Carnivalesque Resistance to Global Spectacle: A Critical Postmodern Theory of Public Administration

April 12, 2001; Revised April 30, 2001

Pre-publication draft of article published in: Administrative Theory & Praxis, Vol 23 (3): 431-458.

I propose a critical postmodern application of Debord’s Spectacle and the carnivalesque of Bakhtin to the theatrics I see happening in city streets, on college campuses, and Internet resisting the new globalized economy. In the past decade pubic administration has experienced the postmodern turn, becoming caught in the conflicting theatrics of corporate-mediatized spectacle and the carnival of resistance to globalization discourse. My contribution is to theorize the interplay of spectacle and carnival on the global stage as theatrical constructions of corporate and state power and resistance. I analyze growth of the spectacle of the monitoring industry that attests corporate codes of conducts in narratives of progress, while the anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization carnivals perform a devolution script in street theater, anti-sweat fashion shows, and cyber-activism.

I. Introduction
“Welcome to our Sweatshop Fashion Show, a combination of political theater and educational comedy. Today, you’ll see our models displaying some of the latest fashions made in Asia, Latin America, the United States, Australia, and Canada” (from script I am writing). Instead of supermodels in barely clad silk dresses costing thousands of dollars, these garments are made in sweatshops, sold at our campus apparel store or local Wal-Mart. In such shows, staged on college campuses, on city streets, and in at the mall, models enter and walk across the catwalk wearing the latest Nike, Disney, Guess, Gap, Van Heusen, Tommy Hilfiger, and Wal-Mart brands as announcers comment on poverty wages and abusive working conditions. Your university has no doubt hosted similar Sweatshop Fashion shows highlighting working conditions in the garment industry in not only Latin America and Asia, but in metropolitan cities. Maquila Solidarity Network (2001a) even provides fashion show script ideas.

Our next model, Sheila, is wearing body-hugging Guess jeans that were made in Mexico. Doesn’t Sheila look great? The Guess brand image is hot and sexy… Actually, "hot and sexist" is probably a better description of working conditions for the women sewing Guess products. Hot as in sweatshops, and sexist as in supervisors. An investigation of four Guess contractors in Mexico in 1998 found evidence of forced overtime, violations of child labor laws, unsafe working conditions, discrimination against pregnant women, poverty, repression and fear. Thank you, Sheila.” (MSN, 2001a)

My focus here is what Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva would call carnivalesque, the use of theater to parody and resist spectacles of global corporate hegemony, mixing outrageous satire, popular music, models, and critical pedagogy to problematize globalization and free trade as reinvented ideologies of colonization and global racism in the 21st century. Spectacle is increasingly a corporately orchestrated performance, a display intended to persuade the masses of spectators from a distance that its global corporations have implemented moral codes of conduct, and therefore merit public trust.
My thesis is that much of global protest is carnival, such as 400,000 WTO protestors facing the police overdressed in Vader masks and riot gear facing protestors costumed in sea-turtle shells, or ladies prancing naked with “Better Naked than Nike” or “BGH-free” scrawled across their chest and back, and gigantic puppets and floating condoms the size of blimps with the words “Practice Safe Trade.” For Bakhtin (1973), the carnival is “...that peculiar folk humor that always existed and has never merged with the official culture of the ruling classes.” The street theatrics of the WTO protest in Seattle, as well as the anti-sweatshop movement, has become a parody of corporate power using carnival. In the erosion of the nation state as a global character, the corporate state has emerged as a new star of the global theater, but one who is being vilified by activists in off-Broadway (Saner, 1999) carnivalesque productions that rebelliously reinterpret the experience of consumers putting on garments in acts scripted to raise consciousness. Here I want to examine carnival activism in its relation to corporate spectacle.

Foucault (1979) makes the point that resistance accompanies power. Here, I would like to look at how carnival opposes not Las Vegas, Disney, or Hollywood, but spectacles legitimating “free trade” and globalization. Disneyfication and Las Vegasization remake real places, such as Paris, NY, Rome, Egypt, and Venice by creating sanitized, stylized, and