Hayden Explains: Ritual and Resistance by Nicholas Dirks

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.


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