Theses on Rituality
Surprisingly most fundamental, that which we take most for granted, and of which we are the least aware. Sleep. With a designated, that is, special time and space, a repeated set of activities to take place before and after (a preparation to go into and a set of cleansing activities after we emerge), a loss or change of consciousness, and, not least, the dramatic entry into a dream world. A place of surreal, uncanny, mythic events. Then we awake, refreshed, ready to continue. The echoes with ‘framed space’ in poetry too are many; take two of D.H. Lawrence’s famous poems, ‘Bavarian Gentians’ with its vivid descent and ritual climax, and the heavily symbolic, dark, negation-laden, hiding place of the eponymous ‘Snake’ – but this comes as no surprise, as poetry, like the experience of art in general, can rewardingly be read as a form of rituality. All ritual is about afterwards… refreshment, renewal, recognition. A return on a new level and a reawaking (to a new self). Sleep is it that it is analyzable as ritual: or… could it be the Ur-ritual of humanity (and all sentient life…). Augmented by the rituals of renewal that make up our waking life, rituals of identity and community, recognition and confirmation, from passing greetings to annual-festival, a suture which renews and re-establishes, re-fresh’s society and its institutions, from politics through the family, to the individual. So fending off (social) entropy and re-establishing order.
(Whence also the redemptive quality we associate with good art – with the experience often called katharsis).
Ritual; day dream of repentance and renewal, redemption and repair.
But temporary… temporal…, coming with a time limit; so requiring repeated reminders, a regular booster shot, a regular ‘fix’. A regularly repeated transfusion of imaginary elan vital. A reanimation of the props of the everyday. A reaffirmation of the foundations of self and society. Otherwise: the successive half-lives of decay, a liability to entropy. A tendency to fade; a degrading of quality and loss of vitality. Blanching, a progressive bloodless. The onset of empty ordinality. Passing time as lacking meaning, lacking motivation. A march of empty forms. Pale ghosts requiring blood sacrifice… (as once was…).
Presence fades to the semi-presence of memory, then to the non-presence (empty trace) of absence.
Entropy; and its counter, the energy required to maintain order, structure, as energy spent on ritual (the performance of ritual and its sacrificial elements) as the ritual expenditure required for maintenance of order, of structure, of identity and community on a social and on a psychological level. Structure is made up of sundry links and bonds, of silent sutures and invisible threads, all subject to the wear and tear due to time, all in need of repair - from friendship and the nod of passing acquaintance, all the way to the things we call sacred, embedded in community identification, seasonal and memorial festivals – and the considerable social energy we expend on them.
Repetition. Repetition is the first sign of ritual. Witness to, assertion of, conservation. Indeeed repetition may be read as the very recognition of this fact. As recognition, or assertion, of identity requires more than just ‘once’ - requires iteration. Persistence in time, Over time. Having temporality. Reiteration. Again. Then the process can be recognized as such, continuity established, including a continuity in the self… (‘can you do it again’, ‘then you know how’…). And of self and others; our connection, linkage, our mutual debt (the recognition relation). What is between self and others as persisting, and the recognition of this persistence (indeed, as the recognition of this persistence). Do they respond the same way again? Then we have a connection… The ritual that reminds us (cements us) into our relations with others, enacts this very relation; business rituals, courtship rituals, friendship rituals - never mind the rituality of marriage and other rites of passage…. Repetition as possibility and proof and presence of ritual. Its projection, its success. It returns; (means) it continues… lives on… is… (even if only as a pulse, awaiting its next appearance). The next apparition.
What in the self, in relations, in community, in life, is not touched by this relation… this necessity, so ubiquitous that it has become invisible to us? But when it breaks down, how immediately do we register the shock and fear of a life destabilized… And as all social life is made from exchanges, so are not these forms of regularized behaviour, these forms of rituality, describable in terms of their cost, or expenditure, or depth, or intensity of rituality involved…? Quantitative means to assertion of a given, desired quality of life.
(What is the self, in relations, in community, in life, if not being touched by this relation… this necessity, so ubiquitous that it has become invisible to us… present as the haunting of ourselves with exchanges with others - absent, their ghosts still engage us; we, present to ourselves though the perception of otherness, through the contents of our frame, the frame of the Eternal Present, console ourselves, with the barest witness of self, the conversation with imaginary others. But is not the ‘self’ of these conversations also not imaginary?)
Apart from ritual, what else is there that brings together time and space, in special, framed, put-aside form. The time of day and the sports field; the hour of night and the pentagram. Perhaps only the picture frame or the frame of the art institution or museum works with equal effectiveness to sacralise, to make special, or intensify, the time and space relations involved in this highlighting, figuring, setting against a ground of a special, framed, put-aside form - become ‘content’.
But these are also, even predominantly, even if shared… imaginary forms. For ‘its all in the mind’, in the imagination (a ‘real imagining’ is what we imagine (it is)), as real as the formation of individual and collective subjectivities, co-existing, indeed, co-implicating, always together, fruit of a lifetime of recognition-training, organ attuned to the presence of significant others and their attitude towards us (from ‘mOther’ on) - in turn recognition-making, confirming, along with renewal and assertion…
Reassertion of the propositions of the self. The propositional calculus of identity.
And what else, moreover, brings together (like nothing else…on Earth) the two ‘eternities’? Existing in us in parallel, the double eternity of the human condition, two opposite and complementary levels; one here, always here, and one there, always there, over there, elsewhere… One, the eternal present we all inhabit, always, whilst we live, true for all, so generalizable into a collective consciousness, or dream, a collective mode of species-being, or the collective moment of the self-presence of human culture, so ‘Capitalisable’ as ‘the Eternal Present’. Home of human existence; our ‘room’ in matter, with its parallel Other, its eternally absent extrapolation, universalization and outward projection, to which we all then defer (whether in terms of personifications, deities, heavens or as universals and axioms). Eternity… Both extrapolation and shadow, extrapolation as absent Absolute Other; shadow as second, as ‘put outside’, magnified, illuminated in a reversal that claims a greater reality, a greater luminescence that even the Real (the greatest imaginable, and more… the place indicated by the experience of the Sublime) - so transformed into the ‘real’ foundation of earthly certitudes. The guarantor ‘outside’, of our contingent lives ‘inside’ our everyday experience. The guarantor of all our exchanges (the trace of which runs even in the exchange relation that is the purchase of the commodity, as in no exchange is identity absent, and identity always requires a guarantor…). Eternity. The calling up of which, evocation of which, reliance upon which, is the role of ritual. Magic square of the imagination, pentagram in which the performative is called up to do its illusionistic but effective work. Imaginary demon summoned to shore up our fading selves, our crumbling life patterns, our self-belief.
Eternity then is the cornerstone, or spirit called upon to witness the identity exchange, the assertion of the identity proposition, at the heart of every ritual. Subjunctive trace in passing repetitions: insistent, even blood-hungry, gift hungry, sacrifice-demanding selfish god, in more intense ritual practices (and the more we ‘give’, the more we believe…(the more we get…)).
(So from the shared dinner, which cements a deal, or a bond or a family or an affair… From the work or political meeting, where everyday actors must become modern day shamen and ‘raise the tone’, re-enthuse, re-inspire, re-infuse… the ‘tired rituals’ of the work calendar with the ritual of re-consecration. From the collections made for charity, through the fundraising ‘event’ and the sense of a being a ‘good person’ that follows (and more, being part of a fellowship of such, a cultural capital, and ‘identity capital’). From the time given in meditation or self-prompting or any action, which asserts oneself as such a being, and not another… the time, which together with the congealed or deferred time given, could have been spent otherwise, invested… The ‘disjunctive reciprocity’ of the gift, the sacrifice, the identity exchange, matter for soul; time for presence (the Eternal Present). Ritual exchange in all its subtle, various forms.). And it works!
Ritual: the permanently ‘on prescription’, preternatural placebo of the psyche (and when we fall ill - we overprescribe, become obsessive in our repetition…).
The ubiquity, utility and sheer force of eternity marks it as one of the human mind’s most fecund of creations – and unconscious at that! Irreplaceable for religions, ideologies, magic and… our modern magic, science and logic too; all the ‘eternal verities’, from supra-historical ‘laws’ and heavens to trans-historical axioms, a prioris, first principles or rights. Humanity’s greatest gesture of deferral. Self-assertion based on apparent self-denial (the denial of humble origins!). The strategic putting, of all the really important stuff, ‘outside’… So leaving us with ‘Eternity’ as the trans-historical always already prior, True-Real and relegating the ‘Eternal Present’ of our actual lived experience as a secondary, ephemeral, epiphenomena… reality turned on its head (as Marx observed, wrongly, of Hegel, who was not talking about the priority of ideas over matter but of the evolution of Culture and the role of ideas in the perception of matter… and our place within this… the point therefore, to paraphrase Marx again, is not to change the world - we are already always doing this - but to understand it… understand how we are doing it, what we are doing and where we are taking ourselves… to turn Marx, in turn, on his head…).
Eternity and the Eternal Present ‘reunified’ in ritual. In the ritual moment. These ‘unities’ as echoing, putatively asserting, subjunctively proclaiming, the provisional and fragmenting unity of the web of consciousness that is spun in our own heads; a unity of subjectivity, now extrapolated to our communities of identification; identity propositions involving part and whole and so our demand for recognition and belonging… But also involving the largest whole, or meta-set, of human existence, and our part in this. Direct plug into eternity and its stabilizing force, its certainties and its prescriptions. All very comforting: all entirely fictitious. Fruit of our psychological evolution, faced with incomprehensibles, quickly rendered sublime. Appeased through sacrifice, through ritual. The evolution of which does not cease with our modern social forms (governed by the commodity and reason) and our modern self. Fragile web with its constant need for renewal and repair… a re-connecting and re-tuning achieved through ritual.
But brought at a price… A unity, forged by ritual practice, of self and community, achieved at a price; the minimum is that of time taken, the present time (the time of ritual) the time lost to other things (our time is finite) and the maximum is made from time too, but congealed time, saved time, stored past time, the time of our labour, individual and collective, reproductive, of people and objects, so of objects sacrificed (and, as once, more regularly, in the past - and as also in the present with the pogrom, or ethnic cleansing, or communal aggression, symbolic or actual, of others sacrificed).
(…of others (people) sacrificed, the work, the rearing of others destroyed, if the ritual is destructive of the other…)
All to bring about…
The effect, collective feeling, the imaginary emotional ‘lift’, (where, foreshadowing the performative, what is imaginary is real). The ‘effervescence’ (Durkheim) due to ritual, in the individual experience of ritual… and in the shared, and the consciousness of sharing, the same, affect. So from the glow of handshake, or nod in public, the pleasure of being recognized, and at conferring recognition, even in passing; or in the purchase of a commodity, as any such choice involves more than brute economics, requiring the sacrifice of our time in labour to our self-image gift to life style…. where a use value prompts identity exchange (the ‘disjunctive reciprocity’, where the ‘waste’ of time in one ‘economy’, gives birth to an ‘economy’ of self and others, matter for mind). The expenditure of exchange value whose use value is identity. All the way to the more costly expenditures, which power the more intense identity assertions, confirmations and bondings of our habitual festivals, religious, national, political or personal, birthdays. All our annual and still larger-cycle festivals (including the expenditure on elections as well as the particular Christmases and Spring Festivals of a given culture).
And again to re-iterate the negative in the gift, in the ritual, to make a ritual repetition of the negative as a gift to the future. Noting the possibility of destructive acts as sacrificial as ritual, where the sacrificial offering or gift or identity exchange is not our own, the gift of the Same, but of the Other. As witnessed by the existence of pogroms, genocides, marches, intimidations, and memorials of such or of our own loss turned to aggressive use… to symbolic violence as a possible prequel to actual violence against the person; memorial as agon… as provocation or social control.). All too (human) forms of ritual – exhibiting its logic.
Ritual writ large or writ small. Festival or gesture (the macro level with its implied metaphysics or cosmology and the micro level of the passing glance). And the rest of the repetitions and exchanges that make up our lives, strung out in between…
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2015