The Welcome Opiate of Participation

Introduction to a series on ritual

Participation in a ritual is a scary thing because the boundaries between individual and community become less-defined. Those lines which are drawn with a black permanent marker suddenly become gray chalk, smudged, imperceptible. Perhaps, as you look around while you are participating in a ritual, the boundaries are coextensive, and the self is absorbed into the community. Some days that is a welcome moment.

Some quick distinctions to bring forward a frame:

  • Rite is a performative speech act which may have some associated ritual, but its focus is a change of status, e.g., “I now pronounce you husband and wife;” e.g., “I sentence you to be hanged by the neck till dead.”
  • Superstitious order may resemble ritual, but its focus is an individual’s invocation of good luck, e.g., a hockey player putting on his elbow pads before his shin guards; e.g., a degenerate gambler clutching his lucky rabbit’s foot while negotiating with the one-armed bandit.
  • Ritual is a set of elements arranged into an organic whole whose focus is the edification of a group of people, e.g., a family dinner at a major holiday; e.g., fantasy football draft day.

It might be more helpful to define ritual, instead of by what it might be, by what it does. Ritual creates an invitation into a closed society. For example, shotgunning beers before a college football game could be a ritual, but when you shotgun beers in the parking lot outside Bryant-Denny Stadium just before an Alabama Crimson Tide football game, you are most certainly relinquishing your self to a close and very elite society (WOOOOOOOOO! ROLL TIDE! <breath> woooooooooo <thunk>). Is it a ritual now? Yes. Likewise addressing a haggis during the celebration of Robert Burns’ birthday: you have given your identity, in part, to an enviable group, namely those who imbibe exclusively in scotch whisky, despite how the Japanese have polluted the market, and when the knife is plunged into that stuffed pig’s bladder, the identity of the society is reborn (Gah! What is tha’ stench?!?).

Now you are, at the very least, an initiate into a club/fraternity/religious order/lodge/etc. A healthy club has subsumed your self to it without actually reducing your value as an individual; you are not necessarily subverted to the club, but you cannot assert individuality without pressing against the boundaries created by the ritual. If you do not partake of a haggis, you really aren’t a member; you’re an observer, and you cannot receive the benefits of the club, which are mostly transcendental.

As an aside, “club” is transcendental to begin with, and cannot exist without ritual. If your club is equivalent to a building or a meeting room, it’s not a club; it’s a social gathering which gives no benefits, having no manifest identity. Thus, Calvin and Hobbes built a tree house, which was a meeting place, but it became a club (G.R.O.S.S.) only after a ritualistic costuming and recitation of a complex hymn to the transcendental ideals of G.R.O.S.S., which were both close and exclusionary at the same time. “Close” is the invitation, whereas “exclusionary” is the–well, not.

Moreover, the rituals evoke timelessness, at least insofar as the club can cohere. Some rituals are regrettable acts only beyond the confines of this timeless realm; i.e., shotgunning beers gives you the benefit of shouting certain slogans in the everlasting struggle against the Auburn Tigers, but the hangover manifests itself only after the fraternity has dissolved into incoherence, hopefully some time after the Tide has vanquished the Tigers. Perhaps the “a haggis” is consumed, and the club members must be dismissed to politely disgorge the wretched culinary abomination, hopefully some time after Robert Burns has been toasted. Outside timelessness, Robert Burns and his ode can be cursed; individuality can assert itself once again.

So, several components are present in ritual, wound together. When we disentangle them, we might be instructed.

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