Posts Tagged ‘ritual studies’

In my ongoing search for a particular Ritual Theory approach or Performance Theory idea that will aid me in interpreting things for my dissertation research in just the right way, I somehow came across the 2008 book Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, co-written by Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon (Oxford U Press).

It is obviously cited widely enough that I did come across it myself. But at the same time, it’s refreshing and interesting to see a book that’s not one of the same big names, that might be able to bring a new, different, foundational Ritual/Performance approach to work like my own. While in the grand scheme of things one might say the core arguments of the book only really contribute to one particular side or aspect of the much broader, more complex, topic of Ritual/Performance, even so, I think it a good solid book on Ritual Studies in general. If I were to go back over the list of all that I’ve read about Ritual and Performance and choose just five or six works to suggest to others, if I had to choose, this one would definitely make the cut.


The book makes two chief arguments:

One, that whereas most scholarship on ritual discusses it as closely interconnected with harmony, unity, and so forth, Seligman et al wish to emphasize that the harmony or unity effected by ritual is necessary precisely because the world is fractured and imperfect. Ritual helps us create a “subjunctive,” as Seligman et al put it, an artificial and temporary space where things are as if the world were harmonious, unified, living up to some ideal. In other words, whereas much scholarship talks about ritual as reflecting political or social realities, Seligman et al say that ritual decidedly does not represent the world as is, but rather an imagined ideal, enacted artificially and temporarily, in a bid to help us bear and manage and create/maintain order in our world.

Two, the authors introduce a dichotomy, or rather a sliding scale, that I suppose no one in the field had quite articulated before, between individual or societal value placed on Ritual, and value placed on what the authors term Sincerity. The Confucian societies I am studying, along with many others around the world and throughout history, placed great importance on Ritual. As numerous scholars have written regarding Confucian concepts of propriety or etiquette (礼, C: , J: rei), and as Luke Roberts and others have written specifically about life in early modern Japan, the notion of propriety or etiquette, as well as the “authorities[,] were less concerned with orthodoxy, or correct belief, than they were orthopraxy, or correct practice.”1 What was important in Confucian society, for the most part, as well as in countless other times and places, was not that you believed correctly, but simply that you behaved correctly. Take your hat off when entering certain spaces, or the presence of certain people. Leave your hat on when in the presence of God (i.e. always). Bow deeply on these occasions, and not so deeply on those occasions. When meeting with the shogun, after lord so-and-so says such-and-such, you shift forward exactly three tatami mats, bow three times, say these words, bow again three times, and then present this document by holding it up and forward with both hands. Things like that.

One portion of a model of an investiture ceremony, at Shuri castle, Okinawa.

And there is a mountain of scholarship (well, presumably. I still haven’t found any that really explicates it to my satisfaction) pointing towards the notion that these kinds of actions, regardless of sincere belief underlying them, do function to create political realities. Bowing before a lord, or before a god, has emotional (affective) impacts, and it has discursive impacts through the process of seeing and being seen. When I attended reenactments of Ryukyuan court ceremonies held at Shuri castle, and individuals playing the roles of the Ryukyuan king or of scholar-officials in his service kowtowed to Heaven, to those playing the roles of Qing envoys, or to the one dressed as the king, the feeling of subservience, of hierarchy, was truly palpable. These might not be the greatest examples, as my own sense that it was palpable was likely very much influenced by my modern and American (individualist, democratic) perspective, rather than by some unattainable objective knowledge. Wish I had had the chance to talk to any of the performers about how they felt about it. But, regardless, when performed for real (and perhaps even when performed merely as reenactment), acts such as these are not “mere ceremony” or “mere formality.” Ritual actions such as bowing before a lord make you feel subordinate, and they make you look loyal. What, after all, is the difference between being loyal and merely acting loyal? So long as one bows and presents gifts and does all the things a loyal retainer should do, how is that any different from being a loyal retainer?

Seligman et al contrast this with “sincerity,” arguing that in many times and places throughout history but perhaps particularly in the post-Enlightenment, post-Protestant-Reformation “modern” world, society has been dominated not by a notion of ritual, i.e. correct practice, correct behavior, orthopraxy (a word which incidentally doesn’t appear anywhere in the book), but rather by an emphasis on sincerity, i.e. correct belief, or orthodoxy. Ritual is seen as just formality, as oh so much fluff – nonsense, really, under which lies truth; and if one is not truly loyal, or not truly devout, and is only behaving as such, then one is insincere – a deceiver, a betrayer, or at the very least simply inauthentic; less than, in some fashion. The Protestant Reformation, after all, attacked idols and icons, and excessive decoration and ceremony, and advocated a return to a more authentic form of worship, focused on the worshippers’ beliefs, their devotion, their love, and so forth. The Enlightenment, similarly, disparaged superstitions and emphasized the human mind – what’s real, what do we know, what do we think.

A church in Cambridge, England.

Some sections of this book really helped me shore up something I already had quotes for from other scholars, providing a necessary stepping stone for my work on ritual. Before we can talk about specific rituals, what they meant, how they functioned, after all, we need to first establish that it’s okay to not go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out whether each and every participant was sincere in their enactment of the ritual actions. When daimyô prostrated before the shogun, gave him gifts, and otherwise ritually reaffirmed their loyalty to him, was this done begrudgingly, with gritted teeth, because political, economic, and/or military considerations required them to do so rather than to more openly oppose the shogun? Or were they sincere and honest in their reaffirmations of their loyalty, their recognition of the shogun’s authority, their praise for the shogun’s virtuous and benevolent rule? In the vast majority of cases, we simply don’t know. We can’t know, because the diaries or other sorts of documents that might indicate a lord’s innermost thoughts simply don’t exist.

Of course, it would be great if we did have such documents and could get some real insights into that issue. But, we must also acknowledge that rituals have meaning and impact regardless of the personal beliefs or political attitudes of their participants. By acting out the role, one becomes it – not in a magical sense, but in a discursive, functional sense.


One thing I found particularly interesting about this book was the way it addressed major issues in modern history and contemporary politics – namely, (ultra)nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Their explanation of both of these phenomena as being founded in an excessive emphasis on sincerity, and on what Seligman et al call “gnosticism,” really helped me get a new perspective or insight into what’s going on politically in so many corners of our world today.

By Turkish political cartoonist Izel Rozental, from his book Karikatör.

As they write,

the Wahabbism championed by the Saudis [to take an example] rejected (and continues to reject) traditional religious practices and representations in search of an authentic, original religious experience—a pure, that is, sincere religious expression that cuts through the historicity of all real, lived traditional religious practice. In fact, it rejects tradition in favor of a putative original, founding moment, of which it claims unique understanding. This is the core of what today is so often termed “fundamentalism.” It equates truth, which is nonindividual and supraindividual, with its interpretation, which is invariably personal and conditional. This is where the basic contradiction between fundamentalism and true tradition lies. There is no tradition that permits the individual or group, solely on the basis of its own assertion, to proclaim its own knowledge to be infallible and absolute.”2

As this quote hopefully shows, they use the term “gnosticism” to refer, essentially, to attitudes in which one individual or group claims to have the true knowledge, and to speak for what the religion (or the nation) really is, or should be, and what it is not. It’s a form of modern nationalism or religious fundamentalism that claims I know better than everyone else, and the version of the religion, or society, that I wish to create is the best one, or the most true or authentic one, because I know so. It ignores and often actively rejects diversity, complexity, tradition. They give the example of Saudi Arabia funding the construction of Saudi-style mosques all across the Muslim world which gradually come to replace those in more locally traditional styles. This rejects the truth of how Bosnian or Syrian or Iranian Muslims have lived and worshipped for centuries – the reality of their tradition – in favor of some artificially imposed idea of one particular group’s vision of what constitutes the truer, more authentic, purer Islam. Of course, one could cite countless examples. Just look at nationalist revolutions in late 19th and early 20th century China, Turkey, Russia, and Japan for instance, each of which could be said to have rejected the ethnic, cultural, and political diversity of their societies, to impose upon everyone the vision of a particular leader, or a particular group, as to what “true” Chinese, Turkish, Russian, or Japanese identity meant, and what the “authentic” Chinese, Turkish, Russian, or Japanese nation should look like, or should be like.

these orientations gave birth in our times to the enormously powerful ‘‘secular religions’’ of the twentieth century: Nazism, fascism, and communism (or, perhaps better, Leninism rather than all forms of communism). The firmly held conviction of the leaders, followers, and elites of these movements—that they knew the course of history, the telos of existence, that they possessed both the practical and the theoretical knowledge necessary to realize the Endzeit — led to the worldwide horrors of what were, at their outset, reform movements par excellence.3

This gnosticism is very often intertwined with an excessive emphasis on sincerity. What’s really interesting is that on the surface, one might assume these sorts of fundamentalist, authoritarian, or ultra-nationalist ideologies to emphasize ritual. And they do, in certain ways. Stand for the national anthem. Fly the flag. Put up pictures of the great leader in your home and shop. Talk the talk when it comes to the “ritual” performance of claiming to stand for supporting our troops. Be sure to be seen attending all the right rallies or military parades or whatever they may be. But, as Seligman et al explain, societies that truly emphasize ritual over sincerity don’t care much what you believe, so long as you do what’s expected of you. By contrast, in authoritarian, fundamentalist, gnosticism-based societies, it’s not enough to just perform your duties as a good upstanding member of the group: you have to be pure of thought or belief as well. You have to be a true communist, or nationalist, a true islamist or evangelical, a true devotee of whatever the gnostic leader’s precise particular personal ideology may be. Disagreement, criticism, or debate are not tolerated – they are seen as traitorous. Non-believers or those who think differently are to be eyed with suspicion. They are criticized, ostracized, even imprisoned, “reeducated,” tortured, killed.

But, such matters are so pressing and so ever-present in our lives today that any further discussion could easily lead into an even more extensive digression than I’ve already done. Let’s move on.

Drinking kava (or ‘ava). A natural root, ground-up and suspended in water; relaxes your muscles without altering your mind. I really miss participating in ‘ava circles at East-West Center.

Another contribution I found particularly useful and interesting in this book was its categorization of ritual into four types. This is borrowed from work by Roger Caillois, but is nevertheless explained at length by Seligman et al, and was new to me.

The vast majority of work I’ve read on ritual either explicitly defines what types of ritual it is focusing on (e.g. Shingon Buddhist rituals supporting claims of sovereignty in 14th c. Japan), or it speaks of ritual in very general terms without providing a clear idea of the full range of what myriad types of ritual there are out there in the world – leaving the reader trying to imagine for themselves what types of acts or events any given theory or argument might (or might not) apply to. Caillois’ four categories help clarify this considerably, reducing down the wide wide world of ritual into four graspable categories:

(1) Agôn – Agônic rituals include ritualized sport, combat, and other forms of ritualized competition. Seligman et al give the example of a cricket game played out in such a way that it incorporates aspects or overtones of traditional ritualized combat “fought” between clans or tribes in that region. In agônic rituals, the participants both act as themselves (without taking on some other role or character), and they are in control of their actions, playing out the sport or combat just as freely as if it were real.

(2) Mimicry – Rituals in which participants take on roles or identities and follow a ritual script, but remain consciously in control of their actions. A great many religious rituals, from communion and baptism to Bar Mitzvah and the Passover seder, would seem to fall under this category, as would the diplomatic and court rituals I study. In diplomatic and court rituals, for example, the participants are not simply themselves (e.g. Steve Smith or Anne Black or whatever), but they are taking on the roles of lord and vassal, diplomat and head of state, and they follow a script, entering the hall in a certain way, bowing, presenting documents in a certain way, declaring certain pre-determined phrases, but remaining in control of themselves in contrast to rituals which involve, for example, spirit possession.

(3) Alea – and no, I don’t know where these names come from. I imagine it’s explained in the book but I’m afraid I’m not going back to look again. These are rituals in which the participants don’t take on roles or identities – they act as themselves – but they give over control to fate or the gods. Divination rituals are a key example of this category. Carve questions into bone and throw it into a fire to see how it cracks; leave the dregs of your tea or coffee and then see what forms they take; hold a seance; or simply roll dice. You’re being yourself, but the outcomes of the ritual are determined by some outside force.

(4) Ilinx – in the final category, participants give over both their identities and control over to some other force, such as a spirit or a deity. These are rituals of trance or spirit possession.

I really like these categories because, as I said before, they help make the broad wide world of myriad different rituals seem graspable. They help us to understand what types of things the huge wide category of “ritual” might include. And in doing so, they help us to understand what ritual theory is talking about, by helping us to know categories of examples.

The funeral procession of Marquis Shô Ten, last crown prince of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. This funeral was the last ceremony to ever be officially performed as a Ryukyuan royal ritual. Photo on display at Tamaudun (royal mausoleum, Shuri, Okinawa).

I do have one quibble with the categories, though. While they seem to cover all possible ritual in a nice broad way, covering all combinations of AA, AB, BA, and BB (whether participants give over their identities, and whether they give over control), in fact I feel that there is a problem with the second category (mimicry), or else that there is call for a fifth category. Seligman et al talk about the Passover Seder as one in which we imagine ourselves having spiritually or metaphorically been there at Mt. Sinai ourselves – not our ancestors, but ourselves – as Moses received The Law (the Torah) from God. And so, in that way, we are taking on roles, taking on identities, even as we remain in control of our actions (we are not possessed, even though our actions /are/ determined by a ritual script). Okay. And as I said, in political rituals one is performing as head of state, as diplomat, and not really as oneself, so in those cases too one is taking on an identity. But what about in the vast majority of other basic religious rituals, and secular rituals, that we perform? When you stand in synagogue and recite words out a book for three hours, sitting and standing and bowing at prescribed times, I suppose you’re playing the role of “worshipper.” But is that really so different from simply being yourself? Or, if we’re always playing a role – as teacher or student, as parent or child, as shopkeeper or customer – then what is the meaning of any category of “not taking on another identity; simply being yourself”? I think the slippage in these categories as applying to ritual comes from the fact that Caillois – something I missed on my first glance-through – wasn’t actually talking about ritual, but about games, or play. There, the categories (perhaps) make a lot more sense: games of competition, games of “make-believe,” games of chance, and games of just losing yourself.

Still, despite this slippage, I found these categories a very helpful theoretical construct for wrapping our minds around ritual. All in all, I found the authors’ arguments regarding ritual and sincerity very interesting, and very important contributions to the larger conversation on ritual. Though I suppose I was hoping for too much to think that somewhere in the book they might happen to touch upon all sorts of other aspects of Ritual Theory, thus sparing me having to go out and read yet another five or ten other books. That was an unreasonable expectation on my part; that issue aside, taking this book for what it is – contributing one particular argument to one particular facet of the broader discourse on Ritual – I would definitely put this (or at least the Introduction, or some portion of the book) on any Ritual Theory reading list.

All photos my own.

1) Marcia Yonemoto, The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan, University of California Press (2016), 221.
2) Seligman et al, 161-162.
3) Seligman et al, 132.

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