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In “Hayden Explains,” I’ll take some book, article, or concept I’ve been reading or thinking about recently and review it with an eye towards the general audience. 

This is a review of Nicholas Dirks’ “Ritual and Resistance: Subversion as Social Fact,” (1988) reprinted with slight revisions in Culture/Power/History.

Ritual is ritual because we know the steps before we begin. Ritual is Mass, repeated for the Catholic so many times as to become intuitive; it is the high school graduation, which we’ve seen fictionalized on-screen so many times that by the time it actually comes we know exactly how we’re supposed to turn our tassels and toss our caps. Ritual, then, is ordered, and, while participatory, more about following than about improvising.

It turns out that generally anthropologists have thought and written about ritual along these same lines. The anthropologist who comes to mind first for me is Emile Durkheim, who wrote powerfully about the ability of ritual and other repeated activities to incur in the populace a feeling of solidarity and stasis. In fact, Durkheim and his followers generally treat society and culture as if they are in equilibrium, a social organism whose parts–such as ritual–mostly serve to reinforce the status quo. Dirks summarizes this position by saying that they believe rituals “do not question the basic order of society itself.” While subversion–such as reversal or flattening of social hierarchies, as in studies on liminality by anthropologists like Victor Turner–is possible, it is either “contained or transformed into order.” There is a wonderful point made by Terry Eagleton, the English Marxist social and literary critic, about the fact that hegemonically-sanctioned subversion is not subversion at all, and he quotes Shakespeare’s Olivia in saying that “there is no slander in an allowed fool.”

Thus the status quo. Dirks, however, searches for a more politicized understanding of ritual, one which  values representation as “one of the most contested (cultural) resources.” He believes that ritual is about power and authority, and that current work underplays the “social fact that ritual constitutes a tremendously important arena for the cultural construction of authority and the dramatic display of the social lineaments of power.”

In order to prove his point, Dirks ethnographically examines his experience of the festival of Aiyanar, a celebration of a village deity common to the kingdom of Pudokkottai in Tamil-speaking southern India.  His main anecdote revolves around one village where he is formally invited to the festival, only to show up on the day of the festival to find that it is not happening, has not happened for seven years, and that no one expected it to happen that year. From this startling experience he realizes ritual is highly contested, and goes on to discuss a number of the interior cultural power struggles that the festival brings to the fore.

  1. A particular caste builds a certain kind of talisman for the ceremony, which has traditionally been given to the headman to be given to the people; but the caste has recently rebelled, asking why they can’t just give the talisman directly to the people and bypass the headman.
  2. The local lower castes withhold services in various contexts (for example, refusing to let a higher caste carry the ritual scythe in an agricultural ritual, quite rightly noting that they are the ones who actually use the scythes).
  3. A practice where a local untouchable invokes the possession of priests by first becoming possessed himself, then “lighting the others like a torch to a lamp.” The untouchable often exhibits erratic, dangerous behavior that threatens to take the ritual off-course.
  4. In a nearby village, the Aiyanar ritual (which is supposed to be done only once a year) is actually done several times in the same village, because different factions cannot agree on how to perform it.

For Dirks, conflict is the very reason that rituals are performed at all. Conflict is for him as it was for Marx a condition of social behavior. There is a constant negotiation between different interests on the actual course of the ritual. He keenly dismisses the functionalist view–present, or lurking close by, in the work of Durkheim and van Gennep–that disorder in ritual is ultimately. Rather, disorder–and the opportunity it engenders, either for the prevailing group to solidify its power or for the subversive group to gain ground–is a motive for participation in ritual. Ritual for him is not teleological. There is no fixed end: ritual “is patterned activity, to be sure, but it is also invented anew as it happens.” He gives an entertaining anecdote about a time he was at a religious festival and the villagers turned to him to tell them how to do the next part of the ritual, proof of improvisation is there is one!

Rituals then provide an arena both for the display of power–by the more powerful groups–and for the achievement of power–by the less powerful groups. It stands to reason that the agenda is likely to be set by the more powerful, and improvisation more favored by the less powerful, but the point is that it is a give-and-take.

In reading all of this, I’m trying to think of an example of a ritual I’ve experienced where Dirks’ analysis feels relevant. Since Dirks brought up Bakhtin early on, I have Carnival on my mind–and, subsequently, Frolics. Spring Frolics is a big weekend festival at Davidson featuring inflatable slides, live music, and–for some students more than others–copious amounts of drinking. Is Frolics just–as a Durkheimian perspective might suggest–a release valve for the student body, a way for the administration to make sure that they blow off their excess pressure, get their hijinks out at once and in a controlled way? Or is it a genuinely “dangerous” time, in that the established order is genuinely threatened? Ultimately, I don’t have enough faith in my fellow students to impute to them a desire to do anything other than have fun. However, going back to Eagleton’s quotation of Shakespeare, I think there’s plenty that goes on that genuinely pushes the limits, that is not part of the sanctioned order.

Another example falls in with Dirks. I mentioned towards the top the college graduation as a ritual that seems to go according to plan. However, there are numerous small contestations that go with the graduation. Representation, remember, is one of the most highly contested resources–I remember at my graduation the chants and whistles that certain groups would rally around, though this was against the prevailing decorum. Here we see a group “performing” to “achieve” representation, against the script of the ritual. I don’t claim it was any great protest, but I personally went barefoot across the stage–a small statement of solidarity with friends and with the earth, and certainly not a part of my family or my college’s plan for how I should stride across their stage. These contestations and improvisations are political, small though they seem, and that’s a point for Dirks.

I fall in ideologically with Dirks in that I see culture as a constantly improvised performance, where different actors have very different ideas of how the staging should end. Like Marx and Foucault I see conflict and power as fundamental. I also find enormous value in Dirks’ warning against the normalization of order (and conversely the pathologization of conflict). However, I take his point about performance a step further to argue that a ritual will not necessarily be contested. Ritual will be more or less contested, and when it is less contested, it may be bent to a “functional” end. Always, however, rituals will fundamentally be about power.

It’s the evening before your wedding. Everything is going as planned; you are spending the afternoon with a few old friends, chatting casually. Suddenly, your spouse-to-be burst into the room, totally hysterical. He/she insists he/she has just seen a vampire. When you ask what this means, he/she says: “I was looking out of the window of my hotel room, and I could see into the apartment building across the street. That’s when I saw the vampire. I saw a man in a black cape bite a woman’s neck and drink her blood. I know this must sound crazy, but I am that certain what I saw is real.” Your prospective (and sober) spouse is in a state of panic and pleads with you to believe the story. You can tell that this is really, really important to him/her.

Knowing the fragility of the situation and the intensity of the timing, do you tell your potential spouse that you do, in fact, completely believe that he/she saw a vampire across the street? (All of your old friends are watching this conversation.)

First off–aren’t I glad she seems to have seen a proper vampire, and not one of those sparkly Twilight ones? A cape–this vampire knows his place.

Jokes aside, I am not going to take this lightly. Whether or not someone has really had their neck bit and their blood sucked, the situation is pretty serious. On the one hand, if the encounter is imagined,  my future spouse is hallucinating. This is probably something I want to know now. No use finding out later. On the other hand, if the encounter is real, well, my spouse has most likely just witnessed a murder–maybe a serial killer, since I don’t think people like this get off on doing it just once.

To that end, I think you have to take the future spouse at his/her word and act as if things are serious. If you’re worried about looking silly in front of your friends–well, one, pretty sure my friends would just be psyched to go vampire hunting. But you can rationalize it, just as I’ve done above, aloud if you like.

The only logical next step is to find out, if at all possible, whether the act your spouse claims to have witnessed really did occur. To those who would dismiss this outright–are you really going to discount the weirdos of the world and say there’s not someone out there drinking blood right now? After all, Santa Cruz had 3 confirmed vampire encounters in 2008 alone!

He/she hopefully can identify the room across the way that the supposed assault took place in. What remains is to investigate. If a body is found, you know your spouse is sane, and you can go ahead with the wedding (as long as you don’t think the vampire will come for you next). If no body is found, though–that’s when you face a serious dilemma. There are only two possibilities I can think of:

  • your future spouse is seeing things, perhaps as a result of undisclosed mental illness or drug use
  • your future spouse is testing you to see if you trust them, in which case they may be waiting until you commit fully, ie marry, to tell you they were lying

If it’s #1, you’ve got a tough choice (and you wouldn’t know it was #2 until after you’ve made your choice, anyway). I guess it comes down to the individual case. Do you already have reason to think she/he might be a little bit batty? Or do you love that your future spouse might be a little cray-cray?

Sorry for the indeterminate answer, but at least I’ve shown my work!

Scientists build a massive space station that allows mankind to control the worldwide weather. As a result, there are no more weather emergencies. There are no more droughts or floods or tornadoes, and global warming has been eliminated. However, there is an immediate demand for “perfect’ days. Because the weather can be controlled, many people want the weather to be nicer and more predictable. While scientists feel uniformly safe about eliminating extreme weather events, they’re less sure about making every day a perfect day. As a compromise, a large segment of the populace wants there to be two specified dates–April 22 and October 22–where every place on Earth would simultaneously experience ideal weather conditions for 24 hours. These two days would become worldwide holidays. However, there is no precedent for “worldwide perfection,” and a small but vocal minority within the environmental community claims this is very risky. Al Gore, for example, claims that “at any given moment, at least one-third of the planet needs to be dealing with semi-crappy weather.” However, no one can specifically prove why this alleged perfection would be dangerous (since it’s never happened before).

Where would you stand on this issue? Do you want the perfect (although potentially harmful) days?

Anyone engaged with modern environmentalism should be familiar with the precautionary principle. This concept basically says, “avoid unnecessary large risks.” The precautionary principle says that even if it were a toss-up about whether greenhouse emissions cause climate change (it’s not, but play along), we should act as if they do, because the ramifications of unchecked climate change are so great. More precisely, we can talk about the burden of proof–who is assumed guilty and therefore has to overwhelmingly prove their case. In the way that drugs are regulated in America, the burden of proof is on the manufacturer–per the precautionary principle, we assume that the drug is not safe for human consumption, and the FDA won’t license it for human use until after it’s been fully proven to be safe. The opposite is true of the way that America regulates chemicals. New chemicals are assumed safe by American regulations, and the burden of proof is on the public to prove that a chemical is unsafe if they believe it is. The precautionary principle is out the door in this case  (a bad idea if you ask me).

The precautionary principle is behind this hypothetical’s opposition to the perfect day. No one can prove that the perfect day would be harmful, but it might be safer, considering what is at stake, to assume that perfect days will throw things off somehow, whether climatologically or socially. In fact, as a stout disciple of the precautionary principle, I probably would have opposed the use of the weather space station in the first place, or at least sought to curb its use to the most dire situations. Who knows what ecosystem effects will result from eliminating hurricanes, for example? I would probably support incremental use of the weather station, starting with the most dire cases and, as proof is gathered that the station can be used safely, expanding from there.

Despite my overwhelming allegiance to the precautionary principle, I think I would endorse the perfect day. For one thing, I am assuming this is a perfect day for that time of year–in other words, the perfect October 22 is not the same as a perfect weather day (which would probably be slightly hotter than the perfect October 22). Otherwise I could foresee problems if October 22 ended up being too different from October 21 and 23–the discontinuity would be a source of concern, for me.

Perfect weather: 75, clear

Perfect October 22 weather: 65, beautiful clouds, breezy

Anyway–one reason I support this is because world holidays sound like a wonderful idea.

Oh man I just got real sleepy.

Assume everything about your musical tastes was reversed overnight. Everything you once loved, you now hate; everything you once hated, you now love. If R.E.M. (always with periods) used to be your favorite band, they will now sound awful to you. If you hated Jethro Tull, they will now entrance you. If you consider the first album by Veruca Salt slightly above average, you’ll now find it slightly below average. Particulars will be changed, but the whole will remain in balance (and the rest of your personality will remain unchanged). You won’t love music any more or less, just differently. 

It’s very likely you find this transformation highly objectionable. But explain why.

So this one isn’t quite as fun, in that I’m not sure how I can put a poll at the bottom to elicit quick feedback. Instead, I’d have to suggest that you use the long form–comment away!

At first glance this question befuddled me. Rational me wanted to say that it didn’t matter; tastes are tastes and I shouldn’t worry if they change. Irrational me said they were a core to who I am. In the end, I think irrational me is right, but for rational reasons, and this is the part where I explain those rational reasons.

First, a point: tastes are not entirely arbitrary. They are the result of both environment and self-cultivation. If I think White Light/White Heat is the best VU album, you can probably extrapolate a little about my personality, worldview, and politics from that. If I am totally into Bikini Kill, I’m probably mildly into the whole feminism thing.

Tastes, then, exist as part of a cohesive whole. It would cause you a lot of dissonance to find out George Bush was (after the switch) a huge Immortal Technique fan. The thing is, it would probably cause ol’ George some trouble, too. People would say, “hey man, is this a phase?” It would weird people out.

 

It hurts to say this, but imagine the scene–you notice some cute guy or girl on the BART. They’re rocking a Greenpeace shirt. They’re reading Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine. They pull out their iPod… and you see they’re listening to Kid Rock. Probably not going to talk to them after all, right? But the rest of their personality hasn’t changed, so even if you two might have hit it off, you’re never going to make it anywhere, because they like Kid Rock and that just doesn’t fly.

So I think there is an objective basis for claiming that the musical reversal would cause a decline in your life, based on the dissonance between the reversal and the preserved personality. In fact, it might be more difficult to argue against an entire reversal, because it might lead to the argument that some preferences are inherently better than others. I’ve been able to avoid that here (despite my use of Kid Rock in the example).

What say ye?

Chilly.

  1. Prologue – The Antlers
  2. The Wilhelm Scream – James Blake
  3. The World at Large – Modest Mouse
  4. Aquarium – Nosaj Thing
  5. Just Like Honey – The Jesus & Mary Chain
  6. Brandenburg – Beirut
  7. Une Annee Sans Lumiere – Arcade Fire
  8. Warszawa – David Bowie
  9. Vomit – Girls
  10. Cello Song – The Books
  11. Dreamer – Tiny Vipers
  12. All For The Best – Thom Yorke
  13. The Scientist – Johnette Napolitano
  14. Silver Soul – Beach House
  15. Volcanoes – Islands
  16. Mitternacht – Kraftwerk

This is not a happy one.

  1. First Day of My Life – Bright Eyes
  2. No One’s Gonna Love You – Band of Horses
  3. Autumn Sweater – Yo La Tengo
  4. Which Will – Nick Drake
  5. The Greatest – Cat Power
  6. Video Tapez (ft. Del the Funky Homosapien) – AmpLive
  7. Suddenly Everything Has Changed – The Flaming Lips
  8. How To Disappear Completely – Radiohead
  9. This Is The Dream of Evan and Chan – The Postal Service
  10. Someone Great – LCD Soundsystem
  11. Speed of Sound – Chris Bell
  12. All We Grow – S. Carey
  13. Farmer Chords – Ben Gibbard
  14. Dreamer – Tiny Vipers
  15. One Too Many Mornings – Bob Dylan
  16. Atmosphere – Joy Division
  17. I Shall Be Released – The Band
  18. Birds [Live] – Neil Young
  19. Find the River – R.E.M.
  1. Nothing Ever Happened – Deerhunter
  2. Alligator (Feat. Dirty Projects & Beirut) – Grizzly Bear
  3. You Love Me – Devotchka
  4. Borrowed Tune – Neil Young
  5. The Rock Show – Blink-182
  6. Apartment Story – The National
  7. Downtown – Destroyer
  8. A More Perfect Union – Titus Andronicus
  9. Shadowland – Barn Owl
  10. Harvest Moon – Neil Young
  11. Temptation – New Order
  12. California – EMA
  13. Visions of Johanna (Live at Royal Albert Hall) – Bob Dylan
  14. Separator – Radiohead
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