Friday, February 06, 2015

Carnival links: Flags and revolutions

Tattered Rex Flag
Tattered Rex flag Uptown New Orleans 2006

  • NOLA.com social scene reporter Sue Strachan has provided us a handy dandy "Guide to Mardi Gras flags" this week. It comes with a photo gallery of selected flags. It's not a complete list, of course. She's asking for submissions.

  • There are all sorts of Carnival organizations.  Some of them stage parades, some of them, are benevolent associations, some have open memberships, some are exclusive clubs.  Lots and lots of them have their own flags.

    Strachan writes that these various flags can be seen together as the city's "10th flag."  
    New Orleans and flags have had a long-standing relationship. Nine official flags have flown over the city: Spanish flag of Castile and Léon; white flag of Bourbon France; Bourbon Spain; French Tricolor; U.S. flag beginning with the 15 stars and stripes of 1803; the flag of Independent Louisiana; the Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America;  the state of Louisiana flag; and the City of New Orleans flag.

    During this time of year, we can add another to this list -- the Mardi Gras flag. (A concept I first saw described in an article by Edward Branley on the GoNola site.) Who created the first official flag of the Carnival season? None other than Rex, which also originated the traditional Carnival colors of purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power). According to a representative, "In Mardi Gras' earliest days, large banners were used to promote Mardi Gras every year. By the late 1870s, Rex had created its own flag." And so a new custom began.

    Of this city's 10th flag, there are many incarnations, with many people flying ones they find in local stores or online. Many of the krewes have their own designs, with their own rules on when to fly the them.

    But, really, that's not quite it. Or, at least, lumping all the Carnival organizations's flags together into one thing is a little too "One City One Voice" for me.  Carnival is too many things to too many people for it to fall under one multi-flag.  Indeed, there are many flags among them that I'd rather not be associated with at all, thank you very much.

    What's great about the epic civic pageant that is Carnival in New Orleans, though, is that every socio-political element owns its status, wears it on its sleeve and parades it around in the streets while everyone drinks and dances.  One very prominent such element happens to be the scions of 19th Century neo-Confederates.

    As the oldest and proudest Carnival groups, they're the most likely to display their flags on their homes.  I've been noting them for a while now.  This is from a post from 2006 where I shared some flag pics.

    Every year during Carnival the former kings (or their descendants) fly these flags at their homes. The bottom right of each flag denotes the year in which this particular king reigned. This flag belongs to Rex from 1983. (It hasn't been very well maintained)
    That's the flag at the top of this post, BTW.  Anyway.. sorry to go on quoting myself but rather than rewrite the same point...
    The Old Line Krewes are tied to a history of racial hatred and upper class arrogance that goes far beyond the 1991 anti-discrimination controversy. (A good book to start with here is James Gill's Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans ) But Carnival doesn't only belong to the rich. 
    A goodly part of it does belong to the juxtaposition of rich and poor, though.  More on that in a bit.  In any case, I'm grateful to the neo-Confederates for indicating the locations of their homes with these flags. They help Steve Scalise know where not to accidentally give a speech.  Here are some of those flags.

    Proteus flag prominently displayed above humble cottage

    Proteus flag in the Garden District

    Here is the Downman mansion on St. Charles Avenue at Third Street.  These flags indicate two former Rex and a Comus in the family. (I think the Comus flag technically indicates a Queen of Comus since the identity of Comus himself is never made public.. just like the Grand Wizzard unless he decides to run for Governor.)

    Rex stops here on Mardi Gras morning for a toast.  It's on the uptown bound side of St. Charles so the whole parade has to cross the street in order to accomplish this.  It always comes as a neat little surprise to the folks camped on the neutral ground there when they have to turn around.

    This is a Momus flag.

    Momus flag

    Besides Comus, they are the only Old Line krewe to abandon parading rather than comply with the anti-discrimination ordinance.  Oh but they still roll anyway.  Their floats and members parade as part of the Knights of Chaos.  Privilege has its privileges.

  • Here's a look at some of this year's parade food.  There's a map there as well as blurbs about each outlet by Todd Price.  More and more of the new wave of food trucks are entering the selection lottery now and so more of them appear alongside the regular carnie fare.

  • Of course there are always a few random vendors who show up regardless of license. This sign is from one such truck.

    If You're Drinking to forget...

  • Everyone is putting out their Carnival preview stuff.  Good news, mostly.

  • This is from Arthur Hardy writing in The Advocate
    The Krewe of Isis, a mainstay in Jefferson Parish for more than 40 years, has no plans to change its name in response to current events in the Middle East.
    Here is a welcome message from Boh Brothers.

  • Finally, here is a PDF of this month's Antigravity Magazine.  On page 18 begins a must-read article by Jules Bentley about social changes expressed through carnival. 

  • If you're familiar with Bentley, you'll recognize his usual weaknesses.  Always a perceptive, witty writer,  Jules sometimes throws in unnecessary straw men in order to set up his little one-liners. He just has to throw in the word "millenials" at one point. But one can be a plumb-ignorant egotist with no sense of history or politics at any age.  There's also a passage where he describes the Chewbacchus parade as a much more stereotypical herd of nerds than it is in real life. When you read Bentley, you have to shrug that stuff off a little in order to stay focused on his point, and he does have one.  But that's more work than a lot of readers are willing to do so his better points often get lost.

    The heart of this article is a parallel he draws between the arrival of Comus in the 19th Century and the arrival of the latest wave of DIY organizations, most significantly the Sci-Fi themed Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus.  Bently observes in each case a kind of assertion of status laid out by a new class of wealthy arrival to the city.

    This week's Gambit inaccurately stated that "Carnival has been celebrated in New Orleans since 1856.." Sounds like they've been listening to the Mayor of Mobile too much. 1856 was only the beginning of Comus.  There was Carnival in New Orleans before that.  Like today's Carnival, it revealed glaring social inequalities.
    Mardi Gras as it existed through the first half of the 1800s was unruly, a day of social levelling in which the poor controlled the streets. James Gill, in his tremendous and tremendously enjoyable book, Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans , reminds us that for our city’s only partially obsolete hereditary ruling classes, “[the holiday’s] real significance lay in the annual reaffirmation of social eminence over merit.” Their Mardi Gras was grand— private balls and parties, removed from the hoi polloi. 
    While the aristocrats were safely ensconced inside, the world outside became a more raucous (and threatening) scene.
    In her terrific, deep-diving 2008 FSU PhD thesis, “Setting the Stage: Dance and Gender in Old-Line New Orleans Carnival Balls, 1870-1920,” Jennifer Atkins also aggregates a great deal of the better writing on Carnival’s class- conflict aspects, including Mikhail Bakhtin’s assertion that the collective voices of the oppressed raised during Carnival render the streets, even if temporarily, “a democratized space.” “In the process of asserting status and power,” Atkins writes, “protests from disenfranchised groups, though performed in the surrealistic carnival world, can be very real threats to society."   
    Comus was, for its day, what today's tech industry might call an act of disruption. It was an end run around regulation for the betterment of a hegemonic class of elites.
    If Carnival in the streets was to continue, its power must be put back in the hands of the already powerful. There was talk among the Creole aristocracy of cancelling Mardi Gras, but a group of Americans, showing the entrepreneurial spirit typical of their kind, came up with a better idea. These Americans—not Creoles, not New Orleanians or even Louisianians— created the first organized Mardi Gras parade with floats. Drawing from the work of English poet Milton, the first Comus parade had two floats. One featured Comus, an ancient god of festivity whom Milton cast as a deceiving necromancer, and the other featured the Devil. They rolled in open and unpunished defiance of the bans on masking and music-making. 
    Comus took on some of the forms of popular Carnival... the outdoor music and masking.. formalized them, and in the process, sanitized them to a degree.

    But they didn't obliterate it entirely.  The notion of Carnival as order overturned still persists to this day.  It may, in fact, be even more powerful than ever.

    Last year, in a Lens op-ed CW Cannon argued that we may now be living in the "golden age" of Carnival specifically because of the more democratic and inclusive nature of what might otherwise be perceived as chaos.
    Krewe du Vieux is quite conscious of itself not just as an insurrection, but also as a resurrection, an effort to recover from the anti-carnivalesque aspects of the 19th century Uptown Carnival model. Their mission statement expresses this ambition explicitly: “We believe in exposing the world to the true nature of Mardi Gras — and in exposing ourselves to the world.” Since Katrina, Krewe du Vieux has been joined by several other downtown parading clubs — ‘ti Rex, Chewbacchus, Red Beans — each of which follows  the Krewe du Vieux model far more faithfully than the Uptown one, especially by keeping dues affordable.

    But the ultimate expression of the carnivalesque instinct in our time is what happens downtown on Fat Tuesday itself. Here the line between spectator and performer is almost totally erased as thousands — whether costumed, masked or merely bystanders — converge in the streets in a utopian vision of mass civic participation. And on this day — if only for a day — we also witness New Orleans’ idealized sense of itself come down to earth to shape the city’s social reality.
    But Bentley adds a twist to this that Cannon doesn't.  Bentley recognizes, in Chewbacchus, a deliberate.. almost commercialized.. turn away from the notion of social upheaval. 
    Cybernetic Carnival seeks to appropriate e.g. the irreverence of Krewe du Vieux, reducing that Krewe’s incisive political and social satire to a directionless but consumer-attractive pose of “subversiveness.” Instead of engaging current events or the foibles of the powerful, Chewbacchus participants engage in a post-modern remixing of consumer culture: a Hollywood-film alien mixed with a burlesque dancer mixed with a robot from a Japanese cartoon.
     Just as Comus sanitized the "threatening" class conflict of 19th Century Carnival, so too does the emergence of Chewbacchus seek to blunt the satirical bent of modern Carnival.  So goes, Bentley's thesis anyway.  It's not as black and white as all of that in reality.

    For one thing, this town is too small for us to identify rigid divisions between newcomers and natives or between hyper-insular social groups of any sort.  There's no actual "neutral ground" in the classic sense.  Hell, KDV even crossed Canal Street this year.  The truth is, everybody knows everybody.  And, unless you really are Comus, you probably move within several of the artificially conceived circles that Jules uses to illustrate his points. But that doesn't mean there isn't at least a bit of truth in them.

    This week NOLA.com, home of the perpetual "Entrepreneur Week" ran a poll suggesting that Krewe Du Vieux's style of subversive satire might be... you know.. sooo Old New Orleans.. or something.  Chewbacchus may not actually be out to sanitize Carnival, but it looks as though someone at least hopes they are.

Anyway there are parades tonight. You may have heard about this. Probably not too much satire or gentrification involved in any those so relax and enjoy.

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