Ritual Textuality: Review Forum (Girish Daswani)

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

By: Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)


This is the kind of book that you will want to read. It is based on twenty-eight months of research in Fiji (Kadavu and Suva) and explores the overlapping themes of Pentecostal Christianity, Methodism, tradition and politics. It is also theoretically insightful and relevant because it takes you beyond Fiji, Christianity, tradition and politics. Tomlinson’s book is both short and eloquently written. It is an Introduction, four chapters and a “Full Stop” (his conclusion) long and is designed to both inform and effectively teach readers how discourse and written texts, which emerge in ritual performances, can be broken down into distinctive patterns. There are four basic patterns to all ritual performances Tomlinson suggests – sequence, conjunction, contrast and substitution – and once you know what these patterns are and how they function and converge, a new door of analysis opens up. All you have to do is walk in. Even if this book is not explicitly framed as an invitation, it implicitly invites you to try these methods for yourself. The content of its pages leaves the reader with important conceptual tools with which to analyze an array of ritual performances in motion and to understand how the various components of these rituals converge in different ways and to varying effects.

Tomlinson is not the first to do this. His assemblage of ritual’s characteristics is reminiscent of anthropologists such as Roy Rappaport (1999) who in his later work identified a structure that characterized the more “religious” or the more formal of rituals. A ritual form characterized such rituals. This included an encoding by others than the performers, a formality, a level of invariance (more or less), a performance and the illocutionary force of speech-acts. Tomlinson acknowledges the influence of Rappaport amongst other influential scholars and also points to the influence of Bakhtin in the taking of “text” as a mode of social action when writing about ritual textuality. This is not Tomlinson’s first work on ritual performance (e.g., Engelke and Tomlinson 2006). However in this book he makes the study of the efficacy of ritual performance both relevant and interesting through a clear and methodical approach around entextualization: “the process of turning discourse into texts that are detachable from their original contexts” (2). As he describes it, these “signs and texts” are embedded in patterns that “figuratively go places” (5, emphasis in original). They are in constant motion and where they go, the ways in which they get there, and the consequences of their arrival is what this book promises to explain.

If “meaning” was the theoretical concept at stake in his co-edited volume with Matthew Engelke it is “motion” that propels this book forward. At the beginning of his book Tomlinson cautions us that “motion” is a metaphor and metaphors can be misleading. They are always imperfect. “Motion” as a metaphor offers “some new insights” but “by limiting others,” he writes (1). Tomlinson argues that the “dynamism, transgression, and transformation” that a metaphor of motion implies is usually taken as counter-intuitive to an understanding of patterned regularity. This is why an understanding of ritual textuality is a productive way to identify how both movement and pattern operate simultaneously. He also shows that the “motion” of ritual textuality matters because it aligns with broader projects that people are interested in. While I have my reservations about the counter-intuitive assumption behind Tomlinson’s rationale for using “motion” as the motivational metaphor (something I address later), this assumed distinction becomes a productive starting point and a path through which he demonstrates how movement and ritual transformation often happen in patterned ways and across distinct contexts. Motion as an imperfect metaphor best fits with what Tomlinson is trying to say in showing how “patterns emerge interactively in performance” (10). In what follows I will elaborate on the content of the book’s four main chapters before turning to some general points about how the book contributes to discussions within an anthropology of Christianity.

Chapter 2: if this chapter captivates you, it should. Tomlinson’s description of a Pentecostal rally in Albert Pak, in Suva, and the analysis he provides of the visiting American evangelist’s sermon and altar call is a revealing exercise that suggests why Holy Spirit inspired, yet liturgical, speech literally moves people. In fact Tomlinson observes his own inability to stay in his seat. He describes the scene as “an explosion – a riot” (23) that leaves him “dazzled but dazed” (33). Unlike Methodist services talk is not the main concern. “Motion is” (23). If Methodist preachers want to connect church members to a continuity of traditions through public declarations of faith, Tomlinson argues that Pentecostal performance instead moves language further; from declarations of faith to promises, to actions.

Through different examples drawn from the evangelist’s sermon and altar call Tomlinson carefully separates a declaration (e.g., “God is great”), from a promise (e.g., “God is going to do miracles today”), from an action (e.g., “Praise God and raise your hands in the air”). These parts go on to form what he calls “performative paths” – “patterned sequences meant to generate ritual efficacy” (38). Such ritual performances do not simply state something; they also bring into being particular states of increased success, happiness and health. Participating in a Pentecostal ritual, unlike most Methodist services, is not simply about a public commitment to the liturgical conditions put in place for establishing continuity with established Christian traditions. It also anticipates a response from believers and involves a personal experience of “this is happening” to me, here, and now, with the added anticipation of what is to come in the future. In Tomlinson’s sequence the constant repetition of words and phrases and declarations of faith prelude God’s promises of what is to come, followed by a sequence of actions to bring these promises into effect. What Tomlinson impressively does is pay close attention to the specific sequence of the Pentecostal illocutionary act, breaking it down into a performative path that is both a sequence and repetition of acts as well as meta-performative. Ironically, Tomlinson adds, the performative path of Pentecostal sermons resembles traditional Fijian oratory more than Methodist sermons.

Chapter 3: Christianity is part and parcel of a Fijian understanding of tradition. Nothing makes this point more clearly than the drinking of kava in indigenous Fijian society Tomlinson tells us. “Chiasmus” – a pattern of “criss-cross reciprocation” (Silverstein 2004: 626, quoted in Tomlinson, 50) that works through the logic of conjunction – helps define Fijian kava drinking sessions as performances of incorporation. In these ceremonies of sharing kava participants are putting the land (vanua as place) into themselves and simultaneously putting themselves (vanua as people) into the land. The conjunction of these two movements brings into effect the renewal of the social structure and institutes change through its very performance. Similarly the sharing of communion in Protestant churches, which involves the drinking of wine allows Christians to put themselves into God (and the church), and in turn, allows God (and the church) to become a part of people.

Upon a surface reading of these two ceremonies we find striking similarities in symbolic analogy. The relation of kava to vanua (as “people” and “place”) bears resemblance to the relation of wine to the church. Just as kava is symbolic of chiefly authority so is wine the embodiment of the saving authority of Jesus. However, Tomlinson argues, even if Fijian theologians and some Methodist leaders suggest that kava and wine ought to be interchangeable, never has kava replaced wine in the Methodist church. If kava is like wine in ritual performances it is also not like wine because it importantly connects its participants to the non-Christian ancestral spirits, in ways that create misgivings for any easy substitution. As Tomlinson tells us, an evangelist interpretation has been influential in the Methodist church, in making links between kava-drinking sessions and the summoning of non-Christian spirits and demons.

Chapter 4: death as a rite of passage is not merely a symbolic journey from this world to another. It invokes a narrative that explains how this journey takes place. Tomlinson explains that “life” and “death” are fractally recursive categories that are defined against each other (in contrast) and can become recalibrated in ways that transform their relationship at different levels. If Fijians already held a narrative of an afterlife, Methodist missionaries of the nineteenth century reconfigured it so that life after death was situated in Heaven. They also orchestrated the dying words of Fijians to fit into the Christian narrative of moral retribution and eternal life so as to ensure them access to God’s kingdom. Tomlinson describes deathbed performances whereby missionaries gathered the testimonies of Fijians at their deathbed, which then became texts that circulated abroad and used to build the faith of the overseas Christian community. Death, he shows, can be staged in ways that create a patterned narrative account of a “good” or “happy” death. But as a consequence of such recalibration, stories of untimely deaths are not publicly shared in Fijian society today since they potentially evoke the existence of the hidden, demonic, realm.

Chapter 5: I found this chapter fascinating for the way in which it succinctly brings so much information on recent political events in Fiji into just over twenty pages. In this chapter Bakhtin’s idea of “monologue” helps us to understand Bainimarama’s (Fiji’s self-appointed prime minister since 2006) authoritarian style of governance and his project to create a unified political voice. In a dialogic discourse that anticipates no answer, a coup is not a coup but a “clean-up campaign”, other political players are excluded from the decision making process (“shut up and shut down”), legal intimidation is used as a strategy of control and censorship and physical intimidation and violence becomes a way of maintaining a unified voice in politics. Tomlinson describes this as the “destructive creativity of monologue” (102) that hides its dialogic origins and creates a sense of apparent cohesion where none may exist. The creation of the Peoples Charter of Fiji is one example Tomlinson uses to demonstrate the effects of a monologic discourse that shuts out and shouts down the voices of the Methodist church (in favour of the Catholic church), traditional authority, foreign media as well as oppositional parties.


Why is ritual important?

Tomlison’s book shows how the study of ritual can cut across the religious (and its “return”) and the secular in ways that help us move past this artificial dichotomy. Ritual, more than religion, possesses certain logical entailments that can be compared across different contexts. Tomlinson provides us with four patterns in motion that he suggests are in fact cross-cultural. According to Rappaport (1999) ritual is the basic social act. The study of ritual textuality therefore brings Christianity as a “virtual object” (Bialecki 2013) back into conversation with universalism but through the interlocking domains of tradition, of politics and Christianity’s own multiple forms. Tomlinson’s work on ritual textuality is thus central to understanding Christianity’s ongoing process of becoming alongside a nominalist project of bringing together the canonical and the indexical in ways that provide unity, institutional stability and social cohesion, while not precluding the debates and divisions internal to (around questions like what is an appropriate ritual form, who is a true Christian and how is faith demonstrated) as well as external to it (around political, cultural and secular ambitions).


The ‘event’ as continuity and discontinuity

Tomlinson introduces repetition as another type of sequence in the conclusion of his book (cf. Tomlinson 2014). The “repeated invocation of an original event” (119) – a curse caused by the murder of a Methodist missionary and his party from the nineteenth century – through performances of apology, reveals the different motivations and changing historical circumstances in which forgiveness is being sought. Reminiscent of Alain Badiou’s (2001; 2006) idea of event as a situated universality, Tomlinson recognizes that while a shared set of criterion defines an event the circumstances around the way the event is experienced over time is different (cf. Robbins 2010).The event, therefore, only truly exists at the time of its occurrence. Anything that follows is a repetitive act, which, while resembling the original event and pointing to it, never fully reproduces it. This repetition, even as it acts as a return, changes the circumstances of its emergence and brings forward new possibilities. Thus continuity and discontinuity are brought together at different levels of interaction and at moments since the act of repetition is as much about retrieving the past as it is about creating a citation of an original event.


Anthropology and theology

The religious practitioners we study are usually as intellectually involved with questions about the world as we are (Robbins 2013: 331). Tomlinson’s book (Chapter 2) addresses the intellectual side of Christianity through comparing the dissertation work of students in a theological college (around the proposed substitution of wine with kava in Methodist communion) and the resistance these ideas face on the ground. Robbins (2006) call to look into and develop the ‘awkward’ relationship between anthropology and theology is partly answered here. Tomlinson’s analysis reaffirms the value of being aware of the theological speculations and position of the leaders of the Methodist church, which becomes a prerequisite for a meaningful engagement with claims of “indigeneity” – both Christian and traditional. If anthropology, as Robbins fears, runs the risk of turning the category of the other into the same, focusing on how Christianity and the traditions (anthropology and theology included) that study religion deal with and recalibrate otherness is an important start to recapturing “otherness” as a critical engagement of difference.


Motion – An imperfect metaphor?

If I have given you the impression that I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, then I have achieved my goal. This is a very captivating book and Tomlinson is a good writer. Yet I do have questions. What makes “motion” such a compelling metaphor? Is it simply an “imperfect” metaphor as Tomlinson claims or can it also be misleading? For example where is reflection located in movement? Is ritual performance not also about being moved or held accountable by one’s emotions or by forces that exist outside ritual performance? If motion is central to ritual performance, then what potentially brings about motion – a collective effervescence or the affective presence of the Holy Spirit? When is motion not important?

Tomlinson explains that there is a shared criterion for what makes a ritual (as signs and texts) successful or effective. Ritual performances can also fail or misfire in ways that make for interesting ethnographic observations. In his introduction Tomlinson uses Simon Coleman’s example of a failed Pentecostal service in Sweden to ask how a failure of the pastor’s performance of ‘silence’ in a church of ‘motion’ can be a productive starting point with which to ask other questions regarding the relationship between pattern and motion (4). Tomlinson writes that he is using the idea of motion in a counter-intuitive way. Motion as “dynamism, transgression and transformation” (1) is counter-intuitive to ideas of regularity he claims. Yet how does “motion” become considered opposite to patterned regularity in the first place and by whom?

A concept is counter-intuitive if it violates the inferences that we intuitively share as humans. A person who walks through walls for example would violate our intuitive physics. In fact, many times, something that we might want to take as ‘counter-intuitive’ (such as religion) is actually ‘intuitive’ (see Bloch 2005: Chapter 7). I intuitively assume that “spirits” are real because some of my friends and family in Singapore have either been possessed by or seen them. They were in motion as stories but also as affective beings. While serving my national service I was instructed along with other recruits not to urinate under trees or disturb graves when training at night without first acknowledging the spirits that possibly inhabited these spaces in case they became annoyed and returned to the camp with us. Such personal experiences led me to firmly believe that one does not have to experience spirits in order for them to become part of your life. My motion through life is also usually accompanied by a regularity or pattern that many would consider counter-intuitive but which also provides me with moments of discretion, direction and which prevents my world from spinning off its hinges. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ritual Textuality but would have liked Tomlinson to elaborate on his choice of metaphor and be more specific about “motion” since it is used to connect the chapters of his book in ways that were not always consistent.



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——. 2006. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. New York: Continuum.

Bialecki, Jon. 2012. Virtual Christianity in an age of nominalist Christianity. Anthropological Theory. 12(3): 295–319.

Bloch, Maurice. 2005. Essays on Cultural Transmission. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Engelke, Matthew. 2007. A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engelke, Matthew and Matt Tomlinson (eds). 2006. The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity. New York: Berghahn.

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——. 2010. Anthropology, Pentecostalism, and the New Paul: Conversion, Event, and Social Transformation. South Atlantic Quarterly 109(4): 633-652.

——. 2013. Afterword: Let’s keep it awkward: Anthropology, theology, and otherness.  Australian Journal of Anthropology 24: 329-337.

Tomlinson, Matt. 2014.  Bringing Kierkergaard into Anthropology: Repetition, absurdity, and curses in Fiji. American Ethnologist 41(1): 163-175.