Image credit: The end of a bad show Joseph Keppler Puck 1883 / Wikipedia Commons

The following is an excerpt from an essay first published in Social Research: An International Quarterly. It is part of the journal’s issue The Crowd.

Bram stoker, the Irish author of the 1897 novel Dracula, shared the following anecdote to highlight his politician friend’s unquenchable thirst for popular recognition:

“I am growing popular!”
“Popular!” said his friend. “Why, last night I saw them pelt you with rotten eggs!”
“Yes!” he replied with gratification, “that is right! But they used to throw bricks!”

Personal reminiscences of Henry Irving by Bram Stoker

Rotten eggs, an age-old ammo in the hands of the crowd, fetidness notwithstanding, was still an improvement on the potentially injurious insult of bricks and stones. As the owner of Lyceum Theatre in Dublin, Stoker probably saw rotten foods, ranging from eggs to vegetables, being pelted at performers on stage by unruly crowds, a veritable presence in Victorian and late Victorian theater. Oscar Wilde was famously subject to some edible missiles at the opening of his play The Importance of Being Earnest: “So the story goes, a malodorous cabbage landed at Oscar Wilde’s feet as he addressed  his London audience. ‘Thank you, my friend,’ said the celebrated wit, raconteur, and playwright as he picked it up. ‘Every time I smell it, I  shall be reminded of you.’” The source of the rotten vegetable, however, was not the dissatisfied audience of the play, which was a rapturous hit, but an irate Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

Aggrieved crowds have been throwing objects—stones, shoes, pies, eggs—that have doled out insult and injury in equal measure seemingly for centuries. A common show of collective grievance, pelting has lost neither its significance nor its frequency over time. The name of the Roman emperor Vespasian crops up repeatedly as one of the first recorded targets of protest pelting. In 63 CE, so the story goes, Vespasian was attacked with turnips by ordinary Romans angry over food shortages. Emperor Nero experienced the wrath of disgruntled citizens in the form of onions in the Coliseum shortly after the Common Era began. Fast forward to 2022, and we find a newly anointed king of England pelted with eggs during a trip to Luton where he, along with the queen consort, unveiled a statue of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The erstwhile monarch, incidentally, had been a victim of egg throwing herself more than once and with more accurate results. Thankfully for the current sovereign, all four eggs missed their target, and a 23-year-old University of York student was apprehended from the crowd and charged with a public order offence. 

There is a pattern to protest pelting despite the motley collection of objects in a crowd’s arsenal and the wide range of causes for which rocks, rotten tomatoes, eggs, pies, milkshakes, shoes, and water bottles continue to be thrown with due regularity. At the very least, pelting aims to collapse the physical distance between the thrower and the victim, which is related to but also different from the unmaking of boundaries that takes place within a crowd. In crowds we overcome our fear of being touched, Elias Canetti writes at the beginning of Crowds and Power. This is a sharp departure from an earlier generation of thinkers for whom the very density of a crowd was a source of apprehension and anxiety. For Canetti and others, social distinctions are leveled in crowds even when the flattening of boundaries is episodic and/or routinized. Through pelting, in addition, a crowd overcomes distance by touching the body of a powerful enemy by proxy. In defiling the sublime body by hitting it with “matters out of place”, the crowd relocates the sovereign aura within itself while transgressing the boundaries of the high and the low, the sacred and the profane. Even when individual perpetrators of pelting are heroized or punished (remember Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, the Iraqi shoe thrower?), pelting is a performance of crowd sovereignty in all its joyous, violent, fun, furious, and law breaking glory. Spontaneous and ritualistic, orgiastic and meticulous, funny and somber, pelting is both a medium and a metaphor of the crowd.

Pelting as a form of collective protest is also powerfully resonant of the “carnivalesque,” a term Mikhail Bakhtin used to describe an ethos similar to that of the medieval carnival. As is customary to the self-enclosed world of the carnival, pelting overcomes distance and muddies the distinction between the ruler and the ruled, the performer and the audience, and humor and politics. It is in this sense that pelting is proximate to the famously topsy-turvy world of the carnivalesque. Through comic uncrowning or symbolic assaults aimed at the body of the sovereign, preferably with the help of objects that hurt or humiliate, crowds momentarily upend hierarchical distinctions. The leveling of distinction and distance can be both spontaneous and standardized. One need not look further than the occupied territories of Palestine and Kashmir to appreciate how and why the highly symbolic act of throwing stones has been enshrined as a signature form of protest.

If the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century repudiation of the unruly masses has been brought to task for its conceptual limits, scholars of popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century may have moved in the other direction. The popular, understood as the cultural repertoire of the masses, has emerged as an intellectual treasure trove replete with political potentiality. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World has had a major influence on these robust theories of the popular. As is widely known, Bakhtin’s magnum opus on Rabelais’s writings identifies clowns and fools as the main protagonists in the medieval culture of the carnival, which celebrated short-term liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order. “The temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in everyday life. This led to the creation of special forms of marketplace speech and gesture,” Bakhtin explains (1968, 10). The marketplace, especially during fairs and festivals, was an informal domain created outside and beyond the official sites of authority.

Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have since added necessary nuance to Bakhtin’s reading of the marketplace as purely a site of communal celebration. The medieval marketplace was, by most accounts, a messier place situated, as it was, at the crossroads of economic and cultural forces, goods and travelers, commodities and commerce. In other words, the marketplace has been the archetypal meeting space for the crowds of wandering poor, the uprising peasants, the vagabonds, and the mobile vulgus or the mob. Stallybrass and White’s reworking of Bakhtin’s encyclopedic treatment of the Rabelaisian world zeroes in on the power of transgression symbolized in the marketplace. They offer important correctives to the unquestioned celebration of the carnivalesque that is central to Bakhtin’s work. What they call Bakhtin’s “optimistic populism” ignored or at least downplayed the limited political significance of transgression enacted in medieval carnivals: 

On the one hand carnival was a specific calendrical ritual: carnival proper, for instance, occurred around February each year, ineluctably followed by Lenten fasting and abstinence bound tightly to laws, structures and institutions which had briefly been denied during its reign. On the other hand carnival also refers to a mobile set of symbolic  practices, images and discourses which were employed  throughout social revolts and conflicts before the nineteenth century.

The Politics and Poetics of Transgression by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White

Degradation is the essential principle of the carnival’s grotesque realism, which Bakhtin describes as “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract”, a task modern protest crowds accomplish through enthusiastic pelting. And yet, the carnivalesque, surprising though it seems, has rarely been applied directly to reflect on the culture of the crowd. Nor has pelting been studied systematically as representative crowd performance. I believe the Bakhtinian analytic helps account for the heterogeneous set of routine, impulsive, or even accidental political practices that count as pelting. In this, Stallybrass and White still lead the way. They have transposed the concept into an analytical framework within which to situate popular cultural practices. This transposition moves us beyond the sterile debates about the role of the carnival as either progressive or conservative. The underlying structural features of the carnival operate far beyond the strict confines of popular festivity; they are intrinsic to the dialectics of social classification as such.

In what follows, I take pelting as symbolic crowd action that carries within it traces of the carnivalesque. My aim is to take stock of the continued appeal of throwing objects as a technique, a medium, and a force through which grievance and gratification are semiotically articulated, often all at once. Despite the violence that frequently unfolds around pelting and the gravity of the responses it evokes— stones meeting with bullets or an errant shoe responded to with torture, for instance—enjoyment remains inseparable from a deep sense of injury. The carnivalesque captures the plurality, or the paradox, of these affective attachments.

Nusrat S. Chowdhury is an associate professor of Anthropology at Amherst College whose research focuses on the affective and aesthetic lives of popular democracy.