On the Impossibility of Mediated Ritual

On making an attempt to watch a video of a recent gathering in Britain I was struck by this thought; that no actual ritual can survive passing through a mediated filtering intact. Not only will our understanding of it be broken, but any value it might have held risks being destroyed in the process.

If we give it a moment’s thought it becomes clear that this must be so.

A ritual is a vital conjunction of immediacy within cycles of continuity. It partakes of the heightened presence one feels within a sacred space and it connects us with all those who’ve come before within a tradition brought to life, to this moment, through ritual. This can only occur within a circle of profound sincerity.

Present in a moment of ritual importance; surrounded by others who have sacrificed time and attention to share this moment with us; viscerally connected to a particular place and its aura; we are open to and actually embody the essence of ritual. Together we share in this embodiment, echoed in a familiar litany, “… joined together in the body of….”

Sincerity is expected, and it is sheltered, in such surroundings. Our “normal” proclivities, fed by an atomizing cultural context; to be cynical and removed, to find all sincerity somehow counterfeit; is held in abeyance. This blending of personal sincerity with a mutual acknowledgement of the sacred grounds any true ritual.

View any ritual through the distancing lens of any form of mediation, especially it might be said, watching a YouTube video on a whim on a monitor or handheld device; removed from any of the stakes involved; and torn by this random spectacle from any direct contact with our own immediate surroundings – im-mediate: un mediated – and it is but an entertainment. We approach it as bodiless waifs, lost spirits, and whatever reaction we might have is going to be false.

We become as “anthropologists” and critics of a performance. There is cultural history in any ritual. There are aspects of performance in any ritual; but in a vital, active ritual these perspectives are completely besides the point. That this realization is so hard to accept, and the entire realm of ritual has become fraught with dysfunction, does not change ritual’s fundamental nature nor the demand it has upon us to accept it with a whole heart or feel a great loss. We are confronted with a responsibility to enter into something that might grow to take the place of rituals now either found to be toxic or lost to us.

This observation falls under the general category of the death of movements.  There is no “wholesale” when it comes to significant experiences. There are no legitimate Leaders. There is no path that should be followed. And, most importantly, the realization that these old ways are false is not reason for despair, but cause for joyful disillusionment. This realization itself is another aspect of the clarity we have available to us in these difficult times. Taken all together this is, perhaps, our greatest reason for some grounded hope, some shoal hope….

6 thoughts on “On the Impossibility of Mediated Ritual

  1. I’m just starting my exploration of ritual on your site. To help me understand this — and feel no need to respond quickly — I”m confused by the relationship between these two sentences: “That this realization is so hard to accept, and the entire realm of ritual has become fraught with dysfunction, does not change ritual’s fundamental nature nor the demand it has upon us to accept it with a whole heart or feel a great loss. We are confronted with a responsibility to enter into something that might grow to take the place of rituals now either found to be toxic or lost to us.”

    Or, rather, I’m not sure what you mean by “something that might grow to take the place of rituals…” I myself would use that sentence in my own essays to describe moving from ritual to direct attention to how life as it’s lived hits limits. This awareness of limits takes the place of ritual for me, in that it opens up the physicality of a non-cerebral contact with life. But I don’t think you could mean that, because you’re not suggesting the abandonment of ritual, right?

    • That sentence does lead to confusion. What I meant to say was that we need something – vital rituals – to replace the toxic or lost rituals we remember. Not that some other kind of activity will take the place of or supersede ritual. This – ritual – is just another of the many vital and necessary human activities that lie in ruins as a result of the bankruptcy of the current perspectives.

  2. A great novel by Leslie Marmon Silko is Ceremony. In it, she says ” “At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong.“ (126)

    And elsewhere she says:
    Ceremony
    I will tell you something about stories,
    [he said]
    They aren’t just for entertainment.
    Don’t be fooled
    They are all we have, you see,
    all we have to fight off illness and death.
    You don’t have anything
    if you don’t have the stories.
    Their evil is mighty
    but it can’t stand up to our stories.
    So they try to destroy the stories
    let the stories be confused or forgotten
    They would like that
    They would be happy
    Because we would be defenseless then.[1]

    I love the book. The book itself is conceived as a ceremony itself. A healing ceremony just in reading it. A spontaneous manifestation or dance of insight, never repeated.

    • Thank you for this! Wonderful quotes. All this touches on what is missing and what can be – not returned to… – Somehow when we recognize what is lacking it does something…. As you say, never repeated.

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