Ritual Textuality: Review Forum (Rodolfo Maggio)

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

By: Rodolfo Maggio (University of Manchester)


Matt Tomlinson’s Ritual Textuality is a fascinating and capturing interplay between conceptual categories and ethnographic data. From the very beginning of the book the reader is intrigued by the degree of precision with which Tomlinson defines the concepts through which he comprehends the objects of his analysis. Dipping into the introduction, one’s mind’s eye seems to observe a chemist who prepares his tubes and kits himself out for a daring experiment.

Tomlinson proceeds according to the classic scheme of analytical philosophy, although he does so without implying that his categories are mutually exclusive nor that his conceptual descriptions are perfectly exhaustive. In the first chapter, he begins by formulating a conceptual description of his categories, and then sets himself the task of classifying his ethnographic data according to these descriptions.

The totality of his data is synthesized in the supra-category of “patterns of entextualization,” which are rhetorical forms of creation and replication of semiotic and ritual objects in the context of ritual performance. In particular, he analyzes four patterns of entextualization: sequence, conjunction, contrast, and substitution. These four patterns correspond to the four categories in which the supra-category of entextualization is divided: performative path, chiasmus, fractal recursivity, and monologue. Each category, then, breaks down into a number of sub-categories, in which one or multiple pieces of ethnographic data will eventually fall.

This first happens in the second chapter, in which Tomlinson demonstrates that some Christian rituals can be explained in terms of a performative path, i.e. a movement of rhetorical forms from, for example, disorder to order, disagreement to agreement, or division to unity. These rituals are performative paths because the content of their participants’ utterances can be categorized in a sequence composed of Declaration, Promise, and Action. Each of these subcategories accommodate data that Tomlinson collected during a Pentecostal sermon and an Altar Call. He then subdivides a Methodist sermon and a Fijian ceremonial speech among these same subcategories. This allows him to compare the performative path of the two rituals with the one entextualised in the Pentecostal performance. In this way, he is able to identify interesting similarities and thought-provoking differences.

In the third chapter, he undertakes a very similar analytical process. He demonstrates that kava ceremonies and Christian communion rituals follow the same pattern of entextualization. In this case, the pattern is chiasmus. In the textuality of these rituals, the chiastic relationship lies between the act of incorporating an entity larger than the individual, such as the body of Christ in the wafer or the vanua (community) in the kava, and being incorporated in that same entity. The ritual text thereby constitutes another movement of rhetorical forms, that of a conjunction between the person and the institution, the past and the present, immanence and transcendence.

In the fourth chapter, the category of fractal recursivity is filled with textual data extracted from nineteenth-century Methodist missionary reports and collected during a funerary ritual and its aftermath. These funerary speeches configure a contrastive relation between life and death, and between public and private, that is fractally recursive. Indeed, its opposed distinctions are mutually constitutive and reproduce at both narrower and broader levels of comparison. In other words, life and death are not simply opposed, since within life there is an opposition between “living alive” and “living [but] dead.” Tomlinson makes intelligent use of ethnographies, Evans-Pritchard among others, which also demonstrates how the concept of fractal recursivity has a broad range of applications.

The substitution pattern is explored in the fifth chapter, in which Tomlinson examines the ritual textuality of Commodore Bainimarama’s monologues and the People’s Charter. By substitution, Tomlinson indicates the negation of all voices that do not conform to the monologic structure of these texts. Such structure is not literary. Rather, it is a pattern of ritual textuality, in that its internal coherence causes a movement. The motion enacted by the entextualisation of monologues is a movement towards oneness through the erasure of otherness.

The final chapter wraps the four previous chapters together. In addition to restating that the ethnographic material presented in his book fall neatly within the supra-category of entextualization and its internal subdivisions, Tomlinson lists additional patterns such as repetition, parallelism, polarisation, and refinement. In so doing, he shows that his approach is by no means comprehensive and closed, but rather inclusive and open.

However, sometimes I had the impression that Tomlinson organizes his ethnographic material for the sake of categorical perfection, in a sort of scalar reproduction of the self-contained character of the book’s structure. Scholars who share my impression might think that it would be more appropriate to analyze specific ethnographic data with methodologies and reasoning styles tailored to specific problems, and think comparatively through each separate conclusion for the sake of the overall thesis. Indeed, Tomlinson’s approach is not the only one possible. Much to the contrary, he could perhaps achieve his argumentative intent in different ways and through different perspectives. For example, he could take the Fijian perspective and choose an indigenous term to conceptualize the powerful monologue of Commodore Bainimarama, rather than categorizing it as “monologue” and assuming that people perceive it as such, as the absence of other voices. But Tomlinson’s project is to develop a set of terms that can be applied to study ritual textuality in a comparative framework, i.e. a set of terms that are meant to be applied well beyond the Fijian context.

In the final chapter, he summarizes his attempt with the following sentence: “In analyzing patterns of entextualization, I have attempted to give ethnographic substance to metaphors of motion, keying this attempt to the question of ritual efficacy– how people shape their own expectations and evaluations of what counts as an effective ritual performance” (125). The first and the second part of the sentence are tightly connected. In other words, the extent to which Tomlinson illuminates people’s expectations of ritual efficacy seems to depend largely on the extent to which he succeeds in substantiating pre-existing categories of motion.

Sometimes I found Tomlinson to be more effective at substantiating categories than at using such categories to show how people use patterns of entextualization to enact motions and achieve ritual results. Scholars who favor an inductive approach to ethnographic data, furthermore, might find his method rather counterintuitive, or at least problematic. Indeed, Tomlinson’s analysis proceeds generally along the lines of classical deductive reasoning, thereby defining categories and subsequently giving them ethnographic substance (as he admits in the quotation above), rather than the other way around. One of the immediate consequences of such an approach is that the categories he uses are not forged with a blend of indigenous perspectives. Rather, his patterns of entextualization are categories formulated on the basis of the points of view of outsiders (J. L. Austin’s performative utterances, Silverstein’s chiasmus, Gal’s fractal recursivity, and Bakhtin’s monologue). Although the use of external categories is almost inevitable when it comes to comparing phenomena that are separated in space and time, contemporary Fiji is perhaps a research site where events and phenomena are spatially and temporally close enough to be categorized with local terminology.

Another consequence of applying non-indigenous categories is that the relationships between such categories might be so coherent that reasoning can turn out to be rather circular. For example, I found the main argument presented in chapter 5 to be quite tautological. It attempts to explain a phenomenon by describing it, thereby not explaining much really. That an autocratic dictator rules out dissent by approving only those who say what he says (102-104), does not illuminate the relationship between speaker and public. This reasoning seems to take such a relationship for granted. In other words, my impression was that in this chapter Tomlinson reduces the ritual dimension of coercive public address to the mere interpretation of monologic texts.

Besides methodological critiques to its style of reasoning, the book lends itself to minor objections to specific passages. For example, in chapter 4 Tomlinson seems go beyond the task of providing evidence for the main point (the pattern of entextualisation of fractal recursivity), to prove another, more daring and far-reaching implication (the impact of missionary accounts of ‘good deaths’ on the whole Christendom). The reader, however, longs for further substantiation of the category of fractal recursivity, and is less interested in implications that would require the analysis of a much larger corpus of data to be sustained. Nevertheless, such substantiation is generally provided in the other chapters, and the relationship between ethnographic data and analytical categories is interwoven with a scrupulous and precise reasoning.

All in all, Matt Tomlinson’s Ritual Textuality is one of those books that courageously present an intelligible argument in a clear and succinct way, thereby lending itself to criticism much more than those obscure, lengthy and often unorganized volumes that might receive less critical attention precisely because of their impenetrability. As emerges from this brief review, the book has a very clear and solid structure. The main argument is advanced in the introduction, and restated in the conclusion with the hindsight support of four chapters in which the interplay between conceptual categories and ethnographic data is lucidly laid out. Such an adamant arrangement of parts and relationships between parts is fleshed out with an extremely precise language. At times, the reading experience is even embellished with a few whimsical ‘variations on a theme’, such as “verbal morphine,” “verbal acrobat,”  “verbal artistry,” and “verbal ejaculation,” which increase readability and the pleasure of an intellectual journey. This combination makes the book an enjoyable and instructive read with a humble thesis that, within the limits of Tomlinson’s methodology and perspective, is generally well supported. For these reasons, this book seems more than appropriate for students and researchers who are interested in learning about ritual textuality, but also who wish to become competent in the savvy art of good argumentation.

Furthermore, readers who might question Tomlinson’s argument will appreciate the inclusion of a relatively rich amount of textual data in the book, which they might use to undertake alternative analyses. Tomlinson frequently intersperses his reasoning with quotes that are relatively long if compared with the overall length of the book and the individual chapters. While this can be looked at as a weakness, especially if not much space is dedicated to discussion and analysis between the quotes. On the other hand, as Marcel Mauss once affirmed, the mark of a good ethnography is that it provides scope for a reader to develop a critique and different interpretation of it. Therefore, readers who maintain that ethnographers should make an effort to argue with emic categories and only use external terminologies as place-holders will find enough material for alternative critical readings of Fijian ritual textuality.