Ritual Speech and Subjectivity

nahual-2Workshop, University of Austin, October 2010, 14th-16th.

(click here for program)

In this workshop, we will take a comparative approach to discuss a wide range of phenomena centered on ritual speech. Presentations will describe works in progress coming from diverse theoretical backgrounds but with a common focus on the context of ritual. Materials for discussion will be drawn from geographically diverse locations ranging from Siberia to Africa to Central and South America.

The study of ritual speech poses a range of problems that demands a multifaceted approach in which language and the context of its production must be considered at the same level. Departing from the crossroads of Anthropology and Linguistics, this workshop aims to explore the complexity of ritual speech and the ways in which its content, form and effects can be analyzed.

‘Ritual’ has been defined at different levels, from Goffman’s everyday practice to the collective rituals celebrated by every culture in the world. These diverse social phenomena have in common a certain formalization of actions. In this sense, when we approach speech facts, it may be necessary to talk about ritual as a process −that is as ritualization− and find the answer to some of the following questions: What does ritualization do to speech that makes it distinctive? Is it really different from ordinary speech? Is it a particular register or is it different because of the process of ritualization in which it is involved?

From the vantage point of action, ritual speech is not just a matter of communication. It is of course related to the transmission of knowledge, but it is also fundamentally linked to the way(s) in which that knowledge is distributed socially and to the relational context of its performance. By considering all these other components of ritual speech, we want to include in the analysis the subjects and the objects that are part of the performative situation: the ritual specialists and their audience, the material elements used by them and the space they occupy.

Many questions emerge from here: What kinds of ritual speech are the sole province of ritual specialists, and how do they differ from the mundane rituals of ordinary interaction? How do people learn ritual speech, use it, and transmit it? What other practices are performed within the speech act? What effects do they have? In what ways does ritual speech change through articulating with an ever-changing phenomenal present? How does the practice of a ritual speech event transform the experience of the participants?

As with any other discourse form, ritual speech implies the action of a speaker. However, in the case of ritual speech, the subject seems to define himself by a lack of intentionality, at least as we can find it in ordinary speech. Sometimes considered as anonym, ritual speech seems to achieve a supra-intentional status, standing over and above the subjectivity of the individual who performs it.

Other times, ritual speech is attributed to the intentionality of other agent(s) that relate in various ways to the speaker, but are different from him or her (e.g. particular animals, spirits or gods). In these cases, we may ask ourselves: How does the speaker define the new subject(s)? Does he use elements of the speech itself? Does he use external supports, like objects or images? Is it through his interaction with the actual audience of his speech that he presents external agent(s)?

The necessity of transmission is also an important characteristic of ritual speech and will be one of our concerns. The transmission of ritual speech is generally related to a great variety of objects, designs, places and gestures that are often present in the speech situation. We would like to explore the different uses and roles played by this materiality through which ritual speech is articulated. We also would like to explore the relationship between ritual and history and the ways in which the different historical contexts may transform ritual speech as well as the concept that people have about it. Even when we can all agree about the effectiveness of ritual speech, and its capacity to generate its own reality, we may have different perspectives on how this is done.

Another vantage point that will be taken in this workshop is linguistic. From its performance to the details of its form and content, ritual speech is often involved in the production of opacity of its content. That is why we want to analyze, in addition to the communicative aspect of ritual speech, its capacity to be poorly intelligible and, thus, intensely significant. If we consider ritual speech as being highly significant and poorly intelligible, then we may see its translation as a particular procedure involving more than just linguistic skills. What other aspects of ritual speech should be taken into account in such a process? Are ritual languages (registers or genres) definable in terms of linguistic mechanisms? Is ritual speech any more or less universal in its features than non-ritual speech?

Considering these elements, language becomes just one of multiple manifestations of ritual speech, in addition to melody, musical patterns, breath, and the production of extra-linguistic sounds. The study of these elements may also be supposed to take into account the use of objects, the interactions generated through it, and the settings where these elements are displayed. This particular conception of speech may have implications for the linguist’s analysis: will he learn things about the language from ritual that would be unclear or even unknowable otherwise?

Some of the foregoing questions point to the reflexive capacity of ritual speech. While saying things about the world, ritual speech is constantly making reference to itself. This production of metalanguage is often situated in stylization, but also in other aspects of ritual speech. We would like to explore the mechanisms by which the ritual speech becomes reflexive and the effects these processes yield in interactions among the participants of a particular ritual event. Can the ethnographer, by studying the words and grammatical structures used in ritual, learn things about ritual that otherwise would be impossible to discern?

In this workshop we encourage discussion of these and other aspects of ritual. Our hope is to open a theoretically and empirically-informed discussion of the social, cultural and linguistic bases of the ritualized word.

Image credits: Nahual by César Núñez

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