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The Limits of Ritual

Published onOct 01, 2017
The Limits of Ritual


This paper takes up and challenges Richard Schechner’s claim for the ubiquity of ritual, both in terms of his contention that “people perform ritual everyday”, and the claim that “animals perform rituals”. The paper proceeds by a close reading of Schechner’s treatment of ritual in his Introduction to Performance Studies, before turning to the work of the social anthropologist J. Lowell Lewis, who argues that far from being the original, primal ground for aesthetic performance, ritual is better understood as the most ramified, elaborate form of human performance activity. Where, for Schechner, play is understood as something of a supplement to the permanent, efficacious functions of ritual, for Lewis, play in both developmental and in evolutionary terms. precedes ritual, and therefore has a stronger claim to ubiquity across cultures, and to the realm of the animals.

Keywords: Ritual; Play; Schechner; Cultural Performance; Lewis

“What is it”, the call for papers for the symposium upon which this collection is based asks, “that makes ritual and cultural performances so compelling and pervasive in the contemporary world?” citing, as a starting point, a paragraph from Richard Schechner’s magisterial Introduction to Performance Studies, a paragraph first published in 2002, and surviving into the third edition in 2013.

“Every day” Schechner observes:

people perform dozens of rituals. These range from religious rituals to the rituals of everyday life, from the rituals of life roles to the rituals of each profession, from the rituals of politics and the judicial system to the rituals of business or home life. Even animals perform rituals (2013, p.52).

In this paper, I want to take issue with the propositions advanced by Schechner here. At the very least I want to suggest that the two key claims—that “every day people perform dozens of rituals”, and that “[e]ven animals perform rituals”—are by no means as self-evident or as axiomatic as Schechner’s assertion suggests. My secondary concern—and this is a concern bound to my overall critique of Schechner’s writing here—is to at the very least call into question an uncritical invocation of the idea of ‘the contemporary world’ as a sensible, coherent analytical category, and to think about how a critical anthropology might set about reframing any such idea.

Given the constraints of this current publication, this is not the place to embark upon an exhaustive critique of Schechner’s vast oeuvre. Instead, this short essay will, first, undertake a close reading of the texts from which the symposium’s provocation was taken, and, second, turn to an effort to delimit the use of the term ‘ritual’ in order to better focus the analytical bite of that term.

But first, to the paragraph quoted above, which appears on the first page of the chapter of his book, a chapter titled, simply, “Ritual”. The thrust of my critique here is that, in the first instance, Schechner has dilated the category of ‘ritual’ so far as to make it all but useless as an analytical category, and second, that he not only offers no evidence to support his assertion that “animals perform rituals”—and surely the onus is on him to do so—but that his account of what rituals are contradicts any such assertion.

Such a reading might be dismissed on the ground that the chapter in question appears only in a textbook aimed at undergraduate students, and that Schechner, elsewhere develops more coherent, careful arguments. However, this is perhaps the very best reason to read this chapter very carefully: I would want to argue that, in fact, the entire book all but captures the grounds and trajectory of Schechner’s huge and immensely influential body of writing. Indeed, in the 2016 Cambridge Introduction to Performance Theory Simon Shepherd refers to Schechner’s Introduction as the “Summation” (the capitalisation is in the original) in which “[t]he ideas [Schechner] developed in various publications since [1979] are brought together and re-stated” (2016, p.153). The very fact that it has provided the keystone for a symposium such as this present one speaks to its significance.

My argument will, then, use a close reading of Schechner here to reframe the question put to this symposium: what makes ‘ritual’ so compelling and pervasive in performance studies? And what is at stake in projecting this compelling and pervasive idea onto (the entirety of) the ‘contemporary world’.

So, how does Schechner introduce his readers to the idea of ‘ritual’? The groundwork is laid in the first, introductory chapter of the book, an introductory chapter that sets out from the claim that it is written by “a Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist” (2013, p.1). My concern here is not to dispute that Schechner understands that he does embody such a miscellany of potentially contradictory beliefs and/or identities: very few self-identifications escape contradiction, and such contradictions are frequently reconciled in the economies of social practice. I am more engaged by the epistemological territory staked out by the claim: the implicit aspiration to a pan-optic, protean capacity not only to approach and provisionally to align with difference and otherness, but to take on that otherness in an additive autobiographical self-production. The orientation towards a supra-contextual universalisation is redoubled in the retelling of what Schechner calls “The Victor Turner Connection” (2013, pp.17-20), the foundation narrative of Performance Studies as a discipline, in which, as most readers would know, the question of cultural difference is framed as a matter of variable content with respect to the trans-cultural consistency of the fundamental form of ritual and social process.

The chapter on ritual starts with the claim that “[p]erformances—whether in the performing arts, sports, popular music, or everyday life—consist of ritualized gestures and sounds” (2013, p.52). And the problem has already arrived: the word ‘ritualized’ has been smuggled in without any attempt to understand or outline what it might actually mean, why this word might be a good choice. The next sentence appears to want to clarify the matter: “[e]ven when we think we’re being spontaneous and original, most of what we do and utter has been done and said before—by us even” (p.52). Schechner then extends this observation, suggesting that “Performing arts frame and mark their presentations, underling the fact that artistic behaviour is ‘not for the first time’ but enacted by trained persons who take time to prepare and rehearse” (p.52).

In none of this is there anything to predicate these kinds of activities—‘performing arts’—upon ritual per se. In fact—and this anticipates what I want to say later—the word ‘ritualized’, as I have just quoted it in the first sentence of the paragraph above, could be—should be—replaced by a less ‘loaded’ word, perhaps something like ‘routinised’ or, if we want to follow a different trajectory, ‘thematised’. So, either “Performances—whether in the performing arts, sports, popular music, or everyday life—consist of routinised gestures and sounds” or “Performances—whether in the performing arts, sports, popular music, or everyday life—consist of thematised gestures and sounds”. Schechner seems to want the word ‘ritualized’ to capture both these (apparently contradictory) ideas. However, using one (loaded) word to do this work significantly muddies the water. Much better, perhaps, would be to frame the observation in terms of a tension between routinisation and thematisation.

We should not be surprised, then, that as Schechner’s argument (and work as a whole) unfolds, ‘ritual’ figures so prominently; indeed, foundationally: he has smuggled into his very premise the verbalized form ‘ritualized’, which I characterise as deriving from a ‘small r’ broadly understood definition of ‘ritual’, which encompasses ideas about repetition, iteration, routinisation, and which he will soon elide with a ‘capital R’ definition of ritual, used to describe specific sets of special, marked practices. In turn, this ‘up-town’ frame of reference is then returned to bootstrap a vast range of practices into the rubric of ‘capital R’ ritual. Brushing my teeth, on this argument, is understood as a ritual, and on that understanding, become freighted with (an unmerited) significance: ‘everyday, people perform dozens of rituals’. The argument takes the form of a petitio principia: because of the initial use of the notion of ‘ritualization’ to encompass a broad category of ‘doing’, everything therefore, becomes ‘ritual’: that which is rendered by the process which takes its name.

A secondary concern here is Schechner’s use of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. He claims that ‘performing arts frame and mark their presentation’. They do no such things, as ‘performing arts’ are not agents capable of doing anything. The missing term here is something like ‘people’: the framing and marking of significance involves acts of interpretation undertaken by the members of a specific, particular community, in a given historical and palatial circumstance. It is, perhaps, a legacy of Victor Turner’s formalist functionalism that human agency in such formulae is rendered at best as epiphenomenal, subordinated to structure and form.

At the same time, much of what Schechner suggests here is useful: there is a continuity between everyday doings—and we’ll have to think carefully about what word we want to use for the placeholder ‘doings’ here—and those kinds of doings which Schechner describes as being ‘framed’ and ‘marked’. However, Schechner takes up a different analytical trajectory.

For having set up the idea of ritualization as a fundamental process, he then invokes his earlier definition of performance as “twice-behaved, coded, transmittable behavior’, generated by ‘interactions between ritual and play” (p.52). From there it is only a short hop to a definition of performance itself as “[r]itualized behaviour conditioned and /or permeated by play” (p.52).

This is slippery thinking. The terms ‘ritual’ and ‘ritualized (behaviour)’ seem to be used to refer to the same things, the ‘interaction’ that generates ‘performance’ on this definition consists of the ‘permeation’ or ‘conditioning’ of a fundamental ‘ritualness’, understood as the condition yielded by ‘ritualisation’ qua repetition. This is important: play is construed here as the supplement to ritual, rather than as being (co)- foundational of performance with ritual as the initial formulation has it: ‘interactions between ritual and play’. This interaction is revealed as being something that happens to, interferes with, distorts, the fundamental unfolding of ritualization.

The next paragraph moves to offer a definition of ritual itself. ‘Rituals’, Schechner claims, “are collective memories encoded into actions” (p.52). That may well be the case; however, the obverse is not also the case: not all collective memories encoded into actions are rituals. It is not hard to think of counterexamples. The account continues:

Rituals also help people (and animals) deal with difficult translations, ambivalent relationships, hierarchies, and desires that trouble, exceed, or violate the norms of everyday life (p.52).

This is Schechner’s gloss on Turner’s foundational framing of ritual processes as prophylactic mechanisms anticipating potential breaches in social order. As the paragraph develops, Schechner reinforces the hierarchy between ritual and play: “[p]lay gives people the chance to temporarily experience the taboo, the excessive, and the risky”, but rituals transform people permanently: “[i]n play the transformations are temporary” (p.52).

Then we get to the paragraph with which we started, and some further attempts to establish the anteriority and pervasiveness of ritual, including a claim to “the rituals of everyday life”, which, Schechner explains are “[l]ess marked . . . sometimes they are labelled as ‘habits’, ‘routines’, or ‘obsessions’” (p.52). Citing Roy Rappaport’s 1979 Ecology, Meaning, and Religion, Schechner claims that certain formal qualities" unify these diverse practices as “rituals” (p. 52). In a break-out box, Rappaport is quoted as offering the following definition for “aspects of ritual”: “the performance of a more or less invariant sequence of formal acts and utterances”, none of which are peculiar to ritual, but which are unique in their conjunction as ritual (Rappaport 1979 in Schechner p.53). For Rappaport, rituals “tend to be stylized, repetitive, stereotyped...and they tend to occur at special places or times”; rituals communicate but are taken “by those performing it to be ‘doing something’” (ibid.). Their efficacy derives from an engagement with the occult, as distinguished from “the patent”; the patent is that which “can be known in the last resort by sensory experience, and it conforms to the regularities of material cause” (ibid.).

Rappaport, as cited here by Schechner, explicitly excludes everyday practices: habits, routines, obsessions.: the break-out box stands in something of a dialectical relationship—in an unresolved tension, perhaps—with Schechner’s own position.

The argument then starts relying on a series of provisional hypotheses:

Performing rituals seem to go back to the very earliest periods of human cultural activity […] [cave paintings] seem to be of ritual significance (p.52). [...] Archaeologists studying this cave “art” surmise that the rituals were probably performed in association with paintings and sculptures (p.57).

Schechner does carefully point out that he places the word ‘art’ in diacritics “because no one knows for sure what the makers of these works thought of them or meant them to be or do” (p. 57), while performing no such typographical reservations with regard to the repeated use of the word ‘ritual’.

When Schechner gets to animals, the evidence is even more slender. While sensibly setting out with a caveat about the dangers of referring to “the abdominal waggle and footwork of honeybees communicating to other bees” as “dance” (p.59), Schechner gets into some strange territory, proposing an “evolutionary scheme of ritual”, and claiming that “[a]nimals with simple nervous systems, such as insect and fish, enact genetically fixed rituals” (p.61).

The argument here relies on a line drawn from Darwin through Julian Huxley and Konrad Lorenz, and in particular Huxley’s use of the word ‘ritualization’ to describe the movement of certain patterns of behaviour away from an ‘original specific function’. Schechner quotes Lorenz as taking up this model, describing processes of mimetic exaggeration” and an associated “rhythmical repetition” as yielding “a ceremony” “which is, indeed, closely akin to a symbol and produces the theatrical effect” (Lorenz 1966 in Schechner p.60). Eugene G d’Aquila et al are quoted as claiming that

Human ceremonial ritual is not a simple institution unique to man but rather a nexus of variables shared with other species [...] One may trace the evolutionary progression of ritual behaviour from the emergence of formalization through the coordination of formalized communicative behaviour and sequences of ritual behaviour to the conceptualization of such sequences and the assignment of symbols to them by man (1979 in Schechner p.60).

On this account, what is important is a process of formalization, which, through processes of evolutionary development, become interpreted (and interpretable) as ritual. Ritual, on this account, is, precisely, something that is conceptualised as such by those involved. However, the waters are muddied by the uncritical substitution of the word ‘ritualisation’ for formalization or, more correctly, a certain category error involved in assuming that the fact of the usage of a similar-looking word across disparate disciplines points to an underlying unity of referent. Such a substitution mistakes analogy for homology.

Paul Bouissac, in his contribution to By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual edited by Schechner with Willa Appel and published in 1990, alerts us to the risks of forcing equivalence, referring to the:

igrations of this concept [ritual] first from the domain of religion to ethology to the social sciences in a way which accounts for its current fuzziness if not inconsistency (p.195).

He continues, citing the work of Eibl-Eibesfeldt:

In addition to the classical definitions propounded by the sociologists of relation [... to] at one extreme, the ethologists ‘technical definition of ritualization as ‘the process by which non-communicative behaviour patterns evolve into communicative ones’ […]; on the other end of the spectrum, the term is used by some anthropologists of theological inclination with a value close to its primitive religious origins (p.194).

The desire, on the part of “[e]thologists, sociobiologist, cultural anthropologists, semioticians and a few others”, Bouissac suggests, with not inconsiderable understatement, to “integrat[e] these various uses […] within a unified framework in order to establish a posteriori the scientific or philosophical validity of the extension of the concept” has yielded a “certain conceptual confusion” (p.194).

Twenty-five years later, Simon Shepherd sharpens the critique, more explicitly focussing on Schechner’s tendency to move from analogy (that is, ‘these different practices bear similarities’) to homology (‘these different practices are versions of the same thing’). Shepherd demonstrates that while the very thinkers upon whom Schecher drew—Dell Hymes, Victor Turner, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Catherine Bell—were alert to the potential distinction between categories such as ‘performance’ and ‘behaviour’ (Hymes), ‘games’ and ‘ritual’ (Levi-Strauss), ‘conduct’ and ‘behaviour’ (Turner), Schechner took a different path. Where Bell, for example, warned of the dangers of ‘flirting with universalism’ (1998, p.159), Shepherd argues that Schechner “tends to work towards generalising diagrams and overviews which usually have the effect of forcing subtly different activities into imposed equivalence” (2016, p.159).

The fundamental orientation to an axiomatic universality yields a circularity that makes it appear that ritual must always already have been there in order for the concept of ‘ritualisation’ to have any coherence. Schechner himself recognises this kind of circularity a few pages later, when he describes the argument of ‘primal ritual’ advanced by Harrison, Murray and Cornfield: the primal ritual exists because of remnants of it in Greek tragedy; Greek tragedy contains remnants of a primal ritual; therefore there must have been such a ritual (in Schechner p.80).

The examples Schechner uses from Jane Goodall, of course, speak to a certain performativity and, arguably, theatricality exhibited by primates—a self-conscious presentationalism, perhaps—but it is hard to see how either of the examples constitute evidence of ritual in anything but the broadest, weakest sense (pp.61-62): a sense in which the term itself loses any capacity to identify something beyond the flow of everyday life.

Schechner then moves to something that is presented as a definition of ritual (p.65). All rituals, he explains, share certain qualities:

—the repurposing of ‘ordinary behaviors’;

—exaggeration and simplification of those behaviors;

—the development of body parts for display; in humans, this involves masks, costumes etc; and

—the behaviour is ‘released’ on cue (p.65).

He then seeks to distinguish human ritual from animal ritual in “two key regards”:

Rituals are calendrical;

Rituals transport persons from one life phase to another (p.65).

And this: “Animals do not wonder about life after death or reincarnation” (p.65).

On page 81, Schechner restates his foundational theory of the ‘use’ of performance “in every part of the world and in every culture”, in a “dynamic tension between efficacy and entertainment”, and offers a captivatingly broad curriculum for the grounds of performance:

[p]erformance originates in the need to make things happen and to entertain; to get results and to fool around; to show the way things are and to pass the time; to be transformed into another and to enjoy being oneself; to disappear and to show off; to embody a transcendent other and to be ‘just me’ here and now . . . (p.81).

The conclusion of this thinking is, however, notwithstanding the framing of a ‘tension’ between efficacy and entertainment, an assertion of the primacy of ritual: “[t]he shift from ritual to aesthetic performance”, Schechner states, “occurs when a participating community fragments into occasional, paying customers” (p.81). The position is clear: ‘aesthetic performance’ is derived from ritual, rather than from the ‘entertainment’ end of the efficacy-entertainment continuum.

If I have perhaps belaboured what I read as Schechner’s confusions here it is to make the case that we need better thinking about ritual.

Again, I will turn to my initial observation: it is simply not the case that “every day people perform dozens of rituals”. It certainly is the case that, in some cultural contexts, some people do perform rituals every day. However, I have not performed or been in a ritual today, and only rarely do I participate in a ritual in a mode of explicitly heightened, embodied, emotional, interpersonal, spiritual commitment.

Nor is the case that ‘ritual’ is pervasive in the contemporary world, although I may be convinced that ‘cultural performances’ are. The question of ‘compelling-ness’ also needs some further thought. The missing quality in all this is ‘a who’ for whom these kinds of practice are either pervasive, compelling, or both. Part of my answer to the question of for whom ritual is so compelling is that it seems to be particularly compelling for Richard Schechner; so compelling, that he appears to see it everywhere, even in single-celled organisms, and places it at the heart not only of human being—that is, of cultural processes—but of all organic being.

The problem is, of course, that in so saturating the world with ritual, Schechner has distended the type to an extreme length. On this account, there is nothing that is not ritual.

This is the position taken by J. Lowell Lewis in his 2013 monograph, The Anthropology of Cultural Performance, a title which, as Lewis notes in his Introduction, nods to Turner’s seminal 1987 collection, The Anthropology of Performance. Lewis’s work takes up the critiques made by scholars including those mentioned above—Bell and Shepherd—proposing, in a manner he himself concedes, “that may appear to be old-fashioned” (Lewis, p.2.), a sustained, systematic critique and synthetic overview of the burgeoning field emerging at the interstices of performance studies and anthropology. Importantly, Lewis comes to performance studies from the perspective of anthropology: an anthropologist by training, sympathetic with “Turner’s and Schechner’s initial project”, troubled by what he sees as “piecemeal” approaches to theory (p.2), and the risks associated with the definition of key analytic terms and categories.

“[T]erms taken form popular discourse, such as performance” Lewis argues (emphasis in original):

[N]eed to have their scope delimited to exclude some meanings while at the same time avoiding the illusion of having a neatly precise and exhaustive definition […]. To be useful as analytic tools generic categories must exclude some kinds of experiences; there must be an answer to the question ‘What are they not?’ (p.3).

Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that ‘ritual’ is, in truth, an analytical term, rather than a linguistic representation of a particular thing that exists in a simple, positivistic sense, or even in a Platonic, categorical sense. We might say, then, that ‘Ritual’ does not actually exist; rather, practices interpreted by particular communities of investigators as ‘ritual’, do (the formulation here is deliberately Peircian), and their existence, their being, is temporally and place-ially bound: the practices involved, and the interpretation of those practices as ‘rituals’ is always a matter of local knowledge. We know that a ritual is a ritual not because of any formal properties, or syntax, or qualities of the practices involved, but because it is a ritual for somebody. The question of ritual is always, then, a posteriori, empirical, rather than a priori, or categorical. ‘Ritual’ is a genre —a metagenre— which is to say, a classification: a heuristic used to draw distinctions in the world.

And we need to be particularly careful when we start deriving processes from the term: when we start referring to ‘ritualisation’ as a process.

For Lewis, the problem is partly that of the place of the word ‘ritual’ and its cognates in everyday language:

[T]erms which have a place in popular discourse, such as ‘ritual’, need to have their scope limited to exclude some meanings while at the same time avoiding the illusion of having a neatly precise and exhaustive definition (Lewis 2013, p.3 citing Briggs and Baumann’s critique of genres).

So how might we start to clarify our use of the term?

Lewis takes as his starting point the question of specialness. In every human society, some kinds of human activity are marked out—framed—as being more significant, more special, more meaningful—than others.

Lewis disagrees with those who:

[L]abel certain animal activities as rituals, arguing that this is a projection of our interests onto them . . . This usage of ritual is . . . a metaphorical extension of human concerns, an elaborate anthropomorphism (2013, p.23).

Instead, he considers ritual to be:

[A] type of human special activity (a metagenre) and therefore not something that links us to the animal kingdom (as play does) but rather as something that separates us from it (p.43).

Lewis therefore also deviates from what he refers to as Turner and Schechner’s “speculative scenario of cultural development”, in which ritual is the lodestone of all human (and non-human) performative genres, to instead aligning himself with the thinking of Schiller, Huizinger and Bateson, “who would being the story of human cultural performance with the idea of play” (p.23). On this account, play is not something which, after the fact, temporarily conditions or permeates the foundational wellspring of ritual. Rather, play is itself a creative principle (Lewis here cites the work of Hans Joas), engaged by animals, through which the possibility of thematising particular behaviours is realised. This is an argument grounded not only in evolutionary thinking, but in post (Herbert) Mead-ian thinking about childhood development: children do not set out from ritual; they set out from play, from which certain practices are brought into particular webs of significance. The proposition that animals, and particularly mammals, play is far more sustainable than the proposition that animals engage in rituals.

Lewis approporiates the word ‘performativity’ to denote, specifically, the process of marking behaviour as special, and opposes it to the term ‘habituation’, which denotes the tendency for some behaviours, in some circumstances, to fade into relative obscurity: becoming ‘mere habit’, as it were. Play is central to these processes, insofar as play as understood as the ambiguous testing and affirming of limits, a process sometimes heightened as explicit reflection. Play precedes performativity on this account, in that performativity has been defined as the potential to frame stretches of interaction into thematised events, to allow them to be events involving self-reflection (2013, p.35)

Again, on this account, animals engage in play, but not in performativity, as they “lack the self-reflection to frame stretches of interaction into thematized events” (p.35).

The key distinction, for Lewis, is not, therefore, between ritual and play, but between marked and unmarked, between everyday and special. Everyday events disappear, become subsumed in the flow of daily life; at the same time, there is a potential for everyday events to move into specialness, to be taken up and made important. The opposite is also the case: what were at one time special events can recede into unmarked everydayness.

For Lewis, ritual is the prototypical kind of special event, and accordingly he defines ritual as “[t]he most important kind of special event performed by the members of any given human social group” (2013, p.43). Following John MacAloon and Paul Tillich, Lewis argues that ‘ritual’ should be used to refer to practices which relate to the ‘ultimate concerns’ of any given community (p.56), and which are recognised as such. In effect, Lewis is suggesting that in the first instance we reserve the designation ‘ritual’ to denote “only those events [the given community] consider to be the most special” (p.43), along a scale of specialness.

However, specialness is only the first, even though the most central, of a set of criteria which Lewis proposes for thinking about special events, a continuum which includes ritual-like and ritual-derived (as well as proto-ritual) events. This proposal leaves out animal behaviour “and therefore any general formal patterns like repetition, formality, stylization, and the like, which are dealt with under the rubrics of habit and practice” (p.44). He also wants to distinguish ‘rituals’ from other kinds of human special events that are of lesser importance: ceremony, celebration, festival.

Further down the continuum of significance are, as Lewis suggests, habits and practices: the first term referring to individual bodily behaviour, the latter to routinized behaviour across groups, inter-subjective, public and widely available patterns of repeated action. Following Bateson, habit formation involves incorporation and embodiment, the acquisition of skills that, as they are more incorporated, become less visible. This is part of the process of the naturalization of culture; the deep-seatedness of habits leads to a kind of reification of habits as structures: as constraints on the possibility of action.

This approach is broadly in sympathy with that of Roy Rappaport, quoted approvingly by Schechner, not only in terms of the significance of significance, but in terms of Rappaport’s placing of a concern with the ‘occult’ at the heart of ritual—a factor that Schechner does not discuss in the chapter I have been reading closely, above. However, Lewis argues, in privileging questions of form and syntax, Rappaport’s position tends also to privilege the perspective of the outside observer, rather than that of those for whom the events in question are special. The test Lewis proposes, is not one of form, discernible from the outside, but of content, of meaning, of cultural process: matters best grasped emically, rather than etically (see Geertz, 1993).

I realise that I have not necessarily turned my attention to the question of the constitution of something called ‘the contemporary world’. However, I think that my response to that question is implicit in all that I have said. We do not live in a singular contemporary world. We live in many worlds, with many temporalities; this is something that is very easily overlooked in the context of a general discourse about globalisation and global cultures. As Arjun Appadurai long ago argued, “the globalization of culture is not [necessarily] the same as its homogenization” (1990, p.307).

It is this question of meaningfulness in context, as a process of collective interpretation, that characterises the ethnographic project, rather than an attempt to subordinate questions of (local, salient) content to (general, formal) structure: the fundamental research question, then, is one of understanding the specific ways in which events are brought into specialness, and allowed to recede into average everydayness: how are the boundaries of genres differentiated and maintained? This research question alerts us to difference, rather than subjecting us to the rule of sameness.

At the same time, the question of the purported ‘pervasiveness’ and/or compelling- ness of ‘ritual and cultural performance’, even when asked of local, discrete communities, is a fascinating one, and in every case, a specific one. Where do we encounter a desire for ritual? When is ritual experienced in its absence? What logics of nostalgia (too?) readily ensue? In the absence of the kinds of consensual agreement on ‘ultimate concern’ that Lewis places at the centre of ritual, to what substitutes do people resort? Lewis proposes that ‘many people today’—not all of them, but many— “are living in culture-like social worlds”, in which they “wish for greater orthopraxis, for greater consensus and coherence” (2013, p.141); a wish that yields sub-cultural formations, united through shared habits and practices, effecting a kind of micro- evolution of significance through these performatives into ‘culture-like groupings’: voluntary rather than essentially-determined affiliations, as theorised by Giorgio Agamben in The Coming Community (1993). We might, too, register the promiscuous use of the idea of ‘culture’ to denote what Lewis describes as ‘clusters of relatively transient shared practice that loosely define social groupings, in contradiction to similar groups, all of which form and re-form rapidly and constantly’ (Lewis, 2013, p.142).


Agamben, G. (1993) The Coming Community. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Appadurai, A. (1990) “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”. Theory, Culture and Society, (7), 295-310.

Bell, C. (1998) Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Boussiac, P. (1990) “The Profanation of the Sacred in Circus Clown Performance” in By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual (Richard Schechner and Willa Appel eds). Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press, pp.194- 207.

Geertz, C. (1993 [1983]) “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding” in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York, Fontana Press, pp.55-70.

Lewis, J. L. (2013) The Anthropology of Cultural Performance. New York, Palgrave MacMillan.

Schechner, R. (2013) Performance Studies: An Introduction (3rd edition). London and New York, Routledge.

Shepherd, S. (2016) The Cambridge Introduction to Performance Theory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


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