The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Construction of Reality Preview: The Ritual Masters

Continuing from Interaction Ritual

Rituals can fail. The Christmas party where everyone is awkward and not enjoying themselves. The sermon and hymns that are just so plain boring so that you can hardly wait to leave. The concert where no one is dancing. (x-Collins)

Putting on a successful ritual is a skill. Being good at it takes practice in moving the participants’ attention where it should be, in encouraging emotional focus and in physical entrainment. The surroundings should be suitable, the central symbol should be framed, costumes may be needed, and on and on.

We have a lot of standardized rituals: the wake for the dead, the marriage and the trial, among others. Watch a trial, the judge dressed in formal robes, and depending on the country, perhaps wearing a white wig. Always deferred to, always addressed as “Your Honor” or “Your Lordship”. The accused sits in a specified place, witnesses in another and so on.

This is high ritual.

The person who is the center of a ritual, who conducts a ritual, if it succeeds, gains stature and energy. Look at the way rock stars are treated for a concrete example. Money, fame, glory, and all the sex they want.

There is a certain divinity associated with big enough, successful enough rituals. Whatever the symbol, the person who conducts the ritual will also become a symbol and will take on some of the power and mystery of the rite.

Who performs rites and what their role in the rite is, thus, is central to how society is organized and to our personal perception of reality. By associating ourselves with various parts of the rites, we then create who we are: how others see us, and how we see ourselves.

Rites allow us to change stories.

Consider the God King. Ubiquitous in later ancient Mesopotamia and in ancient Egypt.

Think of our early religion and ideology. There is a God or Gods, who created all. There are ancestors we are descended from, and those ancestors created our way of doing things: our civilization.

The Divine created everything, and everything good comes from the divine. Our greatest respect is reserved for the divine, with lesser but still great respect granted to our ancestors. To the divine and to our ancestors we owe everything. No human is important in comparison (x-Flannery/Marcus).

This is a story which mitigates hard against inequality and against anyone becoming too powerful. Someone may be a good hunter, but the good things do not come from them, but from God. And however good a hunter they are, they are nothing compared to the ancestor who created hunting.

This question, where do the good things come from, is essential to the structure of every society.

If the good things come from you, then you should be treated with reverence, and since they come from you, they are essentially yours.

Consider the ritual of the Aranda in the previous chapter, where older men dressed as revered ancestors.

Imagine, now, dressing as a God. Playing that role in a successful ritual. The attention is on you, you are associated with the God, and it is from the God that all the good things come.

It takes many steps to get from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to God Kings, but this is the social logic by which it happens: rituals which associate you with a God, and a story that it is from Gods that all the good things come.

Lest you smile condescendingly and think we are beyond all this, I invite you to consider the concept of the “job creator”. A job creator is someone who hires people. In our society, for almost everyone, all good things come from jobs. A job creator is thus the person from whom all good things come. It would be wrong to tax such a person highly, or to burden them with legislation, because they are the source of the good. Not coincidentally, our taxation of the rich and on corporations it at multi-generational lows.

This wasn’t always the story, in the post-war liberal period the consumer was where all good things came from, and businessmen were just meeting public demand. And the consumer was able to spend because the government had fixed an economy private industry had trashed during the Great Depression. All hail the consumer, and the government which makes sure the economy works. And all hail top marginal tax rates of eighty to ninety percent.

Stories matter, and so does your ritual position. Rituals put you in a place in the story, and the story, if it is widely accepted, then works for you.

Note that the story has an element of truth, even if that truth is socially constructed. All good things do come from a God King: the Pharoah owned everything. God Kings had wealth and power and could give good things to people. Billionaires and big corporations really do decide, directly and indirectly thru the small companies which would not exist without them, who gets many of the good jobs.

These are self-reinforcing stories.

It is not hard to extend this analysis to today’s press, with their fawning coverage of CEOs and executives; of the stock market and so on. The beautiful people bow to the powerful people in powerfully choreographed images, and we too see them as powerful.

Certainly there is more to it, wealth and military prowess and so on, but all of those rest on people believing they should obey your orders and that you should have way more stuff than anyone else. During the Great Depression Americans decided that the rich, whom they blamed for destroying the economy, didn’t deserve so much stuff, and they instituted punitive taxes.

In the Great Depression it was clear that “the good stuff” didn’t come from the rich and corporations, because they’d been substantially in charge, and buggered it up. And who helped? Government.

So, when Reagan moved to decisively end the post-War liberal era, he said “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

Reagan had a story about where the good things came from, and how to get them. And that leads us to our next topic: the storytellers and the ideologues.


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1 Comment

  1. mago

    Reagan was a feel good marionette whose puppet masters skillfully played to entertain and dupe the dupes.
    And we’re all still paying for it
    And the puppeteers keep on playing

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