Ritual Textuality: Review Forum (Omri Elisha)

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

By: Omri Elisha (Queens College, CUNY)


I know I’m not alone when I say that my love of anthropology began with the study of ritual. As an undergraduate I was enchanted by the subject, captivated by all the drama, symbolism, and effervescence of the concentrated cultural tinderbox that was “Ritual.” My first anthropology professor, a master storyteller and something of an ethnographic traditionalist, introduced me to a rich lineage of dissecting ritual anatomies and signs, and of theoretical models revealing hidden patterns and intrinsic functions.

Yet it was not merely ritual’s elegant, inscribable formalism that intrigued me. I was most drawn to the fact that rituals are inhabited by living people assuming socially prescribed roles that require technical and sacred knowledge, adaptability, intuition, and tact. In short, I have always been intrigued by the positions of those whose task it is to reproduce and manipulate ritual conventions. They are players on the ritual stage, as it were, doing what it takes to make rituals effective, to ensure – as Victor Turner would say – that the obligatory becomes desirable.

Maturing into the discipline, my enchantment gave way to cautious skepticism. I lost faith in the functionalism of classic ritual studies. I entertained the likelihood that structural and dramaturgical models were overstated in their logical coherence. It was strange to me that ritual theories offered such penetrating insights yet required so many qualifications to fully account for the contingency and messiness of ritual events as lived experiences, let alone the impact of concrete political and institutional circumstances.

Ethnographic interventions in recent decades have done much to overcome the reifying tendencies of yesteryear. The anthropology of Christianity can be proud of its contributions in this regard. And yet, with notable exceptions, the pursuit of contextualization and nuance comes at its own intellectual cost. Grand theorization on the mechanics of ritual behavior is hardly a lost art, but it has arguably lost much of its due relevance. How else do we explain why so many undergraduate courses and textbooks, and scholarship outside of anthropology, stop somewhere around the 1970s when invoking anthropological theory for ritual analysis?

Ritual Textuality, Matt Tomlinson’s engaging and original book, offers a multilayered framework that has the virtue of being both theoretically ambitious and theoretically astute. Building on extensive research in Fiji, Tomlinson constructs a generalizable theory that also recognizes the importance of contextual details and external factors – i.e., historical and cultural dynamics that germinate well outside of immediate ritual frames – in shaping how even the most time-honored community rituals are performed.

To understand Tomlinson’s framework it helps to see it less as a theory and more like a road map. Movement, or “the motion of signs and texts,” figures prominently in this book. The main chapters are organized according to four distinct “patterns” (distinguished from “types”) that give rituals their kinetic energy. Mirroring the structured nature of language and communication, they are replicable and discernible (unconscious?) paths that allow ritual signs to “go places,” that is, to achieve their intended effects as dictated by ideology, theology, and tradition.

Simply put, the four patterns are sequence, conjunction, contrast, and substitution. Tomlinson elaborates these patterns (and their multiple modalities) with extended case studies and comparative analysis. Chapter two features a boisterous Pentecostal crusade, where participants ride a rhetorical road to salvation (sequence). Chapter three deals with traditional Fijian kava-drinking sessions, where people ritually consume “the land,” which in turn figuratively consumes them as its loyal denizens, a chiasmic pattern (conjunction) noted for its Eucharistic parallels. Both of these examples involve acts of ritualized speech performed in live settings.

The latter two case studies are more about the circulation and control of ritually deployable texts than ritual events per se. In chapter four we learn of Methodist missionary accounts of the “happy deaths” of Fijian converts, and how those accounts affected local conceptions of life and death, and public and private (contrast). Finally, chapter five examines the direct and indirect authorship of linguistically coercive texts by the military government of Frank Bainimarama, including political forums and charters, and acts of media censorship. Under Bainimarama, governmental textuality generates “the destructive creativity of monologue” (102) by erasing competing discourses in favor of a unified ethnonationalist voice ostensibly spoken by and for the people (substitution). With each of these chapters, whose range of examples exceed what I have listed, Tomlinson eloquently parses the semiotic and textual cues activated in these paths, as they reflect and conform to popular expectations of what counts in ritual as success or failure.

The concept of entextualization is at the core of Tomlinson’s framework, a theoretical move that deserves close attention. For Tomlinson, entextualization is not merely epiphenomenal to ritual; it is the source of ritual’s transitive power and replicability. Entextualization is defined as “the process of turning discourse into texts that are detachable from their original contexts” (2). There is an aspect to the wording of this definition that puzzles me. Should it imply that discourse necessarily precedes text? Can’t we say that routine, dialogical interactions between the discursive and the textual complicate the idea of a processual sequence in which texts are drawn and detached from discourse but not vice versa?

Nevertheless, Tomlinson’s approach has clear advantages. Of course there are limits as well, as with any model, and if I propose a few it is not to discredit the argument but rather in the interest of expanding on a thesis well worth pondering. So, with apologies for invoking the faux-rationalist logic of venture capital – another domain where entextualization rules the day – here is a brief “cost-benefit analysis” of entextualization as an interpretive model for the study of ritual.

Tomlinson is primarily concerned with a question of ritual efficacy: “How do people shape their own expectations and evaluations of what counts as an effective ritual performance?” (118). His emphasis on patterns of entextualization privileges words, utterances, and other linguistic properties such as meaning and indexicality, while drawing equal attention to the ways that discourse is organized, or rather mobilized, in the course of its objectification. Furthermore, Tomlinson demonstrates that entextualization is not simply about the marriage of form and content in ritual but rather a complex amalgamation of form, content, and the “wider context of performance expectations” (34). This wider context is essential for introducing factors of social change into the equation. It also illuminates the semiotic ideologies, cultural preconceptions, and authoritative norms – in short, reigning assumptions about how things can and should work in a workable world – that ritual actors bring to bear, however implicitly, as they go about working ritual effects.

In nearly all of Tomlinson’s examples, we witness people who are carefully choosing their words – itself an apt analogy for the intersections of structure and agency that rituals represent or enable (take your pick). Tomlinson doesn’t emphasize the element of choice, nor do I suggest he needs to, since his framework doesn’t depend on any claim that patterns of entextualization are produced out of conscious intentions (though I’m curious what he thinks the “origin” of these patterns might be, if any such etiology is even worth pursuing).

Still, I would offer the following as another potential insight to be gleaned from Tomlinson’s analysis. If indeed entextualization is a practical tendency involving forms of speech that correspond to authoritative discourses, including religion, politics, and local tradition, and since (as recent Fijian history attests) these discourses can be diverse, fractured, and contested, then we might begin to look at ritual events as choices being made, often but not always implicitly, between a range of coinciding textual and performative options. Choice, in ritual no less than in commerce, is not an act of authority; it is a contagious act of assenting to authority, or perhaps multiple authorities, whatever they may be.

We can see this, for example, in the mélange of religious, ethnonationalist, and moral sentiments that inform diverging attitudes among Fijian evangelicals and Methodists about the virtues of drinking kava or the appropriateness of using kava instead of wine for communion. It is also evident in Tomlinson’s discussion of missionary reports of “happy deaths.” The circulation of these texts helped forge a Christianized public by elevating the discursive status of the Christian afterlife (and therefore Christian morality) while simultaneously creating a new realm of private and proscribed narratives of “untimely deaths” involving sorcerers and ancestral spirits recast as demons. Again, these examples are indicative of moral negotiations in a cultural landscape in transition, where ritual actors become implicated not only in the use of ritual language but its deliberation as well. I like that Tomlinson’s framework opens ample space for considering how ritual textuality conveys the authority of intersecting discourses that routinely and continuously influence how ritual events are conceived and performed.

So what potential drawbacks accompany an interpretive model that categorizes rituals as entextualization? To begin with, one side effect of foregrounding language and ritualized speech is that non-linguistic elements are relegated to supporting roles. They are not ignored; on the contrary, Tomlinson is keen to show how entextualization facilitates a range of sensuous, affective, and spatial conditions that come together, synergistically, toward ritual coherence and satisfaction. However, language remains the driving force in his analysis and theorization, and although Tomlinson casually acknowledges this reasoned bias in the book’s preface (perhaps anticipating a critique like mine), I would be interested to hear a more vigorous defense of this stance, as it stakes a bold intellectual claim.

In the same vein I’m inclined to ask whether non-linguistic elements might not deserve a more equal footing in terms of how they too are reflected in ritual patterns and expectations. Consider the Pentecostal crusade in chapter two. As we hear a Texas preacher exhorting Fijian attendees in a flurry of homiletic and glossolalic speech, his utterances represent what Tomlinson calls a “performative path.” It is a repetitive rhetorical sequence of “declaration-promise-action,” the purpose of which is to move people’s bodies and compel their spiritual awareness so that the Holy Ghost is registered as present. While it is imperative for any study of Pentecostal revivalism to stress the crucial role of preaching, glossolalia, and altar calls in articulating theological objectives to which revivals invariably conform, it is possible that other ritual elements also come together to facilitate the motion of signs, and may even do so independently of strictly linguistic cues. Imagine, for example, the visual impact of bodies amassed together in a downtown park at night, or the sweat and smell of those bodies as they gather momentum, kicking dust into night air, or the sound of praise music blaring through large speakers pulsing the ground. These sensations are not random, nor tangential. They generate information, command responses, and, perhaps, set shadow paths in motion.

It might be objected that non-linguistic elements, while important, nonetheless still derive their semiotic charge, and thus their efficacy, from concepts bound in words. Maybe. But what I am suggesting is that by privileging speech we risk closing off other analytical channels, including ones that don’t necessarily begin with the assumption that it is the preacher who moves the crowd. Could it be possible that, with a different kind of ritual efficacy, the crowd also moves the preacher?

Which brings me to my next point. Tomlinson’s analysis is predicated on an intuitive sense that ritual participants anticipate efficacy in roughly uniform terms, and that their expectations conform to regnant themes embedded in patterns of entextualization. People may disagree over whether the effects of a ritual have been successfully achieved, or what the best means of achieving them might be, but the patterns themselves are demonstrable proof that signs and texts do not just go places but are meant to take everyone to a particular place. This is a very sensible, even foundational assumption; the basis of sound cultural analysis really. Yet as I think on this I’m reminded of political scientist James Scott’s famous use of the term “public transcripts” to describe the performance of socially prescribed norms, roles, and conventions defined by power structures in daily life, as opposed to “hidden transcripts,” which are reflected in silent, secretive, and subversive acts concealed behind veils of etiquette. It may seem a stretch, but there is something to be learned in the way that Tomlinson’s framing of ritual textuality recalls Scott’s public transcripts, in that both concepts indicate a sense of predetermined order in how things are supposed to happen, while Scott’s private transcripts additionally point to the fact that not everyone is equally fixated on the same objectives.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that all rituals are stewed in conflict, or that their primary function is to accommodate dominant ideologies that are otherwise superficial or tenuous (though this might be said of the monological discourse of the Fijian state). It is a rough analogy I am drawing, but my point is that ritual actors do not always expect or want the same things from a ritual event. They may come in with different expectations, subtle or idiosyncratic ones perhaps, which need not contradict those embedded in formalized texts – they may even reinforce them – but differ nonetheless. A Pentecostal crusade is a place to encounter the Holy Ghost, yes, but for some might is it not also a place to meet other people? To dance and feel adrenalized? To show other believers that you’re still “with the program”? To bolster your faith or that of a friend, which would alone suffice as reason to consider the event a success? Similarly, it is likely that Fijians have all kinds of motives to attend (or avoid) kava-drinking sessions, some of which pertain to its manifest significance while others may scratch other kinds of social, personal, or existential itches. (Of course this is speculative, as I have no firsthand knowledge of Fijian sensibilities.)

Here and there Tomlinson refers to intriguing cases where individuals act outside of accordance with ritual conventions, either by questioning their benefits, as with evangelical prohibitions against kava, or openly defying them, as when the author’s local transcriber, seeking perhaps to make a deliberate point, allowed a recording of a tabooed death narrative to be aired in public. Such examples of ritual counter-action are used to support Tomlinson’s main argument, and generally do, but I bring them up to add some more stress to my suggestion that rituals can be “effective” in more ways than one.

One could argue that I’m making too much of minor details and exceptions that have little bearing ultimately on theoretical questions of ritual performance and efficacy. But recall that Ritual Textuality is concerned with the relationship between expectations and effects, and while much is learned from the manifest content (and contexts) of these rituals, it is difficult to get a full sense of how people’s expectations influence rituals and their effects without also looking beyond that manifest content. As Tomlinson notes in his conclusion, “it matters when people create distinct patterns in order to achieve particular results,” and “it matters when people articulate semiotic and textual patterns within broader ideologies of motion” (125). If we can imagine these people, at the same time, embodying their own desires, demands, and disappointments in ritual time, we might just realize that the patterns governing what should happen, what can happen, and what will happen are contained in more than words.