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Politics and Ritual: An Interview with Molly Farneth

The Center for Political Theology will be hosting a book launch for The Politics of Ritual on March 16, 2023 at 4:30pm in Garey Hall 10A, Villanova University. Please RSVP to denise.farrell@villanova.edu.

Molly Farneth’s lucid and eminently readable new book, The Politics of Ritual, traces the ways in which rituals wield political power. They create in-groups and out-groups, distribute goods, designate authority, form habits, and express beliefs. Although rituals are often associated with tradition in colloquial parlance, Molly deftly demonstrates how they can also enable exhilarating transformation.

I came to Molly’s work by way of my interest in genre, specifically the romance. I am currently writing about how genres come into being through repetition and offer scripted narratives that—like rituals!—do political work: reinforce a fantasy of reunion, for example, or shape a community’s collective desires. Our conversation, printed below, touches on the specificity of the term “ritual,” capacious conceptions of ritual, rituals with ambivalent consequences, and methodology.

(1) What is at stake in honing in on ritual specifically (vs. another term, like performance)? As I read The Politics of Ritual, I couldn’t help but think about Judith Butler’s work on how the repetition of performance begets norms on the one hand and is a site for potential change on the other. Of course, the book also cites Butler directly. What does ritual in particular get us?

A decade or so ago, I started noticing how religious practices were showing up in protests and political events: things like the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish at a protest of police violence, or a celebration of the Eucharist at the U.S.-Mexico border fence. The commentary that I read about those events had little to say about why people were enacting these rituals or what ethical and political work they might be doing. I wanted to take them seriously as political activities with their own substantive effects – not to dismiss them as publicity stunts or, as rituals are sometimes dismissed, as “merely expressive” – and I suspected that doing so might also help to make sense of what these kinds of activities are doing in their ordinary settings as well. So that became the project of the book, to give an account of rituals that highlights what’s political about them.

But I take it that your question is, “why analyze these kinds of activities under the banner of ‘ritual’?” Ritual has long been a key term in the study of religion – and it comes to us with the baggage of that history. There’s important work on the history of the term, and on the theological, philosophical, and political problems that history of use presents. Some scholars have taken this baggage as reason to abandon the term, but it seems to me that the other terms and categories that people have used to talk about the subject matter have many of the same problems (or else they introduce new ones), and they have the added disadvantage of being scholarly terms of art that aren’t accountable to the things people say and do in the course of their everyday lives.

So, for example, I was in synagogue last week, and there was an older man who read from the Torah. It was his birthday, and the rabbi had invited him to participate in the service in various ways. Now, this is a person who attends synagogue every week on Shabbat, who goes to Torah study, who regularly participates in the communal prayers and liturgies. At the end of the Musaf service last week, the rabbi asked him to lead the congregation in a blessing over the wine and challah, and he waved the rabbi off, saying, “No, no, I don’t do ritual!” I found this fascinating! What distinction was he making? What counted as ritual for him, and what didn’t, and why was he willing to do one thing and not the other? He didn’t say, “I don’t do Jewish practice!” or “I don’t do performances!” (And not only because the second just isn’t how most people talk). Ritual named a particular kind of religious activity that was different, in a way that mattered to him, from other kinds of activities.

Some of these other kinds of activities are captured by terms like social practice and performance. Ritual, social practice, and performance all involve complex human activities that are, to greater or lesser degrees, guided by the norms, habits, and expectations of the members of some social group. You mention the connection to Butler, which is important here – there are a number of places in Butler’s early work where they write that the repeated performance of gender is like a ritual. I remember coming across those passages in grad school and being so intrigued. What does Butler mean? And why does this analogy feel so powerful?! I think Butler is playing with both the distinctions among these concepts and the fuzziness around their boundaries, to push us to notice things about performances of gender that we might not otherwise notice. When people talk about rituals, they’re typically talking about activities that are highly scripted. They’re also typically talking about activities that are value-creating or -affirming; rituals are often a way of valuing something. By characterizing the performance of gender as ritual-like, Butler emphasizes how gender can be scripted and gender performances repeated; how this repetition can constitute gendered subjects; how the performances themselves participate in the creation of gender categories or other valued things. Performances of gender aren’t rituals, at least in the ordinary way of using the term, but they are like rituals in ways that are worth thinking through, not least for how this juxtaposition helps us think about their social, ethical, and political effects.

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(2) Relatedly, many examples of ritual in the book are more obviously “religious” rituals: Muslim Salat, Jewish Kaddish, Christian liturgy. How about other kinds of rituals in our public life? The Politics of Ritual offers going to a movie as an example of something that is not a ritual. But what if it were a screening of a cult film? I just wrote a little bit about the experience of going to see Everything Everywhere All At Once. There is something almost transcendent about participating in the ritual of seeing this film as an Asian American, even if the reasons are kind of banal ones rooted in liberal multiculturalism (representation yay!). Even if the viewer is not Asian American, the maximalist aesthetics of the film renders a mind-boggling viewing experience that the viewer might jokingly describe to her friends as a religious one. This intensity of experience might apply to our consumption of many other forms of cultural production as well. All this is to say: what about rituals around our consumption of art, which can often be a transcendent experience (and do the kind of work that you illustrate in the book, like designating belonging and expressing belief)? Can “ritual” be understood more capaciously?

Definitely – in the book, I define “rituals” in terms of both routines and social practices. As routines, they involve sequences of acts in a regular and highly-prescribed order. As social practices, they’re governed by the norms of some group of people who care about the practice. There are routines that aren’t social practices, and there are social practices that aren’t strictly routines. But there are lots of religious and non-religious activities that fit the bill as both routines and social practices – those are the things I have in mind when I’m talking about rituals.

I used the movie example to think about who counts or doesn’t count as a group (as the kind of collectivity that might have or enact a ritual). A random collection of people who buy tickets for the same screening of the latest blockbuster aren’t a social group in any strong sense. But you’re right that there are good counter-examples – the collection of people who end up at the midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example. They may have a sense of group identity and of collective expectations and norms that govern how they act and respond to one another in that setting. A church group who gathers to watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ might, too. In a case like that, the experience of watching the movie together could be like a ritual in the sense in which I’m using the term. Are these activities as routinized as rituals typically are – are they discrete sequences of acts in a regular and prescribed order? I’m not sure, though I’m less interested in the exact boundary of the category of rituals than in what we can say about various activities and their social and political effects if we think of them in these terms. What kinds of groups do they foster? What goods – including things like belonging and authority – do they distribute, and to whom? What habits and dispositions do they cultivate in practitioners? Those are the questions I’m trying to get at.

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(3) I feel like examples of rituals often come up in the book as nonviolent group actions that disrupt potentially volatile interactions, such as enacting a mourning ritual in the midst of protests, or (attempting) foot-washing in response to a Westboro Baptist Church demonstration. But historically, rituals have also been violent. Take, for example, rituals of punishment or sacrifice. The book acknowledges that rituals can work for good or for bad, depending on how they’re practiced, and you give illuminating examples of both. But what about rituals like those of punishment, which can have ambivalent consequences? Take, for example, ritualized online shaming in the wake of #MeToo, which can be leveraged against powerful abusers but seems to have spawned its own beast (not only carceral feminism but also a moralistic and unforgiving ethos). How does your book help us think about these instances where rituals operate ambivalently?

Right, so the book offers an account of rituals that highlights their political implications – and, as you say, these implications can be good or bad, just or unjust, liberatory or dominating, depending on the content and enactment of the rituals. When people disagree about their rituals (such as whether and how to participate in them), among the things they disagree about is what kinds of people, and what kinds of communities, they want to foster. Understanding how that’s so is the analytical work of the book.

But the politics and communities that I care about fostering are democratic and justice-seeking. If the book does what I hope for it to do, then its account of ritual is relevant to understanding a range of rituals, including those whose effects are ambivalent or worse, while many of its examples help us better to imagine rituals that are radical and liberatory.

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(4) Finally, a method question. You write a little bit about the relationship between The Politics of Ritual and Hegel’s Social Ethics in the introduction. How would you chart the shift in method, from doing a close-reading of one thinker to something else? I would also be interested in any reflections you have on writing the first book versus the second book!

I think that the books seem more divergent than they actually are! In Hegel’s Social Ethics, I do a lot of interpretive work, trying to make sense of what Hegel’s up to in the Phenomenology, and then I draw on that interpretation to talk about the relationships and practices that communities ought to cultivate if they want to address their own conflicts and contradictions. Some of the practices that Hegel has in mind are rituals, and the book ends with a distinctly political enactment of a ritual, the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish for Eric Garner, which is, of course, where The Politics of Ritual starts.

In The Politics of Ritual, my sources are more varied – I draw on social practice theory, feminist theory, and philosophy of language, as well as a wide range of examples – but the work is still a mix of conceptual analysis and cultural criticism. I’m trying to think clearly about some concepts in our field, to analyze their (ambivalent) appearance in our contemporary political landscape, and to make the case for their democratic use.

Methodology aside, writing is hard! Writing the second book was as hard as writing the first book, but I think it was also more joyful. I didn’t feel the need to write a book that would encapsulate everything I cared about. That’s often a first-book phenomenon, I think. And when I hit the inevitable rocky patches in the second book – when my ideas flopped or my writing stalled – I had the experience to know that was part of the process, too.

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