Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Words, Poetics, and the Disclosure of Meaning in Saribas Iban Healing Rituals (1)

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Words, Poetics, and the Disclosure of Meaning in Saribas Iban Healing Rituals (1)

Article excerpt

Introduction

My interest in this paper is with the use of words in rituals. In part, I am concerned with indigenous notions regarding language, that is to say, with what we might call the "ethnosemantics" that informs the understandings which ritual actors hold concerning the part words play in ritual and with the ways in which these understandings mediate, or help to shape, cultural and pragmatic constructions of ritual itself. In particular, I am concerned with Saribas Iban rituals of healing in which the outcome of a ritual performance is always, to some degree, problematic or uncertain. At its outset, the causes of affliction are unknown, or at least open to question, with the result that diagnosis and the therapeutic strategies adopted by the shaman are always an emergent part of the ritual process itself. Here, words, as I hope to show, play a preeminent role in shaping this process.

My purpose here is not to argue that ritual is only about words, or, even less, about metalinguistics--the words people use when talking about language. Language, however, is a significant component, not only of Iban healing rites, but of most ritual practice, which tends, by its nature, to be characterized, as Webb Keane (1997:48) has noted, by "highly marked and self-conscious uses of linguistic resources."

In this connection, as many observers have noted, the language employed in ritual is frequently viewed by those who employ it as a vehicle of sacred power (cf. Tambiah 1968). However, even where this is explicitly so, "[t]here is no reason to assume," as Robert Hefner (1985:212) has cautioned, "that the conditions sustaining faith in the efficacy of ritual language are necessarily the same in all societies." Indeed, these conditions vary decisively. Thus, Hefner, in his book Hindu Javanese (1985), describes one extreme case exemplified by the liturgical prayers of Javanese Tengger priests in which "ritual words are accorded power" even though "they are not in any propositional sense, directly accessible or intelligible" to Tengger audiences (1985:212). Power in this instance derives not from what ritual words "say," but from the institutionalized authority of the priest who speaks them; from the legitimacy of his position as the "primary intermediary between the living and their gods"; and from notions which the Tengger share concerning the pragmatics of prayer itself. Thus, "authority," Hefner argues, "is ... established outside of [and] prior to any single instance of ritual performance" and "is little influenced by the propositional value of ritual words." Ritual performances, he maintains, are organized in a way that minimizes the relevance of "discursive meaning." In fact, Tengger priests may perform prayers without anyone else seeing or hearing what they do. "The efficacy of ritual speech [thus] depends ... not on [an audience's] understanding of what is being said, but," as Hefner puts it, "on the prayers being performed by the right person in the right fashion under the right circumstances" (1985:213). This, in turn, is consistent with Tenggar popular understandings, which assert that prayers are addressed to the gods, not to human listeners. Hence, Hefner (1985:214) states, "the pragmatics of prayer ... are premised on a model of speech interaction ... that serve[s], in effect, to elevate the priest's speech above the demands of immediate accountability."

The use of language in Saribas Iban healing rituals is very different. Here, the pragmatics of ritual speech use places the accountability of a speaker to his audience at center stage. While ritual speech is also thought to be directed primarily to unseen powers, even to the extent that it is said by Saribas informants to give these powers an audible voice and direct agency in the visible world, its effectiveness depends more crucially upon the speaker's ability to engage the attentions and sensibilities of his human audience through his skillful use of language. …

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