The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society

16 February 2010


Washington's First Inauguration set the precedent for political rituals in the US.

Recently in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms I quoted both Joseph Campbell and and Kenneth Clark on their divergent views on rite, ritual, and ceremony, not withstanding the naturalistic view that each has of the religion that generates these rituals. A few days after that, when I returned to Joseph Campbell (in Joseph Campbell Again), this time to contrast his views with those of Walter Kaufmann, I emphasized the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between Campbell’s admiration for Jung and Kaufmann’s blunt disparagement of the same. (At that time I did not go into it, but I might have also developed the theme of Campbell’s disparagement — albeit gentle disparagement — of Freud and Kaufmann’s obvious admiration for Freud. Frued and Jung are polarizing figures, so much so that the admirers and detractors of each line up neatly on opposite sides of the lines they draw.)

Upon reflection, I realized that the apparently unbridgeable chasm between Jungian Campbell and Freudian Kaufmann can be bridged, and bridged in a way that suggests we reconsider the dialectical positions on ritual held by Campbell and Clark. Kaufmann, schooled by those “masters of suspicion” Nietzsche and Freud and perhaps in spite of them, has a more generous assessment of ritual than one might expect. In his relentlessly critical and skeptical book The Faith of a Heretic, Kaufmann is nowhere nearly as ferocious with religious ritual as he is with organized religion and other manifestations of popular piety (to crib a term from Norman F. Cantor).

Walter Kaufmann - 01 July 1921 to 04 September 1980.

Kaufmann’s treatment of religious ritual is rooted in the Zeitgeist of his time, and the more we read between the lines the more obvious it is that he is writing in the midst of a progressive era that sees itself as progressive, and therefore comes from a time that predates the triumphal rise of fundamentalism around the world that so marked the last decades of the twentieth century. (I addressed this phenomenon to a limited extent in Inauguration Special Edition.) Kaufmann wrote of ritual:

“The religious liberal sees himself as a bold non-conformist who rejects traditional ritual; but usually he is a conformist who rejects the traditions it is fashionable to reject while retaining those it is fashionable to retain.” (section 68)

Kaufmann makes several remarks in this general vein, and eventually delivers himself of the view that:

“…precisely the absence of all ritual would entail nearly total blindness to the mysteries of this world, while ritual provides occasions when one regularly tries to listen for the voice that the rest of the time one is prone to forget.” (section 68)

Now, despite Kaufmann’s obvious skepticism and naturalism, schooled in the acerbic tradition of Nietzsche and Freud (so that we understand that this is not mere skepticism but skepticism with a hard, hostile edge to it), this formulation is astonishingly similar to a formulation from one of Campbell’s lectures, The Myths and Masks of God, that I previously quoted in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms:

“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth.

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 5, track 9

We also notice here that, despite Campbell’s critical attitude to Freud, his formulation is the more indebted to the depth psychology pioneered by Freud, and thus, in a sense, profoundly Freudian — in this particular case, more profoundly Freudian that the formulation of ritual given by Kaufmann. However, the main lesson I would like the reader to take away from these quotes is the defense of ritual by intellectuals of widely divergent attitudes, even those who have harshly criticized each other.

Although intellectuals are usually presumed to have attained a more lofty rung on the ladder of the human condition and therefore have perhaps left ritual behind in favor of a more purified and elevated conception of the spiritual life of man, the defense of the aforementioned rituals by intellectuals is not a new phenomenon. Pascal offered a remarkably sententious defense of ritual that still compels in virtue of its simplicity: “Stupify yourself: take holy water.”

Throughout Pascal’s Pensées he recurs to the many ways in which ordinary men are impressed by the magnificent retinue of princes and social displays of prestige. Even Voltaire, who criticized the poignant intensity of Pascal, recurs to ritual on another level when he responded to Pascal’s observation that a man who has recently lost his son and is weighed down with lawsuits can distract himself by going hunting:

“This man is very sensible indeed. Distraction is a more certain cure for grief than quinine for a fever. Let us not blame nature for this, she is always ready to help us.”

Voltaire, Letters on England, Letter 25 (this last letter is more in the manner of an appendix and is not included in many editions)

The formulations of Pascal and Voltaire are both in terms of distraction, but the kind of hunting undertaken by the privileged classes throughout the late medieval and early modern periods was an elaborate ritual — a ritual perhaps as central to these societies as the public bath was to Roman and Hellenistic society. Servants in livery went forward before their lords, who followed on horseback with a large retinue and enormous numbers of dogs. The whole spectacle was a choreographed ritual not unlike a bullfight, and rather unlike what we think of hunting as being today.

This nearly uniform appreciation of ritual also appears in the distinct jargon employed by different disciplines in attempting to account for the power of ritual activities in human experience. The Marxist will call it praxis, a philosopher will call it empiricism or perhaps pragmatism, a sociologist will call it behaviorism, and a systems theorist would call it operationalism. These latter, more recent traditions of scholarship point to the role of ritual in industrialized society. While Pascal and Voltaire never saw industrial society and therefore had no opportunity to comment upon it, many of the perennial considerations they identified continue to be true under the drastically altered social conditions of industrialization.

We might suppose that advanced industrialized democracies, representing the most mature human societies that have yet evolved since the Industrial Revolution (and possibly the most advanced societies in the history of civilization), would have attained a more lofty rung on the ladder of social organization and therefore have left ritual behind in favor of a more purified and elevated conception of the spiritual life of man (as I said above of intellectuals, who represent advanced individuals, as opposed to advanced societies), but it is not so. Ritual plays a central role in advanced industrialized democracies, although ritual itself has evolved as rapidly as the societies that rely upon ritual to establish corporate identity.

What we quoted Campbell above as saying — “A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.” — holds true, almost frighteningly true, in regard to industrial society, when reformulated mutatis mutandis: A political ritual is an opportunity to participate in a political myth.

One of Joseph Campbell’s abiding themes is that contemporary society was come to associate “myth” with falsehood, and that this is an impediment to understanding myth. In this, Campbell is indubitably right. It is also right when applied to the political myths of industrialized societies. As soon as we hear “political myth” we think of a lie maliciously promulgated for purposes of social control, like Plato’s “noble lie” in the Republic.

Contemporary political rituals are not all on one side, are not the exclusive prerogative of the elite, the wealthy, or the privileged. Political rituals and the political myths that they reenact for the benefit of the people are to be found among all classes and and political persuasions in society. There is perhaps no more common or familiar political ritual today than the protest march. In The Map of South America Changes I attempted to briefly sketch the crowd psychology of the protest march. Few marchers are ideologically committed; most are present as a kind of miniature adventure or as an opportunity to hang out with friends. But, following Pascal’s formula, if we participate in the ritual, eventually we will come to believe as generations through time out of mind have believed before us.

This is Pascal’s formulation:

“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”

And so it remains true today, although instead of masses and holy water, it is engaging in call-and-response chants and carrying a sign in a demonstration. I have no doubt the the simplicity of the us-them dichotomy generated by such political rituals are effective means to deaden the acuteness of most.

Leftist protest march in Santiago on the thirtieth anniversary of the coup that toppled Allende and put Pinochet in power.

In the political culture of the US, protest marches are undertaken by every conceivable ideological movement. One suspects that the participants, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of sympathetic fellows, will experience a special kind of fellowship and their commitment to whatever cause is the pretext of the protest will be magnified. If the protest march has to face down a line of riot police, they will also experience the special fraternity of those who have undergone hardship together, and they may even become traumatically bonded. These are powerful experiences in the context of democratic societies. Such solidarity forged and strengthened in contrived adversity can be a powerful motive for further supporting one’s chosen ideological allies throughout the political process.

Riot police are part of the ritual of protest in industrialized society.

Political rituals are not confined to politics exclusively but also are pervasive throughout economic activity: the myths and rituals of industrialized nation-states are inculcated in political economy. In my Political Economy of Globalization I quoted Creighton Gable’s Analysis of Prehistoric Economic Patterns, in which the author noted the following:

“…even the simplest economies do not exist solely to take care of biological needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing, but also to contribute to the satisfaction of social needs as determined by such considerations as kinship obligations, hospitality rules, or prestige requirements.”

Is there a human need to engage in ritual? Does it help us either to understand or to reconcile ourselves to the myths upon which our societies are erected to participate in these myths through ritualized observances? Must myth and ritual be accounted a constituent of human nature? The full implications of the role of myths and rituals in industrialized society is only suggested by these observations; a thorough-going treatment of rituals that have emerged within industrial society to evoke myths that we did not even know that we believed would be a project of substantial dimensions.

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