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Monday, February 04, 2008

The Giants, Carnival, and Antinomianism

It's good to be back on Prawfsblawg -- thanks to Dan & Co. for inviting me back. I'm a visiting professor at BU law school, teaching law & religion this semester, and a Ph.D candidate in Jewish Thought at Hebrew University. I'm also, like one of my fellow bloggers this month, a lifelong Giants fan who is still in some stage of shock and awe over last night's miracle.

My work these days revolves around antinomianism, and the different reasons people deliberately break the law. Last night, as I celebrated the Giants victory in Union Square with a few hundred other fans, I was reminded of one of the simplest: because of the sheer joy of anarchy, the release of carnival. As many scholars have explored, mostly following the lead of Mikhail Bahktin, European carnivals were times at which all order was deliberately overturned. Structures of gender, class, and religion were all inverted -- an act which, if nothing else, proves that pre-modern and early modern Europeans were quite aware of those structures as structures, contrary to the claims of some naive conservatives today. Social theorists differ on what carnival accomplished. Some believe it was a kind of release valve, actually perpetuating power structures by giving the disadvantaged a relatively harmless way to blow off steam. Others see them as subversive, noting that many authorities tried, but failed, to forbid them.

Last night in Union Square was not so antinomian, but it was a bit. Revelers charged out onto 14th street, stopping traffic -- it reminded me of the Critical Mass bike rides, which do the same thing once a month. A very enthusiastic garbage truck driver, initially stopped in traffic, ended up staying put for half an hour or so, honking his loud horn in the tat... tat... tat-tat-tat rhythm New York sports fans know very well. People climbed up on top of the garbage truck, danced on the hood and the roof of the cab, swung from the poles the garbage workers usually hold onto, banged on the side. (Full disclosure: I banged on the side too. Fun!) It was joyous, not least because the ordinary rules were suspended. The traffic would just have to wait. (Thinking about it, this antinomianism reflects the Giants' victory itself, which surely ran counter to most everyone's expectations of what ought to happen. The game itself was carnival.)

Eventually, of course, the cops came...

Eventually, of course, the cops came and disbursed the crowd.  Thankfully, I didn't see any violence, although there was clearly the potential for it, with some drunken fans and a whole lot of riotous energy swirling around.  (One darkly funny moment came when one African-American fan chanted at the cops, in the "Let's Go Giants" tune, "Go ahead, beat me up...  I need a lawsuit.")  Then again, I left before it got too messy -- which is why I chose Union Square over Times Square in the first place.

Obviously, it's that energy -- wild, joyful, also somewhat dangerous -- that law is meant to contain.  From our founding myths to present-day realities, law is that which allows us to live together withut killing each other.  Of course, I didn't like being on the side, somehow, of the police officers shouting from inside their cars "clear the road immediately!"  I wonder how much we as law professors, by inculcating a certain respect for the law, are spoilsports in the worst sense of the word.  Is the momentum of legal reasoning itself against eros, against Thoreau, against carnival and celebration?  Despite our leather jackets and supposedly cooler demeanors, are we not as distant from the dour, grey flannel suit lawyers as we suppose?

Moreover, since that eros-energy is so close to sexual energy, it's no surprise that any changes in the regulation of sexuality are likened by some conservatives to the very destruction of society itself.  (One of my main areas of interest is the intersection between law, sexuality, and religion.)  Maybe they're right; if this cat (or snake) gets out of the bag, who knows what might result.  

Sure, it's all about balance.  A little Super Bowl celebration, sure; violence or destruction of property no.  But as in all calls for "balance," it's not clear how the line gets drawn, how the balance gets set, and, more importantly, the momentum of "balancing," as we teach law, arguably runs counter to some of the energies of humanity that I, at least, want to celebrate.

Just some antinomian thoughts from a still-glowing Giants fan, suspended between Super Days.

Posted by Jay Michaelson on February 4, 2008 at 10:18 AM in Religion | Permalink

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