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Who ent dead, badly wounded
Last week I suggested that over the last 30-40 years, changing socio-economic circumstances have come to be reflected in the economics of pretty mas and specifically the all-inclusive mas band experience.
Over the same period, and particularly the last 15-20 years, there have also been increases in violent crime. We know that during 2000 to 2005 the murder rate in T&T increased 322 per cent. Other crimes against the body, like domestic violence, kidnappings and rape, also witnessed unprecedented increases. In a distinct space over the same period, the cost of participation in pretty mas moved from $800 to more than $3,500.
What sort of connection might there be between an increase in dead bodies as victims of crimes and the growth of pretty mas at Carnival with its ubiquitous semi-naked bikini and beads bodies? Any enquiry, of course, is only suggestive.
The Grotesque Body
Today, our murder rate exceeds one person every day and the site and sight of a dead, maimed and murdered body, a grotesque body in the most obvious sense, is increasingly ordinary. This dead body, sometimes described as “mutilated,” “headless” or “beaten to death,” is reproduced linguistically on newspaper front covers and in text, presented on the nightly TV news, discussed in daily conversations, and found in popular culture.
Such violence against the body can be termed anthropologically as increasingly “spectacular”; its performance—as in the harrowing case of 62-year-old US military veteran Balram Maharaj who was found burned, dismembered, placed in two buckets and buried in separate shallow forest graves, to cite one distressing example— often public.
One understanding of this performance would be that these sites and sights have consequences. For example, they influence how people situate themselves socio-economically in the world and how they assert rights to their own safety. The visual effect of dead bodies, as Brazilian anthropologist Teresa Caldeira pointed out in a study of crime and violence in Sao Paulo, leads to increased levels of social apprehension that in turn generate a general “climate of fear.”
In urban Trinidad, this “climate of fear” feeds urban segregation and social exclusion because experiences of violence flatten racial hierarchies and overlook ethnic solidarity to become class-specific.
By this I mean many who can afford added security pay for it and wall themselves off from “others.” It is little surprise then that over the last 15 years responses to insecurity in Trinidad include a dramatic increase in gated-community life and the rapid expansion of private security firms. The point to take away from this is that murdered bodies support socio-economic stratification because “protective measures” such as private security are only affordable to some and not all.
The Pretty Mas Body
The second everyday image of the body is the salacious pretty-mas Carnival body. Often female, but by no means exclusively a female body, it is the commercial expression of modern Carnival. It is the image Government and masquerade producers broadcast to the world. It is the commodified body, an idealised sexuality that fits easily into the western mediascape alongside the MTV booty video aesthetic.
This pretty-mas body emerged in the late 80s and early 90s and whether it is staring back from billboard advertisements for special interest Carnival bank loans, local TV programmes demanding viewers get in shape or Carnival, Web sites and magazines dedicated to displaying the latest Carnival costume and its wearer, or newspaper columns arguing for and against such nakedness, the pretty-mas body, like the dead body, is no longer exceptional but normal.
This pretty-mas body is the symbol of the all-inclusive masquerade band. However, the all-inclusive band, as we know, is the all-exclusive band because the price of participation is far more than the average monthly wage, potentially excluding those who can’t pay. Just like fear of the dead body, the all-inclusive band provokes unconscious class hierarchies by making participation in Carnival a public performance of social status and wealth.
In an imaginative sense then, these two bodies talk to us. These once exceptional bodies, now normalised, are two voices among many that influence how we imagine ourselves and the nation. The grotesque body is justification for the rich to divide themselves from the poor while the pretty-mas body is a symbol of an exclusive type of masquerade. Taken together, the normalisation of these bodies might suggest a society increasingly defined by class over race and ethnicity.
• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
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