Siria's Reviews > Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich
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Apr 05, 2012

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bookshelves: european-history, history, nonfiction
Read from April 05 to 19, 2012

Four out of five stars for the idea, two out of five stars for execution. Ehrenreich's introduction to Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy points out a quizzical disconnect in modern Western culture. We put an awful lot of time and effort into studying depression, malaise, the things that make us happy and the things that isolate us, but very little effort into studying the things that make us happy or which bring us together. Ehrenreich traces the history of expressions of communal joy and ecstatic communion—and the suppression of those celebrations—from prehistoric times through to the present day. In general, I think she makes some good points here. Why is it that modern Westerners can conceive so easily of strong bonds between individuals but less so between groups? What have we lost in the search for individual freedom? There's definitely fodder for thought and for discussion in the ideas Ehrenreich raises.

However, I cannot recommend the methodology which Ehrenreich uses here. She admits at the outset that there is a bias in the sources towards the history of the West, yet makes little attempt to correct that tendency in her own writing. Moreover, what little discussion she has of non-Western cultures largely comes from Western sources. The subtitle of this book should really be A History of Collective Joy in the West.

Ehrenreich may also have read broadly in order to read this book, but she does not seem to have read deeply, and much of the secondary scholarship on which she draws is shockingly dated, dating from the 50s and 60s. E.R. Dodds' work is foundational for a lot of recent scholarship, but it's also been superseded in many, many ways—the man died in the 70s! Why does she reference his work and not Peter Brown's? (Surely a more influential scholar in the field of late antique religion, whose work would, I think, be illuminating on this topic, even if he never directly addresses it!)

I suspect, based on the chapters on medieval Europe (the area with which I'm most familiar) that this partly proceeds from a selective choice of/reading of the sources, and partly from the fact that she seems not to have read much secondary material not directly relevant to the topic. I think that a knowledge of Caroline Walker Bynum's work on food and the body in the Middle Ages, for instance, would have changed her characterisation of the medieval Mass and how laypeople participated in it. Similarly, greater familiarity with scholarly terminology on Ehrenreich's part would have strengthened her work—when historians or anthropologists refer to things as "liminal", that does not mean, as she seems to think, that they are dismissing something as marginal or unimportant, but rather that it gains in power or possibility because it straddles the margins of more than one sphere. It's not so easily categorised.

(I listened to the audiobook version of this. I greatly enjoyed the reader's style and verve, but I really wish that she'd taken the time to clarify the pronunciation of non-English words before the recording. The French in particular made me wince.)
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