Thursday, August 28, 2008

When rituals don't "make meaning" ("The Limits of Meaning", Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson)

I've just finished reading all (yes, all - the collection is that good!) the chapters of The limits of meaning: Case studies in the anthropology of Christianity, edited by Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson (2006). One of the reasons I decided to read all of it is that the volume has a core theme running through all the chapters: When and how does Christianity create meaning, and when do Christian rituals create what seem to be the limits of meaning, the absence of meaning, or meaninglessness?
What should we make, for example, of a church service in which a person gets up to give the sermon, but then fails to say anything and sits down again (as described in the chapter by Matt Tomlinson)? Or what should we make of a service in which the speaker purposefully leaves a long silence after his sermon, which makes the congregation start to feel increasingly awkward (as described by Simon Coleman)? Instances such as this, occurring in the middle of Christian rituals, challenge the assumption that rituals are invariably "meaningful" or that they always "make meaning".
I found this line of thought interesting, and have collected three quotes here about the "unclarified spaces" of rituals - ambiguous, absurd or chaotic spaces:
"The historian of religion J.Z. Smith has argued that 'ritual precises ambiguities' (1987:110). This is itself a perfectly ambiguous phrase, and purposefully so. Ritual makes things clear; it also makes them unclear. Ambiguity and clarity are mutually constitutive." (Matthew Engelke, p. 79)
"For something to be illogical or uninterpretable, ethnographically, is for it to be absurd. To interpret ritual as agency or world-making (De Boeck and Devisch 1994; Devisch 1993) as a productive process is to eliminate the possibility of ritual manifesting the absurd, the meaningless, and the helplessness of humans in the face of larger forces - whether political, economic, or divine ... When we, as ethnographers, embrace the possibility of indeterminacy in ritual, we also acknowledge the realm of the sacred: that which cannot be spoken." (Erica Bornstein, p. 100)
"Rituals of meaning-making necessarily create the possibility of a vague and chaotic realm in which meanings might be present but cannot be made, or might be absent and have attention to be called to such absence." (Matt Tomlinson, p. 141)
Engelke, Matthew and Matt Tomlinson, eds. 2006. The limits of meaning: Case studies in the anthropology of Christianity. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

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