There have been societies held together by communal rituals that make sense of life in particular places at particular times. Rituals vary in there words, gestures, the objects used and range of performance they exhibit and it has to be noted that whilst they are communally binding, some have also been horrific. Yet life without rituals, without any sense of community, tradition and shared symbolism, also has problems.
Rituals give meaning to our rites of passage through life, from welcoming a baby into a community to the rites around death and grieving; they give us templates for how we greet people or how we share a meal, down to the implements we use for eating. Rituals are intrinsically linked with lingering–we have to drop out of the mode of doing and busyness and into simply being to make time for rituals. They are performative so have their own art forms and a sense of timing that is beyond our clock-driven lives.
What divides us
And therein lies their demise, or at least relegation to the margins of life for all but those who follow particular faiths. We don’t live in an era that is supportive of lingering and increasingly ‘performance’ is linked not with deep art and embodying symbols but with the surface performative masks of social media so that even the vocabulary around rituals has been appropriated.
Ours is an age of the relentless force of production in which even our lives are produced as social media feeds while our data is mined for profit. Ironically, in this performative world in which authenticity is often reduced to a matter of ‘personal branding’ strategy, the deep performance art of cohesive rituals shrivels unless it’s reduced to a money-making scheme to market indigenous rituals as exotic tourist events rather than as cultural exchanges with mutual benefits.
Ours is also an age of rampant individualism even to the point of narcissism. Celebrity culture, influencers, the expanding genre of cartoon heroes and the glorification of the apparently “self-made person” are signs of how atomised many cultures have become, with the resulting loss of ritual and the symbolic for many people. For others, symbolic and ritual structures persist as dim reflections in increasingly tribal echo-chambers.
And yet, this is the age we need to make sense of and there is no going back to rituals that have lost symbolic currency. Sentimentality and nostalgia tend to make us more tribal and inward-looking as a species and although the history of rituals may have been one of strong connections, it has also always had a shadow side around those who were excluded.
In a world in which there isn’t a homongenous sense of meaning and in which mass communication is often used not to unite people, but to exploit our biases and manipulate our fears (too often with the goal of selling us something), we can only acknowledge that we have a very long road ahead to any sense of shared symbolism.
What connects us
And yet, what unites us as humans is so much more than this atomisation or the exploitation of people as products. We may never have had or ever have in the future global rituals based on shared symbolism, humanity has always been pluralistic, but we can develop mutual practices that both allow us to recognise those we closely resonate with whilst respecting the range of symbolic understandings across multiple communities. And when we do this, we engender a different view of time; one that is not based on our productivity to measure our worth.
As a species, our shared humanity is signalled by many things–from our opposable thumbs to the blushing response; from our particular types of creativity to our reflexive sense of mortality. And, paramountly, from the fact that we are story telling animals with an episodic memory that allows us to make meaning. It’s this story-telling trait, found in the earliest marks on cave walls, that allows us to pass on not just information, but deep cultural knowledge and rituals. Story-telling itself is often a ritual in its own rite: whether what is being passed on is a version of salvation history attached to a particular religion or folk stories full of symbolic wisdom on how to negotiate life.
Story as ritual
As writers we have a powerful tool for co-operating with the forces that unite us as humans rather than those that separate us. Sadly, of course, story is so powerful that it can be used for both. The story telling of those who make forests simply harvestable commodities and who have done the same to enslaved people are brutal examples. But the power to unite people across boundaries and to tap into symbols that include rather exclude remains powerful and in our gift.
And in our development of stories that include and connect we need stories of depth that go beyond mere information and we need stories that are embodied and material. Ritual is always symbolic and deeply resonant and story as ritual must be the same. Similarly, ritual often coheres are material objects and our stories can work to help us connect to our own materiality and so to all of life.
Stories beyond information
In The Disappearance of Rituals, Byung-Chul Han describes how connections to the other – both human and object – are eroded by a life that has become increasing virtual. (Han has been writing about this since before publishing The Burnout Society in 2015, but his critique has become even more urgent since the pandemic.) As extraordinary and sometimes wonderful as our technology is, tapping a ‘like’ on a smart phone doesn’t replace real relationships.
Information has its vital place in our lives, but we can’t reduce our lives to it and thrive. And this is particularly the case in information environments where the lines between what is true and false have collapsed or where short-term impact is more important than truth or beauty. It is also urgently the case when an information-driven life of productivity starts to overwhelm the slow and more difficult values of fidelity, deep relationships and shared symbolism so that the information gathered contains little or no knowledge or wisdom.
It’s possible, Han points out, to gather huge amounts of information without insight or to be in constant communication without any sense of community. What is nurturing and soul-enriching about story is that it’s about memory, not data; about genuine encounters rather than our number of ‘friends’ or ‘followers’. Story is humanising.
Stories as embodied
And our humanising stories are about real things and real people, even when they use the tropes of the most imaginative fantasy or other-worldly science fiction. Stories communicate through the material–as the poet William Carlos Williams insists, there are “no ideas but in things.”
Recently we returned home to find our cat, Freyja, had knocked a ceramic from an upstairs windowsill. The pot was a perfect hollow sphere topped by a wide flat lip. It’s texture was rough clay over an underglaze so that tiny patterns of violet or dark reds showed occasionally through the terracotta-coloured surface. It fitted perfectly into the bowl of two cup palms and was not only tactile and beautiful but had a story. I bought it in a small gallery in Cornwall in November 1993 when we had to decamp from home while some wet rot was treated and a friend kindly leant us his cottage. Despite the cold and sometimes rain, the children had a wonderful time on the beach paddling in the sea in wellies, wrapped in raincoats and scarves. The pot had become the embodiment of that oddly enchanted week.
Byung-Chul Han would understand why. In his recently published Non-things: upheaval in the lifeworld he writes
Objects stabilise human life insofar as they give it a continuity,
We give presence to objects by the stories we weave around them. And sometimes we do this in a way that adds ritual and a sense of magic. As grateful as I am for digital communication and the tools that make this blog, and staying in touch with friends and family in Korea, the UK, Australia and America, possible, it is still the case that there is no ‘thingness’ to this sphere of interaction. And we need this materiality. Han puts it vehemently:
It’s not objects but information that rules the living world. We no longer inhabit heaven and earth, but the Cloud and Google Earth. The world is becoming progressively untouchable, foggy and ghostly.
Our stories bring objects, things and the physical stuff of our bodies back into focus. And in doing this, our stories ground us, stabalise us, connect us. Our stories become part of the performance art of connection instead of merely a performative surface to gloss over.
I don’t imagine there was ever a golden age of inclusive ritual and story and perhaps there never will be, but as writers we can nudge reality in their direction as we weave different stories. And that is something magical.