But man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnising nativities and deaths with equal lustre, not omitting ceremonies of bravery in the infamy of his nature.
– Sir Thomas Browne
Just as medieval society was balanced on God and the Devil, so ours is balanced on consumption and its denunciation. Though at least around the Devil heresies and black magic sects were able to organise. Our magic is white. No heresy is possible any longer in a state of affluence.
It is the prophylactic whiteness of a saturated society, a society with no history and no dizzying heights,a society with no myth other than itself.
– Jean Baudrillard
Rituals and rites have been central to the study of religion and primitive societies. Since Durkheim, they are deemed legitimate objects for sociologists and have become in recent years a focus for new forms of cultural analysis.
Although sacred rituals are keenly analysed within anthropology and ethnology, the breadth and complexity of our own contemporary rituals are yet to be fully understood. From collective gatherings (funerals, celebrations, marches) to everyday gestures (greeting, cleansing, eating, watching the cherry blossoming), rituals frame our social behaviour in the form of everyday habits, routines and codes.
These forms of cyclic, recurrent activities provide symbolic confirmation of collective values and emotions shared by the members of a community (Durkheim). They have, since immemorial times, reinforced notions of stability, security and, most importantly, belonging. It is precisely by looking into the very few things that still bind us together that studying ritual contributes to an understanding of our contemporary socio-cultural processes. The power of these contemporary rituals is no longer symbolic nor exclusively sacred inasmuch as they are the lynchpin maintaining social integration and systems of authority in place. They are also genuine vehicles of power in their capacity to arouse public emotion and evoke popular enthusiasm (consider the recent AFL Grand Final). In other words, power resides in their capacity to elicit action, manipulate or incite to revolt. In this respect, questions arise regarding the productive capacity of ritual, to produce modes of thought, feeling and emotion, to influence, even manipulate (consider the Third Reich). There is also a patina of authority regarding those who play key roles within ritual (of the current Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of children). To what extent is ritual implicated within the political and economic machiavellisms of our times?
But let us go back to the more sacred dimension of rituals and this is what takes us to dance. In dance, ritual is allied to the sacred. Many scholars consider that dance emerged in pre-historic societies as a primary form of worshipping rituals. Dance, as ritual, maintained order on a personal, communal and cosmological level. Let us remember that in dance, subject and object are one. The performer is the subject who creates the object, which is, in turn the performer. Georges Bataille defines this as the primary purpose of sacred ritual – to transcend the split between subject and object so that “we could become like ‘water moving in water’ and attain intimacy with all existence.”
Embodied in dance, rituals allow us to perceive, experience and relate to time and space differently. It is interesting to look at ceremonial ritual forms of dance not only as a fascinating technique of ecstasy, but mainly as the corporeal catalyst to bridging this body/mind spilt by investing temporality with a certain experience of the sacred. Rituals help us perceive, experience and relate to time and space differently and allow our inner selves to have revelations of the sacred.
There is no better example than the Dervish dances. Islamic culture gravitates around complete harmony with and dependence on nature. We, Western people, through scientific discoveries and empirical approaches, have created a practical, measurable, yet limited and linear world. Within western forms of modernity, time is linear, singular and universal.
In the Islamic world, time and space depend on nature and parallels the cosmic order and the basic underlying forms that are found in nature. They are not merely circular, which means they revolve and repeat, but rather spiral. They grow and expand in a way that radiates from the centre out. Most architectural, music, painting or movement patterns reflect this understanding of space and time. The Dervish dance is in complete harmony with this understanding and with the cosmic movement.
Dance has moved on from its sacred function. The Roman Empire was the first to operate a desacralisation of dance, well before the Church’s persecution and fetishisation of heresies and their wild dances and well before Catherine de Médici introduced it to the court as entertainment. Arguably, the first use of dance as a ritual to enforce political control was Sun King Louis XIV, who portrayed Apollo in order to appropriate the pagan idol’s power – allowing himself to be possessed by a god would have not created the desired effect. Many dances preserved their traditional forms but buried their sacred intent, except for one notable exception: Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, a ballet only in name, a wild incarnation of primal rituals in essence.
However, dance today and even more so performance art, are undeniably forms of ritual as they attempt, just like ritual, to affect change both in the participants and the spectators and to immerse us in a particular temporality. All performance contains elements of ritual, for performance as such is already a ritual, be it ritualistic or not. It is fascinating to see Anne Marsh’s parallel between the shaman and the performer, who both simply are, they are concerned with revealing themselves and being here and now – as opposed to the actor on stage, who enacts a role.
But is dance and performance a ritual act that can do something?
Water Moving in Water
If we are to believe that the main function of rituals is in the experience of the sacred in space and time, then yes.
Dominated, alienated and exploited by capitalism, our market society has commodified rituals into barbaric social conventions, conspicuous consumption and conformist thought and behaviour. These rituals are the mirror, not of better gods, but of our worst selves. How else could it be, were we to agree with Baudrillard? “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.”
Marcuse defined the end of transcendence as a world where individuals can neither perceive their true needs or alternative modes of living. Seen in ritual terms, dance and art seem to be the only ones giving us a taste of an extra-ordinary reality, turning us from static, distant audiences into actively engaged witnesses, participants. Furthermore, rituals are one of the very few mechanisms left that make bonds of solidarity possible, whether or not there is consensus or uniformity of belief. Viewed like this, we can comprehend the huge potential ritual has in contemporary society. And its endless potential to help us transcend the mundane and invent new ways to connect us with a certain lost idea of sacred-ness or paradise.
Mircea Eliade– The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Harcourt, 1959
Jean Baudrillard– The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, SAGE Publications Ltd, 1998
Catherine Bell– Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, OUP, 1993 David Kertzer- Ritual, Politics, and Power. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988