Monday, April 10, 2006

Ritual and Tradition (A Rebuttal)

I see that my humble self has had the honor of being skewered by one of the Internet's finest, though I think my position is not as far from Ed's as he makes out. It seems to be that we diverge primarily in our views of tradition and ritual. Ed originally wrote
Ritual is important in a society and most of our important rituals are church-related, from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as rituals for the passage to adulthood (or something near it) to marriage ceremonies to funerals. And certainly, church communities do act as support groups in a wide range of ways, most of them positive. On top of that, much of the great art, music, architecture and so forth has roots in the church and these are all valuable both to society and the individual.
My concern is not necessarily with their value, per se, but rather with the way in which they are commonly interpreted. I've touched on this briefly in the past in writing about rites of passage. My concern in that case was that rites of passage encourage people to think in dichotomies; they forget that the rite is merely the formal recognition of an ongoing process. I believe that this critique can be expanded to ritual in general; the average person posited by Ed forgets that ritual is symbolic, intended to remind the practitioner of something else. They focus their thoughts on the ritual itself rather than the truth behind the ritual and, in the end, the ritual ends up obscuring the truth that it was originally intended to illuminate. With regards to tradition he goes on to say in his new post
I absolutely agree that my craving for a connection to something more permanent and timeless than last year's one hit wonder and this week's fashion trends is a function of living not merely in contemporary culture, but specifically in American culture (which is primarily popular culture and thus far more transient and temporary).
That's the start of an answer, but its not the whole answer. Why does transience cause us to crave tradition? Why the reaction formation? I'll posit that change reminds us of our mortality, and that we reach for tradition in an effort to deny the same. This is armchair psychoanalysis as its best (worst?), but that's beside the point. The point is that we crave tradition because it serves some deep-seated, psychological need which we choose not to face head-on. Again, in the interest of little-t truth, wouldn't it be better to identify and reconcile this need rather than continue to crave tradition? This is where the "pandering" comes in. There is a dichotomy between reaction and considered choice; an action is either volitional or reflexive. As Ed points out sexual desire is a primal reaction and we exercise choice as to the when, where, and how. In that case we're exercising conscious choice. But the average individual, living an unexamined life, makes no such choice when it comes to tradition. They grasp at tradition because it makes them feel good, rather choosing tradition through a process of rational evaluation. This is what I mean by "pandering"; its fine to indulge the reptile brain (at length), but its another thing to reflexively accede to its demands. Now, lest I be branded an ascetic or Philistine, I'll concede the merits of wine, balsamic, and the Sistine Chapel. But I think these examples prove my point. The aged balsamic is good because balsamic improves with age, ditto with wine. The Sistine Chapel is enthralling because its an archetypal example of fine (high, even) art. But none of them are valuable merely because they partake of tradition.


Anonymous Ed Brayton said...

I hope you don't really feel like you were skewered. I didn't take your initial reply to me that way and I hope you didn't take mine that way. And I agree with you that we probably aren't all that far apart. It's never really occured to me to delve any deeper into why I am drawn to certain traditions. I can't say that I find your armchar analysis terribly convincing, but I suppose it might be. As I said, I think I am drawn to things of more permanence simply because we don't get much of it in this culture. But I'm not drawn to traditions so much that I think any tradition is good, of course. Some traditions are bloody awful. On that I'm sure we agree. I'd not read your thoughts on rites of passage before, but I find them interesting. You may well have a point. But when it comes to such things, I'm not prone to thinking in simple good and bad terms. Rites of passage have good aspects and bad aspects, like tradition. Anyway, thanks for the perspective and for making me think more deeply about these things.

12:54 AM  
Blogger GG said...

Thank you, Ed, for the reply. The "skewered" was mostly tongue in cheek ; consider it a salute to your typically deft and concise analysis. Glad I'm giving you something to think about, that's the general intent of this entire excercise.

1:05 PM  

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