The RITUAL, POLITICS & POWER of Our World

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Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen the term ‘ritual’ used much to describe life in the UK. It’s almost always imbued with a kind of exoticism and alienness, evoking images of localism, ancient heritage, simplicity. It is, essentially, othered. It’s also, obviously, complete bullshit, as David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics & Power illustrates in such exquisite detail.

A mixture of anthropology and political theory from the 1980s, Kertzer’s arguments are no less relevant today (even if the present-tense references to the Soviet Union are a little jarring) as he explores how rituals govern, mediate and construct our sense of the political universe from the ground up. It’s an expansive, encompassing argument, spanning centuries of geography and history and cultures, all bound up in this singular commonality of ritual, within which exist numerous other commonalities about the kinds of ritual we undertake, and the kinds of things we ritualise.

“Few people recognise how important ritual is in modern politics because ritual is usually identified with religion and, since modern Western societies have presumably separated political affairs from religious life, there is an assumption that ritual remains politically significant only in less “advanced” societies … But, in fact, ritual is an integral part of politics in modern industrial societies; it is hard to imagine how any political system could do without it.”

Kertzer’s starting point must derive from symbolism. We are symbol-minded animals; we think entirely in symbols, to the point where symbols are so ubiquitous we sometimes have trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is constructed. But rituals are a particular flavour; they are an “analytical category” for Kertzer, enabling us to spot the aforementioned commonalities across entirely different ecosystems and subsequently build a kind of unifying political theory of collective action. It’s a similar argument to Frederick Mayer’s in Narrative Politics.

“Ritual action has a formal quality to it. It follows highly structured, standardised sequences and is often enacted at certain places and times that are themselves endowed with special symbolic meaning … Ritual helps give meaning to our world in part by linking the past to the present and the present to the future.”

“Ritual provides one of the means by which people participate in such dramas and thus see themselves as playing certain roles. The dramatic quality of ritual does more than define roles, however, it also provokes an emotional response.”

It’s a somewhat loose definition, enabling Kertzer to open up all polities to inspection through ritual, crossing contemporary Italy, Soviet Russia, the Aztec Empire, American elections and beyond, but the skill of the book is how that’s a journey we undertake eagerly and convincingly. A ritual can be anything from one’s morning routine to royal anointment. Kertzer is right: these activities fuse temporalities together, providing a reassuring continuity to the inherent chaos of everyday life, and even if you think you can identify a society without ritual, there’s probably still one lurking in there somewhere.

One could read that and see a fundamental conservatism in ritual, which is true – that is a conservative idea – but it’s also something we all do, regardless of political philosophy, and, intriguingly, rituals are also deeply embedded in acts of political change. New movements can co-opt old iconography and practices for the purpose of forging directions hitherto unknown, and it happens all the time. Rallies are one such ritualistic means that the political leader expresses and consolidates power through a critical mass of visible collectivism; a tale as old as time. But when we think of rallies today, our minds might wander to Donald Trump, or even Jeremy Corbyn, both definitively new politicians with new (ish) movements. Trump may be conservative, but Corbyn is far from it, yet he employed ritualistic rallies all the same.

There’s nothing wrong with it, and it definitely shouldn’t mean Corbyn is actually conservative – it just is. Symbols are invariably vague enough to contain multiple, diffuse meanings for divergent groups – any national flag, for instance – and what I really enjoyed about the book is the distinction it finds between political analysis and political evaluation. If we take the maintenance of traditions – be that of specific practices, or institutions, or iconography, or all of it and beyond – as a given for human polities, then how can we, we being progressives, construct that to our advantage?

Right now, the entire planet is convulsed with ritual and its absence. The rituals we had grown used to were torn from our grasp with little notice; the rituals of workplaces, schools, election campaigns, university graduations, exams – you name it. Our lives are relegated to the private sphere, itself now rather public. In their stead, we’ve tried to build new rituals to give the life of lockdown some meaning, whether that’s clapping for the NHS at 20:00 every Thursday evening, or wearing our work clothes at our bedroom desk, or only doing certain things at the weekends, or so on. Lockdown has actually made a book like Ritual, Politics & Power all the more relevant. We can see what happens in the absence of ritual because that is now a reality. We can see the emptiness with which it is accompanied, and how many are craving for a return to ‘normal.’

There’s another kind of ritual going on now, too: the rites of protest. Another black man was murdered at the hands of the U.S. police, and it looks like America – indeed, the world – has tipped past the breaking point. When enough is enough. Protest rituals are imperative for democratic life, and are infused with the histories of movements past; specifically for the George Floyd protests, they are infused with the shared memory of protests against the state over the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner a few years ago, of Rodney King in 1992, and Martin Luther King even longer ago in 1968. Through protest, we verbally and physically express our sorrows and anger, and we stand together manifested as one physical movement. Lots of people often say protesting is pointless because lots of people don’t understand protesting. It’s not voting, where you get a guaranteed outcome at the very end of it. Protesting is a ritual of solidarity and, crucially, visualisation.

But protests are also a peculiar kind of ritual; they are acts designed to bring about change, performed with behavioural memory of walking the same steps and chanting the same words as before. Particularly for these, protests about race are, themselves, a kind of ritual in America, because of the frequency with which they happen – and the frequency with which nothing is ever done. Kertzer was writing in the late 1980s; he didn’t know of a world like 2020. However, I think this is the articulation of when ritual goes bad, because the ritual of protesting racism can never, and should never be a ritual. Otherwise, change doesn’t happen. Everyone gets used to state murder, and popular protest, and anticlimactic endings, as a consequence (or lack, thereof). The world sees it as normal. Politics gets stuck. The protest rituals being enacted right now, therefore, must possess a self-destructive quality – of totality, enormity, and gravity, to make sure that the ritual ends. A ritual to destroy the ritual.

In the midst of writing this, the statue to a slave trader, Edward Colston, was torn down by the people of Bristol and dumped in the waters where his ships of slaves were docked. Curiously, when flicking back through the book for quotes, I came across this passage.

“How were people encouraged to think of themselves as part of such a nebulous and distant concept as the Roman Empire, when all they actually saw were occasional soldiers and tax collectors, the latter often local residents themselves? Part of the solution was to construct monuments that served as perpetual reminders of imperial ties.”

Perpetual reminders of imperial ties.” It made me think about the Colston statue and what it represented; already, many are trotting out the worn argument of “let’s leave them up and learn from history.” In of itself, it’s riddled with planet-sized holes (I’m not sure much learning about the British slave trade had been done in the 125 years it was up), but it also reveals how many still perceive a legitimating link between statues of dead men, standing for dead empires. The Colston statue was haunted, not just with memories of empire and the spirit of the slaver, but the thousands of men and women tortured and killed by his hand; the figure I’ve seen labelled is 19,000 slaves drowned by his company. To topple it is not only the beginning of a process of the eradication of our ghosts but itself a time-worn ritual; monuments to evil men have been brought down by those they subjugated again and again and again. It’s also woven into our art. I’m a filmmaker, and I couldn’t help but recall the toppling of the statue of Emperor Palpatine at the end of Return of the Jedi, or the gratuitous, visual glorification afforded to the fall of Sauron in Return of the King. Fictional supervillains are always different from the monsters that are real, of course, but art is our collective id, and I think it’s interesting how we continually seek to visually delineate the end of the past and the beginning of the future. Even deeper, there is a profound satisfaction to be found in seeing that which is big become small; of bringing that which stands tall and powerful down to shatter. It is the means of reckoning with our enemies through ritualistic defeat that, in some way, gives these monsters the fate they deserve.

The ritual of protest enacted today possessed that exact self-destructive quality because it wasn’t just about continuing the tradition of protest and tearing down oppressors but ending another tradition – that of deference to empire, first abstracted in space and now abstracted in time. What I see in the responses of those who claim it should stay up is the same kind of deference that empires command to exact and extract legitimacy, and it says a lot about the human psyche that a critical minority of people continue to hold deference to these people and institutions centuries after their deaths. The very existence of these symbols legitimated empire then, and they have legitimised it every day hence. June 7th, 2020, will be a turning point in our cultural reckoning with our heritage, I have no doubt.

I wrote that rituals are ubiquitous, and what so many millions are discovering this week – millions of white people – is the array of symbols and rites which govern our lives that are rooted in the rot of racism. Whereas before, the instinctive reaction of a white person to the arrival of a police officer may have been indifference or appraisal, now it is, and will always be, a reaction of understanding the fear and illegitimacy the police stoke in black communities in America, in the UK, and across the world. Many no doubt never thought that white privilege never applied to them, or never stopped to think about how their apolitical ideals of detachment were in themselves upholding and perpetuating structures of prejudice and oppression.

The takeaway from Ritual, Politics & Power is how ritual is total, and it governs our political life from top to bottom, here and everywhere else. Rituals are innately conservative, yet radically revolutionary. They are so ingrained and entrenched that it takes conscious effort to identify where they exist, and how to dismantle them. They are, essentially, deeply paradoxical, but universal, and political life cannot be understood without them. But political change only starts when we recognise they exist, and where they lie. It’s a really fascinating book, now more so than ever. I can’t recommend enough.

Taken in my garden, where I’ve made it a lockdown ritual to sit every morning, eat breakfast and read

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