Carnivalesque Economies: Clowning and the Neoliberal Impasse

Barnaby King

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    In Colombia, clowns are proliferating and thriving, particularly in the context of neoliberal political economies prevailing since the mid-1990s. This paper explores some reasons why this might have occurred, as well as theorizing a two-way relationship of domination and resistance between clown practices and the current iteration of late capitalist global economies; what I call “carnivalesque economies.” While Bakhtin described clowns as “the constant, accredited representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life out of carnival season,” the Colombian case suggests that their breaching of norms and violations of taboos are all too easily co-opted by governments, corporations, and institutions to disseminate normative ideologies and coerce citizens. Nevertheless, these carnivalesque economies can never fully contain or account for the potential of clown performance to rupture and genuinely challenge neoliberal power relations. Rather than speak truth to power, clowns and clowning may speak truth about power, or point to its carnivalesque vulnerability, through play, through comic inversion, and through their particularly intense forms of communication. I focus on three performance moments from my fieldwork in Colombia in order to illustrate this argument about clowns’ ambivalent relationship to neoliberal political economies. The first of these is a performative intervention by clown-mimes in the streets of Bogotá in 1995, part of the “culture of citizenship” initiatives of Mayor Antanas Mockus; the second is a performance by “Buenavista Social Clown” that I witnessed in 2012, called “The Unknown Limit between the Public and the Private” commissioned and funded by a state department, “La Defensoria del Espacio Público;” and the third is a clown show produced by Clowns Without Borders (USA) and Pasos de Payasos (Colombia) in a school in Risaralda in which the audience invaded the stage.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)472-489
    JournalKritika Kultura
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


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