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Ritual and Repetition              




From the smallest hello, the briefest reconfiguration of face, motion of hand, or hint of sound, we infer recognition. Communication is established and the self is reconfirmed. The world is continues on its rightful axis. No matter how vestigial in character, however passing in time, a ritual has been completed. An exchange is completed to the profit of all. Satisfaction reigns all around. This slightest of signs (whose importance is measured by the slight caused if left unrecognised) offers a microcosm, a minimal redaction, of the everyday presence of ritual in our lives. Such events may be described as ritualised because codified, codified because repeated, repeated regularly (on meeting, even constituting meeting itself). Repetition; whence our ability to recognise these otherwise faint flickerings found floating by in the flood-tide of everyday signs. If a response is found (equally vestigial, equally passing) then recognition is achieved, one is warmed because remembered, recognised, one's identity is reconfirmed by a response from an-other, a response from some 'significant' others, representatives of the community one is a part of (that one believes one belongs to). Writ large, this community may be humanity, if encompassing a lesser group, its membership is nonetheless everything to those who define themselves by its canons. Either way this community is made up of those 'like us', and valorises the Same. Otherwise (especially in mass society) there are those who of necessity must remain anonymous, empty of recognition, those who pass by, the neutral background of everyday passage, of the realities of mass transit. And then there are those singled-out as belonging to the community of the damned...


If the latter category is definitive of the abjected position in a hierarchy, the communication of a negative recognition, and may exist as potential in any relation to the anonymous mass, then it is within the community of positive recognition itself that hierarchy is to be found freed of its tainted quality. It is within any such community that hierarchy is to be found in its most subtle forms (a ranking often implicitly shared despite self's preference for self, such is our dependency upon others). It is this relation that makes of every community a putative closed society (where everyone 'knows their place'). Equality and freedom may be the ideal, but the need to belong exerts a steady -even structural- counter-pull. Providing us with yet another permanent tension, another 'issue' under continual renegotiation; often a key ingredient in the 'flavour' of the community or society in question. Another endless negotiation in the never-to-be-finished dialectic of Hegel's game of recognition with its stakes of bondage and dominance (usually known under its evocative mistranslation as the 'Master/Slave' relation). These are the exchanges that mark inequality, voluntary or involuntary. Here due-recognition shows respect, is the 'proper' mark of respect, but also serves as the mark of servility (hence its sensitivity in relations between the generations and between peers - who is 'up' who is 'down'...). This is a mark, an exchange, that marks hierarchical or divided societies regardless of their self-image. For all societies are divided; not least by generation and the division of labour. And when all other divisions are supposed to have become 'egalitarianised', there is always the confluence of gender and the stare/return of stare, the complex inter-relation of sex and vision, and the fraught, misdirected and mis-taken, and contested meanings that result from these encounters.


In all cases the slightest sign evades slight. A test is passed. The password given. The gift of presence, also the debt of recognition, the gift-debt of position, is returned, recognised, confirmed. The acid test, one that burns holes in the fabric of community, leaving scars on the body of society, can be found in cases of recognition failed or denied. These may evoke a response such as a pragmatic, world-weary, shrug of the shoulders, or may provoke instant fury and internal agony. It is the mark of its power over us, its role in the constitution of ourselves, that the absence of recognition acts like a corrosive eating away at our guarded sense of self, our proud sense of honour, and just sense of balance; our acute sense of rightful exchange (and such exchanges as the key to rightfulness). For ritual is always about exchange - moreover that most valued, yet most immaterial, of exchanges; identity exchange (brute possession may be made to support it, but is better read as being squandered in its cause). The world is a worse place if we pass by unacknowledged. If our signals go unanswered. If the mirror no longer reflects.


At the opposite extreme from the liminal flicker of recognition - the minimal incarnation of sign in the instant, an instant which promises a sense of self-satisfaction in the immediate future - there is the horizon-forming event that swallows up time in order to grasp the umbilical cord of eternity - the vortex into which society throws itself, and from which it reissues, reborn - its long term future guarantied. Both forms, minimal and maximal, are nevertheless the gifts of repetition (and hold out, in turn, the gift of the repetition of the sublunary world they appear to support). Such mega-festivals of recognition, grand evocations of the communication of community, are the most eagerly anticipated (or dreaded) annual event; the most planned-for, most eagerly-awaited kind of cyclic convocation, presaging and promising the return of full meaning as the wheel comes full circle. A  grand repetition comes to pass. Ritual is here experienced at its most intense, even if the rituality itself has become invisible, second nature, force of habit (there are exceptions, but they are almost entirely horrible). Ritual as key to the annual festival (Christmas, Holi, Ramadan, Passover, Thanksgiving, or else the National Day). Such rituals are the key marker of religion and of nation, of the identity of community (in divided communities a site of contestation or putative reunion). Such festivals often involve months of preparation, saving, organising, spending....   (Some ritual events may take years to prepare; witness the Olympics, the once in a lifetime trip to Mecca, the Hadj). Energy is spent on organisation and production. Everyday time is organised in the cause of a special time. Objects are produced and collected to be exchanged for, or turned into, special objects.  Religion usually wields control over the centre of this storm; but in a 'secular',' rational' society given over to the pursuit of commodities and the market... The apparent absence of religion does not negate this process or its effects; the intensity or 'effervescence' continues in cyclic commodity festivals and subsists in other activities following a shorter time cycle. Such as the iterative events we began with.


And in between: the rituals of language and place. The place of our everyday language in our ritual existence, codes learnt by exposure and frequent use; repetition. Our use of 'our' sounds; we are comprehended; we belong to a language community. Taking place in and defining the space of that community; 'our' place, the physical return 'home', familiar streets, a familiar environment - the 'at home' felt in the city or the country or wherever we may be. Ownership is not the issue here: the less people own the more important the territory they nominate as theirs (and the dialectal and semantic forms which constitute their mental 'home'); their territoriality, site of (everyday) rituals - that which they return to. A place defined and defended by rituals; rituals verbal and enacted, rituals of symbolic violence and of actual violence; as when the badge of membership, and its continual witness, repetition, is disturbed by that apotheosis of transgression: the Other.


Repetition is ritual. (All repetition has ritual effects - which is why we worry so over the presence of coincidence; as disturbing in its way as a break in the chain of repetition.)


Yet ritual is also a repetition - and one with distant echoes - of that which appears invariant in the human condition; if the dominant mode of exchange varies, then the need for an exchange that results in some form of identity does not.




                                                                                    Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk