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Otherwise than Meaning

On the Generosity of Ritual

Don Seeman

The thought experiment ‘ritual in its own right’ implies a suspension of dominant interpretive paradigms in anthropological research. This essay begins by juxtaposing the foundational accounts of Weber and Geertz—both of whom associate ritual with the quest for meaning in suffering—with the phenomenological account of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that suffering is inherently “useless” and therefore resistant to meaning’s claim. All three theorists are then juxtaposed with the Warsaw ghetto writings of a twentieth-century Jewish mystic, Kalonymos Shapira, whose work exemplifies the tension between meaningful and useless suffering in a real social setting. Shapira’s work bears comparison with Levinas’s, and lends support to the idea that our preoccupation with meaning may stem from a particular religious genealogy of social theory. Ritual can be analyzed as a ground of intersubjectivity or transcendence rather than meaning, which makes it more akin to medicine, in Levinas’s terms, than to theodicy.

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Jewish Space and the Beschneidungsdebatte in Germany

Multiculturalism, Ritual and Cultural Reproduction

Jay (Koby) Oppenheim

The concept of Jewish space, initially conceived by Diana Pinto as a unique European development, marked a critical shift in relations between Jews and non-Jews, the latter embracing a Jewish past as constitutive of their countries' own. The hoped-for European multiculturalism failed to blossom and Jewish space, in Pinto's assessment, has not born the fruit of its potential. To investigate the shortfall of Jewish space, this article examines the 2012 debate on ritual male circumcision in Germany (Beschneidungsdebatte) that drew contemporary Jewish practice into the public eye. Pinto's formulation is premised on a multicultural society that actively works to blunt intolerance, a condition whose fulfilment in contemporary Europe remains incomplete and uneven. Moreover, this attempt to extend the integration of history into memory was stymied by its lack of a living subject. While Jews constitute a long-standing minority population with a unique history in Germany, their success in establishing a shared Jewish space is tied to the broader project of tolerance and integration facing immigrant and minority groups in Western Europe.

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Enjoying an Emerging Alternative World

Ritual in Its Own Ludic Right

André Droogers

Ritual can be rehabilitated in its own right by emphasizing what it has in common with play: the ludic evocation of a simultaneous shadow reality. What is more, ritual can be understood as an enjoyable form of playing with realities. More than a solemn occasion, useful because of its social and cultural functions, ritual is a festive enactment of a counterreality. Connectionist ideas on the parallel processing of schemas and repertoires lend themselves for mapping the properties of ritual in its own ludic right. The human mind allows for a rapid comparison by the parallel—and not serial or sequential— processing of alternative schemas for thought, action, and emotion. An ethnographic illustration is taken from a boys’ initiation ritual among the Wagenia (Congo).

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The Ritual Experience of Continuity

Flow and Participation in Punu Twin Dancing

Carine Plancke

While focusing on its dynamics, Bruce Kapferer considers ritual as a means for readjusting the flow of life, thus undermining Claude Lévi-Strauss's vision of ritual as a vain search for continuity. This article shows the potential of Kapferer's approach for understanding the dance rituals that the Punu of Congo-Brazzaville dedicate to twins, who, as waterspirits, embody the source of life. Advancing Victor Turner's attempt to account for the generative power of ritual, it discloses the means through which these rituals afford a lived experience of revitalizing continuity whereby the part embraces the whole and a focused, self-intensifying energetic dynamic unfolds and continuously readjusts its own flow. The analysis of rhythm and its actualization in song and dance turns out to be essential in this regard.

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Aspects of the Naven Ritual

Conversations with an Iatmul Woman of Papua New Guinea

Florence Weiss and Milan Stanek

Rituals are analyzed in anthropology as non-personal cultural structures, embedded in the overall behavioral patterns and semantic networks that are typical for a particular cultural group. This article focuses on the Iatmul people of Papua New Guinea and their ritual, naven, which features transvestite behavior and ritualized social roles. The authors discuss the ethno-psychoanalytic approach, which focuses on the psychodynamics of the relationship between two persons, the foreign researcher and his or her local counterpart, that develops in the course of a series of conversations. The narrative shifts to a case study involving Weiss and an Iatmul woman, Magendaua, which took place over three months. Their conversations particularly illuminate the meanings of the naven ritual. The use Magendaua made of the naven can be characterized as a transformation of the tensions in the relationship with her Swiss ethnographic-interlocutor and interpreted as a general feature of the rituals of this type.

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Loyalty and Command

Shamans, Lamas, and Spirits in a Siberian Ritual

Galina Lindquist

This article considers a ritual of blessing the spirits of locality in Tuva, Southern Siberia, and compares the ways in which shamans and lamas perform it. The rituals are treated as pragmatic ways of attaining human ends rather than 'signifying practices' based on shared meanings, wherein practices create a certain version of reality. Ritual specialists and lay people share this social universe but differ in their positioning relative to various types of its inhabitants. In these conditions, it is suggested, it makes more sense to speak of bodily and emotional attitudes and styles of interpretation of signs than shared 'beliefs' as cognitive stances.

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Javanese Kanuragan Ritual initiation

A Means to Socialize by Acquiring Invulnerability, Authority, and Spiritual Improvement

Jean-Marc de Grave

Kanuragan is a secret ritual initiation tied to local cosmological practices and cults used by the Javanese as a source of self-help on issues related to health, welfare, and protection. At basic levels, the practitioners of kanuragan use special entities called aji to gain strength and invulnerability. At the next level, the teaching of the master involves a specific mystical knowledge tied to the acquisition of spiritual authority. This article describes the process of transmission, the persons involved, and the role that kanuragan plays in Javanese society for security purposes and in warfare. The analysis shows how kanuragan competes with new secular and religious systems of value as well as with sorcery and new embodied practices such as sports competitions, to provide comparative insights on the formation of social categories.

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The Perceptibility of the Invisible Cosmology

Religious Rituals and Embodied Spirituality among the Bahraini Shi‘a

El-Sayed El-Aswad

This article analyses the relationship between the seen and the unseen in the cosmology and practices of Bahraini Shi'a. Rather than contrasting the visible and the invisible, the study delineates the hierarchical relations between them, within a whole or cosmology, as reflected in various discursive and non-discursive actions that are supported by the religious beliefs of Bahraini Shi'a. Issues of the Hidden Imam, concealment, dissimulation and other unseen dimensions of the cosmos are discussed. The article finds that the Shi'a construct the invisible in their social world by using visible ways of creatively enacting their hidden thoughts and beliefs, as represented in their religious discourses, rituals and body symbolism. Their belief in a divine higher power provides a source of emotional, spiritual and socio-political empowerment.

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Boredom, Rhythm, and the Temporality of Ritual

Recurring Fieldwork in the Brazilian Candomblé

Inger Sjørslev

Setting out from fieldwork experiences in the ritual of the Brazilian Candomblé, this article aims to understand temporality in different ways. The significance of 'unfocused presence' in the field is discussed by way of the concept of 'deep hanging out'. The boredom experienced by the fieldworker is analyzed in relation to sentiments expressed by the people involved in ritual and the fieldworker's changing emotions over time, as previous experiences influence how time spent waiting is perceived. In ritual as well as in the interaction between fieldworker and the people in the field, temporality is deeply related to sociality and the aesthetics of social rhythm. It is concluded that the fieldworker is drawn into the time-geography of the field in a joint chore ography of social interaction.

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The Anthropology of Ritual

Monitoring and Stewarding Demonstrations in Northern Ireland

Dominic Bryan

Rioting in Northern Ireland sometimes appears endemic. The control of public space, through the utilisation of rituals and symbols, has played a significant part in the violent conflict and has remained a central issue since the 1998 Multi-Party Agreement institutionalised the peace process. This article draws upon ethnographic research and anthropological models of ritual to explore policy interventions in conflict resolution over potential public disorders. In particular, it looks at the use of monitors, mediators and marshals at parades and demonstrations and describes how anthropological fieldwork has played a role in developing projects and policies that offer solutions to a cycle of intercommunal street violence.