Friday, November 7, 2014

Ritual as a participatory affair

Victor Turner in his Forest of Symbols (1967) suggested to interpret ritual on three levels. Firstly, the exegetical level: "how they explain it", in other words, how the "locals". The there's the operational meaning: "what we can see", the minutiae of the observable "bells and whistles" that most anthropologists record in their ethnographies. And finally, there is the positional level: "how we, the educated, explain it", i.e., how the meaning of the ritual fits into the overall structure of the society. This last privileges understanding can only be achieved by  anthropologists trained in the high art of seeing structure, agency, liminality, and such in daily events. 

Despite such a analytical finery, all the three levels remain belong to the same domain, of rationalising the visible to the naked eye. The observer remains confused as to what is actually happening with the participants. The participant observation thus remains an observation, the participation part meaning "standing nearby": just like Bakhtin's carnival, which when observed loses its meaning and becomes a mere spectator sport. Thing with rituals is that once you've "gone local", it changes your forever, so the "fourth wall" between the scientific observer and the observed object of study is broken down. The subject and the object merge and that's how the illusion of separation collapses and empirical wisdom is gained.

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