Dance Madness

Posted by Cutler on March 02, 2007

I’m a big fan of using elite fear as an index of popular insurgency.

As a student of labor relations, for example, I have argued that the business press can often be the best source for labor news as long as you are willing and able to read against the grain of the bias. In other words, it demands that many employer fears and complaints be re-coded as signs of labor insurgency.

The method has been most fully elaborated in connection with the world of “subaltern studies” where colonial records become a rich source for reading anti-colonial insurgency.

Former students of mine may recall an essay called “Dance Madness”–a chapter in the Kathy Peiss book, Cheap Amusements, written largely in the spirit of subaltern studies.

Peiss uses old vice squad records and various reports by middle class reformers to study the moral panic that surrounded youth culture in urban dance halls of the early 20th century.

For the most part, Peiss manages to read all the evidence against the grain of the bias of the authors. Adult fears are invoked to celebrate youth culture. Middle-class fears shed light on an unruly urban working-class culture. Nativist fears about unassimilated immigrants become a celebration of unruly resistance.

But when it comes to gendered heterosexual relations–between young men and women at dance halls–Peiss refuses to read against the grain. As a feminist, critical of patriarchal patterns of compulsory heterosexual interactions, Peiss actually joins the middle class reformers and vice squad agents who condemn the predatory aims of young dance hall men. To reading against the grain of patriarchy, Peiss appears to read with the grain of middle class moral panic about predatory sexuality.

“Dance Madness” ends with a moralistic diatribe about how women were victimized by predatory men in these dance halls. No insurgency; just delinquency.

I do not necessarily doubt the elite descriptions of the young men at the dance halls. But these descriptions say absolutely nothing about any insurgency from below on the part of young women. All that remains is a paternalistic approach that aims to protect helpless young women.

The method of subaltern studies would require that any attempt to trace such an insurgency would demand that the “elite” sources in patriarchal patterns of compulsory heterosexual interaction would have to reflect the fears of the young men.

I’ve never quite had a good example of what this might mean or, more importantly, exactly what such a study might yield.

But I did just run across a phrase that made me think that such a project would surely yield a very different ending to the whole spirit of “Dance Madness.”

The phrase in question: “You Dance with The Guy That Brung Ya” (and variations on this theme).

A conservative named John Gizzi from the right-wing publication “Human Events” used the phrase in his remarks to the “Conservative Political Action Conference” meeting in Washington. Presumably, he was expressing a fear that the Republican Party was preparing to ditch the conservative wing of the party that was ostensibly responsible for shepherding in Bush’s 2004.

I’ve never given the phrase much thought, but apparently one etymologist, Barry Popik, has been doing enough thinking for all of us. He has posted an etymological profile of the phrase on his blog.

Suffice it to say, the phrase amounts to something of a “discursive institution” in the state of Texas and has been in wide circulation–in a host of different contexts–since the early part of the 20th century. A Molly Ivins book; a Shania Twain song. A famous football coach.

But genealogy of the phrase undoubtedly leads back to the old dance hall. And, from what I gather, the issue of “voice” is always patterned in the gendered way you might expect: this is a phrase used by men trying to rein in unruly female promiscuity.

All of this tends to seriously undermine the classic depiction of female sexuality as little more than a pale, prudent “reactive” response to an active and lusty male sexuality.

It seems like there was probably far more “Dance Madness” than Kathy Peiss suspected.

Methodologically, elite fear is a like a Texas gusher than never fails.

3 Comments to Dance Madness

  • My work has been and continues to be informed by this subaltern studies methodology, which I thank you for introducing me to. I also wonder, though, how documenting and reading against the grain of elite fears works with the idea of indifference to elite norms. For example, female same-sex sexuality hasn’t always been the subject of elite concerns in the same ways that promiscuous female hetero relations or male same-sex relations have been. Does that mean it’s not transgressive, or not worth studying? Not pleasurable to read about because powers-that-be don’t find it threatening or notice that it’s happening? Which leads me to wonder, must pleasure and resistance always take the form of an insurgency that is recognizable to elites? And if not, what methological approaches might that demand – particularly if we don’t want to inadvertently make visible forms of resistance that are happily under the radar of elites?

    If you haven’t read it yet, you might be interested in _Impossible Desires_ by Gayatri Gopinath, particularly the introduction, where she describes her queer reading practices. She’s looking primarily at popular culture, but reads different texts against each other in order to see the elisions – primarily elisions that gesture toward queer female diasporic sexualities and that allow her to “wrench particular scenes and moments out of context and extend them further than they would want to go” (22) – that might not be evident if one were to simply read against the grain of a single elite text.

  • Hey R. Thanks for the reference to Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires. I’ll check it out.

    I enthusiastically endorse your celebration of indifference to elite norms. Indifference seems far more significant that, say, “rebellion” insofar as the latter is always already a reactive force.

    At the same time, I also share your sense that it may be important to interrogate the logic of methodological “exposure” itself at some point, especially insofar as exposure might “inadvertently make visible” practices that are “happily under the radar of elites.”

    All of which leads me to ask, if you are right that “female same-sex sexuality hasn’t always been the subject of elite concerns” (presumably a big if for readers of, say, Adrienne Rich), then why study it at all? Where is the pragmatic or political question? Where pleasures flow unfettered, why would elite indifference represent a crisis at all? Is the goal to be “transgressive” or to embrace the fullness of life?

    You mention, in passing, something about the idea that we might write/study some practices because the result of such exposure would be “pleasurable to read.” Can you say more about that?

    What does it mean to think about the practices of writing as production for pleasure? That would seem to change the terms dramatically for writers and readers, especially within the so-called social sciences! Not a representation of pleasure, but a production of pleasure.

    At a minimum, sucha change in the terms of writing would require a break with all “realist” traditions of representation. The aspiration to wrench scenes “out of context” and extend them “further than they would want to go” would surely belong to an entirely different world of writing and reading.

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