Catherine Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice offers an extensive summary of a wide range of theoretical writings on ritual, from more general theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, and Durkheim, to the thought of specialists on ritual such as Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Valerio Valeri. Bell’s intertwining and cross-referential summaries of the thought of these various scholars demonstrates clearly her profound expertise and grasp of these complex and theoretical concepts, albeit without conveying an understanding of those concepts to the reader in a clear fashion. These innumerable references amount to, essentially, a state of the field overview of scholarship on “ritual,” and provide a valuable resource for a reader to discover which particular works, of the many in the field, one should read in order to learn more about particular arguments or approaches. Bell’s own argument is often subsumed, or even absent, as she presents an array of conflicting ideas, or ideas addressing different aspects entirely, often (though not always) without making clear which approaches she agrees with, or advocates. Often in the volume she simply lays out a variety of ideas, allowing the viewer a fuller view of the range, and seemingly allowing them to simply pick and choose for themselves, without judgment on Bell’s part.
These references to others’ arguments are almost always very brief, and related in vague, broadly (in)applicable, and generalizing terms. They occupy an interesting in-between space, in which the reader is expected to be familiar enough with these thinkers to be able to understand and to follow along, but also unfamiliar enough to require the summary / explanation to begin with. We are told, for example, that “V. Turner developed [a] notion of ritual as social drama” (71), something anyone familiar with Turner would already know, and which anyone unfamiliar with Turner would not understand. The very next sentence begins a new paragraph, changing topics somewhat, and no further explanation is given as to what Turner means by “social drama.” This pattern of introducing others’ ideas in only the briefest and vaguest of theoretical terms is repeated throughout the volume.
Bell is extremely hand-wavy throughout the book. While her mastery of the literature is clear, her approach offers little evidence that she has studied any actual, specific societies to which these theories might apply, or from which these generalizing statements might derive. How is one to understand actual, living or historical societies, and the function of ritual within them, only by reading theorists, and not studying actual societies?
Even if we were to take it on faith that Bell has studied actual societies – we are led to understand that she is an expert on Chinese religion, though one would never know it from the text – Bell offers no evidence to indicate that her theoretical concepts are true or applicable, nor to indicate to which cultures, in which periods, in which ways, these might be applicable. While Geertz’ arguments about the functioning of the Negara rituals in 16th century Bali, and about Balinese attitudes and beliefs about ritual at that time, may be too culturally specific to be easily applicable to the study of ritual in other times and places, Bell’s work speaks to no culture at all. Specific examples taken from a wide range of cultures would help to suggest how these theoretical concepts might be applied to societies across space and time, but instead we are left completely to fend for ourselves as to whether these ideas make sense for our particular object of study. And, we are left to fend for ourselves more generally. With no concrete illustrative examples to latch onto, the reader is forced to contend with Bell’s ideas on a purely conceptual level, imagining for each and every phrase what she might mean without any evidence as to her intention.
Where Bell’s own argument does appear in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, it appears to be largely single-fold. Though Bell spends the majority of the book rehashing a myriad of arguments by others as to just how to define “ritual,” or how it works, ultimately her argument is that this is not a useful question, and that we must consider ritual not as a separate category of actions unto themselves, but rather as a strategic choice in how we perform otherwise mundane actions – a choice of ritualization. This, along with the summarized arguments of dozens of other theorists presented in the volume, offers some intriguing food for thought, potentially informing how one thinks about ritual, how one approaches or discusses ritual in one’s own work, but only I think in an organic sort of way, incorporated into one’s thinking at the back of the mind. Bell is quite explicit that she does not intend to offer a concrete new theory, new approach, for ritual, and indeed, it would be difficult to apply almost any of the Theory from Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice directly into practice in one’s own ritual research. Bell operates almost entirely in an aetherial, conceptual realm of Theory, providing very little concrete evidence to explain, or support, her theoretical assertions and those of the scholars she is quoting. One can open to almost any page and find a statement like
… ritualization [is described] as a means of preserving strained social relations by simultaneously escalating and orchestrating conflict in such a way that it has to be and can be resolved (172).
Bell offers no concrete examples whatsoever to support this assertion, nor to help explain to the reader what is meant by this, or how it might function. The reader then is left to attempt to make sense of the theoretical assertion by considering her own examples. Does a royal entry preserve strained social relations? Does it escalate and orchestrate conflict? Let’s hope not – ideally, there should be no strained relations, or conflict, between a king and his subjects. How about a religious ritual, such as calling a Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Mitzvah girl up to read from the Torah for the first time as an adult member of the community? Where are the strained relations, or conflict, in that? Without any explanatory examples provided by Bell, it is difficult to understand the theoretical assertion, and therefore difficult as well to be convinced, i.e. to find the argument compelling, a necessity in nearly any work of scholarship.
Further, Bell explicitly refuses to acknowledge that her theoretical frameworks derive from, or apply particularly applicably to, any particular culture. She acknowledges time and again that the specific cultural context is essential for understanding the particular functioning, or meaning, of specific rituals; in fact, she argues quite strongly at times that there can be no all-encompassing “ritual theory” that serves to explain all ritual cross-culturally. And yet, still, she goes on to speak only in vague, generalizing statements that are connected to no particular time or place, no particular people or culture, and no particular type or category of ritual (e.g. religious vs. secular, tribal vs. court ritual vs. modern political ritual). Bell writes that discussing specific cultures is not the point of this study, and that the application of these ideas to particular cases is left for future works by other scholars, perhaps drawing upon the ideas presented in this volume. She thus leaves us completely ungrounded, and lost. What kind of rituals is Bell imagining as she writes this? What kinds of rituals are we meant to imagine as we read it, in order for the various theoretical ideas being presented to make sense? Are certain sections meant to apply more fully to (Judeo-Christian) religious rituals, thus explaining why they do not seem to quite serve to explain tribal or animistic/shamanistic rituals? Does the entire book secretly take religious and/or tribal rituals as the focus, without considering “secular” political ritual? Bell refuses to say so, instead leaving the reader with a vague sense that everything in the book applies variously to everything (and nothing) in the broad world of ritual activity.
In sum, Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is a superficial and introductory, but extremely extensive, compendium of past scholarship on “ritual,” from Bourdieu, Saussure, and Durkheim to Roy Rappaport, Terrence Ranger, and Stephen Lukes. It serves in this respect as an excellent resource for discovering which scholars’ works to investigate more deeply. Bell’s arguments regarding ritualization as a strategic means of differentiating actions or activities within a broader context of (mundane) action and activity, also provides a valuably different and refreshingly new perspective on “ritual.”
In sum, Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is
terrible. It’s one of the most hand-wavey, abstract, and ultimately meaningless academic books I have ever read, and that’s really saying something, given the things by Foucault and others which I have read for many a Theories & Methodologies class. rather problematic, as a source for trying to understand “ritual” further. The theory presented in this book is so far disconnected from any specific cases, specific cultural or historical contexts, or categories (political ritual? religious ritual? rituals performed at home, rituals performed in public), as to be extremely difficult to understand, let alone apply, to any particular case that one is examining. It is a wonder to me that anyone manages to make use of this book at all, and that it remains so prominent, so oft-cited. I would never have come across the book myself, or thought to add it to my reading lists, if not for how widely cited it is. It is so widely cited, in fact, that I had had the impression it was a must-read. Well, I suppose I am glad to have read it now, to know for myself just what it is, rather than having that continue to linger out there, not knowing whether it might have been useful for me, for my own research. And now I know, and the answer is, not in the slightest.
We shall see when, or if, I end up posting more extensively about some of the other works on ritual & performance that I have been reading… but, for now, in order to provide some contrast, let me maybe just say a couple words about some of the other works I’ve already posted about. Whereas Bell speaks broadly and vaguely about “ritual” in “societies” in general, Hevia, for example, speaks specifically about Qing and British diplomatic ritual in the late 18th century, giving us much concrete context for better understanding Qing ritual, British ritual, court ritual, and diplomatic ritual, among other categories. How bodies move in space. How hierarchy is constructed through ritual action. How differences in cultural attitudes or assumptions about ritual can result in problems. Edward Muir, who I have not yet posted about, along with Tom Pettitt and numerous others, analyze specific parades, processions, or other events in medieval and Renaissance Europe, using these as generalize-able examples, to point to how banners and music are used in parades, how processions might function – in terms of meaning-making, or emotional, social-political or psychological impact – both from the point of view of participants and observers. They point out to us how parades & processions function differently from theatre, since they pass us by rather than standing still. How parades & processions map out space, and negotiate relationships between different groups. How the members of a parade might be arranged before, after, or around the figure or object of the greatest importance, whether that be a king, ambassador, or relic. I know I am being quite vague and general here, but I promise you, even in this I am being far more concrete than Bell; and scholars such as Muir and Pettitt are more concrete still. Even the theorists, such as Victor Turner, provide specific examples to show what they are talking about. Hell, even Foucault does this, as he speaks of incarceration, schooling, specific episodes in the history of science, as examples to illustrate far broader, more abstract and conceptual topics. That Bell manages to so completely avoid providing any such concrete examples would be impressive, if it weren’t so exceptionally frustrating.