“It Doesn’t Matter What I Say”

On p. 3, near the opening of the late Frits Staal’s classic essay, “The Meaningless of Ritual” (Numen [1979] 26: 2-22), he wrote:

Picture 2Contrary to how most of us see it, for Staal, ritual was not referential, i.e., it’s not that one does this because it means this or represents that. While the meaning surely comes later, in hindsight, often taught to us by others, when one is doing ritual one is instead obsessed with sheer form, not content; one simply works to follow the rules because, well…, they are the rules.

While I wouldn’t trust someone’s memory (since that’s the hindsight moment when later meanings are projected backward), I think it safe to say that many people will confirm this if you ask them the right way. For in the doing, in the moment, we are completely absorbed with our concern for where to stand, how long to stand there, when to sit, and what words to say. We are so concerned, in fact, that I have no doubt that many will report not really remembering much of, for example, the ceremony, inasmuch as during it they were so focused on playing their role properly.

When I teach this approach to ritual — something I first wrote about in Critics Not Caretakers (2001) — I sometimes use what some of my students now consider to be an older pop song but it is still quite effective for focusing their attention on form and rules, rather than on meanings and content. It’s among the most sophisticated pop songs I know of, to be honest, for it is — at least until the tempo (i.e., the rules) changes, and the singer begins criticizing the music industry and even his own audience — utterly meaningless, doing nothing but informing those who listen carefully enough that the song is simply following the rules of “hip three minute ditties,” in which you have to ensure that your song has a good hook.

You’d be amazed how useful the ordinary is in the classroom.