Dancin',etc.<debate> <very long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 17 Feb 1996 01:48:45 +0900

John Stevens says, repeatedly, "RITUAL." Ralph Holloway says
of dance vs drill (and the schema I saw underlying our recent
discussions), " NO, NO, these are not polarities, they are a
continuum of
experience." I couldn't agree more. Leaving aside for the
moment our own "emic" (a.k.a. cultural, personal, subjective)
distinctions between dance and drill, I'd like to direct our
attention back to the broader category of rhythmically patterned
behavior, which includes not only what we may want to call
"dance" or "drill" and Tokyo commuter behavior, but also what
has been called "ritual" and, if we stop to think about what poets
have told us as far back as we have a record and important aspect
of "language" as well.

In all of these areas we find continua along which there are
different degrees of formalization, and the study of formalization
touches many important threads in anthropological theory. Here
I would note, first, the seminal work of sociolinguist Basil
Bernstein, who developed the idea of restricted vs. elaborated
codes to account for differences in size of vocabulary and degree
of syntatic elaboration in the language of different British social
groups. (His interest was, I note in passing, highly applied as well
as theoretical. He was deeply concerned with what critics of
British education had seen as the limited vocabulary and
impoverished syntax of students at working class schools.) What
Bernstein discovered was the association of limited vocabulary
and a restricted range of syntatic forms in social groups whose
members' lives were spent mostly with each other. Besides
members of long-established working class communities, these
also included the British aristocracy, who like their working class
counterparts spend most of their lives within their own small
social circle.

It was Mary Douglas who picked up Bernstein's ideas and used
them to develop her own theories of ritual in _Natural
Symbols_. Maurice Bloch develops a similar idea in an article
(the title eludes me just now) in which he claimed that ritual
compels participants to accept traditional authority by severely
limited the vocabulary and syntax available to them in ritual
situations. I have shown in my own work ("Negotiating with
Demons" in the first 1995 issue of American Ethnologist) that
while Bloch's position is overstated, it may be possible to show
that the degree of formalization in ritual speech is correlated
with the strength of claims to authority.

Bloch's position is overstated (1) because he underestimates the
range of variability possible within highly restricted forms of
either language or behavior and (2) because he assumes from
conventional definitions of ritual as repetitive behavior that the
language and behavior found in "ritual" contexts will always be
highly formulaic. Neither of these assumptions is true.
Concerning (1), anyone who has studied poetry knows that there
are tightly prescribed forms, the English sonnet, the T'ang lyric,
the Japanese haiku for example within which poets have found
it possible to write literally thousands of different poems, and
there is no end in sight. The combinatorial possibilities of even
small sets of elements and highly restricted frameworks are far
larger than we usually imagine them to be. (Beyond poetry
consider the possibilities created by the five Peano postulates--all
that is needed for number theory, the table of chemical elements
and a few simple rules of molecular bonding, or the number of
human genetic combinations made possible by sexual
reproduction--estimated by Dobshzansky as greater than the
number of electrons in the visible universe.) Concerning (2),
anyone who has ever participated in a Christian (or Jewish,
Buddhist, Hindu...) liturgy will have been able to observe the
truth noted by Stanley Tambiah that rituals often include a
variety of different forms of language (and other behavior) and
the sequence and method of their combination may tell us a
great deal about their intended or inadvertant effects.

What Mary Douglas suggested was a simple four-cell table that
partitions the continuum of social life on the two dimensions
she calls "group" and "grid." If, in a classic Durkheimian way,
ritual is seen as marking social distinctions, rituals associated
with "group" mark the group's boundaries; rituals associated
with "grid" mark hierarchies within it. The four cells are, then,
(a) low-grid, low-group=egalitarian groups with highly
permeable boundaries/mobile memberships, (b) low-grid, high-
group=egalitarian, but with sharply defined boundaries/stable
memberships, (c) high-grid, low-group=great concern for rank in
groups with permeable boundaries/mobile memberships, and (d)
high-grid, high-group=great concern both for rank and for group

What I showed in my own paper was, in part, that formalization
itself could take two forms: (a) poetic formality, in which terms
vary within fixed frames [sonnets, haiku, etc., also the Trobriand
spells analyzed by Tambiah in his Malinowski lecture], but also
(b) logical formality, in which the terms are fixed and frames
systematically varied around them to exhibit logical
relationships (If p then q implies not q not p, that sort of thing).
In both cases formality asserts authority, but (a) proceeds, as it
were, poetically/rhetorically, by piling on tropes, while (b)
proceeds, as it were, in the opposite direction by focusing on

All this is by way of sketching the elements of a theoretical
framework in which, it seems, to me much of our recent
discussion concerning dance vs. drill might be fitted.

Comments please.

John McCreery
February 17, 1996