In order to make up our minds we must know how to feel about things; and to know how we feel about things we need the public images of sentiment that only ritual, myth, and art can provide. Clifford Geertz
Since some animals ritualize mate selection and territory demarcation, rituals are older than humanity. Even if human rituals differ significantly from animal ritualization, archaeological evidence suggests that ritual predates the emergence of humans. One hundred thirty thousand years ago Neanderthals were intentionally burying their dead. One hundred thousand years ago Homo sapiens was ceremonially using red ochre on burial remains. Seventeen thousand years ago shamans were ritually painting the caves of Lascaux, France. The Cambridge Myth and Ritual School imagined ritual was the primal, or "ur," activity from which the various arts emerged. Whether or not this speculation fits the facts, ritual’s entanglement with religion and the arts has been sustained over vast expanses of time and space.
Naturally, scholars assume that the study of ritual arose later than the practice of it: first the doing, then the thinking about the doing. Whether or not this assumption is true, theorizing about ritual arose early. It is not a recent product of Enlightenment thinking or the invention of anthropology. Ritual theories appeared in ancient texts such as India’s Satapatha Brahmana and in religious treatises such as Kukai’s treatment of Japanese Shingon Buddhist ritual. Practitioners were theorizing about ritual long before professional academics arrived on the scene.
Although neither the practice of ritual nor thinking about it is new, the academic study of ritual is recent. Anthropologists began studying it from their armchairs in the mid-nineteenth century, and in the field, in the late nineteenth century. Ritual studies, the interdisciplinary study of the full range of ritual activities, from grand to small, from textually scripted to rapidly improvised, from ancient to contemporary, began in 1977. You would easily guess some of the subject matter of this relatively young field: weddings, funerals, births, initiations, inaugurations, liturgy, magic, and sacrifice. But rituals hide in less obvious corners: medicine, sports, politics, law, advertising, and the performing and literary arts.
Ritualization, like dramatization, is hidden in plain sight, in daily life. Most of us intuitively understand the notion that ordinary life is dramatic. William Shakespeare is conventionally credited with the notion that the world is a stage, and the Spanish playwright Calderon with the notion that God is the producer-director. The Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman turned these dramatistic metaphors into a theory: living rooms and offices are stages; we clean them up before guests arrive. We set out props that will impress: fine china on the table, degrees on the wall. We university teachers put on our wise, funny, or compassionate professor masks in the classroom. About to be quizzed by a judge, defendants rehearse their lines.
Goffman exposed the dramatization at the core of social life and linked it with ritualization. Even if no one sitting around the table would call eating and drinking "rituals," family meals are fraught with deference and decorum, low-level ritualization. Ordinary interactions are not only dramatized, they are also ritualized. If you don’t think so, try brushing your teeth with the other hand. Skip your morning coffee. Leave home without a goodbye or kiss. Try burning the family photos or defecating on the flag.
Sometimes "little" rituals are sacralized, then elevated into liturgies, "big" religious rituals. For anthropologist Roy Rappaport, social conventions, the sacred and religion, morality, and cosmology are entailments of ritual. In his ecologically framed theorizing, ritual is the basic social act, the fabricator, the device for world- and meaning-making. Rappaport, like Goffman, argues a strong case for ritualization’s being at least as fundamental to social life as dramatization.
The twinned processes, ritualization and dramatization, are the raw material out of which playwrights make plays and priests make liturgies.
The twinned processes, ritualization and dramatization, are the raw material out of which playwrights make plays and priests make liturgies. Playwrights select and compress; then a director chooses actors, rehearses, and puts it all on a stage. The dramatization of everyday life has now been transformed into theater. In a parallel process, liturgists, religious communities, and other kinds of ritual-makers scour everyday life, sacred texts, and paradigmatic events. Then they compress and enact the result, with or without scripts, in a ritual precinct. Sometimes that space is expensive and imposing; sometimes it is a rug on a floor or a tent in a desert. Sometimes the process takes minutes; sometimes weeks. Sometimes words dominate; at other times dance or music are constitutive. However they transpire, the formal events we call rituals are entailments of the informal processes we call ritualization.
Talking about ritual this way usually leads people to inquire about definitions. In my view, there is no magical, definitional line: on this side, ritual; on that side, not. Instead, there are shades and degrees of ritualization. People ritualize actions by
- traditionalizing them, for instance, by claiming that they originated a long time ago or with the ancestors
- elevating them, associating them with sacredly held values, those that make people who they are, and that display how things really are, which is to say, how they ought to be
- repeating them over and over, in the same way, thus inscribing them in community and self
- singularizing them, offering them as rare or once-in-a-lifetime events
- prescribing their details, so they are performed in the proper way
- stylizing them, so they are carried out with flair or propriety
- entering into them with a non-ordinary attitude or in a special state of mind, for example, contemplatively or in trance
- attributing to them special power or influence
- situating them in special places and times
- allowing them to be performed only by specially qualified persons
- invoking powers to whom respect or reverence is due: gods, royalty, and spirits, for example
As these qualities multiply, the degree of ritualization increases. No one or two of them is definitive of ritual, and they do not belong exclusively to ritual. You can find traditionalizing in the sciences, repetition in music, stylization in literature, and special places in dance. Since these qualities appear elsewhere, ritual is best thought of as akin to, but not identical with, other cultural domains. To study ritual well, we have to study its similarities to and differences from other cultural activities. We should study the elements of ritual as they cross boundaries from sanctuary to court room, from prison to asylum to retreat center. Since rituals themselves can either link or cordon off cultural domains, the study of ritual benefits greatly from interdisciplinarity.
That said, in the 1970s, when ritual studies began, doing the interdisciplinary hop seemed comical to disciplinarians. Interdisciplinarity was not a word in many academic vocabularies, much less a virtue espoused by entrepreneurial deans.
When I arrived at my first permanent university position in 1974, disciplinary boundaries were defended as sacred; to cross them was sacrilege. The head of the English department instructed me that I had no business teaching a course on William Blake (even though my doctoral dissertation had been on his major prophetic works). I told her that I would quit teaching Blake when her department quit teaching its course on the Bible "as literature." (After a couple of years of ritual combat, we became friends.)
By the 1990s disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and interpretive social sciences were being softened, if not breached. Twenty years later that same English department, along with departments in many other universities, was steeping in "theory," postmodern, postcolonial, and, some would have said, postliterary. Interdisciplinary programs and departments began to spring up in every crack: cultural studies, communication studies, material culture studies. . . Postmodern jargon became required parlance, so much so that someone developed an online postmodernism generator that would write faux essays in "pomospeak." Displaying the lingo was the admission fee that young scholars paid to gain entry to many departments.
My peculiar form of interdisciplinarity began in the 1970s and led me from more sedentary disciplines (religious studies and philosophy) to those that more directly engaged the legs (anthropology and the performing arts). "Trained" in the philosophy of religion but already going adrift by having written a dissertation on Blake, a hybrid literary-religious figure, I had been out of graduate school for only a year when I began to relish books written by anthropologists. I had tried to teach a course on symbol, myth, and ritual, only to discover that I knew next to nothing about ritual. Eventually, anthropologist Victor Turner convinced me that I would never understand ritual if all I ever did was read his books. Reluctantly, I quit sitting in on the urban anthropology course that he and Saul Bellow were co-teaching at the University of Chicago. (You have to ask why anyone in his right mind would do that.) Even though post-PhD and employed, I felt I had to do fieldwork and act like an anthropologist, even though I was not one and had not been trained as one.
At the time, I had no idea how big a divide I was crossing. I had been taught to read sacred and secular texts carefully and critically, and now I was going to confront live bodies, people who talked back and asked questions. Instead of sitting in a library, I would be out in the field, querying people, events, objects, places, and relationships.
Ritualization, like dramatization, is hidden in plain sight, in daily life.
The first rituals I encountered were nested in festivals. Masses in the early morning were followed by dancing, parading, copulating, gorging, drinking, and dining in the evening. Back-to-back with religious homilies and civic pronouncements were satirical melodramas, street music, storytelling, pageantry, and multiple kinds of Spanish and Indian dances. Every kind of art (sculptural and pictorial, choreographic and folk, operatic and pop) permeated the Santa Fe Fiesta, which I studied off and on for forty years. I learned early on that festival-goers rarely used the word ritual, so I had to learn to speak "indigenous" in the field and "academese" with students and colleagues.
To study ritual properly I had to enter the field and attend to what I found there. And the field was not only some place afar but also a charged arena, in which people celebrating things virtuous and venerable also engaged in competition and conflict. I learned that rituals weren’t necessarily good or nice, and that they didn’t necessarily mean what authorities said they meant. You had to read between the lines. (At least I had already learned to do that.)
Studying ritual in the field soon led to two conclusions. One was that people were busy inventing it; the other was that they were busy evaluating it. Two sides of the same coin: creating and critiquing. Initially, I didn’t think of either claim as remarkable or controversial. They seemed to me facts obvious to anyone watching other people engage in ritual. And yet, I soon learned otherwise. The history of studying ritual is replete with assumptions, theories, and definitions which maintain that rituals are not made up and that people do not criticize them. To the ears of some of my colleagues, the phrases "ritual creativity" and "ritual criticism" sounded like category mistakes, like asking "What time is this orange?" or "How many centimeters is that idea?"
Controversies over such matters attracted multiple disciplines, feeding our hunger to debate and collaborate across disciplinary lines. Ritual studies emerged in the same fertile era as women’s studies, Black studies, and performance studies. One of the delights of naming an interdisciplinary area of study and laying down avenues for research and writing, was the range of disciplines that stepped up to take part in the discussion. When colleagues and I founded the Journal of Ritual Studies in the 1980s, we expected articles from anthropology, psychology, and sociology, even performance studies. We did not expect to hear from business, law, literature, medicine, communications, neurology, and several others.
The relationship with anthropology was complex. Anthropology has a longer history of studying ritual than any other academic discipline, including religious studies. In early anthropology, religion and ritual were staples (many of the classic ethnographic films were about ritual); however, interdisciplinary discussions between religious studies and anthropology were largely one-way. We religious studies scholars read anthropology; with a few exceptions anthropologists did not read religious studies. We talked to them about their research; they were largely indifferent to ours. They had grown tired of religion and ritual, having grown preoccupied at first with kinship and economics, then with gender politics and globalization. What all this meant was that ritual studies scholars had to look for other conversation partners, for example, in area studies and the arts.
By the turn of the millennium it was clear that interdisciplinarity doesn’t happen easily or automatically. Everything depends on who is actually talking to whom, about what, and how often. Real interdisciplinarity doesn’t happen in general or just because someone wants it to happen. It happens when colleagues actually work, write, think, talk, and do research projects together, when they become "bilingual," when their interests are mutual and their labors joint.
By 2000 I was teaching and doing field research alongside Dutch, German, Czech, Swedish, and Norwegian scholars, from whom I learned how research teams actually work. So, for me the shift to interdisciplinarity took three initial forms: going over (to other disciplines), going out (into "the field"), and going across (the Atlantic).
When I began to write about "ritual criticism," an academic controversy began…
The shift also took two other forms worth mentioning.
In 1980, I opened the Ritual Studies Lab to explore the interface of ritual and the arts. My department debated whether it should be called a lab or studio. The first sounded scientific; the second, artistic. The purpose of the Ritual Studies Lab was to experiment with ritual processes and elements, not to perform traditional rituals borrowed from elsewhere. In one session we would play with water, in the next, work with dirt. Then we would explore movement, sound, and light. Lab activities echoed not only rituals but theater exercises, therapeutic practices, games, dance, and children’s play. After an event we would struggle with the naming, or definitional, questions: If you think of this event as a ritual, what happens? If you classify it as a game, how does the atmosphere change? Sometimes we would entertain theoretical questions: how does ritualization emerge, decline, or fail? Sometimes students would pose practical questions: how might we put this knowledge to use in an actual event such as a birth or a death?
Talk in the Lab was sparse. Usually, it occurred after an exercise in which students had been given space to be emotional. Now they were asked to be critical. This, after all, was a university. What do you think? Did that work? Why? Why not? How? Are you sure? Could you re-do it differently? With what results? Critique informed by theory was a regular part of Ritual Studies Lab research. Was lab research science? I never called it that even though it was experiential and empirical. We observed, described, and documented. We analyzed. Nothing emerged unscathed. The aim was less to debunk ritualization processes than it was to educate ourselves about the ways ritual can be used: to enhance, to query, to flatten, even to demean. (You can’t reflect on initiation rites without raising difficult questions about authority, discipline, pain, and coercion.)
Lab experimentation at the university ran parallel to research in fields away from the university. We critiqued ritualized activities not just because that’s what you do in universities, but because I had noticed in my fieldwork in Santa Fe that people critiqued events freely, regardless of whether they were sacred liturgies and regardless of whether those commenting were participants or observers.
And yet, when I began to write about "ritual criticism," an academic controversy began. There is no such thing, I was told. In ritual circumstances people become obedient and silent, their bodies colonized by the requirements of the ritual: do it this way, not that way. The picture painted of ritualists is that they are passive and unreflective, not evaluative. It seemed obvious to some of my colleagues that prescription precludes critique, especially when the prescription is coupled with sanctity.
That rituals might act like strict, heavy-handed parents, I did not doubt, but that all rituals, including fledgling ones, behaved that way, I did doubt. I repeatedly witnessed people emerging from sanctified circumstances muttering (as soon as they were out of earshot) about how little they cared about the ceremony that had just transpired. Critique, in other words, might have been out of place during the ritual or in front of the officiant but it was not out of place afterwards, and certainly not among friends. In short, field research was changing the picture we had of ritual participants. We had thought ritual was only stodgy; now we learned that it was also creative. We had thought it beyond critique; now we knew that was not so.
Now, many years after the debate, it is well documented globally that rituals undergo critique by participants. In fact, we now know that there are traditions that not only anticipate ritual glitches and failures, but also develop rituals to undo those ritual mistakes. But early on, when ritual studies was new and that kind of rich information had yet to emerge, some scholars claimed that I was simply importing inappropriate models from arts criticism. Although it is true that I was reading literary and performance criticism, the actual circumstances in which I observed ritual criticism were on the ground: after-fiesta or after-mass eating, drinking, and partying. The other frequent occasion was in interviewing ritual leaders and event organizers who, after they’d gotten to know me, would ask, "What do you think? How could this be improved? Surely you have some thoughts on the matter." Ritual leaders, wanting to make their rituals better, sometimes even invite critique from observers.
The notion of "ritual creativity" was greeted with similar skepticism, critiqued as either Romantic, New Age, or merely lifted from the Western arts scene. Ritualists, my esteemed colleagues argued, are interested in exactitude and precision, not in creativity. I had begun to use the phrase "ritual creativity" after fieldwork, where I witnessed Santa Fe Fiesta organizers and priests trying to reimagine costumes that would be more respectful to Native Americans. Fiesta ritualists, who had to rethink clothing, the hierarchical ordering of processions, and the relative heights of platforms on which Hispanic and Native women stood, were simultaneously critical and creative in their solutions. Insofar as they were successful, ethnic groups found less to fight about. These authorities had good reason to critique, then reinvent, elements of the fiesta. In fact, the festival itself is the outcome of a long historical process of critique and invention using recycled pieces venerated as "traditional." So together, the lab and the field, incubated new and controversial ways of theorizing about ritual.
After turning from textual to field study, the paradigm for my own research broadened to participating, observing and interview, then returning home to write and edit. And yet the books I was writing had little impact on what I was studying, regardless of how kind or critical my work was. In the early 1990s, I was asked to be a consultant on a film being made about the Santa Fe Fiesta. The filmmakers, who did not think of their films as a critique, followed three young people as they prepared for and entered into the fiesta. There was no voice-over or obvious critical agenda, and yet the film, when it was released, created a statewide firestorm. Why? Because of a backstage scene in which a young Pueblo man playing the role of a Native American chief begins to weep in shame at what he sees on stage, so much so that the pageant director almost has to push him onstage. The film revealed too many backstage altercations, which in turn debunked the official story of what the "tri-cultural" fiesta was all about. Controversy about the film led to the director’s being ostracized. Eventually, she had to leave the city. The film was pulled from the state’s school curriculum, guaranteeing that it would never have the impact it might have had.
Watching this controversy unfold, I realized how powerfully adept audiovisual media can be at capturing the telling, unscripted details of interactions, so I began to make another major methodological shift, from studying-to-write to studying-to-film. I began to act more like a documentary filmmaker than an anthropologist. My elevator pitch became "religious studies scholar in the field, studying ritual creativity and criticism camera-in-hand."
I had run a television camera when I was seventeen, so handling a camera was nothing new. It was editing footage that was a revelation. By editing you can dramatize an event that isn’t very dramatic. By editing you can debunk an event that was designed to mystify. How you shoot and edit determines whether the final product dramatizes and mystifies or dedramatizes and demystifies. Either way, you learn to think about ritual differently if you study it with a camera in hand and an editing suite at your disposal.
"A Daughter’s Song," which I shot recently, in the fall of 2014, was "made" on just such an editing suite. I say "made" because the film was in part a by-product of my efforts to rescue what I thought was ruined footage. The footage had so many technical problems, and the social situation in which I was shooting was so fraught, that I almost threw out material that some say has become my best film to date.
In ritual circumstances people become obedient and silent, their bodies colonized by the requirements of the ritual
By shooting and editing you begin to notice how frequently bits of a ritual are improvised. My long-gone friend, anthropologist Roy Rappaport, used to define ritual (he preferred the term "liturgy") as "the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not encoded by the performers." He and I argued a lot. In a phone conversation not long before he died, he said, "I added the ‘more or less’ for you, Grimes." I doubted that, but I appreciated the gesture of saying so. Rappaport defined variation and invention out of ritual, whereas I do not. For sure, some ritual performers don’t write their own scripts. Maybe even most don’t. But some do. The ritualists I observe closely with a video camera are constantly skipping, adding, mixing, and omitting. And even when they claim that they are performing by the book, they may not be. My Indologist colleagues make films showing that Brahmins who say such things often do not perceive their own variations. Yes, the ritual text is used, but as a resource, not as an unbreakable law or inviolable commandment. Ritual processes include order, tradition, and prescribed actions but also innovation and creativity, improvisation and randomness. Even though the process is sometimes slow, rituals change and undergo revision. Tracking the improvisational dynamics of music or dance can help ritual studies scholars better understand how cultural forms, including ritual, emerge, foster cultural creativity, and undergo criticism.
2014 was, I suppose, a banner year in my life as a scholar. Oxford University Press published the tombstone-sized-and-shaped The Craft of Ritual Studies. One of the book’s premises is that ritual studies is a craft. Ritual studies, like many other fields, is plagued by a false dualism encoded in the question: Is it an art or a science? My answer is that some do it one way; some, another. Either claim risks being inflated. Ritual studies is not the outcome of artistic genius. Neither is it typically the result of a rigorous testing process based on double-blind trials and prediction. Rather, I argue, it is a matter of the hands, eyes, and feet. Studying ritual is more akin to making chairs and tables than it is to painting the Mona Lisa or coding the human genome. What I would like to see is ritual studies scholarship that engages in the craft with gusto.
To sum up: for forty years, I have been a scout, always curious to peek over the nearest hill toward some far horizon. I have migrated from studying words in sacred texts to studying people in complex, overlapping fields, where rituals are created, critiqued, and revised. I conduct research on video for the purpose of capturing the process on camera for slow replay and reflection. Then I craft books and online videos hoping to keep students awake and scholars arguing.
Does such a trajectory amount to a paradigm shift? For me, yes. In fact, several such shifts. Have these shifts changed my discipline? That is too early to tell. I have long insisted that religious studies is my disciplinary home, but most of the time I have been on the road, poking around in other people’s business, trying to learn what they have to teach. (Boundary-hopping is a very old paradigm, so take your pick: I was never at home; I never left.) What motivates me? Above all, I enjoy being a student, an ignorant observer from elsewhere eager to be taught and asking far too many questions.
- From Geertz 1973, 82.
- See Ackerman 2002  and Kirby 1975.
- For more on ritual’s relation to the arts see Grimes 2006b.
- See, for example, Staal 1989.
- For example, Kukai argues that the body is the medium enabling experience and thought, theory and practice, doctrine and ritual to be experienced non-dualistically. See Abé 2000; Krummel 2012.
- For an excellent introduction see Stephenson 2015.
- William Shakespeare, As You Like It. Pedro Calderón de la Barca, El gran teatro del mundo.
- See, e.g., Goffman 1959.
- There are, of course, other views. See Grimes 2014, 189 ff.
- See Grimes 2013.
- The Stanford Humanities Lab (SHL) began in 2000; FHL at Duke began in 2010.
- Also, at the time I was working with Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Theatre Lab. See Schechner and Wolford 1997.
- Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, and Erving Goffman were busy doing that. See Turner and Turner 1988.
- For more on the Ritual Studies Lab, see Grimes and Scott 2005.
- See Grimes 2010.
- See Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994, 263, 268n262. Also Bell 1992, 37–46.
- See Hüsken 2007.
- See Gathering Up Again: Fiesta in Santa Fe (De Bouzek and Reyna 1992).
- For more on shooting ritual: Grimes 2006a; Grimes and Venbrux 2010.
- Ronald L. Grimes, "A Daughter’s Song," https://vimeo.com/ronaldlgrimes/daughters-song.
- Rappaport 1979, 175.
- This is the subject matter of the research project, Ritual Creativity, Improvisation, and the Arts, which is online at https://vimeo.com/album/1524902.
- See Grimes 2014.
- Many thanks to Susan L. Scott for the fine editing.
Grimes, Ronald L., and Eric Venbrux. 2010. “Shooting Embalms.” In Die Realität Des Todes: Zum Gegenwärtigen Wandel Von Totenbildern Und Errinerungskulturen, edited by Dominik Groß and Christoph Schweikardt, 63–75. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag.
Krummel, John. 2012. “Kûkai.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/.