Do the Rite Thing

And learn to look at our own commonplace objects and practices, our own self-evident understanding, with different, perhaps even with other, eyes.

Do the Rite Thing

The following is a lecture delivered to students in the “Self, Culture, & Society” core sequence at the University of Chicago on January 11, 2012. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

As the three nouns in the title of this course underscore, when we study society we study relations of plurality to some collective understandings of unity, the varieties of relations of first to second person, resulting in a new all-encompassing third person—that of the social, that which encompasses and fashions the self as an us in such a manner that together we form a we in contradistinction to a them. This is to say, along with Durkheim, that society is the artificial non-biological product, as well as the cause of such relations. In a bit of linguistic history that would have delighted Durkheim, the archaic proto-Indo-European root generating the Latin and English terms “society”, “social”, and the like bears the primary sense of “to join together” or “to follow”, but also yields a suffixed form of the same root as preserved in the Latin signum—in English “sign”—signifying a mark, an insignia, a seal. Each society has come to establish ways, often through ritual, of marking every member as its own. Hence this evening’s focus.

Tonight I’d like to discuss with you three broad and interrelated themes: first, the issue of interpretation; of understanding, especially with respect to others, which is at the very heart of the human sciences—in both the social sciences and the humanities—and is one way of thinking about the texts you are going to read together this quarter beginning with Durkheim’s Elementary Forms. Second, the issue of the interpretation of ritual; and third, more particularly, the issue of the interpretation of ritual in Durkheim.


Let me turn first to the issue of interpretation. Interpretation only becomes truly problematic with the recognition of difference. Within the human sciences, difference is most commonly perceived and spoken about in terms of both spatial and temporal distance. Within Western discourse, the recognition of spatial difference first became acute during the Renaissance, spurred by the so-called “age of exploration” with its colonial and missionary adventures. Prior to the Renaissance we may speak of a classical Western view of the world, persistent from the ancient Israelites and the Greeks through the medieval Christians. The earth was thought of as a terraqueous disc or sphere containing a single three-lobed inhabitable world-island: Europe, Asia, and Africa. On such a map, space was utterly contiguous. In most cases, the world-island was thought to be inhabited by but a single family of humankind—in Biblical myth, the descendants of the three sons of Noah, themselves descendants of the primal pair, Adam and Eve.

This unity guaranteed that all human differences were differences of degree, and never, ever of kind. Similarity was essential and persisted through the long history of migrations and diffusions. Difference was thought to be accidental. Bodily differences—skin color and the like—were the result of environment. People were darkened by exposure to the Sun; bleached by exposure to cold. Cultural differences were thought to be the result of forgetfulness. In Christian discourse, forgetfulness of an original divine deposit of truth, over time exacerbated by the confusions caused by the mixtures of peoples and languages, recall again in Biblical myth the Tower of Babel.

The cognitive shock to this centuries-old worldview was the entirely unexpected discovery by Europeans of a fourth inhabited, but now discontinuous, part of the world—what they learned to term a “new world”, or an “other world”—that is to say, the Americas. If the Americas had been known by the fourth century BC, Noah would surely have been given a fourth son by the authors of Genesis 10. The inhabitants of the Americas raised for Western discourse the question of human difference as now a difference in kind; a difference that was essential rather than accidental—a difference that ultimately led to the eighteenth-century notion of different species of human beings through the invention of the idea of race. This latter issue foregrounded the question, “Is there a unity to human nature?”, a question that first made the human sciences urgent. There was, as well, an associated consequence—one that led to the first battle of the books, the first “canon war”.

The existence of the Americas as a new world, one unknown to any Biblical or classical author, raised the embarrassing question: if the ancients did not know of the existence of an entire populated continent, what the hell else didn’t they know? For this reason, the first generations of Spanish Catholic authors to live in the Americas insisted on the priority of their experience over the authority of the classical or canonical Biblical texts. For example, Oviedo, in 1526, writes of the first-century Roman author Pliny that “Pliny based his encyclopedia on reading 5,000 books, whereas I base my writings on 5,000 times 5,000 experiences.” Acosta in 1550 is even blunter:

I will describe what happened to me when I passed to the Indies. Having read what the poets and philosophers wrote of the Torrid Zone, I persuaded myself that when I came to the Equator I would not be able to endure its violent heat, but it turned out otherwise. For when I passed the Equator, I felt so cold that I was forced to go into the Sun to warm myself. What could I do then but laugh at Aristotle’s philosophy? For in that place and in that season, where everything by his rules should have been scorched by heat, I and my companions were so very, very cold.

Alongside this spatial shock there was a second, almost simultaneous intellectual revolution, this time with respect to temporal distance. Both the humanists of the Renaissance, with their slogan ad fontes—“back to the sources”—and the Protestant reformers with their slogan sola scriptura—“scripture alone”—sought to have an immediate experience of the foundational classical and/or biblical texts by eliminating the summarisers, the translators, the commentators who brokered the temporal difference between the time of the text and the present time of its readers. Now it was maintained the foundational texts were to be read directly, either in critical editions based on the best manuscripts, or in scholarly translations into contemporary European vernacular languages. But the results of these projects turned out to be the opposite of what was anticipated. Rather than immediacy, what was encountered was an unexpected distance within their own intellectual and religious traditions—an estrangement from their honored past. A difference brought about by time. In the novelist L.P. Hartley’s well-known phrase, “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.”

This difference first became apparent at the level of language. Both Christian refugees after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and Jewish refugees after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 emigrated to Western Europe and brought with them manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew—strange languages with exotic ways of writing hitherto largely unknown to Catholic Europe. Here for the first time were many foundational texts in their original languages, previously known largely only through Latin, or less commonly Arabic, translation. Their scripts looked odd, and when deciphered the texts read quite differently from what had been presumed. The past, it turned out, was not a familiar place largely indistinguishable from contemporary Europe. It was not endlessly and effortlessly accessible. To express this occlusion the fifteenth-century Italian humanist Petrarch coined the phrase “the Dark Ages”, not as often used today to designate medieval Europe as being characterized by superstition—a usage that reflects both Reformation and Enlightenment anti-Catholic polemics—but rather to indicate that murky expanse of time which interposed itself between the Renaissance’s fabled ideal age of classical Greece and Republican Rome and Petrarch’s European present. A temporal barrier through which we can see, in Petrarch’s allusion to Paul’s phrase in First Corinthians 13, “but darkly.” Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Plato, Aristotle were not, after all, Petrarch’s contemporaries; they could not be conversed with and so they remained stubbornly opaque. Without enormous labors of translation and interpretation, we could not begin to understand them or our own cultural past, let alone that of another.

Let me give one exceedingly small example of the impact of this sort of new learning from a journal kept by one of the translators of the 1611 King James Bible, a book whose 400th anniversary was celebrated last year. Older English translations of First Peter 5:5, following the Latin translation from the Greek, read “clothe yourselves inwardly”—or in some versions “clothe yourselves secretly”—“with humility.” This makes perfect common sense, but that’s often a poor guide for negotiating our foreign past. Humility, after all, is not something to be ostentatiously displayed. But the King James translators, citing the newly-recovered Greek texts, found that the noun which gave rise to the Greek verb “to clothe” in this passage refers only to an outer garment—one that was worn over one’s tunic. However counterintuitive it may be, “inwardly” or “secretly” was a misunderstanding of Paul. The passage was now rendered in the King James simply as “clothe yourselves with humility,” a visible, exterior quality, as it remains in most subsequent English translations.

The same process continues to this day. Take, for example, the thorny question of “false friends”—words in one language that appear to be the same as that in another. In Galatians 3:24, Paul wrote that the law of Moses was “our paidagōgos until Christ came.” Since, in English, a pedagogue is a teacher, the King James and most other English Bibles render the sentence as expressing the thought that the Old Testament law was our schoolmaster. As we now come to learn from the Greek papyri contemporary with Paul, in Hellenistic Greek, the paidagōgos was not a teacher—he was the slave who took a child to school, leaving them off at the door. Paul intended a far nastier, far more critical observation on the Israelite law—one that’s best captured in the first edition of the New English Bible 1970, since alas withdrawn, where with deliberate anachronism Galatians 3:24 is translated “the law was our school bus.”

Let me stay with the King James Bible for just a moment longer, for it is written in an English which is, for us today, a thoroughly foreign language. The King James is roughly contemporary with Shakespeare, whose English vocabulary is extensively glossed—in any good edition—so as to allow the reader to translate his English words into our contemporary English. Here false friends abound—words that are familiar in modern English can often mean the opposite in Elizabethan English, whether it’s Shakespeare or in the King James Bible. To give only two examples: At times in the King James Bible “let” means “to stop”, a meaning surviving in modern English only in the case of a let ball in tennis. In a well-known passage in Isaiah 43:13, when the Lord says in the King James translation, “I will work, and who shall let it?” the modern translator needs to translate that permissive Elizabethan false friend into modern English as “I will work and who may prevent it?” On the other hand, “let my people go” fortunately does mean permit and not to prevent them from going. Such distinctions are reasons why one always needs the intervention of scholarship between lay readers and ancient texts. Alternatively, just to keep things interesting, in the King James Bible in some cases “prevent” means to proceed—to go ahead rather than to stop in advance. In the King James rendering of Matthew 17:25, we read that when Peter entered the house, “Jesus prevented him, saying.” Now rather than this being an odd act of lordly aggression by Jesus, the text is simply reporting that Jesus, already being in the house, spoke first. Likewise in Isaiah 21:14, where the King James reports that the inhabitants of Tema “prevented with their bread him that fled,” we’re not reading the description of an ancient dining hall food fight, but rather a favorable report that the inhabitants of Tema have gone out of their encampment to bring bread even before the Israelitic fugitives arrived—a positive, rather than a negative act.

The Privilege of the Interpreter

Now a remark on the politics of translation is not inappropriate here. Shakespeare in study editions always has notes to explain his usages. Message: with some considerable work, you too can understand him. To my knowledge there has never been an edition of the King James Bible with English philological notes. Consistent with Reformation theory, the biblical text is presented as self-evident; as self interpreting; as immediately accessible to any English speaker. This view would insist—erroneously—that there are no dark ages interposed between the 17th century English text and the modern reader. No scholar’s intervention is required, thank you. Whether intercultural or intracultural, the perception of difference and distance, in contradistinction to myths of transparency, works as an assault on common sense, in both meanings of the latter term: the presumption of self-evidence and the presumption of universality.

But if there are costs to perceptions of difference and distance, there are also important gains. Distance yields perspective, not pleased objectivity. Because we are not them, because we are different and distinct from them, we can see things about them they often cannot see about themselves—for example, that they do not always act as they say they do. This claim is a claim of the privilege of the interpreter; a claim on which the human sciences are based. The claim is grounded in two modes of difference: first the distance and difference between cultures that lead to enterprises of comparison, as well as occasions of surprise which necessitate endeavors of explanation. For example, Claude Lévi-Strauss has defined the “xenological enterprise of anthropology” as a view from afar. “Anthropology,” he writes, “is the science of culture from the outside.” Second, the distance and differences within a culture lead to historical consequences and consciousness. Among other things, this allows one to see what has happened to a past event or idea over time, to see its unintended, as well as its intended, consequences; or, in more technical sociological jargon, its latent as well as its manifest elements. This perspective from afar is not obviously available to the participants in that event. This is what Kant had in mind in 1781 when he argued, counter-intuitively, that “we understand Plato better than he understood himself.”

You will want to take note of the stance with respect to the privilege of the interpreter in each of your readings this quarter. Durkheim surely persistently asserts it on the grounds of both his methods and his explanatory goals. Recall Durkheim’s fundamental postulate as to the truth of religion or any other human institution. We—that is to say the social scientist—must know how to reach beneath the symbol to grasp the reality it represents. The reasons the faithful settle for in justifying these rites and myths may be mistaken—and most often are—but the true reasons exist nevertheless, and it is the business of science to uncover them. From this perspective of methodological distance, Durkheim and his fellow social scientists can interrogate both the contemporary Australian Aborigines and contemporary European natural scientists, translating them into a language appropriate for the social sciences. Recall as well here Durkheim’s counterargument to William James’s interpretation of religious experience: “Merely because there exists a religious experience, if you will, that is grounded in some manner” (he’s being a smartass, by the way—is there any experience that is not “grounded in some manner”?) “it by no means follows that the reality which grounds it should conform with the idea the believers have of it.”

This sort of assertion of the privilege of the interpreter—of the cognitive gain from difference—appears perhaps counterintuitive. It has as well been vulnerable to sharp critique from a variety of anti-imperializing, anti-universalizing perspectives, at times expressed by the often political claim “you have to be a such-and-such to understand the so-and-so” in contradistinction to the claimed-here gain of the privilege of interpretation; in the value of knowing another otherwise than one knows oneself. The assertion of the privilege of the interpreter is at one and the same time the source of both the power and the critique of that power in the human sciences, as they undertake their typical tasks of defamiliarizing the familiar and familiarizing that which seems exotic and strange. These two interpretive projects—familiarizing, defamiliarizing—stand in necessary tension to each other. As the philosopher Dilthey already noted in the late 19th century, interpretation would be impossible if everything was truly different, but interpretation would be unnecessary if everything was truly the same. From such a perspective, interpretation, like translation, negotiates the contested world of the in-between; a world where this is never quite that. Interpretation, like translation, is always a relative, never fully adequate project that therefore requires criticism from both near and afar. A critical theory of translation, a critical theory of interpretation, is a prerequisite for there being such an enterprise as the human sciences.

“Mere” Ritual

Issues of interpretation, translation and criticism are raised in the study of a matter central to Durkheim—that of the understanding of ritual. Now there are technical questions that confront any student of ritual: how to notate what are essentially a set of actions and gestures? Where is the observer situated as the ritual is being transformed? What is the effect of that location on their perspective? And most importantly, the matter formulated by Lévi-Strauss: how are actions in rituals to be distinguished from their close counterparts in everyday life? After all, most ritual activities are extensions or exaggerations of quite ordinary human actions: walking, eating, showing, speaking, and the like. These complex issues have proved far less problematic than more fundamental questions pertaining to how we familiarly construct our notions of ritual—yours and mine—as members of a quite particular culture. As culturally constituted, we seem to have problems both with taking ritual seriously and taking ritual too seriously. And so let me take each of those up in turn.

In common usage, ritual often carries the sense of “insincere”: “After a ritual handshake for the media, the candidates in New Hampshire went on to attack each other viciously.” This sort of characterization is reflected back from the field—in a Native American Tlingit assuring the interlocutor in a PBS documentary, “We believe in the power of what we do. They are not just rituals.” There is a range of related elements that lead to the notion of “just ritual”, of its insincerity: ritual is repetitive, obligatory, predictable, highly stylized, public, external rather than internal, the priority of form over substance. All of these contribute to the common locutions “mere ritual”, “only a ritual”.

(As an aside, speaking now as a teacher to any student, in my judgment the comparatives “mere”, “only”, and “just” are always to be purged from your vocabulary regardless of what noun they may modify. They are a grave insult. I think of the student who was asked by me to compare the Babylonian High God to Yahweh, the God of Israel, and he wrote “Marduk merely created the world.” My comment on his paper read: “That’s good enough for me!”)

Alternatively, in other formulations, ritual is thought of as dumb, animal-like behavior. For example, two birds waggling their tokheses at one another we take to be a “courtship ritual”. Note that though they are surely signalling to one another (I hope), few would term it a courtship “language”. Language, which is often highly valued—though increasingly problematically—as a distinctively human trait, is to be jealously guarded from the nonhuman world, while ritual—which we largely devalue—poses no cultural problem in sharing it with animals. In older terms, ritual is habit—that is to say, animal-like unthinking behavior—or ritual is superstition—that is to say, unthinking thought.

While so complex a set of cultural judgments has many causes, it’s especially characteristic of our shared Protestant heritage—a heritage in which we all do share, regardless of self-identification, as Max Weber, among others, makes plain. Each of these judgments as to ritual were systematically formulated in the course of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant polemics against what they perceived to be Roman Catholic superstition, paganism, and ritualism. Durkheim alludes to these sorts of polemics in the third paragraph of his introduction to Elementary Forms. As many of you know, surely, Protestant thinkers persistently affirmed the priority of belief as an internal state over ritual, which they characterized as being—at best—faith’s external manifestation. Indeed, the very word “religion”—which prior to the fifteenth century referred solely to ritual—was transformed during the Reformation into a word referring primarily to personal belief—hence the frequent substitution of the word “faith” for the word “religion”.

A similar mutation has occurred in your lifetimes: “cult”, for most of its history, was a synonym for a system of ritual—see Durkheim’s usage, for instance. It’s only recently that it’s taken on an entirely negative valence and come to mean a group whose beliefs we find bizarre, along with their actions. Protestant authors affirmed the priority of individual experience as personal, shattering, unexpected, sincere, leading to a conversion of the moral person—a rebirth that permeates henceforth all of their actions. This led Protestant polemicists to reject with particular venom the Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato—literally, “from the work done”—which holds that a ritual is always efficacious so long as it is performed correctly by a priest, regardless of his physical, moral, spiritual, or, as we recently have come to learn, post-sexual condition at the time of his performance.

But let’s pause a minute. Are we really so comfortable with so sharp a dichotomy expressing the superior value of internal dispositions and the worthlessness of the external? Think of dear old Aunt Minnie. Unlike the commercial generic holiday presents one receives in the mail, such as the ubiquitous fruitcake (for all I know the same ones circulating around and around for decades), Aunt Minnie, because she knows you to your very core, because she has a personal relationship with you, has picked out a gift that is just the right thing. So far, an assertion of the priority of the internal. But wouldn’t you be profoundly disturbed if then she drove by your house and flung it from her car window at your front door—if I may use the term, unceremoniously—lacking even an outer wrapping? In that case, care was not taken and your distressed aunt Minnie’s carelessness is akin to the sentiment Durkheim terms “profanation” or “sacrilege”. Ritual, among many other things, is the technology of taking care. While philologists still debate whether “right” and “rite” are etymologically related, there is no doubt that their semantic domains overlap in the notion of propriety. Hence my title for this evening’s presentation, which plays on the fact that in Elizabethan English, “rite” or “right” was indifferently spelled r-i-t-e or r-i-g-h-t.

The Interpreter’s Desire for Strangeness

Closely related to the claim of the superficiality of ritual is the judgment that rather than being empty, ritual is filled with content, but that its content is strange, weird, bizarre—especially when it’s somebody else’s ritual (recall the recent change in the meaning of the word “cult”). Thus the present-day New York Times persistently refers to religious statues in Christian shrines by the familiarizing term “icons” even when they start weeping or bleeding, but refers to religious statues which do the very same things in Hindu shrines by the estranging term “idols”—idolatry being the favorite seventeenth-century Protestant label for Catholic ritual. As an aside, Catholics countered by inventing a new word—the Protestant focus on Scripture alone, they said, was “bibliolatry”, as in the sentence, “If to adore an image of the Blessed Virgin be idolatry, to deify a book is bibliolatry” (John Byrom, Anglican clergyman and fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge).

A striking example of this sort of judgment as to the strangeness of ritual—remarkable I think for its utter lack of self-consciousness—is the third paragraph of the first chapter of the first edition of Robert L. Ripley’s Believe It or Not, entitled “An Odyssey of Oddities” (he does have a way with words): “Strange is the man when he seeks after his gods. Therefore the strangest places on Earth are the holiest, and the strangest and most remarkable city in the world is the holy city of Banaras on the muddy arm of the Ganges, India’s holy river.” Now what follows in Ripley is a 13-page, largely accurate, ethnographic description of quite ordinary Hindu religious rituals, framed, however, as being “practiced by the weirdest collection of humanity of the face of the earth—demented, deluded, diseased and devout, all struggling after their gods.” Believe it or not.

Now our opposite cultural problem, alas, is taking ritual—and for that matter, religion—over-seriously, as something that glows in the dark, rather than as a commonplace set of quite ordinary actions. From this point of view, we tend to focus our attention on a small set of highly dramatic rituals: slitting an animal’s throat, cutting a male’s penis, changing a cracker into a god. Durkheim’s focus is an important corrective at just this point—as some of you have perhaps noticed, maybe even with a sense of disquiet. For example, Durkheim’s insistence that religion is focused on the representation rather than the presence, as in his statement that would have inflamed any reformer, that the images of the totemic being are more sacred than the totemic being itself—arguing that it is the natives’ arbitrary scribbles that make the churinga sacred in ritual context, rather than the natives’ belief that the churinga incarnates the mythic ancestors’ bodies or souls. The latter, by the way, is a clear instance of Durkheim’s asserting the privilege of the interpreter. One of the better examples I know of over-seriousness with respect to ritual, filled with both conscious and unconscious humor, is Colin Turnbull’s description of practices among the African Mbuti pygmies. He’s just finished reporting that a musical instrument, the molimo—the “voice of the forest”—is the most sacred object in their religious rituals. And so I pick up Turnbull’s narrative just as a group of pygmies along with Turnbull (about three feet difference in their relative heights) have gone into the forest to fetch the molimo:

I had no idea of how far we had come or in what direction, but I knew we had left a camp far behind, and it was the first time I had known a group of pygmies to be so silent. Normally, unless hunting, they are deliberately noisy; but now, just at the time that leopards would be prowling about in search of food, they seemed unwilling to disturb the forest or the animals it concealed. Just the opposite, in fact. It was as if they were a part of the silence and the darkness of the forest itself, and were only fearful lest any sound might betray their presence to some person or thing not [(it’s italicized—not)] of the forest. [(Woo-ooh!)]

Just as I was about to ask where these others had gone, they reappeared, announcing their presence with low whistles. They were in two pairs, each carrying between them, over their shoulders, a long slender object. Even at that moment I wondered if they would veer off into the complete blackness of the forest before I could see more closely, [(woo-ooh!)] but they came on towards us, Madyadya carrying the rear end of what proved to be a huge tube of some kind, fifteen feet long. He gestured proudly and said: ‘See, this is our molimo!’ Then he turned and, putting his mouth to the end of the trumpet, as it was, he blew a long, raucous sound of a fart. Everyone doubled up with laughter, the first sound they had made since leaving camp.

I was slightly put out by this sacrilege and was about to blame it rather pompously on irreligious youth, when I saw something that upset me even more. I do not know exactly what I had expected, but I knew a little about molimo trumpets and that they were sometimes made of bamboo. I suppose I had expected [(he’s read his Durkheim)] an object elaborately carved, decorated with patterns full of ritual significance and symbolism, something sacred, to be revered, the very sight or touch of which might be thought of as dangerous. I felt I had a right, in the heart of the tropical rainforest, [(with all its malaria and bed bugs and god-knows-what-else I’ve suffered)] to expect something wonderful and exotic. But now I saw that the instrument which produced such a surprisingly rude sound, shattering the stillness as it shattered my illusions, [(I hope he’s joking here)] was not made of bamboo or wood, and it was certainly not carved or decorated in any way. It was a length of metal drainpipe, neatly threaded at each end, though somewhat dented in the middle. The second trumpet was just the same, but only half the length. Now everyone was looking at me to see what my reactions might be. I asked, keeping my voice low, how it was that for the molimo, which was so sacred to them, they should use water piping stolen from roadside construction gangs, instead of traditional materials?

Well evidently now that they had the trumpets in their possession, there was no longer any need for silence, for they answered me calmly and loudly with a counter-question [(and I’ll add four introductory words)], ‘[You superstitious white fellow!] What does it matter what the molimo is made of? This is what makes a great sound, and besides, it doesn’t rot like wood. It’s a lot of trouble to make a wooden one, and then it rots away and you have to make another. [And don’t you know anything about science and technology!?]’

Ausu, to prove how well it sounded, took the end of the longer pipe, and all of a sudden the forest was filled with the sound of trumpeting elephants. The others clapped their hands with pleasure and said, ‘You see? Doesn’t it sound good?’

My conservative feelings were still wounded, however, and it gave me some pleasure to see [(this is the Calvinist in him)] the difficulty the little pygmies had on the way back trying to thread a fifteen-foot length of drainpipe through the forest trees.

Ritual in The Elementary Forms

Let me turn now, and more briefly, to the final topic: ritual in Durkheim’s Elementary Forms. A better rendering of the title, as your translator Karen Fields agrees, would be “elemental” forms. For myself, Durkheim’s work represents the strongest and perhaps the most successful example of translation as explanation in the human sciences; a process of reducing the unknown to an instance of the known. In Durkheim’s work, this is accomplished by translating a language appropriate to religion—the unknown—into a language appropriate to society—for him, here, the known. A translation of any sort must produce difference. If it did not, one would not be translating but rather speaking the other’s language. It is a necessary claim of any science that that sort of difference, whether of a model or of a translation, yields a cognitive gain. Now with respect to ritual, Durkheim does more. Elemental Forms is one of the most thoroughgoing rejections of our Protestant heritage with respect to the understanding and evaluation of ritual.

As you’ve read, Durkheim argues that the two categories of religious phenomena, the irreducible building blocks of religion, are beliefs and rites—in Durkheim’s translation, “collective representations and actions.” The relations of thoughts to action is a major and enduring philosophical issue, and we won’t solve it this evening. But here, Durkheim, as a trained philosopher (that was his training) argues that thought is coeval with action, but that logically—for analytical purposes—belief must be treated as if it was prior, as belief is the object towards which action is directed. On the other hand—socially and factually—he argues equally strongly for the priority of action. In the central section of his work, it’s the collective emotive ritual experience that gives rise to misrecognition in the form of beliefs—the rish-rish-rish (and by the way, he added that to his source) and the projections and objectifications which erroneously follow (namely, gods).

As you have read, for Durkheim, the sine qua non of religion—that without which religion would not be religion, but some other social formation—is the absolute and formal opposition of sacred and profane, employing here a spatial model: the sacred being that which cannot come into contact with the profane. This opposition provides the distinctively religious set of eyeglasses through which the world we live is socially constructed and understood. Later in the work, in his explanation of the opposition sacred/profane, Durkheim will shift to a temporal model. The opposition is socially generated by the alternation between collective festival time and individual economic time. Religion is always a powerful engine for making distinctions, hence Durkheim’s persistent interest in classification. The distinction sacred/profane, as for him with all taxonomic classifications, is not natural; it’s not given, it’s not a recognition of an inherent quality. Quite literally anything can be socially marked as sacred, be it the larvae of a small moth (the witchetty grub), or shit, or among the Mbuti a length of metal drainpipe, neatly threaded at each end. Most importantly, in Durkheim, religion is not the presence of the sacred, it is the system of relations created and maintained by a society with respect to the categories sacred and profane. They are both equally necessary for there to be religion.

This complex understanding of sacred/profane challenges a long-standing Western tradition of religious reformers with respect to their polemics against Catholic idolatry. But for Durkheim, there can be no substantive difference between an oval piece of wood used to stir a pot of Aboriginal stew, and an oval piece of wood held to be a sacred churinga, save for the human social imprinting of the latter with a sign. “That mark,” he writes, “and only that mark, confers sacredness on them.” That is to say, for Durkheim, the sacred is always “superadded” (his term) by human social activity and thought. It is never given or inherent.

We have seen an analogous phenomenon within our own national experience. Since 9/11, Americans surely rediscovered what Durkheim terms the “emblematic character and power of the flag.” Its resignification of a sacred collective representation in a matter that reinforces Durkheim’s understanding of the churinga, and his comparison of the churinga to the flag. The flag, Durkheim reminds us, is itself only a bit of cloth. Its markings, like the churinga’s, are arbitrary. Although again, as with the churinga, the marks will receive a variety of secondary native interpretations, as no doubt some of you learned in public school. Even more recently, again though it is itself only a bit of cloth, we have seen from Indonesia and Pakistan, to Europe and the Americas, a resignification by Muslim women of the head covering—as well as other features of dress—as expressive of their membership in a transnational collectivity; a solidarity that marks them with respect to the wider imperium in which they may find themselves embedded.

In the course of his exposition, Durkheim offers one important qualification to the opposition sacred/profane. What must be held separate in thought may be mediated in practice. “For if the profane,” he writes, “could in no way enter into relations with the sacred, the sacred would be of no use.” This leads to Durkheim’s most suggestive characterization of ritual. “It is,” he writes, “a veritable act of sacrilege.” That is to say, it is a rule-governed, socially-sanctioned profanation, to be undertaken only by what he terms “qualified persons.”

Throughout Elementary Forms, Durkheim sustains and enlarges his critique of our Protestant heritage for understanding ritual. Beyond those elements already noted, Durkheim argues that 1) ritual is not animal-like behavior; ritual is the mark of being truly human, that is to say, of being social rather than individual. 2) The repetitiveness of ritual is not dumb habit, but the very source of its power. And in the service of this thesis, Durkheim deploys as never before the little prefix “re-” to a massive extent—the prefix without which the human sciences may well be
impossible. It is the “re-” that produces the real social effects of ritual, as opposed to the natives’ claimed pragmatic ones (it’s to make rain, it’s to heal somebody, and so on). Thus rituals are described throughout the third part of Elementary Forms in terms of representing, recollecting, refreshing, revivifying, recreating, reassembling, remaking, renewing, reaffirming, replicating retempering, regenerating, with society, the object of each one of those actions. I would add here Jane Harrison’s useful friendly correction and amendment to Durkheim on repetition: “Ritual is not simply a thing done, not even a thing excitedly and socially done.” (Remember the rish-rish-rish.) “What is it then? It is always a thing re-done. Ritual is re-presentation re-peated.”

The Vietnam Memorial

Rather than continue with Durkheim and his Australian materials, I turn by way of conclusion to a contemporary American example. One of the better instances I know of Durkheim’s understanding of the sacred in our national collective experience is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC—one of the prime sights of present-day American pilgrimage along with the site of the World Trade Center, Graceland, and the Wisconsin farm that is home to a white bison. The memorial is pre-eminently sacred in Durkheim’s sense of the term—that is to say, it may not be profaned. To see spray-painted graffiti, posters, or stickers on it would be surely felt to be a sacrilege. And yet, Durkheim would have pointed out, it’s only a wall of black polished stone; a landscape feature. Like Durkheim’s privileged example of the Australian churinga, the memorial’s superadded centrality is signaled by arbitrary marks—in this case, letters, forming fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and thirty-nine proper names.

Recalling Durkheim’s prioritizing of non-representational signs as a demonstration of their social, rather than natural, nature, there is also—though we often forget it—a second memorial, erected as a result of political pressure: a realistic bronze statue of three grunts. A few moments of observation of the site will be sufficient to convince you that, unlike the black stone wall, this second memorial does not function, in any fashion, as sacred. Visitors to the memorial are united in what Durkheim would term “a church”: a moral community exhibiting high affectivity. Standing before the memorial, it is truly irrelevant, as a child of the 60’s, whether one was for or against the Vietnam War. Divisiveness, for that moment in time, is overcome. Hence it’s a community that requires periodic renewal and refreshment.

At the memorial, Vietnam veterans are present in uniform—like Durkheim’s clans, the kinship socially created by insignia, not by natural processes of biological descent. One group of veterans stands, usually wearing uniforms, in perpetual watch. Other veterans return periodically to the memorial to re-establish their solidarity with their brothers- and sisters-in-arms—an extended community encompassing both the living and the dead in a web of reciprocal obligations.

Behaviorally, there is a set of special relations between some of the visitors to the memorial. In Elementary Forms these are, as already noted, designated as qualified persons able to legitimately profane the memorial. This set of visitors, this subset—relatives, comrades, friends—touch the wall, especially those segments of the wall with which they feel associated. They often trace a name, which while only an arbitrary mark, results in a deeply meaningful, highly emotional experience—one which Durkheim would label “communion”. This subset, along with other visitors, often bring gifts; offerings which are placed at the base or against the wall. Some 4,000 objects are left annually, each one of which is removed nightly by the Park Service and carefully preserved in climate-controlled government warehouses in Lanham, Maryland. Having touched the wall, these gifts acquire sacrality by what Durkheim termed “contagion”. Requiring protection from the profane, they are withdrawn from ordinary circulation. Furthermore, these gifts themselves are signs of that reciprocity which for Durkheim characterizes a moral community—a church—and are therefore eminently social representations. One set of objects consists of letters, photographs, and household objects which assert the continuing familial community of the living and the dead. Another set consists of flags, military insignia, medals, parts of uniforms, cans of K-rations, each one of which expresses metonymically the socially-created kinship of military service, each object serving as an emblem that maintains and renews solidarity. What occurs, I would suggest, at the memorial is the practice of an American native religion.

Now I close with this contemporary American example for two reasons: First, to reinforce Durkheim’s contention that his understanding of religion applies not only to “them”—to Australian Aborigines, to the rituals of folk who don’t wear clothes—but to us as well. And second, to remind us of what, above all, a true classic of the human sciences such as Elementary Forms strives to accomplish: not only a familiarization of the far (in Durkheim, Australian Aboriginal religions) but also a de-familiarization of the near—in the case of the memorial, under Durkheim’s tutelage, beginning to learn to look at our own commonplace objects and practices, our own self-evident understanding, with different, perhaps even with other, eyes.

J.Z. Smith was a historian of religion at the University of Chicago, and the author of Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1988), Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (2004), and many other books.