Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Revealing Muteness of Rituals: A Psychoanalytical Approach to a Spanish Ceremony

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Revealing Muteness of Rituals: A Psychoanalytical Approach to a Spanish Ceremony

Article excerpt

Rituals remain among the most challenging objects of anthropology. Many analysts have tried to determine the function of rituals in social organization in terms of either channelling or of resolving conflicts (Gluckman 1963: 110-45; Turner 1968). The search for the hidden meaning of rituals has also been a long-standing concern: rituals are supposed to translate the beliefs of a society into action. Both objectives--the discovery of function and the uncovering of meaning--involve an explanation of rituals at a level which lies beyond the enactment itself: on the one hand, that of the society which has produced the ritual and, on the other, the way in which this society perceives the world (its Weltanschauung). However, the often-elaborate symbolic activity of a ritual is too complex to be reduced to a mere reflection of the social order or of indigenous thinking; furthermore, these theories in no way explain either the specificity or the efficacy of a ritual action. (1)

Claude Levi-Strauss (1981) gives obvious precedence to the construction of meaning on the basis of a linguistic model. Although he assigns to rituals a lesser role than to myths, he does suggest that a ritual should be considered 'in itself and for itself', without reference to any implicit mythology that appears to be involved, although not actually part of the ritual. Levi-Strauss (1981: 671-2) maintains that, in contrast to a myth,

  a ritual condenses, into a concrete and unitary form, procedures
  which, otherwise, would have to be discursive ... gestures and objects
  serve in loco verbi, they are substitutes for words ... The gestures
  that are carried out and the objects that are being manipulated are as
  many ways that a ritual grants itself to avoid speaking.

But he adds immediately that 'there is a great deal of speech in rituals'.

The study of the ritual that I am going to present here starts from the hypothesis that a ritual acts in loco verbi. However, I shall not follow Levi-Strauss when he advocates the study of a ritual in its pure state ('a l'etat pur') and when he proposes to detach it from what he calls 'implicit myths, that is to say, from the exegeses of the performers. Indeed, I consider that the ritual should not be viewed as an intellectual object in isolation from its actors, and I believe that the latter's exegeses constitute an integral part of the ritual. Furthermore, I shall pay particular attention to the concept of ritual performance.

Thus, my analysis draws inspiration from the concept of 'performativity' (Austin 1962) and from authors who consider ritual phenomena to be performative statements which are held to realize the very actions that they describe (Bloch 1974; Finnegan 1969; Tambiah 1968). Yet, far from establishing a dichotomy between ritual practice and the thinking associated with it, I seek to identify their complementarity by studying the connections between the ritual performance and its exegeses. In the ritual that I discuss below, these exegeses are peculiar in that they are not unanimous. In fact, they are plainly contradictory, and it is in the confrontation between differing exegeses within the framework of a single performance that I hope to discover the statement that the ritual is making. Thus, starting from the idea of 'performative statement', instead of seeking to find out how the statement acts, I shall try to find out what the performance states. Following the same logic, I propose an extension of the concept of 'performative statement', an extension which is both its symmetrical reflection and its inverse: conversely, I propose that the ritual I analyse here can be considered as a 'discursive performance'.

The statement made by the ritual that will be identified in this manner could be considered to be the final objective of our study, since it provides the meaning of the ritual. However, I shall attempt to go one step further by looking at the ritual from the perspective of its actors. …

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