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Fundamentals


The language of the press uses the terms "rite" and "ritual" surprisingly often, but mostly with a negative connotation. This way, modern society apparently compensates for its development from the waves of rationality in modern times, since the term ritual usually is associated with premodern living and not least with a way of life legitimated through religion.

 

In public and press usage, the term denotes strictly formalized sequences of action that are repeated in the same or at least very similar patterns. On this premise, the formulistic and repetitive character indicates an automated, risk-free and at the same time meaningless and thus inconsequential performance style with replaceable actors.

 

In their research, the cultural and social sciences use the term ritual in a theoretically reflected way that is different from the public usage. The SFB 619 strives to tie in with this use while changing it in a creative manner. This way, we will redefine the key terms' scope and make them accessible for cultural comparative studies with regard to the current theoretical and methodological fundamental dispute and in close cooperation with the philological as well as with the empirical sciences.

 

As a scientifically modeled construct, the term ritual possesses its own logic that is based on practical purposes and definitely includes the above-mentioned structural formalization and formulistic features. At the same time, it also takes a particularity into account that is related to the performative mode of presentation of ritual actions. It is connected to the gestural and paralinguistic physicalness of ritual practices and creates a characteristic tension, if not even an antipode to the literality of rules and formulas, which precede and regulate the rituals, while frequently being recited or intonated during the performance.

 

As any spectator can observe, there is an additional, quite considerable scenically arranged expenditure of material symbols (such as fetishes, national emblems, insignia), of decoration, costumes or uniforms, of accompanying music, of artificial illumination, and much more.

 

Usually, those responsible for the preparation, organization and the performance of the respective ritual event stage it as some kind of play that takes places at a defined time (tempus ritualis) and in a defined location (locus ritualis). The difference between the ritual performance and a regular stage play is that during the ritual, actors and audience are not separated. The reason is that the logic behind all ritual actions is to renew, confirm or even create a collectively binding, socially valid meaning by executing the ritual process full of expressive symbolism. 


Cultural anthropologists described the staging of rituals actions that transcend everyday life as status-transforming processes that are suitable in their own way to express the categories of value and basic contradictions of a socio-cultural system. However, these processes are not meant to aimlessly illustrate a familiar order, but rather – when facing the unfamiliar – to instill the necessity of regulatory arrangements as something binding or even "holy" into the respective collective. In this context, issues like periodically reoccurring crises or transitional phases come to mind.

 

Ritual actions are not immune to the ambivalence inherent to all actions. The violent ritualization of the dictatorial exertion of power through military and paramilitary organization proves their possible abuse.

The leading definition of our project title "Ritual Dynamics" comprises the following basic assumptions:

 

1) Ritual action is – regardless of the differing, language-specific denotations – an expressive form of symbolically binding action that can be observed on an intra- as well as transcultural level. Its change is determined by the exchange between different ways of life, a fact that – among other things – suggests a comparative research approach (criterion of universality). 

 

2) Rituals possess a procedural structure. Their scientific exploration depends on special methods based on process analysis. Those methods are to be developed and tried within the scope of interdisciplinary philological and empirical research programs (criterion of process in flux).

 

3) The reconstruction of the historical dynamics of ritual actions must take the special timing logic of this type of action into account: the contemporary of the non-contemporary. It usually can be detected from the re-use of ancient symbolization and performance patterns (criterion of recursivity).

 

  

Heidelberg, August 2002