More Thoughts on Ritualism


Rituals are evocation of power by the powerless.  In general, rituals arise when an old form of power no longer exists in any real de facto sense, but before a new form of power has announced itself de jure, and cleared away the vestiges of these old norms.  As Gramsci said, "The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters."  There is an implied optimism there - sometimes the new world can take centuries or millennia to arrive, and sometimes it never comes.  And so culture becomes covered with layer upon archaeological layer of ritualistic detritus of centuries of dead power.  Carcasses of monsters, washed up on the shore, never going away. 

At the end of the Merovingian dynasty, the Martels had begun to rule in everything but name, but it took over a hundred years for Charlemagne to officially announce his empire.  The period the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, also known as the Edo Shogunate, was one in which there was a de facto monarchy maintaining the ritualistic illusion of an old deposed monarchy for more than three hundred years.  And everyone knew it.  And, miracle upon miracles, eventually the original Imperial dynasty was restored!

You might say that rituals exist to keep the old guys happy. And there's something beautiful in that - keeping the old flame alive.  You have to respect it, in a way.

No one believes in these rituals - we may not even remember what they mean - but we still perform them.  In fact, they take on a new power, and a new permanence, precisely when we don't understand them.  Then we are not only performing a ritual - we are performing a mystery.  Precisely in such a way, they may attain a renewed power - though it may not be the same power that was lost long ago.  (It may even be a greater power.)

Perhaps counter-intuitively, rituals arise precisely when people are conscious (you might say, over-conscious, excessively conscious) of history.  Rituals arise when people worry about how history will judge them - and when, devoid of any other reference-point, they imagine that the future will judge them the same way that they judge the past.  "They can't say that I didn't try."  (Thus, a Hegelian will be more likely to engage in fetishistic ritualism than a pre-Hegelian.  And by that I mean that anyone who lives in the world after the rupture that Hegel created will be more ritualistic than people who lived before Hegel.)

Ritualism follows the logic of the fetish, as described by Lacan, exemplified in the phrase, "I know very well, and yet...."  Incidentally - the last time I wrote about a ritual, my reference was the attempt to impeach Trump when everyone knew they didn't have sufficient votes for removal from office.  Since then, Biden won the 2020 election.  But QAnon followers insisted - and some apparently continue to insist - that Trump actually won, and that at any moment he would reveal this to the world and have Biden arrested (or something).  Is this a ritual, in the way I have been describing rituals here?  That is - are QAnon people saying, in effect, "I know very well that our side lost - and yet, I remain committed to the ritual of pretending that our side won"?  Or do they really believe that they have power that they obviously don't have?  I don't know, partly because I don't know any QAnon believers personally.  But then again, this uncertainty causes me to question what we mean when we say that someone "really believes" something - which in turn makes me think that the reality of ritualism forces us to reconsider the meaning of power.

Ritualists are essentially attempting to rewrite history.  What a ritualist says, through his actions, is, effectively, "I know very well that we lost.  But let's continue to act as if we won."  "I know very well that I am powerless.  But I will act as if my actions have some kind of power."  Thus ritualism is forever tied to the "as if," and Kant is the ultimate ritualist: "I know very well that I am not God.  But I will act as if I am God," or to put it slightly differently, his categorical imperative means committing to acting as if the maxim of my actions could affect nature itself and thereby become an eternal, universal law of nature.  

Kant is trans-rational, neither rational nor irrational.  A strict rationalist would simply reject the idea that she had any God-like status.  An irrationalist would leap all the way to claiming to be God.  Kant knows that he is not God, and knows that none of us are God either, but counsels us to act as if we were.  Imitatio Dei without Luciferian pride.

Ritual means going back and reliving an event the way it was "supposed" to happen.  Nietzsche asks us to imagine a demon that will force us to relive our entire lives again and again, and then challenges us to live as if this story were true.  Again, Nietzsche does not literally believe that this story is true, and so when people attempt to interpret Nietzsche's "eternal return" with reference to Laplace's concept of an infinitely repeating universe, and the related Zermelo's paradox, derived from Poincare's mathematical work, which complicated the notion of a closed Boltzman-style thermodynamic universe, they are all off on the wrong foot (these kinds of ideas probably are related to Blanqui's Eternity Through the Stars, but that's a topic for another time).  Nietzsche is presenting this story not as the truth but as something to think through.  (It probably has something to do with the "re" part of ressentiment....)  Thus thinking through the ritual and its relation to power will help us understand the conceptual bridge between the Nietzschean concept of eternal return and Eliade's eternal return in ritual....


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