2010-01-26

201 Toolkit: Roy Rappaport on Ritual

Once again we'll turn to Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, this time to examine the idea of ritual. It should come as no surprise that such a term is much-discussed, and definitions abound, offered by ranks of scholars in various disciplines. In the course of studying religion, I necessarily encountered several of these, and ultimately found Rappaport's superior. Of course, as I've mentioned before, I'm particularly fond of Rappaport. While I maintain he's my favorite theorist because his lens proved the most useful all around, nevertheless I'll admit my bias in his favor.

In any case, when I speak of ritual, it is with his definition in mind, a definition which he gives on page 24: "I take the term 'ritual' to denote the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers." (Italics his.)

Rappaport devotes a considerable number of pages to unpacking and explicating this beguilingly terse phrase, and as always I recommend that anyone interested in grasping it thoroughly should refer to his book. However, for our purposes it suffices to render the definition in layman's terms. To do so, let us consider its key parts one by one.

First, 'performance.' This word is itself responsible for the spillage of not a little ink on the part of anthropologists and other scholars. While for academics "performance" carries loads of complex meaning, for the most part the vernacular understanding of the word will do: to perform something is to carry out an action according to some specifications, as when one performs a dance or a play. One's specific actions are set beforehand.

Naturally, this brings us to the second point of interest: invariance. That is, in performing ritual, the performance is (more or less) the same every time the same ritual is performed. This year's Easter mass is for the most part just like last year's; today's misogi purification is basically identical to yesterday's. Note that Rappaport qualifies ritual as "more or less invariant", not absolutely invariant. Over time rituals clearly change (in response to the fourth-order pressures discussed in our last post on Rappaport), but they nevertheless tend to maintain as many of their details unchanged as possible.

Thirdly, speaking of those details, comes formality. Rappaport thoroughly explains this notion in the context of ritual performance (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 33-36), but his simple explanation of formality as "adherence to form" will do for a basic understanding. Formality is simply acting in accordance to an extant form, though as Rappaport notes, formality doesn't necessarily entail decorum, as "The greeting behavior of teenagers for example, is formal in that it is stereotyped, but it is not particularly decorous, and the formality of some rituals ... may subsume or even specify, comic, violent, obscene or blasphemous behavior." [sic]

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: "not encoded by the performers." This is to say the formal actions specified for performance in a given ritual are not decided by the performers of that ritual. Someone participating in Nichiren Buddhist mantra chanting did not select the words of the mantra, nor set the manner in which the rhythm is drummed out; the bride and groom at a (traditional) Christian wedding don't pick the priest's words, nor choose to hold the ceremony in a church. In performing a ritual, the performers are carrying out details which were one way or another passed down to them, not chosen by the performers themselves.

To bring all these points back together, and give a definition in plainer words: ritual is carrying out actions adhering to certain forms and according to specifications set by somebody else, with more or less no change from one instance to the next. At this point the definition may seem hopelessly broad, but nevertheless it remains sound.

It may also be worth noting, as Rappaport does, that not all ritual is necessarily religious. However, being able to identify instances of ritual behavior which are not religious (which may be a tricky line to draw in the first place) doesn't detract from the effectiveness of the definition. Indeed, when we take another look at Magic: The Gathering in light of this definition, we may find religion a little harder to draw lines around.

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