Ritual Textuality: Review Forum (Courtney Handman)

Tomlinson, Matt. 2014. Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

By: Courtney Handman (Reed College)


In 1976 Michael Silverstein’s landmark paper outlining the opposition between presupposing and creative indexicality helped usher in a new focus within linguistic anthropology about practice and performance. Dependent upon – indeed dedicated to – Roman Jakobson, Silverstein seemed to pry open a new corner in studies of ritual that focused on the very contingent nature of even the most scripted events. While Levi-Strauss had relegated rituals in “primitive” societies to foregone conclusions – sporting events in which the game only ended when the ritually scripted result had been achieved – and the structural-functionalists had seen in rituals largely the playing out of social structural orders, Silverstein’s focus on creativity (also called entailing indexicality) put some stakes back into the ritual game. Not only should all interactions be seen as more or less ritualized, but all such interactions had serious consequences should those entailments not go according to plan.

Silverstein was certainly not the only anthropologist to find creativity the proper response to the twentieth century discovery of order in social life. He may have put a bit more semiotic muscle into the endeavor (some would say he just put more jargon into it), but key concepts like contestation, agency, and myriad reconfigurations of the relation between subjects and social orders were the hallmarks of what largely went under the linguistic anthropological umbrella of creativity.

During one discussion with a graduate student friend I remember asking about the other side of Silverstein’s dyad – presupposition. “Presupposition is boring” was the response. Indeed, presupposition seemed so obvious, so much what fieldwork was supposed to unsettle, that there seemed to be no reason to give it much attention. And yet Silverstein’s original paper always emphasized that indexicality could only be “relatively creative” or “relatively presupposing,” The one can’t exist without the other.

The tides seem to be turning once again, not so much away from creativity as such, but away from the singular focus on creativity as the prime engine of innovation, of agency, or of contestation. Matt Tomlinson’s Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance makes the case for presupposition across a wide range of ritual contexts within Fijian life. This is of course not a return to a structuralist sense of “cold societies” (or perhaps “cold” rituals), but rather an extended argument for the ways in which ritual patterns – especially genres and other forms of cultural knowledge about ways of being in particular contexts – make possible the events through which lives are lived.

Tomlinson focuses in particular on the process of “entextualization, which is the process of turning discourse into texts that are detachable from their original contexts.” (2). He argues that entextualization specifically allows for the process of movement, of replication-with-difference of particular forms across time and space. How does Fijian kava drinking come to be compared to Christian communion? It does so through a history of colonial and post-colonial critiques that establish a ritual order, largely through a sense of bodily ingestion as the key feature of both practices. In this case, the entextualized element is not speech as such (although there are important ways in which both events are produced through talk), but is rather the physical act of taking something into oneself. Moreover, this process of ingestion is seen to work in both cases in two opposed ways: incorporation of a material form (kava or wafer-and-wine) that then correspondingly incorporated the one doing the ingesting into a community of others who do the same thing. It is, as Tomlinson notes, a chiastic structure. What is entextualized then as a ritual pattern is both the material practice of ingestion and also the cross-wise process of incorporation.

This process of entextualization was developed through a series of powerful comparisons made by authorized persons – missionaries, theology degree holders, chiefly men – who all remarked in positive and negative ways on the similarities that they saw in the two kinds of events. But this simply becomes the starting point for a further process of textual circulation, a ground of comparison that allows for other evaluative comments about the relative moral frameworks and communities indexed by these ritual incorporations, “Fijian culture” and “Christianity.” One process of entextualization begets another, then.

As other anthropologists of Christianity have discussed, such comparisons are the bread-and-butter of Christian lives in many parts of the global south. Missionary discourses about the relation of religion and culture at the most general level (Keane 2007, chapter 3), or about the relation of particular cultures and particular forms of Christianity (Robbins 2004, Meyer 1999) establish the possibilities of conversion, of subjects imagining themselves as Christian people, in the first place. Keane, echoing similar comments in Comaroff and Comaroff (1991), argues in particular that as soon as people start to make these kinds of entextualized comparisons they are firmly working within a world established by such missionary discourses. Ancestral specialists (marapu) in Sumba, Indonesia may fight against Christians within their communities, but insofar as they are forced to call their own practices “traditional religion” most of the battle has already been decided, and not in their favor.

Tomlinson’s claims about the powers of entextualization and pattern are most powerfully demonstrated in Chapter 2, which details the highly patterned performance of Ken Colegrove, a Pentecostal preacher who led an outdoor tent-revival-like crusade in Suva in 2008. How could an event that prominently features glossolalia be patterned in any (humanly) discernible way? Yet Tomlinson demonstrates that Colegrove’s animated and enthusiastic performance, punctuated as it was by what secular observers would consider nonsense syllables, was driven by a cyclic pattern that he terms declaration-promise-action(-declaration…). In its most obvious manifestation, Colegrove would declare a fact about God, promise something about God’s impact on the lives of Christian Fijians, and act within God’s power through glossolalia. Over and over again, Colegrove creates an urgency and drive in the repetition of this cycle. Tomlinson argues that this repetition, far from being boring, maintains the ebullient energy that had characterized the music worship portion of the service that immediately preceded his sermon. The crowd’s dancing and bodily movement that had marked their intense, Holy Spirit-inspired affect is changed into another textual, material form. As with the previous example about ingestion within kava/communion rituals, materiality and textuality (or bodies and spirits) are not discrete planes of ritual action.

Two further body chapters flesh out the rest of Tomlinson’s relatively brief book. Chapter 4 examines the entextualization of death (bodies, again) into death-bed attestations of faith, conversions, or (for some) accusations of murder. Missionary pamphlets sent home to supporters in the colonial era helped create a certain kind of Christian public that came into existence only through the expiration of the faraway Fijian converts. Correspondingly, the growing publicity and Christianity of death created a world of private accusations of malfeasance. Chapter 5 examines the monologic texts produced by Frank Bainamarama’s government in the wake of his coup, Fiji’s fourth since 1987. Here the rhetoric of Fijian unity is matched with the institutional power to shut down any dissenting voices (newspapers, diplomats, etc.). Tomlinson argues for attention not just to the dialogic, co-constructed aspects of language and textuality, but also to the ways in which particular speakers work to erase any trace of dialogue at all. Fiji only needs one speaker (says Bainamarama, about himself) because Fiji is a singular and united nation.

Each of the four body chapters focuses on a specific type of entextualization (2): sequence (Chapter 2 on Colegrove’s sermon), conjunction (Chapter 3 on kava drinking/communion), contrast (Chapter 4 on the creation of public/private spheres of death), and substitution (Chapter 5 on Bainamarama’s attempts to control Fijian public discourse). A bit later, Tomlinson specifies that these can also be characterized, respectively, as: performative path, chiasmus, fractal recursivity, and monologue (6-8). The analytic description of these different kinds of patterns is a central part of each chapter. And yet Tomlinson writes “I emphasize that typology is not the point of this book. The types I have listed are neither definitive nor complete, and they do not explain anything in themselves” (10).

But given the prominent place this typology has within the book, both in terms of content and in terms of chapter organization, it is unclear how to take Tomlinson’s disavowals. Is this typology just a labeling device, then? How might we think about the relationships between the different types? Do they have different geographic spreads? To reference the topic of this forum, are specific types more associated with Christianity (for example, communion chiasmus or the other forms of comparison created through missionary discourses)? Are there patterns to the patterns?

Similar sorts of questions can be asked of other linguistic anthropologists who have also developed rubrics of sorts with which to characterize specific kinds of semiotic processes. Irvine and Gal (2000) established three major semiotic devices (iconism, erasure, and fractal recursivity, the last of which has been used in analyses of events across the globe). Irvine and Gal are adding now to their list of rubrics (for example, in their presentations at the 2013 American Anthropological Association meetings).

This analytic move is quite different from the one in Keane’s Christian Moderns, in which Keane borrows from Latour (1993) the twin processes of purification and hybridization, and then goes on to locate the reason for these semiotic processes in the larger moral projects of Protestantism or modernity more generally. One might consider “Protestantism” or “modernity” to be concepts of such generality as to lose much of their analytic punch. Nevertheless there is a particular moral framework in which to fit the semiotic ideologies that Keane discusses.

Of course Tomlinson has a quite different set of aims for his volume in Oxford’ University Press’ “Ritual Studies” book series, where he very successfully argues for the detailed analysis of and close theoretical attention to the patterns (or presuppositions) that make possible the fluidity, the –scapes, the frictions, and the flows that are so much at the heart of contemporary anthropology. This is the heart of the book, around which circle the more specific set of issues about the features of particular patterns of entextualization.

This would be a fantastic text for introductory courses in linguistic anthropology and for upper division courses on textuality, performativity, or ritual. Each of the body chapters can be read on their own, making it very easy to use particular pieces for a syllabus.



Comaroff, Jean and John Comaroff. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Irvine, Judith and Susan Gal. 2000. “Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation.” IN Regimes of Language, P. Kroskrity, ed.

Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in a Mission Encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Meyer, Birgit. 1999. Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description.” IN Meaning in Anthropology, K. Basso, ed.