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p. 1027. The fortunes of rituallocked

  • Barry Stephenson


‘The fortunes of ritual’ charts the history of ritual, its study, and its reception beginning with the Confucian text Liji. This outlines means to counter humanity's fallen state through devices, guides, and practices called li, which are imagined as knots binding society together. Jumping to Enlightenment Europe, ritual came to be viewed as staid and outmoded, a superstitious remnant of a primitive past, a past that prevented humanity from truly advancing. In the early twentieth century, ritual was given some credibility via the Durkhemian tradition of social functionalism and Julian Huxley's causal connection between society's ills and ineffectual ritualization in society. Recent ritual theory articulates the relationship between ritual and group solidarity as seen through participation in contemporary festivals.

The Liji, known in English as the Book of Rites, is one of five texts forming the canon of early Confucian literature. These texts, compiled and edited around the second century BCE, provide insight into the religious and moral character and debates of early China. Among the contents of the Liji is a social cosmology, describing a fall from a state of harmony and well-being, the period of the “Grand Unity” when the “Great Way” pervaded the world, to a state of self-centeredness, discord, and thievery. The Liji further tells of the appearance of “profound persons” who offered the means by which to re-establish and maintain a modicum of unity and order. Chief among these means to counter humanity’s fallen state are devices, guides, practices, called li, a term most frequently translated as “rituals” or “ceremonies.” Li are imagined as knots, binding society together; in the absence of these ritual knots, society would be formless and individuals disconnected from one another. Cut off from a natural goodness and harmony, we can only devise, regulate, and maintain “Modest Prosperity” through ritual action. Ritual is a device and technique for generating and maintaining order, good will, and a sense of belonging.

Anticipating Durkheim by more than two millennia, the Liji claims that ritual has the capacity to organize otherwise atomized individuals into a cohesive group. Ritual gets everyone on the p. 103team pulling in the same direction, as it were, but is no guarantee of harmony. Ritual practice may go awry, or traditional rites may not be up to dealing with social and cultural changes. Yet ritual is all we have, hence the profound concern in the Liji to both argue the merits of ritual and to understand and explain the conditions under which ritual fails to function as a substitute for the “Great Way.” Fast-forward two thousand years and halfway around the globe to Enlightenment Europe, and we find a very different attitude toward ritual.

The philosopher Charles Taylor refers to a “social imaginary” as the way a society imagines and practices social life. The social imaginary depicted in Confucian texts such as the Liji reserves a prominent place for ritual and ceremony; the social imaginary of the modern West is very different. Our modern social imaginary is the product of a multitude of interlocking changes (technological, economic, religious, political) that comprise the modern world; one feature of it is a decline in the esteem and presence of ritual. In his study of the modern world as a “secular age,” Taylor refers to a process of “excarnation,” the “transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it [religion] comes more and more to reside ‘in the head.’”

The philosophes of the Enlightenment promoted individual autonomy, rationality, and social reform; they also took aim at both religious beliefs and ritual. Ritual came to be viewed as staid and outmoded, a superstitious remnant of a primitive past, a past that prevented humanity from truly advancing. Ritual, like its cousin myth, became a matter of suspicion and derision. The word “myth” was yoked to falsehood—a myth was a lie, an untruth, at best, a fanciful story—while ritual was derided as habitual, obsessive, fetishized behavior—antiquated, boring, ineffectual, and repressive. Ritual’s reputation in the modern, secularizing West was sullied, its practice ghettoized. Such overly suspicious and negative conceptions of ritual remain part of the intellectual and cultural milieu in Europe and North America.

Ritualism and primitivism

In the wake of the Reformation, there began a process of de-ritualization across Western Europe, a curtailing of ritual that continued through the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. As scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began studying societies at the edges of the modern, industrial West, ritual was conspicuous by its presence. Ritual was also a central feature of the textual traditions of antiquity, to which scholarship was increasingly focusing attention, using the new historical and comparative methods. In both anthropological and textual research, developing theory pointed to rites, especially rites associated with sacrifice and magic, as markers of difference between “primitive” and “modern” societies. Influential thinkers found in ritual evidence in support of theories of cultural evolution. Societies advance, so the claim went, in three stages, from magic to religion to science. In the ethological view, ritual is a kind of collective social instinct; this meant that those societies strongly governed by complex and pervasive ritual systems—typically, non-Western cultures, peoples on the margins of modern, industrial, technological society—are more “instinctual,” and thus further removed from the rational, technological, individualist, liberal, enlightened culture of modern Europe. Suspicion of ritual among intellectual and political elites seemed natural enough, since ritual was perceived as a sign of cultural backwardness.

A discourse of primitivism and racism is part of the history of ritual theory. It is common in early studies of ritual to encounter pejorative conceptions of ritual, typically through the notion of “ritualism.” Listen to the language of the poet, literary critic, and anthropologist Andrew Lang, in his comprehensive Myth, Ritual and Religion, published in 1887. Surveying the development of religion in India, Lang comments how over “the whole mass of ancient [Vedic] mythology the new mythology of a debased Brahmanic ritualism grew like some luxurious and baneful p. 105parasite.” Vedic myth, we learn, is “originally derived from nature worship,” and in “an infinite majority of cases only reflects natural phenomena through a veil of ritualistic corruptions.” Lang’s language reveals the broad-based contours of the intellectual landscape of his day. We like to think, perhaps, we are well past such stereotypes and prejudices, but the sediments of culture are slow to shift. Ritual is still commonly associated with “ritualism” and the “ritualistic”—neither of which connotes much of value. The panic twenty years ago over cases of “satanic ritual abuse” and more recent discussions of genital “mutilation” give evidence to how the imagination of ritual in Western cultures continues to be informed by primitivist stereotypes.

As the fields of anthropology, sociology, and history of religions consolidated in the early decades of the twentieth century, ritual was given some credibility via the Durkhemian tradition of social functionalism. Religious practices were seen as vehicles of social order and stability, and hence of a certain value; the problem, however, was that ritual functioned in a rather unconscious fashion. Ritual may work so far as it goes, it just does not go very far; ritual occludes a rational understanding of natural, social, and psychological processes and dynamics. Participants engage in ritual, the argument went, without really knowing what they are doing; ritual was a veil masking reality. The slow march of Enlightenment meant giving up irrational and repressive group rites for an emancipated reason and individual autonomy. The important point here is that early theories of ritual were yoked to an evolutionary perspective, which was often little more than a thinly veiled expression of cultural superiority. The pejorative language and images of “ritualism” and “ritualistic” entered the vocabulary and worldview of the modern West.

Freud, for example, described the obsessional neuroses he encountered in his patients as akin to religious rites and practices, thereby framing religion as a collective obsessional neurosis: ritual equals pathology. The repetitive, rhythmic, and formalized p. 106behavior of obsessive actions, Freud suggested, are the result of repression and rooted in fear and guilt; obsessive acts are signals of what is really going on, beneath the surface, even though patients are completely unaware of the real meaning of their behavior. Similarly, the motives and meanings of religious ritual are unknown to participants, who are merely going through the motions, performing “ritualistic” behaviors and gestures the significance of which they do not understand. For Freud, religious beliefs and practices could be an understandable source of consolation, but this good feeling was bought at the high price of being unconscious.

If the psychoanalytic tradition has been generally wary of ritual, associating it with “primitive” societies and psychologies, we find similar sentiments in sociology, too. The influential sociologist Robert Merton, writing in the middle decades of the twentieth century, conceived ritual as a form of social deviance, a way of adapting to social “anomie.” All societies, suggested Merton, are characterized by anomie, conceived as gap or distance between collective idealized goals and the individual’s ability to realize these goals. For those who cannot make the grade, there are forms of “deviant adaptation,” including criminal activity (where one breaks rules and laws to attain socially prized goals), “retreatism” (where one withdraws from the game into alcoholism and drug addiction), and “ritualism” (where one holds firm to social scripts and forms, while resigning oneself to the fact that social accomplishment is forever beyond one’s reach). Ritual is thus grouped with crime and addiction (not the best of company), and imagined as infused with a spirit of defeatism and resignation. In Merton’s hands, ritual was once again reduced to “ritualism,” the performance of mere externalities without any authentic commitment or depth of feeling for the values and ideas embedded and projected in rites and ceremonies. Ritual as ritualism is sham.

These broadly negative conceptions of ritual that developed in the modern West were not driven solely by scholarship. In the second p. 107half of the nineteenth century, elements within the Church of England began an aggressive campaign to promote and reform the liturgy. Many of the changes—vesting in colorful robes, celebrating the Eucharist facing east, adding processions to the liturgy and iconography to churches—met with fierce resistance and debate. Part of the issue was long-standing tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Britain; but also at play were culturally pervasive negative attitudes toward ritual. Highly stylized, formalized ritual was seen as a theatrical, upper-class affair, filled with pretence and hypocrisy. Some critics charged that the changes wrought to the liturgy were making men more “effeminate.” Britain’s prime minister Benjamin Disraeli referred to the ritualist movement as a “mass in a masquerade.” The ritualists were severely attacked as a threat to English identity and the moral fabric of English society. The controversy led to parliament passing a Public Worship Regulation Act in 1874; under the act, many clergy were charged and prosecuted. Ritual was not only “primitive,” it was illegal.

Loss and longing

Another way to understand and experience the relative absence of ritual in modern Western culture is not as an advance forward but as a step backward, not as a gain but as a loss. If many intellectuals through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries developed a suspicious view of ritual, looking forward to the day of ritual’s last rites, others were reflecting on the great “excarnation” in analyses characterized by ambivalence and nostalgia. Durkheim may have been studying the rites and ceremonies of others, but he was doing so, in part, to better understand his own place and time. Durkheim perceived a connection between social anomie in modernity (the fragmentation of shared, collective identity and the weakening of social institutions) and the shrinking fortunes of ritual in the West. Similarly, Julian Huxley applied his ethological findings to reflection on the contemporary state of ritual. Huxley saw a causal connection between the ills of the twentieth century p. 108(lack of social bonding, poor communication, escalation of conflict, mass killing in protracted wars) and ineffectual ritualization in society. Huxley reasoned that since ritualization is socially functional—regulating everything from mating to war—then a society that does not tend to patterns of ritualization is playing with fire.

Mary Douglas, in her book Natural Symbols (1970), opened with a chapter titled “Away from Ritual,” in which she discussed both the modern West’s suspicious withdrawal from the world of ritual and the prevalent, negative conceptions of ritual found in sociological theory. Rejection of ritual is, for Douglas, the rejection of public forms of solidarity and institution building, and hence a failure of nerve in the heady days of the 1960s counterculture. Douglas further argued that the deprecatory use of the word “ritual” in the theory of her day was unacceptable, and she developed a more neutral conception in terms of symbolic communication.

Perhaps the most ambitious and influential scholarly effort to re-orient attitudes toward ritual came through the work of the comparative historian of religion Mircea Eliade. Religion, for Eliade, is a question of orientation and centeredness, a posture toward and experience of the world created in part through ritual, in particular through initiation. Initiation, he claimed, is the fundamental means by which people become human and the cosmos made sacred. Eliade opened his classic 1958 text on initiation by framing the plight of “modern man” as that of living in a “desacralized cosmos,” and linked this state of affairs to the “disappearance of meaningful rites of passage.” If one agrees with Eliade that “initiation lies at the core of any genuine human life,” then a society without meaningful initiatory practices can only be inauthentic and shallow. Eliade conceived a society’s principal rites as a means of renewal. Social energies necessarily flag and falter; for this reason, ritual reconnects participants with the original energies and actors “in the beginning.” The initiate p. 109ritually “dies” to an old state, enters the womb of renewal and transformation, and returns to the world reborn and remade.

As with scholarly theory, ritual on the ground was also receiving more appreciative attention. Through the latter half of the nineteenth century, we detect a return to ritual within currents of religious life in Europe and North America; the ritualists in the Church of England are an obvious example. John Ruskin, best known for his work as painter, encouraged Protestant architecture in England to adopt gothic forms, cautiously encouraging a revitalization of liturgy. Ruskin also lent his support to the revival of folk customs such as maypole dancing, which had been largely suppressed since the days of the Reformation. Protestant American culture was similarly responding to ritual deprivation. Many evangelical Protestants embraced an embodied and dramatized style of liturgy. Ritual interests and experimentation in nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture informed the rise of revivalist camp-meeting movements, as well as the burgeoning interest in spiritualism.

Through the twentieth century the idea of ritual impoverishment develops: one of the ills of Western culture is the absence of ritual, and the recovery of ritual is a cure to what ails us. In the wake of Eliade, a good deal of the theorizing of initiation includes the claim that in industrial, modern, secular society, passage rites associated with birth and initiation have either disappeared entirely or are no longer effective; where passage rites are a going concern (weddings and funerals), commoditization and packaging has run roughshod over authenticity and efficacy. There is a strong stream of ritual theory that makes connection between a (supposed) pervasive spiritual and social anomie in Western culture and a lack of initiation rites to guide and move young people into adulthood. This assumption has generated a good deal of ritualizing, a term introduced by Ronald Grimes to distinguish formal and traditionally accepted rites from the practice of deliberately cultivating new ones. In Western societies, the call p. 110for recovery and reinvention of rites of passage has been strongly directed at initiation, in particular male initiation. In the absence of passage rites it is not uncommon that major transitions or stages in the life cycle become ritualized. In the case of adolescent males, unsupervised, spontaneous, and often violent ad hoc initiation practices are common.

Ritual longing and active ritualizing are not without potential problems. Invented initiation rites in the modern Western world rely on a good deal of ritual “borrowing” from other cultures. The Eliadean assumption that the ritual practices of “traditional” societies are fecund tools for the revitalization of modern, industrial society has idealized those practices and created a hunger for them; this hunger has encouraged ritual appropriation. Many North Americans of European descent have turned to the initiation rites of Native traditions for their spiritual goods: sweat lodges, vision quests, sacred pipes, rattles, and spirit catchers make up the bill of fare of many workshops and retreats. But for many Native people, non-Native fascination with Native religious, symbolic, and ritual systems represents the ongoing colonization of Native North Americans. The appropriation debate first focused on issues of land claims and the return of artifacts and human remains but has widened to include ritual practices. Ritual syncretism is pervasive throughout history and across cultures. But if we are to engage in ritualizing, we need to be aware of the political and moral debate around borrowing (or should we say “stealing”?) the ritual traditions of others.

Ritual and public life

Recent ritual theory has witnessed a revival of earlier efforts to articulate the relationship between ritual and group solidarity. The French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about mid-nineteenth-century America, coined the term “individualism” to describe the emerging “American character” in a social context of a growing market economy, an emphasis on personal autonomy p. 111and equality, and democratic government. Tocqueville described the phenomenon of individualism:

Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may mix among them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in his mind a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society.

A similar dynamic was detected in Europe, exemplified in the thought of the German sociologist Georg Simmel. Society, argued Simmel, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, was becoming less sociable, less convivial. He wrote of an inherent drive to associate, to transcend the individual ego through union with others, a need that had been frustrated by the evacuation of public forms of culture, such as collective ritual. “The vitality of real individuals, in their sensitivities and attractions, in the fullness of their impulses and convictions … shows itself in the flow of a lightly amusing play.” Playfulness and the freedom to play are necessary to the kind of union that interested Simmel, precisely the ethos that accompanied the long tradition of carnival and local festivals in Europe, ritual forms that were suppressed or ignored in the course of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the period of absolutism, and the rise of fascism and communism in Europe.

A central feature of the “modern social imaginary” is the decline of embodied, public life, what Richard Sennett refers to as The Fall of Public Man and Charles Taylor as the great “excarnation.” In Ritual and Consequences, Adam Seligman and his colleagues contrast historical changes to modern society in terms of the categories of “sincerity” and “ritual.” Modern life, they argue, is premised on sincerity, an inward-looking, individualistic effort to grasp the unvarnished truth; ritual, in contrast, is a centrifugal, p. 112collective, and inherently subjunctive space that encourages sociability and communal values. Though their typology is somewhat polemical—ritual can be strongly indicative, even oppressive—they do raise a question that many are beginning to pursue: What are the consequences for a society that devalues the collective experiences found in and through ritual?

Richard Sennett, in Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, published in 2012, argues that our rituals of citizenship and sociability have been turned into spectacles, with participants reduced to mere observers and consumers. The problem Sennett detects—the pervasive erosion of our ability to cooperate in the modern world—is met with an answer that draws upon a Ruskin-like embrace of artisan-like collectives held together, in large measure, by the intricate daily round of ritualizations that breed manners, civility, dialogue, and care for one another. Pie-in-the-sky nostalgia? Perhaps. Yet the role of ritual in matters of deference and demeanor, so detailed by Erving Goffman, likely has something to say to a society seemingly incapable of the most basic forms of civility.

Another dimension of the return of ritual is found in the recent growth of festivals across much of Europe and, to a lesser degree, in North America. In the past generation, public festivals and celebration have been renewed and re-invented on a vast, perhaps unprecedented, scale. Festive celebration involves a periodic gathering of a group, in a marked-off space and time for the purposes of play, engaging in aesthetic activity, sharing food, exchanging gifts, stories, songs, and then dispersal. Such moments of common action and feeling “both wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves.” Charles Taylor, whom I am quoting here, calls this the category of the “festive,” and it is inherently related to the development of a more immediate, active, face-to face public sphere. It is also, suggests Taylor, “among the new forms of religion in our world.”

p. 113Linking public ritual with sociability points beyond the typical sociological emphasis on social structure toward matters of individual and group expression, performance, and play. One could argue, of course, that sociable behavior maintains the solidarities and hierarchies of a group. But we could just as well argue that festive celebration is fundamental to human being, and that in the absence of periodic festive gathering, social values and solidarity are likely to falter. The festive social is irrepressible, indestructible, which is to say, fundamental, bedrock, a foundation of social life. So it is no surprise, after several centuries of relative success by church and state at suppressing public festivals, festive culture is experiencing a renaissance in the streets and squares of Europe—as, for example, in Wittenberg, Germany, the historical seat of the Reformation.

Festival (or celebration) is a ritual type, found across cultures. One of the characteristics of festival is that festivalgoers are part of the production; this active participation is quite unlike, say, proscenium theater, where an audience-performer boundary is demarcated and maintained throughout the performance. In the enactment of a festival, spectators and consumers are encouraged to become performers and producers. A festival succeeds or fails on the willingness of the audience to engage in festive behavior. The degree of separation between performers and audience is one feature often used to distinguish ritual from theater. Where a high degree of separation exists, we have formal theater; at the other end of the continuum, where spectator becomes participant, is ritual. Play is also characterized by the absence of a performer-audience boundary: if you are watching, you are not playing. Festivals that move in the direction of audience participation head in the direction of ritual and play, and those attending the event also play a part in its production: where the audience is passive, though, we have a cultural performance, looked upon and consumed by spectators.

A festival is about as sociable an occasion as one can imagine, precisely because one can disappear in the crowd. A festivalgoer p. 114engages with, interacts with, one’s fellow citizens; a festival, on the whole, gathers people together, not on the level of personal intimacy and acquaintance but community and sociability. Play and jest are the paradigmatic gestures of festivals. The contemporary revival of local festivals sanctions role playing, allowing for diverse performances, creating an occasion during which citizens can present themselves and their doings to one another on a public stage.

One of the defining characteristics of a “spectacle” is the presence of a sharp distinction between audience and performers. In a spectacle, actors perform, while spectators watch, at a distance. In festival, in contrast, everyone is called to celebrate together. To name an event as a “spectacle” is to introduce a certain suspicion or criticism. A festival is different. Rather than generating a sense of diffuse awe and wonder, emotions that captivate while distancing the spectator from the action (think of gladiatorial games), festivals are joyous occasions or are meant to be so. The French sociologist Guy Debord argued that modernity is a “society of the spectacle,” which is to say “an epoch without festivals.” The distinction here is between the production of spectacle by elites for nationalist, consumptive, and commercial purposes versus a more organic, cyclical domain of festivity that emerges from a people’s productive labor. Annual festivals become embedded in the sociocultural life of the city and region in which they take place; they are repeated, worked on, anticipated year after year.

Festivals are often thought of as events or cultural, but they are also social institutions and, in the language of the social critic Ivan Illich, they are “tools.” “Tools,” writes Illich, “are intrinsic to social relationships. An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters … To the degree that he masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image.” Illich’s definition of a convivial tool or institution is precise: “Convivial tools are those p. 115

8. Masked figures processing in the Velvet Carnival, Prague. Inaugurated in 2012, this procession aims to keep alive the spirit of progressive social action associated with the peaceful Velvet Revolution, which marked the end of communism in Czechoslovakia.

ones which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.”

Many contemporary festivals embody this convivial ethos, promoting broad participation and encouraging self-expression; in so doing they “enrich the environment.” The “invention of tradition” school, exemplified in the work of Eric Hobsbawm and David Kertzer, has greatly influenced the study of public ritual. Both scholars focus on political ceremony and conceive ritual as a tool for creating ideology and maintaining hegemonic power. To be sure, ritual may serve such ends, but not necessarily so. There are different kinds of ritual tools. Many contemporary festivals are turning away from the indicative, didactic, monologic, spectacle-like ceremony of the era of state nationalism toward a festive mood, characterized by broad participation, diversity, spontaneity, and improvisation. Ritual may acquire strength by virtue of being p. 116a hallowed, time honored, ancestral practice. But it may also be embraced because it is effective at achieving certain goals, or simply because it is enjoyable. Festivals and public celebration have been and continue to be important tools in the creation of sociability and conviviality for a culture desperately in need of a revived public sphere.