A Mask is Always Active (2015)

A Mask is Always Active

Contemporary capitalism, it has been said, makes and needs the conditions for life lived in a perpetual present[1]. Certainly it has reason to be anxious about the past, both revelations of its own violence, and frightened of those dangerous moments of history when something else was possible and so, is instead, strategically forgetful. True also of its possessive monopoly claim to the future when the pleasures of its ‘perpetual present’ consists so much of anticipations and expectations and, longer term, which has always needed to be one worth waiting for, something more substantial than life after death[2]. It has been the necessary location of what Herbert Marcuse called “a goal-oriented teleological present”, as a place of promise always there to make up for a disappointing present. What does this look like now, when the reproduction of selective scarcity on which the capitalist mode of production is based, has had to come out from behind the curtain, to claim for itself not an abstract present but as Reality-for-Adults, as What Is. In the film A Mask is Always Active, two figures with giant heads, in motion on swings, whisper that ‘there is no deal done for ever’, and then, “no done deal forever”. In the present climate, when the global elite’s slogan, “There Is No Alternative” no longer even promises Jam Tomorrow but is dependent on the fear that any radical change will mean the supermarket shelves will empty, it is not just defiant but realistic. Watching the film–a musical in five scenes– Bakhtin’s thesis on Rabelais and Carnival is not required to know the giants as friendly Rabelaisian grotesques or that they tell of how Kings, Queens and corporate moguls shit and will die the same as the rest of us. What Bakhtin does tell us is that the ‘grotesque’ body turns away “from mirror images of itself and towards transformation and possible futures. Like history, the body is shown to be a recyclable trompe l’oeil.”[3]

Specific knowledge of the history of Disruptive Pattern – a ‘camouflage’ of hyper visibility used by British warships in World War I – is also not needed to recognize that the body and heads of the giants masked in this pattern are, like all masks individually liberating, but are the same for all the characters and indeed the background of the whole film. The mask is essentially playful, speaking of the joy of transformation, the violation of boundaries and the distinctions of organized society. In the film it is a collective mask, just as carnival is inherently collective, with no time for inequality or the cult of personality so crucial to a sickly ‘consumer capitalism’, resistant also to the surveillance marked in the film by the sound of the helicopter. Historically such liberating ‘disguise’ has taken other subversive forms, as when 19th century Afro-Americans made a space for themselves in New Orleans Mardi Gras by wearing ornate headdresses of indigenous North Americans; the Orisha masks of Afro-Brazilians; or the thousands of masks in four colours distributed at the start of the Reclaim the Streets J18 mass action in London in 1998. From the helicopter point of view, “A ruler wages continuous warfare against spontaneous and uncontrolled transformation. The weapon he uses in this fight is the process of unmasking, the exact opposite of transformation … If it is practised often, the whole world shrinks.”[4]

In 18th and 19th century Brazil African slaves would often escape, aiming for free settlements- quilombos – they might have heard of, knowing that they might not succeed, that their freedom might last just a few days and that they would be severely punished when captured, and do it just for the experience of that freedom.[5] Such must be the wish now of many people in the world, success not guaranteed. While it’s true that there is no utopian blueprint, these have caused enough trouble for the hope itself, just repeating it can sound smug when for many in the world the utopian moment is likely to be the guarantee of enough to eat today and a secure place to sleep tonight. Thoughts as to how an egalitarian political economy might work, possible loose-fitting structures, believable counters to the supermarket shelves threat, do not stink of the Gulag, are needed in the There-Is-No-Alternative world. But for this there has to be the desire for a world different to the mean and stingy, the highly selective scarcities of What Is, desire without which there are no flares in the darkroom. It is acutely felt in the experience of carnival (not reducible to the Christian calendar) which abolishes everyday distances between people and for its duration, establishes those free, intimate contacts with friends and strangers alike where such desire flourishes, knowing in your whole being that this is how life should be. In this situation people have the freedom to rehearse identities, stances and social relations not permissable by the dominant culture with its smug pessimism and monopoly claims, to go beyond it, having a good inkling of that beyond in its duration


Carnival stands in comprehensive opposition to the ruling political culture. It challenges its profound fear of abundance so unashamedly expressed by Thomas Carlyle’s hatred of the pumpkin, “Where a black man, by working about half an hour a day … can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice” -which allowed people to survive with little need to work and thus to live without anxiety.[6] Such fear and downright hostility is applied in similar manner to the communal as being inherently stultifying if not downright savage. Thus the 19th century missionary John Mackenzie sent to southern Africa by the London Missionary Society wrote enthusiastically of his work in “weakening the communistic relations of a tribe among one another and letting in the fresh, stimulating breath of healthy, individualistic competition.” Now, when the rational individual of neoclassical economics is king, Ccarnival is essentially collective and hostility to it reflects the constant elite fear of this characteristic; of ‘the masses’, especially when they are on the streets, when the standard portrayal is as a ‘mindless mob’, made mainstream and ‘scientific’ by S. Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents. The book based itself on the ‘evidence’ provided by Gustav Le Bon’s 1895 The Crowd in which he described the ‘hysteria’ of French crowd he had not actually seen, and which he compared to that of a women. In earlier times as described by Natalie Zemon Davis and then by Victor Turner, this fear of the crowd was especially related to the ‘wild woman’, the epitome of the irrational: “the marginal position of women in the ‘indicative’ world makes their presence in the ‘subjunctive’ or possible world of the topsy-turvy carnival ‘quintessentially dangerous.”[7] Finally in the corporate age of financialization, carnival is free of charge, an affront in itself.

The very heavyweight thud of Freud’s grandiose title is a giveaway. In the present climate, the playful aspect of carnival is not to be underestimated. It is not carnival that is a safety valve but the heavy, soggy satire of consumer comedy whose main function is in fact, the task of ‘unmasking’ for the ruler. The playful is by nature subversive when the ruling elite insists not only that it has a monopoly on seriousness, despite its real recklessness, but insists that we get caught up in its version of what is serious. The deficit! The deficit! Which turns out to mean government budget deficits, which have existed for years but are now dramatized as potentially catastrophic. It is the global elite hogging the footlights – the ones carnival does not require — with their latest version of the ‘pending collapse’ of life as we know it, ‘on the brink of the abyss’ and so on, and thus the need for their hierarchical authority. The overbearing weight of What Is turns out, in its wholly unreliable narrative, to simultaneously be a fragile craft in constant need of the Commander at the wheel, experienced as he is in crisis management.

Carnival was fearful for the ruling class of medieval Europe and then the colonialists of the New World. The structuralist argument, that carnival has always been a ‘letting off steam’ safety valve was present too in 15th century Europe but was made at the very time it was being steadily foreclosed in the name of authority’s need for a mystique of gravitas and its fear of things getting out of hand, of mass cross-dressing, of the representations of ‘uncrowning’ role-reversal creating the desire for a real uncrowning of the hierarchical world. More pressing at the time were the requirements of labour discipline for proto-capitalism and the realigning of the calendar that required, the flattening out of time required by repetition and the economic ‘law’ of capital accumulation. A perhaps distinctively English bourgeois economist of the 17th century estimated that each holiday ‘cost the nation’ fifty thousand pounds in lost labour.[8] At the same time the May Day holiday with its subversive Maypole, and other yearly festivals were manhandled into prize-giving occasions for the best workers.[9] Now, while ‘immaterial labour’ carries the bulk of social analysis, the body-battering labour discipline of Taylorism, as in Foxconn making Apple Macs in China, or a Bangladeshi clothing sweatshop, rules the world’s manufacturing. The ‘real’ world became and is one of Time is Money, past-present-and-future all eaten up, while carnival stood and stands out as a true feast of time, the work clock suspended, hostile to all that was immortalized and sewn up. In the now-present, without the future’s promise, the question posed by Matthew Hyland has especial resonance. It is no longer simply: “why must Carnival end, why doesn’t all life look like this?’ but: ‘what latent power, which in Carnival/utopia we prove is real, is so unbearable to see shut down.”

It was to the invaded ‘New World’, including modern day Bolivia, that carnival was exported just as it was being curtailed in Europe itself, the paraphernalia of the Catholic Church needed by the invader to feel at home in a foreign land. Here however, the same concern was quickly expressed by a Judge Maldonado in 1625 Guatemala who put a ban on indigenous dances that had attached themselves to the Saints Days of the invaders because the Indians ‘squandered’ money on feathers and masks but also because they “lose too much time in rehearsals and drinking bouts which keep them from reporting for work at the hacienda, paying their tribute and maintaining their households.”[10]It could be the elite’s view of the ‘feckless’ working class in almost any period, and in this case a distaste for its aesthetics, those feathers and masks which in this case would be active in a special sense: that of direct communication with other species or spirits of the natural world; experience outside the ken of the coloniser and exploitation, and so a source of anxiety.:

In the Brazilian sector of the New World Afro-Brazilians who appropriated Ccarnival bringing music, dance and the drum. In 1808 the traditional burning of the Judas figure during Holy Week was banned as he appeared to take the form of “the marshal, and the archbishop, the rich merchant, the big landlord and the chief of police.”[11] The downpressor-man downed, and who is to say that the sound of the crackling of the flames at that moment might not have ignited the slave’s desire for freedom whatever the risk. Some years later on the eve of emancipation in Trinidad, Afro-Caribbeans participated for the first time in Ccarnival bringing their own music, African symbolic imagery and doing a wickedly funny parody of the white militia. By 1845 carnival had escaped the confines of ‘defeating’ Lent, on the Christmas Eve a European visitor reported that “it seemed as if under the guise of religion, all Pandemonium had been let loose with the sound of drumming, the women being of the lowest class: and all dancing and clapping their hands like so many demons.” Women, low class, demons and worst of all the drums: just a few years earlier on the plantations of Cuba strict instructions were given about how drum dances there were to be strictly controlled by foremen[12] as they could so easily speak of and incite rebellion.

That was then, say the weary of heart, fussy progressives, what of now, even if carnival wasn’t just always a safety valve – bread and circuses,[13] look at it now, commercialized, institutionalized and so forth, Rio de Janeiro, Notting Hill, same story. There is a whiff of snobbery here aimed at its mass nature. Sure, they sell tourist holidays and tickets for a carnival spectacle in Rio, but up in Cidade Alta’s tropical tenement blocks, Saturday night’s Funk Balls are free, wild and where spectators and performers are one and the same; there are no tourists but where a certain level of self-organisation of bars and sound systems allows for the spontaneity of party: two deceptive binaries reassuring to the masters’ universe down the tube, and thus attracting a heavy police surround; under constant persecution as being ‘obscene’ and violent. Cidade Alta, home to the dancers of our film’s finale. There they played with masks on and off and improvised with playful and subversive wit as they danced, smug and then derisive with a mimic World Cup; dramatising the War Against the Poor with a derisive touch, they were hysterical but undefeated by a spray like that of tear gas.

Carnival and its many forms is not a-historical, would be a source of oppression if it were so. Notting Hill, a non-Lenten late August carnival, started life as a reverse travel, the Trinidadian descendants of the 1845 revellers settled in early 1960s London bringing carnival back again to Europe and not bothering with the Christian calendar. Heroic at the time in a then racialised London and faced with the overt hostility of the police and the media oligopoly. It then changed itself, the Jamaican culture of fixed-spot street sound-systems added to the circulating carnival procession and costumes and masks of the Trinidadian tradition. It was from then, coinciding with the working class making of a multi-racial London, that it started to become a mass event, institutional to a degree but still fearful enough to be controlled by police instructed to put a smile on their faces and grimacing; and the media reporting only any crimes that may have happened. More recently a fussy progressive with a familiar fear of the sound of slave drums at night used the Trojan Horse rationale of the safety of children, ro remove the most authentic, safe and local part of carnival –Saturday night’s steel drum band show from the streets to Hyde Park in the afternoon.

Notting Hill, like any moment of carnival is not there to be fetishised and is exceptional precisely because of its longevity, when mass expressions of joy are not immune to history and the balance of class forces. The comprehensive violence used to smash the Windsor Free Festival of 1974 happened at the very same time capital begins its attack on the Western working class and its culture of mass audacity. The desire expressed then was not extinguished and in Britain re-emerged with the illegal Rave movement of the late 1980s. The utopian moment of the Exodus Collective from working class Luton coming out of this, fed into a larger political manifestation, the Reclaim the Streets movement. Years later this experience was instrumental in making the J18 mass-scale Carnival of the Oppressed that surrounded and partied round London’s Liffe building where the trillions that back the dominant culture’s monopoly whizz around the globe. [14]

This is not a matter of nostalgia–the very reverse of the utopian–but an inspiring history in the present, which is one of constant police attacks on collective life on the streets, aided by mass surveillance at a time when it is ‘scarcity’ which is fetishised. These flares in the darkroom’ in the recent history of two countries are characterized not just by a generic ‘self-organization’, but by working class groupings that disregarded the rules. They have required not necessarily the individualism of crime but the criminal shrewdness and imagination that can think and act beyond those rules. The Utopian pulse is by definition Breaking the Law which is what controls the quantity and quality of pleasure in life. It means practically breaking some specific laws or getting round them or grabbing opportunities from its own logic to subvert them.[15] It is the pragmatic version of what Ernst Bloch, says to Theodore Adorno, that if “we had not already gone beyond the barriers, we could not even conceive them as barriers” The ‘spontaneous’ requires space being made for it, crucially with no ownership claims from those who organized the basics for it to happen, but once created, the streets reclaimed in one form or another, carnival can be that pace for a collective rehearsal of being someone(s) else. It is possible precisely because the spectator-participant division breaks down while giving the courage to be and do something other. It is the reverse of what Marcuse called the ‘performance principle’ which he defined as a repressive social order set in place by limiting the form and quantity of pleasure the human is allowed. In the modern age of work performance has become obligatory, constantly measured. At Ccarnival one performs without judgement.

The film’s scenes are performed with different music(s) and dances on which judgement is not made for it is these joyous art forms which are open to all, and which along with costume and mask are the essentials of carnival. Music makes not just the rhythm but the excitement and collective courage, drumming especially. Nowadays political demonstrations everywhere from Brazil to Europe get their buzz from the sound of samba schools. In an age of muzak, muzak everywhere and a fear of silence, the utopian moment comes when music “extricates itself from the codes of sacrifice and representation” and instead, “plugs into the noise of life and the body, whose movement it fuels. It is thus laden with risk, disquieting, an unstable challenging, an anarchic and ominous festival, like a Ccarnival with unpredictable outcomes.”[16] At carnival, on the street, in the park, in the squatted warehouse, music does these things, inextricable from the body, made for dance. In turn, dance breaks the boundaries of the dominant defining of space. In places where entry tickets are not required, not just boundaries but the functions of What Is, are subverted. It was always drumming and dancing that most unnerved the white invaders both of the New World and Africa. Its missionaries consistently hostile and a language of ‘frenzy’, ‘hysteria’ developed and crucially of ‘possession’; the outrage being to be not. for the time of the dance. to be possessed by the colonizer or his judgmental God. For others the dance was essentially ’degrading’ and ‘barbaric’. The undercurrent here, sometimes explicit as in colonial descriptions of Voudou dance, is sexiness. It was left as so often to Herman Melville to see the beauty. “Presently, raising a strange chant, they swiftly sway themselves, gradually quickening the movement, until at length, for a few passionate moments with throbbing bosoms, and glowing cheeks, they abandon themselves to all the spirit of the dance, apparently lost to everything around. But soon subsiding again into the same languid measure as before, the eyes swimming in their heads, join in one wild chorus, and sink into each other’s arms.”[17]

Not many years later, the colonial mindset and policies he had written against was in full swing against Native Americans, treaties broken, and land snatched. In this context the Ghost Dance developed, a dance which came from a Lakota ideology of peaceful co-existence and of re-uniting past, present and future. In the eyes of vicious paranoia of the Bureau of Indian Affairs the dance was dangerous and its practice and the refusal to stop at a certain moment lead directly to the death of Sitting Bull and consequently the massacre at Wounded Knee.[18]

To ‘abandon’ oneself is not the morbid hysteria, the irrationality of the Guru and the spellbound crowd of chosen people, but in the collective space of the dance it is to leave behind the self jealously guarded by the beneficiaries and regulation-makers of What Is and its seemingly endless repetition of content and limits, its dead weight.

The utopian pulse resides with masterless voices singing songs in the dark.






[1] The argument most famously made by Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967 ,(trans) Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York: Zone Books, 1994

[2] For the deceptiveness of its technological promise see Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures, London: Pluto Press, 2007

[3] Mary Russo, the female grotesque: risk, excess and modernity, Routledge, New York and London, 1994 p101

[4] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, (trans.) Carol Stewart, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1984, p378

[5] Rachel E. Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000 pps 32-3

[6] Samuel Coleridge was just as bad, with him it was breadfruit.

[7] Mary Russo, the female grotesque: risk, excess and modernity, Routledge, New York and London, 1994

[8] Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in pre-Revolutionary England, New York: Schlocken Books Inc 1964, p121. A modern touch of ‘we are all in it together in that it is the ‘nation’ it is costing.

[9] Jane Schneider, ‘Rumpeltilstkin’ Bargain: Folklore and the Merchant Capital Intensification of Linen Manufacture in Early Modern Europe’, in Annette B. Weimer and Jane Schneider (eds) Cloth And Human Experience, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Scholarly Press, 1989. She cites the English landlord in Ireland, Sir Richard Cox, and how he transformed May Day into “the joyous day of Determining the Premiums. Then a full assembly gathered for the applauses and demerits that each deserved.” The vent involved distribution of a dozen monetary prizes to those tenants who raised and dressed the most flax, spun the best and the most yarn diligently for two years in a row, wove the most and best cloth, and kept the most looms in operation. “It is,” Cox wrote, “a Natural Vanity to desire to be distinguished…And surely ought to be indulged, since it is productive to much good.” He went to describe how “ a generous and useful Emulation between the new comers which of them shall first become rich. I foresaw that these good effects … would make others ashamed of their indolence, and stir up a Spirit of Industry.”

[10] Eduardo Galeano, Genesis: Volume 1 of Centuries of Fire,( trans.) Cedric Belfrage, Pantheon Books, New York 1985

[11] Eduardo Galeano, Faces and Masks Volume 2 of Centuries of Fire, (trans). Cedric Belfrage, Nation Books, New York 2010 p 98

[12] Ibid p 151

[13] There were such folk at the time, like the early 20th century Anarchist European immigrants to Brazil and Argentina who saw carnival in exactly this way.” It was a distraction to the poor and “a decadent display of drinking and other unseemly behaviour.” wrote one in   La Terra Livre. https://libcom.org/history/organized-labor-brazil-1900-1937-anarchist-origins-government-control-colin-everett

[14] For an account of this day, see J. Barker in Adbusters 1999, available at www.vanguard-online.co.uk/archive/politicsandculture/1103.htm


[15] The parking of trucks in capitalist underground car parks overnight to be used both as barriers and for sound systems was crucial to J18 as Carnival, a modern version of the bourgeois selling the rope to hang the bourgeoisie

[16] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, University of Minnesota Press 1985  p.142.

[17] Hermann Melville describing the ‘Lory Lory’ dance, cited in Alan Moorehead, The Fatal Impact: An Account of the Invasion of the South Pacific, 1767-1840, New York, Harper and Row 1966, p94

[18] The history of colonialism is littered with grotesque triumphalism but Edison’ Sioux Ghost Dance’ movie for Buffaloe Bill’s Wild West Show made for his Kinetoscope in 1894 just four years after the massacre, is truly gross Describing itself a s a carnival it celebrates white pioneers conquering the land, and made him a lot of money.