This is something of a rant; apologies. I’ve been asked to write on civic religion for an online journal, and so the question of ritual forms that perpetuate unifying ideals has been on my mind. What are they? Hopefully not this.
I remember when holidays felt like holidays. Now they feel like feeding frenzies — only we’re the food, and the corporations are the consumers of us — our time, our money, our energy, our attention, our affections. They don’t want to miss a beat, the advertisers, don’t want to miss a moment. It’s like non-stop TV programming: it is exhausting.
People who are accustomed to the perpetual programming/advertising are also accustomed to the exhaustion, I suspect, and so they don’t see it. (I see TV’s that take up an entire wall in so many homes now, flickering all evening long. One was on at my mother’s at Thanksgiving, and, after experiencing it, I realized that I had forgotten the sense of disorientation that follows when one leaves the TV tank for the real world that is outside of it.) We have “Black Friday” all week; we turn shopping into a holiday. Or was that done to us? It was “Black Friday” night when I wrote this, and already I was seeing Christmas adverts. There is no break. It is exhausting. No ritual life of any culture is so exhaustingly relentless. Ordinarily, seasons of feasting and fasting are followed by interludes before another season begins. Eating is followed by digestion. After inhaling, one must exhale before inhaling again. Workouts require downtime. Even making love is normally followed by a refractory period before it can begin again — unless one is on some pretty serious drugs, as I understand it, which seems rather analogous to the media blitzkrieg.
At Thanksgiving, I was talking to a cousin of mine about ritual forms that perpetuate culture. If I remember correctly (and I hope he’ll correct me if I’m wrong about this) he didn’t believe that education, ritual forms, culture, are needed to perpetuate the apprehension of, disposition towards, and habituation in the ideals that we as a culture strive towards. He thought that the two we identified –freedom and care for others– were natural ends for us as humans, but that we could have this trained out of us by ritual and education and culture, or have these natural ideals subordinated to other (I think he said that they were lower?) ideals through bad education.
I asked him whether, if we were to drop a bunch of infants onto an island that would provide for their basic physical needs via some super-advanced machinery (to make sure there were no adults there to perpetuate culture), these kids would build a society based on freedom and caring. Interestingly, he surmised that they would not, but fall into a hierarchy based on strength. Freedom and care don’t quite follow his model in this, and suggest that ritual and culture and education are , in his mind, necessary to release certain possibilities of human life and flourishing into actuality. All nature has a history; we, unlike the “lower” animals, are not born with our powers active at the outset, ready to stand and walk within a minute to follow the herd: we are born totally vulnerable, born open to the world, capable of potentials that require education. Education, ritual formation (we are mimetic sponges), is how we are fleshed out, brought to full stature.
It circles back to the TV, though: we Americans, with our Puritan roots, have always been distrustful of ritual; our Pragmatism and pragmatic verification of the value of things still drives straight into the wall of this prejudice. Distrusting ritual, yet needing it to perpetuate a cultural form, what ideals we have seem perhaps perpetuated instead in the strange medium of television and other non-verbal non-explicitly ritual media. These are not usually up to shouldering the challenge of crystallizing and perpetuating our cultural ideals. “Bums in seats” is how Ridley Scott phrased his ultimate obligation to the studio. He saw it as a limit on what he was free to pursue with the medium, saw the bottom line as a limit on his products. Do we? The studios cannot push just anything on an audience, but are we willing to set sail on the delusion that they do not massively inform that audience’s appetites and attention and habits and ideals? In our exhaustion, are we willing to yield more and more of our rituals and rhythms to this? Are we willing to forfeit our rituals and the rhythms of our public life to industries that do not have our well-being and flourishing or even our public culture at heart?
As an epilogue, I’ll leave this here. I could give you more resources, but this all demands further posts at some point.
Header-image credit: found here.