springing from larval subjects’ post this morning on/by Terry Eagleton’s ‘come to jesus’ (and, of course, my dissertation) i’m undertaking a close reading (translate: close writing) of Ritual and It’s Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.
In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed.
for me, this quote just begs the question: what is ultimately needed? and doesn’t this ‘ultimately’ already cede far too much?
guessing that ‘delivering what is ultimately needed’ means something like, for Badiou, creating the conditions for evental sites, or, for Zizek, overthrowing the money changer’s tables, i.e. making spaces for alternatives to capitalism… then Eagleton is jumping on a very large and already quite loud bandwagon. i don’t blame him. but i am increasingly convinced that formal, aestheticized and even radicalized Christianities such as those put forth by the abovementioned philosophers are simply a first step, when we are already on to the next riser.
enter Ritual and its Consequences, by Seligman, Weller, Puett and Simon.
Ritual: clearly a very old concept, predating monotheism, or, if you prefer, potentially pre-conscious. As the social sciences formulate it, ritual is community building in at least one of two ways: 1) ritual order is ‘an artifice of humanity’ – think: the Confucians – designed to create social cohesion or, 2) ritual is ‘a divine construct, sent to allow humans to live properly in and even help support a divinely created order’ – think: rabbinic literature. Concurring that both of these formulations short circuit the real strengths of ritual, Seligman, et al propose:
…ritual as a subjunctive – the creation of an order as if it were truly the case. Or, putting it in different words, the subjunctive creates an order that is self-consciously distinct from other possible social worlds. (Seligman, et al, p. 20)
Going back to Eagleton and the need for ‘what is ultimately needed’, Ritual and its Consequences sees Eagleton’s bet in Reason, Faith and Revolution and raises it one, proposing that it is not the nature of religion that revolutionaries (or post-marxists, if you prefer…) are seeking but a subjunctive universe, an ‘as if’, which can and does take place outside of religious frameworks. Take the ritual courtesies of “please” and “thank you” – as Ritual writes it, with these seeming formalities,
…we are inviting our interlocutor to join us in imagining a particular symbolic universe within which to construe our actions. When I frame my requests with please and thank you, I am not giving a command (to pass the salt), but I am very much recognizing your agency (your ability to decline my request). Hence, saying please and thank you communicates in a formal and invariant manner – to both of us – that we understand our interaction as the voluntary actions of free and equal individuals. “Please” creates the illusion of equality by recognizing the other’s power to decline. (Seligman, et al, p. 21)
Of course the ‘illusion of equality’ at first rings hollow. Surely ‘what is ultimately needed’ is not the illusion of equality but real equality itself. At this crux, we are faced with what will become questions of illusion which will be answered and further problematized in my dissertation on performativity, answered and further problematized in that same work on iterability, yet for now, staying close to Seligman, et al, the illusion of equality brings us near an anecdote I couldn’t have ordered if I’d tried. This week on the F train, I overheard the following:
no, really, i can’t remember where i read it. i think it was the new york times, or maybe, no, it was the times, i think: the point is that some people are just more comfortable lying. they are good liars. and you know what else – they are also really good competitive swimmers. really, this was part of it. they did a study and people who were good liars were also really good swimmers. they said the correlation is that winning in swimming is, like, impossible. but the people who could lie to themselves and think they’d win actually did better and won more often. i know, you want to see the survey sample, but still, i read it like, last week.
Between swimmers and liars, though we should very surely make a distinction between lying and illusion-ing, we are back again to the subjunctive, to the world ‘as if’ rather than the daunting unwinnable world ‘as is’. Competitive swimmers who are good liars are able to illusion and imagine themselves into what was formerly and impossible truth. They are able to please and thank you into a world where please and thank you is actualized: in short, the commonality between competitive swimmers and illusion is potentiality. Or as Ritual writes it:
We argue that what constitutes society – what makes the social a sui generis entity, irreducible to any other – is precisely a shared “could be,” a mutual illusion of the sort that all rituals create. To a great extent, this is what symbols do more than anything else: they represent a “could be”.
Echoing here is the impossible possibility of Derrida, and Zizek and Badiou’s shared injunction that only the impossible is worth doing. Clearly Seligman, et als formulation is not free and clear, but what this work does expose is a slippage that Eagleton, Zizek, Badiou, Critchley and others may be reifying by merging the subjunctive with the religious. We’ll keep going here, with this reading of ritual and, in this work in progress, I look forward to your feedback.