Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The other day, Adam Kotsko posted an entry titled "Religious but not spiritual", in which he first quoted from Adorno's Minima Moralia:
Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things.
...and then wrote this:
Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.
My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. I have found that the “empty gestures” of life, the little rituals — touching glasses before drinking, going through the meaningless exchange of “hi” and “how are you,” etc. — have felt more and more important and necessary.
The day before I read this post, I'd happened to be leafing through my copy of Chris Knight's Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, looking for references to the ways in which the work of feminists had informed his (brilliant) study, when I came across his discussion of Lévi-Strauss, who had claimed that mythology "has no obvious practical function", and virtually ignored ritual altogether (at least in the works under review here), much to the dismay of specialists and other anthropologists, on both counts. Anyway, in light of the Adorno passage, and Kotsko's remarks, I'd like to share what Knight says in this context (Mary Douglas citations are to her book, In the Active Voice):
It is difficult for non-anthropologists to appreciate the significance of ritual in non-western cultures, because, as Mary Douglas (1982: 34) has written, the belittlement of ritual is central to our European tradition. To us ritual means, as she writes, 'the formal aspect of religion. "Mere ritual", one can say, and "empty ritual", and from there to mumbo jumbo and abracadabra'. Ritual is merely external; Europeans give priority to the internal, 'spiritual' aspects of religion. Ritual is mere form; we give priority to content. Ritual seems like a façade—we want to know what lies behind the façade.

But in non-western cultures, such activities as singing, dancing, healing, rain-making, life crisis ceremonial and public mourning are not façades or masks drawn across life. They are the meaningful stuff of life itself. Without ritual there would be no sociality, no collective power, no sharing of life's central and most meaningful moments. [...] 'It is form indeed,' Mary Douglas (1982: 36) comments, ' but inseparable from content, or rather there could be no content without it. It is appearance, but there is no other reality.' For many people in non-western cultures, ritual is culture.

Perhaps the best starting point in attempting to define ritual is to think of it as the collective dimension of intimate, emotionally significant life. It is collective action at those points where this reaches deep into personal, sexual and intimate emotional experience. Hence sexual intercourse is not necessarily a ritual, but if it occurs during a preordained 'honeymoon' following a public marriage ceremony it is. A young woman's first menstruation is not a ritual, but her puberty ceremony makes it so. To eat food is not ritual, but to participate in a public feast is. What turns even the most intimate and physiological of personal experiences into 'ritual' is symbolic behaviour which makes it collectively acknowledged, sanctioned and controlled. And with collective control comes power.

Ritual is collective symbolic action which in the most powerful way organises and harmonises emotions. Without this, there could have been no early human language, no 'kinship', no culture. A society which was a mere assemblage of egotistic, competing individuals would have no ritual domain and could not have one. On the other hand—turning to the opposite extreme—let us visualise an imaginary society whose members were unwilling to eat, to make love, to speak, to mourn their dead or to do anything unless they were sure that what they did formed part of a collective act. In such a society, each person would try to synchronise her or his behaviour with that of others—with the result that life would seem 'ritualised' to an extreme degree.

This is why 'form' in ritual is so important. It is simply not possible for humans to synchronise their behaviour collectively without reference to recurrent, standardised, memorable patterns. To Westerners, this may make ritual seem insincere or artificial. How can genuine tears—as at a funeral—be brought on to order at a precise moment determined in advance? How can a chorus legitimately express joy or love? It is thought that no act which has to be directed or controlled collectively can be as valid as the spontaneous action of an individual. This, however, says much about the individualistic assumptions of western culture. It helps to explain 'the poverty of our rituals, their unconnectedness with each other and with our social purposes and the impossibility of our having again a system of public rituals relating our experiences into some kind of cosmic unity' (Douglas 1982: 38). In general it can be said that societies or groups value ritual to the extent that they value the maintenance of collective solidarity, and disregard it to the extent that individualism becomes the dominant ethic.

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