What's ritual? What's habit? What's in between?

mike shupp (ms44278@HUEY.CSUN.EDU)
Tue, 16 Jul 1996 19:43:19 -0700

I got asked, by John McCreery,

> >> Then, however, a question for Mike. What are the criteria you are using for
> >> ritual? My impression is that you have in mind some form of *obligatory*
> >> *public* ceremony, which makes *private* non-obligatory *choices*
> >> non-ritual.

and answered

> > A public, or at least observed, procedure. I doubt that circumcision
> > or public whippings always go by the rulebook.

which brought forth Daniel Solomon, saying

> Well, I'm just a poor little undergrad - haven't even majored in anth, yet,
> but this has driven me out of my dark&dingy lurking place to attempt a
> feeble, unlearned comment. At least among more conservative Jews,
> circumcision would seem to go more or less by the rulebook, given changes
> over time (I think this may have been mentioned in some context a few days
> ago . . .) As for public whippings . . . well, whipping as part of
> initiation ceremonies would seem to be pretty rule-governed . . .
> Public whippings as punishment - indeed, any form of public punishment,
> perhaps - can become quite ritualized. I'm thinking of public hangings
in colonial America, or various public punishments in Communist
> China (anybody want to talk about ritual and politics?) . . . There's also
> that great passage in Foucault's Discipline&Punish . . Then again, Mike
> Shupp includes
> > C. Circumcision of infant males in Jewish/ANE cultures
> and
> > K. Mutiliation as punishment (whippings, amputations and
> > ear lobe cropping)
> as being involved with rituals of one sort or the other . . . so doubtless
> I'm missing the point. Nothing /always/ goes exactly by the rule book; but
> it would seem to me that ritual practices should come pretty close, given
> that they can sometimes be adapted to different circumstances . . .

There are rituals and rituals, some of which procede like clockwork
time after time, and some which don't. The opening minutes of each
year's Supreme Court session probably haven't changed much in two
centuries. When the Court gets down to business, however, it operates
under a number of traditions, but with much more flexibility. It's
tradition, say, which determines which Justice asks the first or the
last question of defendent in a case. It's definitely not tradition
or ritual if Chief Justice Rehnquest asks in passing what the weather
is like at the moment in upper Minnesota and the plaintiff mentions
its balmy but threatening rain.

> > As for castration,
> > foot binding, and the like... you're generally talking about inflicting
> > pain on uncomprehending children.
> agreed.
> > However splendid the outcome
> > of this may be, the process itself is simple violence-- I don't
> > know of any culture which parades such monstrosities before the
> > public.
> Well, yes, it is clearly a violent practice, a monstrosity not to be
> paraded before the public . . . to us, now. However, hangings used to be
> public spectacles relatively recently, and both the Huron and Iroquois
> publicly tortured enemy captives . . .

Even the English rarely hanged law abiding children, and I rather
doubt the Huron and Iroquois counted a lot of coup for it either.

(If you read much Revolutionary War history, you eventually run
across something called the Jane Shore incident, during the Saratoga
campaign. The fiance of a British officer and several children were
killed by Indians allied with the British, and propaganda connected
with that helped the Rebels mobilize their forces. The whole story
strongly suggests that while the Colonists may have_feared_ the
Indians, actual violence aimed at children was exceptionally unusual.)

> > At what point does a performance ceased to be stereotypical and
> > become true ritual?
> >
> Well, I'm just a little undergrad student, as I said, but this discussion seems
> to indicate that perhaps there is no one easily defined point when a practice
> gains the status of true ritual. At least, perhaps not in this culture.
> This may be (probably is?) an artifact of our insider's view, but (as
> mentioned earlier somewhere in this discussion)we seem to be lacking in
> much "true ritual." Marriage, let's say . . . but that seems to be
> increasing 'de-ritualized' in certain circumstances . . . Most noticeably
> in large urban areas, our culture has an emphasis towards the private and
> non-obligational. On one hand the public is much larger, due to mass
> media, but the immediate group one interacts (extensively) with has become
> fractured; from a wide spectrum of people in a small community, it now may
> consist of a small or increasingly exclusive group of people - and hence
> the increased popularity of piercing, as a symbol of membership?
> oh well, too simple . . . but my point is, given the nature of this
> society, where the only initiation rituals might be such things as
> drinking, driving a car, getting's one's ears, etc pierced, or graduating/
> getting a job, perhaps many ritual practices have been altered to the
> point that some sort of term to describe the middle ground between true
> ritual and private, seemingly voluntary (does peer pressure count?) actions
> would come in handy?

There was a concept once called "tradition." It's been ruined by
hypocrits, but anthropologists still have "custom" to fall back on.

Mike Shupp
California State University, Northridge