Review: Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity

As one might expect given the title, Roy Rappaport in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 1999) spends a great deal of time exploring the notion of ritual in this book. A majority of the chapters are devoted to a consideration of this subject in regards to its form, structure, the type of information it communicates, and the manner in which it substantiates this information with significance or meaning. Rappaport also dedicates many sections to various relationships that ritual forms with ecological and social phenomena, concepts of time, and even the individual self. In addition, he demonstrates these aspects of ritual by drawing examples from a wide variety of traditions throughout much of his analysis. Ultimately, this focus on ritual serves the purposes of a much greater and far more encompassing message.

Predominately through the lens of structuralism, Rappaport provides a framework for understanding ritual that he ultimately extends to anchor the immense edifice of human enterprise in its entirety. Indeed, the culmination of his argument describes an interdependent, mutually amplifying evolutionary origin for numerous cultural elements and postulates that “intelligence, technology, language, and the concept of sanctity emerged together” (418). Rappaport, in fact, goes so far as to suggest the impossibility of humanity’s continued evolution into the advanced stages observed today were it not for an awareness of the sacred present at the very beginning. One finds the basis for this assertion in his identification of socially destabilizing effects that stem from two unfortunate consequences of symbolic language: the ability for an individual to lie and the capacity to conceive of alternative systems of order that could be used against the system currently in place. Thus, he argues that just “as the concept of the sacred would have been inconceivable in the absence of language, so might it have been impossible for language to have developed without a concept of the sacred to resist its ever-increasing tendency to subvert, through lie and alternative, the social systems relying upon it” (323). According to him, religion offsets these disruptive forces through the peculiar power and efficacy of ritual.

Rappaport characterizes ritual, or liturgical orders, as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers” (24). He goes on to delineate a hierarchical system constituting different levels of meaning embodied by liturgical orders. These levels range from the most abstruse, universally generalized, and unassailably authoritative set of established orders (what Rappaport calls Ultimate Sacred Postulates) to the most mundane, informatively responsive to change, and highly localized indicators (specific rules governing conduct between persons, qualities, various states of affairs, temporal phases, etc.). Far from comprising autonomous or isolated units, as he describes it the hierarchy as a whole is better thought of more as a dynamical regulatory system with the various levels of meaning both mutually informing and enhancing each other. Principles of information theory and cybernetics underlying much of his discourse lend themselves to the construal of ritual as a vehicle for communication, in fact, and each feature portrayed by the definition above “facilitates – or even makes possible – the transmission of information across boundaries of – unlike’ systems” (97). Ultimately, it is in this communicative nature that Rappaport locates the salve of ritual’s stabilizing defense against the socially dissolutive influences stemming from those pathologies of symbolic language.

The propensity for a prevalence of symbolism in communication to engender the spread of falsehoods, for instance, is ameliorated to a degree by those liturgical orders operating on the lowest level of meaning. The acts and utterances comprising this set of ritual are predominately indexical and, as such, establish representations of their referents with a much higher degree of fidelity. While the very act of participation denotes an individual’s acceptance of the ritual, however, Rappaport acknowledges the possibility of “disparities between the act of acceptance and the inward state associated with it. One can accept publicly not only that which one doubts but that which one privately despises or secretly denies” (121). Thus, he draws upon the correspondence established by ritual between levels of meaning and argues that ritual enables the characteristics attributed to higher levels of order to pervade underlying levels subsumed by them. In this way, “sanctified sentences partake of, or are supported by, the unquestionableness of the Ultimate Sacred Postulates with which they are associated” (415), and the heightened gravity of violating an established social convention in such cases should deter at least a portion of those previously intending to do so.

In regard to the second provocation of symbolism, the possibility for one to conceive of alternative ordered systems antagonistic to that of the overarching society, Rappaport again enlists the aid of ritual in stimulating a transmission of information across hierarchical levels. Where he previously places the burden squarely upon a lower level of meaning and its utilization of indexicality with some assistance from above through sanctification, however, just the opposite is observed in this case. By their very nature, the Ultimate Sacred Postulates deny both refutation and variance, they are intrinsically unquestionable and eternal, which Rappaport portrays as a formidable obstacle to the threat of this particular destabilizing element. To the extent that they are only beyond refutation by virtue of their abstraction, however, they also remain distant and remote from daily affairs. We have already alluded above to the internal contingency of this hierarchical network in the form of mutually informative and enhancing interactions between levels of meaning. Even at the highest levels accordingly, “the validity of Ultimate Sacred Principles…is ultimately contingent upon their acceptance by those presumably subject to them” (429). Discussed above in the context of acceptance, “to perform a liturgy is at one and the same time to conform to its order and to realize it or make it substantial. Liturgical performance not only recognizes the authority of the conventions it represents, it gives them their very existence“ (emphasis in original, 125). As such, the performance communicates the continuing authority of these specific higher systems of order, both reifying their power to guide the form of ritual on a lower level and bolstering their authority against the destabilizing tendency to pursue alternatives.

In line with his emphasis on evolutionary advantages, Rappaport finally argues that ritual confers a facility for adaptation, as well. Living systems (social groups included) adapt either “through reversible changes in their states [or] less reversible or irreversible transformations of their structures” (408). Such systems, in other words, are often capable of responding to environmental perturbations by making adjustments in lower order organizational schemes which allows more fundamental and core principles, their identities, to remain unaffected. Accordingly, “the ultimately sacred forms an unchanging ground upon which all else in adaptive social structures can change continuously without loss of orderliness” (427). What’s more, the abstract nature of the sacred, its absence of concrete content, itself affords a degree of flexibility enabling adaptation by way of constant reinterpretation. The degree and nature of this reinterpretation has constraints, of course, and Rappaport is quick to remind us that this adaptively advantageous variability is ultimately delimited by ritual and its stabilizing invariance.

As the student of humanity Holden Caulfield astutely put it, “what really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though” (Salinger 25). Were the current author alive, one might safely surmise this to be so in his case, if solely from the name Roy Abraham “Skip” Rappaport. But it could just as likely hold true judging from his book’s rich content – to say nothing of its rhetorical breadth and beauty, which is itself a variation on a theme: the mutual support of form and substance.

This winsome and humorously executed book is convincing partly because it avoids spending the capital of a good argument on indulgent points of speculation, often a fault of multivalent thinkers. This restraint is built into his method: Rappaport rarely develops a premise or point unsupported by a dialectical encounter with another thinker or scholar. The general form is simple: exposition and critique of an established analysis followed by an appeal to common sense with due attention to imaginary objections. The technique makes his conclusions difficult to aggressively criticize simply because each step appears unusually reasonable. Two excellent and bold examples are his criticism of É5mile Durkheim’s analysis of time (174-5) and his exposition and clarification of C.S. Peirce’s semiotic theory by means of correcting an early commentator’s faulty interpretation. The effect is reassuring with respect to the book’s details. Rhetoric, obviously, does not bear the full weight of the central claim about humanity and ritual: that ritual is, at least in part, an indexical adaptive countermeasure for the problems arising from the symbolic flexibility of language and that the public aspect of ritual insulates society from the power of unknowable, individual imagination.

Despite the claim that civilization arises from exactly this phenomenon, ritual as index can appear as a kind of adaptive relapse into something less complex than the conventions of symbolic communication – less “human.” Rappaport alludes several times to something similar (56, 66 for example) before finally concluding that ritual, especially ritual sanctity, “provides a – functional replacement’ for genetic determination of patterns of behavior” (322). However, far from being “dehumanizing,” the affect seems to be, as Rappaport claims, the amelioration of the latent chaotic powers that accompany the relatively recent human capacity for imagination (imagination would seem to encompass both the lie and “alternative”). In other words, by actually making a world, ritual finally outstrips language in its capacity to merely “say” (140).

The above is, of course, the limiting function of ritual and only a functional edge of the full phenomenon. It can be easy to grasp this operative aspect of ritual and miss the astounding complexity that emerges from the public indexical field of social imagination through perlocutionary (psychologically affective) and illocutionary (performative) forms of speech. This richness should not be forgotten, however disturbing or frightening the result of the history of religious ritual might be. Ritual achieves strict, often binary, categories that are otherwise impossible to impose on nature in its ambiguous rawness (89). However arbitrary the borders of ritual may seem and however many of our better angels may have been stifled by sacred rite over the long years, Rappaport seems correct in saying that such fences have nevertheless kept our foulest monsters at bay – especially our capacity to be, well, phony, if you will. For a generation(s) sodden with a post-Freudian obsession with authenticity this can be, interestingly, a slightly rebarbative thing to hear, but also no less convincing for that.

On the question of ritual’s future, Rappaport’s final chapter is impassioned and unsurprisingly vague. By this time Rappaport has already hinted at the dissolution of the richer forms of politically coherent ritual knowledge (verum), as opposed to empirical, mundane, factual knowledge (certum) (297). The advent of writing and general literacy almost inevitably entails that collective memory, certum in the recording of history, outstrips and overwhelms the subjunctive, timeless sacred that ritual generates (328).

Discussion of this final chapter is a worthy place to pause and recall that throughout the work Rappaport avoids turgid prose. His style is rich and frequently humorous. Consider page 450, where the author opens a paragraph with, “when, in the course of.” One almost reflexively fills in “human events” before being corrected with, “… evolution;” human evolution to be exact. The apt context of this allusion is Rappaport’s discussion of the dissolution of sacred truths and sentiments in a secular environment governed by discrete facts and fragments of empirical evidence and structures of plausibility (435). One cannot be sure, but I do hope that the author had in mind here Jefferson and Franklin’s famous editorial decision to replace truths “sacred and undeniable,” in the American Declaration with the modestly secular, “self-evident.” Such rich and meaningful ornamentation is remarkable for a book that was rushed to publication and only rarely feels like it. The mutual enhancement of content with attention to rhetorical form may be natural and unconscious for an old scholar, but here it even seems to support the overarching argument – and the word is a good one – significantly. Attending to this sort of thing in theoretical texts does not always yield dividends, but in this case I think it might, particularly in light of the volume’s ethically poignant conclusion.

Rappaport concludes with an emphasis on humanity’s current ecological crisis. Two ostensibly opposite culprits are to blame and both are fairly inexpensive to observe and simplify: on one hand the regency of the fully elaborated value of cold, hard cash, which fails to register the qualitative meanings which sacred ritual once furnished humanity. On the other, he charges poorly construed sacred claims about human dominance over nature. Rappaport advocates for some kind of aesthetic religion based on unity or ecological harmony (457). However qualified this is, it still seems to beg the question of the previous 437 pages, namely, how to ground such a vague aesthetic value – even sacredness – in a political context that at least in principle demands fully elaborated codes. Likely the answer would have to be, as Rappaport again only vaguely suggests, some kind of numinous respect for the various rhythms of nature. So much would require modification were this to take place. After all, the difference he outlines between empirical, everyday certum and the ritually grounded verum would need to be overcome or at least neutered. In fairness it is by no means a critical blow to complain that a book that explains the origins of humanity does not also solve its present ills.

In sum, the author is erudite and each point highly qualified and measured. If one spends the time getting used to Peirce’s semiotic theory, the overall case made is remarkably convincing. Also, be sure read the preface. Rappaport’s brief but poignant reflection on death and writing is worth the atmosphere it creates. The feeling of doom does not exactly haunt every page but, once it’s in your head, you do tend to sense the ancient hound on the heels of each step of the argument. Naturally, it may be that when weighed against such an expansive theory the tiny weight of the actual theorist does not really amount to much difference in the argument. When reading this theory, though, the small voice of the one ritualist among the countless many rings long and loud, and seems to rejoice in the making of his own short-lived humanity as well as what it, in its turn, has made.

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