Book Club: Ritual and Its Consequences

December 17, 2008

Anyone seriously interested in roleplaying theory should check out Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, a new book from Oxford University Press by Adam Seligman (Religion, BU), Rob Weller (Anthropology, BU), Michael Puett (Chinese History, Harvard), and Bennett Simon (Psychiatry, Harvard Med) that proposes an alternative approach to the study of ritual and its ubiquitousness in our daily lives. I’ve heard Weller and Puett speak multiple times and they are smart cookies. Plus I was nodding my head on every page so far, due to the strong connection to roleplaying, and I haven’t even gotten to the chapter on “play” yet.

Here’s their discussion of “shared imaginary space (SIS)” and/or Neel Krishnaswami’s “shared symbolic language” (see also Exploration in the Forge Glossary):

When we say of a culture that its members share a symbol system, or a set of values, or a common idea of the sacred, we are in essence asserting that they share the potential space of a shared “could be.” …Much ritual action in fact provides this shared sense of empathy — sometimes even in terms of an explicitly shared “what if.” When Jews sit around the Passover Seder table and are explicitly enjoined to fulfill the commandment to feel “as if you yourselves had been liberated from Egypt,” they create that shared symbolic space where the commonality of the “could be” becomes the very basis of the ongoing collective experience.

However, they also suggest, as many folks have more recently suggested, that the shared symbolic space is ultimately illusionary, that different participants in a ritual don’t actually feel or experience things the same way. However, the ritual space encourages us to act as if we do, which is the social medium (part of the social contract of participating in the ritual) that allows the group to participate collectively, while still retaining a crucial degree of flexibility and subjectivity.

Can’t wait to finish the rest of it.

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