‘what is called thinking?’ Martin Heidegger.
in a talk given by adam seligman, professor of religion at Boston University, during last week’s NSSR conference on the religious/secular divide, old ground was newly staked. prior to seligman’s talk, the terms of conversation circled around religion defined by belief, and after everything echoed the absence of ritual, the practice that seligman pointed to as not only a ground for religion, but also for community in and accepting of ambiguity and fracture.
i’ve been reading too much heidegger, and now aristotle, and i realize my words are circling. so, if i try to get to the points:
ritual is (rituals are) an age old mode of practice, noted by durkheim but long preceding him in community and religious formation. much prior to our current age of post-modern sincerity, (which reeks of metaphysicality in the search for accordance, for meaning, for correspondence between signifier and the signified…) there was ritual. the story of the protestant reformation is just one trace of this divide, where ‘true belief’ (amongst other things, clearly) set itself apart from repetition, even mindlessness, in religious worship. for the sake of closer access, bibles were translated to the language of the people. for the sake of closer access, priests and ritual prayers were dismissed as meddling middle men. in a strain to bring man closer to god, meaning closer to the mean… this story is emblematic. yet there are countless others.
there is something of a pendulum swing in the rise of sincerity. aligned with Kant’s idea that it is not the act but the heart, the intention of the actor that merits or fails, sincerity is an attempt to get at ‘what is really…’ true, what was purely good… as is well known, this leads to the notion that what is not truly meant shouldn’t be done. negating duty that conflicts with desire, responsibility that registers community, this injunction to ‘mean it’ leaves charity, even love, to whim.
before this walks down a more conservative road than i want to follow, i’d like to parse out the implications of ritual from two perspectives, 1) through zizek’s discussion of community in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, and 2) in our relationship to thinking and acting post-post-structuralism.
in the first foray, ritual in both Seligman and Durkheim’s conceptions coincide with what Zizek and Lacan call the symbolic.
Although an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the imaginary and the real. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences. It is the realm of radical alterity: the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. It is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. The symbolic is both the “pleasure principle” that regulates the distance from das Ding, and the “death drive” which goes beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition: “the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order.” This register is determinant of subjectivity; for Lacan the symbolic is characterized by the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified. (material from Slavoj Zizek, London: Routledge, 2003)
While I have argued in other places (“What’s the Difference?” Thresholds, MIT Press, 2009) that Zizek’s symbolic and Derrida’s differance overlap at the point of aporia in both conceptions, the primary concepts I’d like to pay attention to in the above quote concern both the death drive as the mask of the symbolic and ‘the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified’. First the death drive. Whether in religious, psychoanalytic or Durkheimian vocabularies, the concept of the death drive precipitates an active subject, acting, ultimately meaninglessly, in the face of death. In christian terms (although the degrees are contestable over denominations), this is the idea that all action is nullified by the power of sin or grace. In other words, salvation is not earned but given as gift. Psychoanalytically the death drive is repetition driving toward meaning which is ultimately futile in the face of death, i.e. from making the bed to child bearing, actions are taken, lives constructed and intentions intended regardless of the futility given that death does and will come. For Seligman, or Durkheim, if we read them through Zizek as I will now undertake, rituals such as making the bed and childbearing are community constituting. They form the symbolic, the aporetic shared space of meaning founded on nonsense. Zizek makes this nonsense explicit in his oft repeated analysis of the eponymous tale of the emperor’s new clothes. In the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, (assuming you know it, i’ll be brief) a self-proclaimed famous tailor catches the eye and the purse of the emperor of the land. after months in the emperor’s service, measuring, sewing, slaving and adjusting a garment ‘only the wisest, most munificient can see’ the King agrees to wear these new garments in a public parade of celebration. Of course everyone wants to see the clothes that only the wisest, most munificent can see, so no one steps up to inform the emperor that he is about to parade in his underwear. No one, that is, except for a small child on the side of the road somewhere along the parade route. When the little boy speaks, unmasking the tailor’s con, the traditional reading of the Andersen’s tale praises the child for his honesty and the tailor flees the country in fear of retribution. In Zizek’s retelling, however, it is the child, not the tailor, who has breeched the limits of acceptability. Among all the tales we tell ourselves, all of the repetitions and practices we undertake in building the symbolic to mask the death drive, surely the emperor’s new clothes were the least of our worries. That was, until the child spoke. At his ‘unmasking’ death redoubled: not only was the emperor seen as, in fact naked, his authority surely fell to question, coups could have insued, for all we know a bloody revolution began all because of a little boy who wanted to cling to ‘sincerity’ over communal concensus and cohesion.
Against sincerity, this Zizekian reading of The Emperor’s New Clothes homes in on the role of the symbolic, or what we are thinking through as ritual in Seligman’s terms, in the constituting of community. Yet, clearly, this reading also stakes out a highly problematic community which few of us would like to take part in – it is a community where, potentially and albeit speculatively, silences are self-enforced for the sake of security, where conformity and the status-quo take precedence over change and potentially productive rupture, where authority is upheld for the sake of national security in opposition to the community of the enlightened and self-governing. (Before leaping to conclusions about Zizek, Andersen, or otherwise, it could be important to remember that we’re talking about fiction, of course, and a child’s morality tale at that… here, in the difficulty between readings is the difficulty between ritual and belief at its most heightened. I’d like to put forward that much of what is at stake in the discourse between sincerity and ritual is the status of fiction.)
Yet putting this discussion of fiction aside for a moment (as if it could ever be anywhere but before us) I want to continue to track the sincerity and ritual divide. Traditionally we see sincerity, as in the Andersen tale, as on the side of freedom, as enlightenment in the works, as the people in action. Ritual is usually seen as ritual to, ritual for, and authority is never far afoot. The stakes get messy when we interpret these positions in light of post-modernism. Sincerity could then be read as the handmaid of capitalism, or as humanism at its apogee. And where does that leave post-modern ritual? For Seligman, as we started, it leaves it on the side of aporia. Of action that acknowledges that it has no authority outside of its own constitution. It is in fact the embrace of performativity, immanent performativity, to be precise. In these terms, we might rewrite Andersen’s tale yet again, or at least the interpretation of it. Would there still be an emperor? Would the tailor approach the people instead? and could he not, alternately, be held to altogether different standards? Is that the point? If sincerity is already under the guise of metaphysical correspondence… what is instead required of Andersen’s tale? Or more poignantly, what is instead required of us?
The language of requirement, here, is no accident. Between sincerity and ritual, regardless of how problematized and problematizing these categories continue to become, there are different projects opening of, to and with the other. What happens when Kant’s injunction to ‘mean it’ is replaced by Seligman’s acknowledgement that meaning is what is in contest? In the NSSR talk aforementioned Seligman laughed as he said that, after 30 years of marriage, daily routines with children, in-laws and pets, he and his wife both recognize the ‘as if” over and above the ‘as is’… and while we laughed with him at least some of may have sighed for ‘true love lost’ to duty… while others may have recognized the love that is daily constituted in the ‘as if’ over the as is. The question returns us to the status of fiction. A status problematized by the death drive, a status which, in order to avoid the dictatorial possibilities of the Zizekian re-reading of Andersen, must be constantly under performative negotiation.
Why? Because of what is potentially at stake. Our lives may be based on fiction, but when fiction is all, nothing is in fact fiction. The point being, we are still all we have, or all we don’t have and we, ritualized and symbolically performative we, do and must daily decide what to do with the emperor’s parade. Raising more questions than I have answered, this digression on ritual and sincerity has as its wrapping, a duel-ism, a duel-ality between number and consensus. Between the social and the sincere crusading individual. What I am trying to answer, even possibly to argue is that ritual, thought as Seligman, and even as Judith Butler offer it in performativity, is a call to, not a negation of, responsibility to and with the other. But it is one that questions and undermines that status of that lone child in the crowd… crying out for something real, something true, something sadistically sincere and asks instead that we shift from the enlightenment ‘I’ of metaphysical determination and meaning, to a post-metaphysical ‘we’ whose is no less active and all the more potentially and actively response-ible.