with the ways in which signs

April 25 [Wed], 2012, 15:40
message of social practice from the seemingly transparent media that bear it. Anthropologists have been more concerned with ritual than most, often using it as a loose synonym for religion itself. Yet as Silverstein (n.d.) has noted, they have also been more sensitive to its semantic than its formal properties. Relatively few have been preoccupied with the mechanisms--poetic or pragmatic --that make sacred performances real; with the ways in which signs, objects, and gestures are wielded to inflate charisma and invest present practice with absent potential (cf. Hanks 1984).

The neglect by anthropologists of these formal properties of ritual is part of a more complex history to which I can only allude here (see Kelly and Kaplan 1990 for an excellent overview). Until quite recently, the most influential writing on the topic was resolutely Durkheimian: ritual was treated as "a mechanism that periodically converts the obligatory into the desirable" ( Turner 1967:30); rites represented social utilities as collective consciousness (cf. Sahlins 1976:114ff.). This perspective did not preclude quite subtle explorations of ritual symbolism (rites were, after all, the quintessential site of culture). Functionalists even made occasional (and influential) efforts to define ritual in terms of its signifying properties ( Turner 1967). But they continued steadfastly to regard ritual (and by implication, "religion") as the sanctification of social structure--as integral to the reproduction of traditional systems beyond the reach of time.

Ritual, in fact, was fetishized in this scheme. It was the "all-purpose social glue" that might cement the slivers of a shattered structure. From this perspective, it was seen to guarantee the coherence of "traditional" societies in which cosmology reflected community and vice versa. The ubiquity of such views beyond anthropology and their resilience in the face of critique suggest that they mirror our own, deeply rooted myths of modernity. Consequently, it should not surprise us that classic ethnographers saw communal rites as a distinctive feature of "small-scale" communities or that "complex" societies were held to be radically deritualized ( Gluckman 1966; Turner 1969:202-203). Such conclusions followed tautologically from the very definition of ritual itself: formal behavior directed at "mystical beings or powers" ( Turner 1967:19; cf. Tambiah 1990:5). All other modes of conventionalized, symbolically saturated action were dubbed "ceremonial." The narrowness of these established concepts bred overgeneralized reactions; Leach ( 1968) argued, for instance, that ritual was merely the communicative aspect of all human behavior, a definition so broad that it failed to discriminate rites from any other form of social action.

Within the functionalist mainstream,brautkleid billig, ritual continued to be seen, for the most part, as "quintessential tradition" ( Turner 1967:100); it was



judged unlikely to flourish under conditions of instability and change. Although allowed a dynamic role in regulating repetitive processes, it was not recognized as a means of making history. Where ritualized movements inescapably addressed historical forces, they were dubbed "millenarian" and explained as the disjunctive outcome of disintegrating traditional worlds (see, for instance, Gluckman [ 1963] on Mau Mau; cf. Fields 1985). Only recently, as timeless models of society and culture have at last been discredited,Brautkleid, has the historical potential of ritual been acknowledged--the potential not only to comment on culture, but also to change it.


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