Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Ritualesque: Festival, Politics, and Popular Culture

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Ritualesque: Festival, Politics, and Popular Culture

Article excerpt


In this article I examine emergent acts that can be identified as forms of mumming or related to ritual house assaults and rough music. I question the nature of this linkage in terms of traditionality. I further suggest many events and symbolic social actions involve an intent to transform some aspect of public life, whether it be attitudes, conditions, or opinions. As instrumental symbolic actions, such events may be termed "ritualesque."

KEYWORDS: ritual, festival, mumming, traditionality, ritualesque

Ritual and festival are often linked theoretically and paradigmatically by scholars, though they are just as often distinguished from each other along a work/ play axis (see, for example, Firth 1967, and Abrahams 1982, 1987). Both tendencies are reasonable; rituals are very often festive, and festivals frequently mark transitions ritually. Clearly, levity or even riotous behavior is not in itself an indication of the ritual seriousness of an act. Still, observers of large-scale public events that are serious in purpose, such as Earth Day gatherings or anti-war demonstrations, often comment on their festive nature, implying that this sociability undermines the stated solemnity of purpose. I believe this reflects a fundamental misreading of the porous and contingent nature of ritual and festival, and, more precisely, a lack of recognition that the carnivalesque can and does overlap with seriousness of purpose, an intention to transform society through symbolic action, that I term the "ritualesque."

In this article I will examine some instances that are related to traditional mumming and rough music in order to discuss questions having to do with genre and tradition, as well as the issues of power and control. I will suggest that those aspects of public performative events that are intended by participants to effect a change in the attitudes of the spectators, or in society generally, can be termed "ritualesque," as opposed to the more purely expressive symbolic acts we term "carnivalesque," or at least "festive." As ritual events, such as rites of passage, are meant to be transformative, so are ritualesque events intended to effect some kind of social change. Public performative and symbolic events can be viewed as existing on a continuum from the carnivalesque to the ritualesque. Both aspects may well be present to greater or lesser extents. There is an abundance of scholarship investigating the carnivalesque aspects of public display events, but a complete analysis requires an awareness of the ritualesque as well.

People who participate in such activities use terms such as "ritual"' and "festival" in their own ways, so there can be a confusion of ernie and etic approaches in the study of ritual. Catherine Bell suggests replacing the term "ritual" with the processual term "ritualization" (1992). Accordingly, researchers would not concern themselves with an ultimately meaningless attempt to identify Platonic, essentialized categories or examples of "ritual," but instead understand that people use different events and actions in ritualized ways. Clearly this formulation requires uncovering an ernie perspective: we can only know which events serve people ritualistically through ethnographic study. At the same time, there are events that are understood to be rituals by participants and outsiders, even when they are not felt to be efficacious. Here I am thinking of such events as a Confirmation, or a Bar Mitzvah, which are recognized by some people as ritual by their formal ceremony rather than their inherent power. If not "ritual," then tiiey are described as "ceremony" or some other term that denotes a special category of formalized, stylized events (see Tambiah 1981). Thus, we can say that rituals in a society can be both emic and etic events: some events are rituals because people feel that they are; that for instance morning coffee is a transitional daily event that moves the individual from one time of day to another, and from one state of mind to another. …

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