About a year ago I went to a Halloween party, which was not quite an orgy, and not quite a rave. It took place at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, a performance space best known for experimental theatre company Punchdrunk’s immersive Sleep No More. The sets had been repurposed. The drinks were free. The theme was Inferno. Everybody, it seemed, was wearing diabolical horns, or fallen angels’ wings, and a slick layer of sweat. Someone else—an acquaintance of mine who I knew attended these revels often—wore the costume of a false Virgin Mary. If you got close to her, she’d whisper a spell in your ear and reveal that she was secretly an agent of Hecate: the diabolical witch who, in Macbeth lore, brings the Thane of Cawdor to his doom.
The regular parties at the McKittrick—one for New Year, one for Halloween, often one for Mayfair—thrown by members of Sleep No More’s creative team, are often like this. Vaguely inspired by Macbeth, they are equal parts performance art, disco, and bacchanal, drawing on a vast repository of Western magical myth. One party featured Hecate’s minions as the Greek Sirens, luring men to their deaths, while a woman in a rococo costume sang “God is a Woman.” It also featured plenty of candy-bowls for guests to peruse: an implicit retelling of the myth of Persephone, who seals her fate with Hades by consuming pomegranate seeds in the underworld. Another party featured dance performances by Celtic fertility gods, antlers dripping in blood.
Hecate—who appears in Sleep No More as the show’s de facto puppet master—is the celebrated queen of the space, and of our evening. She is a witch, sure, but she is a sexy one. And our revels are sexy, too. They market themselves as, and are, places of liberation and inebriation, of sexual license and titillatingly dangerous enchantment, of Bad Decisions. And, most importantly, of transgression.
The parties, in other words, are carnivals—places where binaries and hierarchies collapse. High becomes low. Masculine becomes feminine. The weak become powerful. Evil becomes good.
The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, among the foremost theorists of what he called the carnivalesque, defined the carnival as a kind of temporary social dissolution: one that reveals how illusory the bonds that unite us, as a society, really are. Carnival, Bakhtin writes, rejects “all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready-made solution in the sphere of thought and world outlook.” It is the mode that keeps the world from ossifying, and keeps us from blind submission to custom in the guise of the absolute Good. In rendering the bonds and laws and mores that unite us fluid, it creates space for dynamism.
Today, however, everything has become carnival. Disruption is no longer a source of terror, but rather a highly marketable branding term. Parties like the McKittrick’s are less transgressive, within the framework of urban, largely-liberal cosmopolitan American culture, than they are de rigeur, maybe even a little boring. (The biggest threat to the McKittrick’s aesthetic prestige, after all, may be that the boring Wall Street bros have started going there). Witchcraft is now a sufficiently normalized pastime to have reached—however briefly—the shelves of Urban Outfitters. Folk magic is something you do on your way to work, the way you’d listen to a meditation app like Headspace. The once-dangerous vagaries of kink—sexual practices that derive their very frisson from their taboo nature—are now central to the plot of the best-selling book of all time: erotic pastiche Fifty Shades of Gray.
Who hasn’t been, at least once, to a Black Mass or something like it?
Contemporary millennial culture—and its successor, generation Z—runs on the engines of transgression. Fueled by the starry individualism of the New Thought tradition—with its conviction that, as early twentieth century self-help guru Charles Benjamin Newcomb put it, “I am well. I am opulent. I have everything. I do right”—our contemporary spiritual ideology has become a mystic gloss on classical liberalism. We are not just autonomous selves, but miniature gods. To transgress the (patriarchal, sexist, repressive) order that holds us back from that divine bounty of authenticity is not to simply enter a temporarily liminal space in an otherwise well-ordered system, but rather to adhere to the ethos of the system itself. Custom and tradition are not the democracies of the dead, as Chesterton would have it, but rather sources of oppression to be dismantled.
We see that utopian vision of disruption in the rise of millennial witchcraft. “Witchcraft,” write Jess Zimmerman and Jaya Saxena of self-help book Basic Witches, “is your birthright. Mainstream society wants you to fit into a predefined role. Witchcraft enables you to find personal purpose, truth, and intention.” We see it in the rise of utopian, socially-sanctioned forms of sexual and familial creation—polyamory, kink culture—as pathways to authentic human flourishing, no less indebted to an optimistic vision of perfectibility than the “free love” movement of the 19th century. “We believe that the current set of ‘oughta-be’s,’ and any other set, are cultural artifacts,” write the authors of the 1998 polyamory handbook The Ethical Slut. “Nature is wondrously diverse, offering us infinite possibilities. . . .We are paving new roads across new territory. We have no culturally approved scripts for open sexual lifestyles; we need to write our own.”
So too the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley, whose proclivity for life-hacking and self-optimization has disrupted the way we eat, the way we get places, the way we find partners, even the way we sleep. They are the inheritors of what culture critics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron called in 1995 the Californian Ideology: the utopian vision of transgressive tech culture that “promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. . . . through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.” To scoff at the old ways is no longer a final, transgressive blasphemy, but rather the basic requirements for entry to a new and more freewheeling world.
Critics of this vision of transgression—largely conservatives—tend to anchor their condemnation in terms of the localism we have lost. Custom, tradition, nationality, language, religion, and other inborn hierarchies and groupings are the only bulwarks against a universal carnival, in which everything is rendered equally profane.
“Progressivism is grounded in a deep hostility toward the past, particularly tradition and custom,” laments Patrick Deneen in his succinctly-titled Why Liberalism Failed. What he calls “liberal anti-culture”—in essence, a culture of perennial and profane carnival—demands “the wholesale conquest of nature,” a “new experience of time as a pastless present,” and an “order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning.” What carnival culture does, for Deneen, is divorce us from necessary biological and cultural realities—trapping us in a kind of horrific solitary confinement with no company but our own, brutish selves.
For many contemporary reactionaries—those one might term modern atavists, from Internet trolls like “Bronze Age Pervert” to the nihilistically-violent denizens of the alt-right to the (relatively) more mainstream proponents of the “Intellectual Dark Web”—the only answer to contemporary carnival culture is an embrace of binary, of hierarchy, and of the close-knit association between biology (which is to say, gender and race) and Chestertonian custom.
Yet this understanding of carnival rests, in turn, on an understanding of society—and ideology—as binary. There is the order that custom and tradition provide—that demands submission—and there is the chaos of life outside it, for those foolish enough to leave. Society emerges out of a battle between order and chaos, nothing more.
One of the most vocal proponents of this theory has been Jordan Peterson, who has built an entire philosophical brand on advocating for the importance of order. Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, Peterson reads the struggle between order and chaos—these great and primordial pagan forces—into the history of nearly every mythic and religious tradition in the West. Central to Peterson’s argument is his reading of the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth in which the hero Marduk slays the watery chaos-goddess Tiamat before instituting the ziggurat—the hint of the first city. Peterson analyzes it thus in his Maps of Meaning: “The hero cuts the world of the unpredictable—unexplored territory, signified by Tiamat—into its distinguishable elements; weaves a net of determinate meaning, capable of encompassing the vast unknown; embodies the divine ‘masculine’ essence, which has as its most significant feature the capacity to transform chaos into order.”
Yet, in his analysis of the binary between order and chaos, Peterson overlooks a foundational element of Western mythic and religious culture: the pervasive myth of the profound carnival, a vision of subversion that, in overturning hierarchies and binaries, does not transgress but rather transfigures. It is that narrative that underpins, for example, Genesis 1 itself—considered by many scholars to be an intentional subversion of the Enuma Elish, written by Jewish exiles in Babylon—in which God is so powerful that He does not create the order of the world by defeating chaos, but rather ex nihilo: Order and chaos are both within his grasp. It is that narrative, too, that underpins the Christian story of the king in abasement: the tradesman’s son who rides into Jerusalem on an ass, whose glory lies in his crucifixion, and whose resurrection from the dead represents the triumph of the strange, the unimaginable, the irrational, over the orderly nature of the earth.
This kind of subversion transcends the comfortable binaries and recitations of the temporal realm. It reveals—as Paul puts it in his letters to the Galatians—There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. To reduce the “ancient” Judeo-Christian tradition to a series of binaries is to overlook how serious, how subversive, and how necessary the history of creative carnival is to the Western tradition.
The promise of creative carnival—subversion that transcends transgression—may yet be a third way between the profane carnival of the secular Left and the bio-cultural determinism of the atavistic right. After all, as Bakhtin wrote, carnival is at its core destruction in the service of creation: a mockery of the established order not to create a carnival-on-earth but rather to render moveable, and improveable, its feast. The best subversions are those that do not merely reduce the extant to the profane, but which instead reveal how we might transcend, and even spiritualize, the corporeal nature of custom. They break down visions of gender or nationality not to reduce us to free atomized selves, but rather to creatively reimagine us as members of a moral rather than geneaological corpus; they bring low kings not to endorse anarchy but rather to evoke the political possibilities of love.
“To degrade is to bury,” Bakhtin writes of the mockeries of carnival, “to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring for something more and better. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth: it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one.” That is the carnival we still need.