Ritual Textuality: Review Forum (Matt Tomlinson)

A Reply to Reviewers

By: Matt Tomlinson (Australian National University)


I am grateful to the reviewers for their engaged readings of Ritual Textuality and to AnthroCyBib for hosting this forum. It is both daunting and exhilarating to watch one’s own book—such an intimately strange creation!—move into conversationsof critique. The reviewers have carefully described the argument and been generous in their responses. Individually and collectively, they raise insightful questions, especially about dimensions of metaphor, the utility of typologies, and the limits of language. I will address each reviewer’s contribution individually.

Girish Daswani, focusing on the metaphor of motion, asks a series of interlinked questions. In what ways, he asks, might this metaphor be misleading, and how does one articulate it with critical dynamics such as reflexivity? Might ritual be an arena for “being moved…by forces that exist outside ritual performance,” and if so, what forces?

As I signal in the book’s Introduction, I often find the use of metaphors of motion to be problematic: flows seem to happen without human interaction; circulation speeds ahead of its own accord. When I began writing, I intended to critique the metaphor more thoroughly. But when I sent the manuscript to friends, their engaged (but tough) responses made me aware that the problem was not necessarily with the metaphor itself but with my usage of it. Intellectually and rhetorically, I kept setting traps that I then reliably stumbled into, like Wile E. Coyote. I came to realize that motion was a useful metaphor to the extent that it focuses attention on replication, linking presuppositions with performances, or patterns with their uptake and potential transformation in new contexts. As Courtney Handman puts it elegantly here, “patterns (or presuppositions)…make possible the fluidity, the –scapes, the frictions, and the flows that are so much at the heart of contemporary anthropology.” Colloquially, the metaphor of motion demands attention to interactivity and the possibilities of transformation, things I hoped to foreground in discussing entextualization.

As the reviewers note, each of the book’s four main chapters is focused on a pattern of entextualization: sequence, conjunction, contrast, and substitution. I wrote in the introduction that typology is not the point of the book, but Handman notes that this is a puzzling claim in light of the way I structured it. Her criticism is fair, but in writing the book I felt that my main purpose—to understand how ritual performances achieve their effects—required beginning with the patterns I had noticed during research and comparing them with each other to try to gain new insights. I agree that typologies, in themselves, explain nothing. But a full understanding of ritual efficacy, in treating the relationship between ideologies of effective action (for example, the Pentecostals’ belief that you ought to jump and shout in order to encounter divinity) and contexts of ritual performance (a Pentecostal crusade, with all its noise and energy), demands attention to the specific patterns in which signs and texts are entextualized, replicated, and reflected upon. Patterns are only part of the picture, but they are the part I needed to begin with.

I am grateful for Handman’s comment that my book is “an extended argument for the ways in which ritual patterns…make possible the events through which lives are lived.” I like to think this resonates with Omri Elisha’s description of the argument as a “road map,” which opens up his question about choice. As Elisha writes, people come to ritual performances for different reasons, expect different outcomes, and evaluate success differently. This is all true. But, to draw on Handman’s phrasing again, there is a notable difference between the way that ritual patterns make a Pentecostal crusade possible (and possibly efficacious) and the way they make a kava session possible, to choose the examples from chapters two and three. As I argue, this is partly because the crusade took compelling shape as a series of sequences leading to a specific point: the point at which God would inhabit people and speak through them. Kava sessions take compelling shape as conjunctions between people and places, with every moment in the session effecting and manifesting this conjunction. But more than this—and more to the point of Elisha’s observation—people encounter different possibilities within these different events.

The Pentecostal service, even as it featured the remarkable consistency of the main speaker’s rhetorical patterns, was a riot of possibility. It was a public event, you could choose how energetic you would be, how distant or close you were to the center of action, and whether you wanted to “receive” the Holy Ghost or not. You could also, as Elisha suggests, come to the event, and interact with people there, for reasons such as making friends, feeling the energy, and helping others. You could come late, leave early, stand, sit, dance, sing, shout, take photos, and believe or not believe—or rather, engage or not engage in a commitment (per Howell 2007)—however you wanted, although the organizers clearly hoped for particular kinds of feedback: enthusiastic noise (they got it), bodies in motion (they got those, too), and people choosing to go up front for the climactic altar call (several dozen did).

Kava-drinking sessions in Kadavu, even the most casual, do not have this degree of latitude. For one thing, men who are not members of evangelical churches are generally expected to participate in them and not leave before the session is formally closed (with rhythmic clapping after a closing announcement that the bowl is empty). Within the sessions, there is a general order of service without much wiggle room. The beverage has different physiological effects on different people (depending, for example, on previous drinking experience, body mass, air temperature, and, of course, how full the cups are and the strength of the mix), but everyone at the session drinks from the same preparation. Another way to put the difference, then, is that attendees at the Pentecostal crusade could do what they liked within the performance—and, as Elisha suggests, the crowd could move the preacher as much as he moved them—but in kava sessions, participation is more firmly compelled and leeway more finely constrained.

Elisha also asks what is missed with a focus on language, although Handman helps me out again by pointing out how “materiality and textuality (or bodies and spirits) are not discrete planes of ritual action.” I acknowledge that other scholars would have paid more attention than I did to the non-linguistic aspects of these ritual performances, and I look forward to commentaries from those with sharper appreciation of these aspects. What would be unproductive for ethnographic analysis, however, would be to tip the scales too far in the other direction and argue that language must be subordinated to something else such as unmediated phenomenological experience.

Here it is worth analyzing Daswani’s claim, “one does not have to experience spirits in order for them to become part of your life.” The ways spirits become part of people’s lives are very often linguistically mediated, if not linguistically originated. Language, as Webb Keane (1997: 49) has argued, is a medium that makes “the presence and activity of beings that are otherwise unavailable to the senses…presupposable, even compelling, in ways that are [publicly] yet also subjectively available to people as members of social groups.” For those at Copeland’s crusade, the Holy Ghost was manifest in a string of syllables. It was also manifest, I expect, in the pulse of music and the splash of baptismal water, but it achieved its most vigorously intersubjective and objectively apprehensible form in glossolalia: the shouts such as Sina-dyamaya-damai-pasata-nahaya! and anda-bakobasadaboha!which, in a companion piece to chapter two (Tomlinson 2012), I examine asindexes of a believer’s relationship to the otherness of the divine. I focus on language in my research because so many Christian rituals I have attended (most of them not Pentecostal) have featured talk as highly consequential action, and indigenous Fijians relish living in “a world of talk,” as Andrew Arno aptly (1993) puts it.

In regard to language, Rodolfo Maggio raises the topic of using indigenous Fijian terminology. (The terminology I use in the book is, admittedly, a variety of English-language anthro-speak.) In some cases, I think my terms resonate well with local characterizations even if the words are different. As I point out in chapter three, numerous Fijian theologians have likened kava drinking to communion, and this equation helped motivate my argument about chiasmus. In other cases, I admit that the interpretations might not fit as well. I suspect that speaking of life/death and public/private in terms of fractal recursivity would not spark excited conversation around the kava bowl. One of the ways I tried to fill the text with Fijian understandings (as I understand them to be) was by saturating it with quotations that included the Fijian language originals. Indeed, Maggio mentions the “quotes that are relatively long if compared with the overall length of the book and the individual chapters.”

There is a case I wish I had mentioned in the introductory chapter, because it relates to some of the comments and questions made by all of the reviewers: how efficacy is evaluated, what a focus on language reveals but potentially obscures, the use of indigenous terminology, and Daswani’s query, “how does ‘motion’ become considered opposite to patterned regularity in the first place and by whom?” During a “chain prayer” (masu sema) held for a family in Kadavu in 1999, one man who had married into the family offered running critical commentary. Here I will quote and summarize (in brackets) at length from my fieldnotes, changing names:


[We were sitting in the main room of the chief’s house. The Methodist minister], thinking aloud, decided there would be 2 sides in the chain prayer…. [Those who went to pray did so in a bedroom of the house; others who were not praying would wait in the cookhouse, where kava would be served.]

Saying it was time to begin, [the minister] then went into the bedroom which had been designated as prayer-site. The remaining folks whispered (about where to go and what to do, I presume), and [the catechist] and I went to a side room, carrying out [kava roots] and the [kava bowl], and bringing them to the cookhouse, where Apakuki and Mere also were. [Apakuki and Mere were husband and wife; Mere was the chief’s daughter.] Apakuki was evidently displeased with the arrangement of the prayer structure, saying it wasn’t really a chain (i.e., since people were just coming and going [between two sides] it was a sloppy arrangement); he said it was “disorganized,” using the English word.…

Now, for a summary of Apakuki’s discourse [in the cookhouse]…. What’s interesting is how he turned from describing the masu sema as related to [pre-Christian] spiritual activity to a condemnation of the way things are now—talk about a fall from a golden state sort of, only one of the golden things was not just an age when a chief could punish disrespect with death (an age which he, like Opetaia, sounds resentful at the passing of), but also his town in [province name], which, he says, had chain prayers which lasted a full week without stopping, and [where] almost everyone was a [Christian preacher].…

Later in the evening, Bulou Ruci told a story which I didn’t understand, so Mere explained it to me. [The chief’s] parents had 3 girls and they really wanted a boy; they consulted a [traditional seer]. When [the chief] was very young, he was so sick people thought he might die. Ratu Jese, the father of Ratu Livai, went up to the old graveyard in the hills by [village name]…and called out to [the chief’s] soul. Ratu Jese knew the soul had come back when he felt a sensation on his upper back. He came back to the village and knew the soul had reentered [the chief] when [the chief] sneezed.…

As I was asking for clarification on the [traditional seer] bit, Apakuki got upset with me and said we’d talk about this tomorrow, that this stuff was cold and we should maroroya na katakata [take care of the heat]. Apparently, talking too much about the old ways could dissipate the heat generated by fervent Christian prayer. Mere gently closed my small notebook and added that we’d talk about this stuff tomorrow. (Fieldnotes, January 30, 1999)


Consider all of the evaluations of ritual efficacy that are in play here. Apakuki disapproves of the chain prayer because it is not a multiply segmented sequence. It is just two sides. If I may recast this in the terms used in Ritual Textuality, he expects a chain prayer to be a performative path, and two steps, in his opinion, are not enough to make anything happen. In comparing the current event to ones that had taken place in his home province, he adds another dimension to a successful chain’s length: back home, these things kept going for a week, not just one night. But then, after the chief’s sister, Bulou Ruci, tells a story with a distinct emphasis on traditional (non-Christian) spirituality—a seer recovers a boy’s lost soul—and I sit there doing what anthropologists do, asking way too many questions, Apakuki focuses on heat as the key quality of the ritual’s potential success. Things need to stay hot. My talkativeness will cool them off. Mere then enacts the metaphor of heat by closing my notebook for me, sealing things shut. So part of the efficacy, in Apakuki’s view, concerns patterns—specifically, the importance of establishing a proper chain and not being “disorganized.” But it also concerns heat, by which I think he meant focused, intense, concentrated activity, likely indexed by, among other things, a lack of extraneous discourse (cf. Ryle 2010: 150).

I am grateful to the reviewers and to the editors of AnthroCyBib for their stimulating commentaries. I have not addressed all of their points here, but appreciate the insights that all have offered. The reviewers highlight critical issues for future investigations, and I hope the discussion stays hot.



Arno, Andrew. 1993. The World of Talk on a Fijian Island: An Ethnography of Law and Communicative Causation. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex.

Howell, Brian M. 2007. The Repugnant Cultural Other Speaks Back: Christian Identity as Ethnographic ‘Standpoint.’ Anthropological Theory 7(4): 371–391.

Keane, Webb. 1997. Religious Language. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 47–71.

Ryle, Jacqueline. 2010. My God, My Land: Interwoven Paths of Christianity and Tradition in Fiji. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Tomlinson, Matt. 2012. God Speaking to God: Translation and Unintelligibility at a Fijian Pentecostal Crusade. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 23(3): 274–289.