgression becomes a ritualized game rather than true rebellion.

(Carlin 1989:4-5)

Similarly, Foucault describes fairgrounds or festivals as heterotopias, or material "counter-sites" common to all societies: "a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted". Carlin's description of carnivals as "celebrations of foolishness" is redolent of what Foucault calls "heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed" (Foucault 1967:4). Heterotopias of deviation, according to Foucault, might include such spaces as prisons, rest homes and psychiatric wards, but carnivals, as Carlin intimates, are similar in that they permit, legitimize, and even sanctify the transgression of social norms—and therefore isolate and contain that transgression from mainstream society, where it might inflict damage. According to Foucault, heterotopias "have a function in relation to all the space that remains", one of which is to "create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory" (Foucault 1967:7).

Foucault describes fairgrounds themselves as "temporal heterotopias", cyclical ephemeral spaces where time itself is accelerated, fleeting, shifting:

Opposite these heterotopias that are linked to the accumulation of time [museums, libraries], there are those linked, on the contrary, to time in its most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival. These heterotopias are not oriented toward the eternal, they are rather absolutely temporal. Such, for example, are the fairgrounds, these marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.

(Foucault 1967:6)

There is a sense of fleeting unreality to the carnival, as if it allows its participants to indulge in a brief moment of irrational madness which allows them to better tolerate the rationalized madness of normative time upon their return. Despite Foucault's focus on temporality, implicit in this description is a spatiality to the fairground—significantly, anchored "on the outskirts of cities". Abandoned to forlorn emptiness for most of the year, they intermittently swell with momentary and accelerated absurdity, a fun-house mirror reflecting the distorted image of modernity back on itself:

The amusement park was a "temporary world within the ordinary world," where "special rules" obtained, and visitors literally stepped out of their "real" lives into a world of play and make-believe.

(Nasaw 1993:86, quoting Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (Boston 1955))

It is precisely this combination of madness and make-believe which makes the carnival a close cousin of "external nature" in the specific sense of the word—that which is outside of, yet vital to, the realm of normative human experience.

Environmental historian Richard White draws the connection between nature and play in an article wryly entitled "Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living? work and nature" (White 1996). The title, he explains, originated on a bumper sticker that circulated around the logging town of Forks, Washington during the height of the spotted owl flak, and neatly sums up one of the fundamental critiques of the modern environmental movement. Mainstream environmentalists, argues White, tend to vilify all manual work as an injurious, degrading, even violent assault upon the passive victim of pristine nature, extending their disdain not only to work itself but to the labourers who perform that work. At the same time, those environmentalists who eschew work in nature tend to simultaneously celebrate play, and indeed posit leisure as the only legitimate modern role of humans in the wild:

Environmentalists...readily consent to identifying nature with play and mak[e] it by definition a place where leisured humans come only to visit and not to work, stay, or live. Thus environmentalists have much to say about nature and play and little to say about humans and work.But the dualisms fail to hold; the boundaries are not so clear.

(White 1996:173)

The dualism collapses in part because the very "play" celebrated by environmentalists is in fact an attempt by those who do not make a living via manual labour in nature to mimic that labour through play in an effort to "know" nature the way workers know it: to know it as though their lives depended upon it (p. 174). While White describes the cordoning off of nature as a space fit solely for play as part of the modern mainstream environmental ethos, its material and ideological roots may lay farther back in American history, in the dawn of the wilderness movement. Roderick Nash (1982) traces the American obsession with wilderness to the beginning of the twentieth century, which commenced with an increasing tendency to treat the American landscape less as a dangerous threat to civility and more as a stalwart guardian of national character, upper-

class gentility and rugged masculinity (see Nash 1982: chs 3-4). In his classic book Wilderness and the American Mind, Nash describes this reformulation of nature in terms of the development of a fullblown "wilderness cult" which emerged in the late nineteenth century out of a variety of material and cultural changes taking place on the American scene. Nash notes, importantly, that attitudes toward wild places were only able to shift toward the positive once the formidable wilderness no longer posed a material barrier to the white settlers of the American landscape. Only after wilderness (and its inhabitants, American Indians) had been subdued on the American continent by industrialization, colonization, and frontier settlement could it be conceived in a new, less menacing light. Fear would be replaced by celebration only gradually through the material subjugation of both the continent and its inhabitants; in a sense the sanctity of wilderness could only be established once the wilderness was no longer wild. The implication, of course, is that consciousness has something to do with a subject's relationship to the material conditions of production: nature became a potential place for play when it ceased to be a necessary place to work for large portions of the population.

But nature at the carnival was not about fostering a sense of either ruggedness or gentility. If other bits of nature in the city—such as the greenswards created by the nineteenth-century urban parks movement—were intended to refine, sooth, and improve (not to mention pacify) the labouring immigrant masses by exposing them to the cultivating effects of the pastoral order (Kasson 1978:12), then the more chaotic, edgy and dangerous nature tropes that pervaded Coney Island served a rather different (and less studiously engineered) role. In modern environmental discourse, we often speak of external nature (and wilderness in particular) as object rather than subject, as something which requires protection from the contaminating influence of human beings, a vulnerable "other" with the capacity to be changed, damaged, even destroyed by the actions of its human overlords (Cronon 1996:69). As White puts it, "Nature seems safest when shielded from human labor" (White 1996:172). But at one time in Western history the tables were turned, and human beings were understood to be susceptible to the potentially harmful influence of a far more powerful force than themselves: nature as a dark, chaotic, savage-haunted wilderness, a potentially bewildering place where even the upstanding citizen could be led to his death through the maddening song of the Siren or the illusory notes of the pan-pipe (in this trope, as in all nature tropes, nature is heavily imbued with ideas about race and gender). Andrew Light has recently described these two views as the romantic and the classical views of wilderness (Light 1995:195-196), the former characterized primarily by a sense of reverence, appreciation, and paternalism toward an externalized nature that can be controlled and dominated by humans; the latter by a sense of mistrust, suspicion, and fear of an externalized nature that can control and dominate us—"us", of course, understood as circumscribed and contingent in terms of both race and gender, for women and ethnic or racial "others" can slip easily into the category of nature-as-not-human, whether comprehended as threat or ward. In the classical view, nature is the "threat", in the romantic view, humans are (or might be), but the underlying difference is who occupies the driver's seat: are we object or subject?

Yet between these two views, there is a shadowy middle ground that brings together elements of both tropes in the same sort of "play" that is characteristic of carnivals themselves: the contradictory pleasure that derives from fear, wonder, chaos, and the potential danger of the unknown. The key lies in the incongruous sense of exhilaration that accompanies the uncertainty of giving oneself over to the power of the roller coaster—or any other experience characterized by controlled risk, including that which involves the extremes of external nature. The dialectical and irresolvable contradiction between the "classical" view of nature-as-adversary and the "romantic" view of nature-as-protectorate gives rise to a paradox which springs from the continued and inevitable fact of both human domination of and submission to the forces of external nature. The carnival itself signifies the same sort of spatially and temporally delimited danger as the tamed wilderness, a strategically contrived threat designed to awaken latent fears and desires, to tantalize with the possibility of danger, disorder, bewilderment, loss of control. The pleasure derived from Coney Island's nature, much like that derived from Coney Island's machines, represents a paradoxical shift from the domination of human beings to a domination by human beings, a turning of the tables which yet requires a contrived subjugation of people by both nature and machine in order for the fantasy to hold water for the believer—a nature so thoroughly externalized that is has been re-internalized on more favourable terms for the newly realized and lonely subject. White's environmentalists seek out much the same thrill in the Rockies as the carnival patron seeks in the Cyclone: the illusion of the reestablishment of an older power structure: fleeting, circumscribed, and entirely reversible.

External nature, whether in effigy or in the flesh, blends so seamlessly into the fabric of the carnival because it constitutes its own heterotopia, a counter-site where all the anxieties of modernity—and particularly those based upon our uncertain place as part-subject, part-object in the natural world—are projected, distorted, and reflected back: "As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires" (Cronon 1996:69-70). Nature belongs at the carnival in the same way that risky mechanical contraptions, games of daring and chance, and sexual tension between strangers belong there—because they all stimulate the complex sense of pleasure that flows uneasily from the juxtaposition of control and abandon, certainty and doubt, order and chaos. We seldom bother to question the pervasive naturalistic symbolism of the carnival because it resonates with meaning at such a fundamental level.

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