Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity
Ritual is usually understood as pointing to some essence beyond the ritual act itself. This ambitious interdisciplinary study offers a convincing challenge to this understanding. The authors begin by seeking to explain how the conventional idea arose in the first place. They locate its origin in a post-Protestant and post-Enlightenment vision of ritual action that emphasizes rituals as merely external signs of interior states. This approach, say the authors, is part of a far larger way of relating to the self and to the world, which they label sincerity. But ritual, they say, is the very opposite of sincerity because it consists of stylized, repetitive interactions that construct an as if world, a world of role, propriety, play, and even fantasy, rather than pointing to the world as it actually is. In fact, that is ritual's great contribution. Ritual modes of behavior make a shared social world possible by helping to navigate between diverse people and groups, rather than attempting to transcend and efface boundaries. After setting forth this argument, the authors go on to build on it by showing how sincerity and ritual are stand-ins for two very different ways of being in the world. Although both modes are always present to some degree, modernity has deeply privileged sincerity and authenticity. And, they say, we are now paying a heavy price for this extreme and often totalizing projection of personality in contemporary political life.