Modernity and its Malcontents

Expanding the structural-functionalist and symbolic anthropologist concepts of rite and ritual as referents to the traditional or the sacred, Jean and John Comaroff see them as activities also rooted in the immediate and the everyday that have great creative power in communicating new ideas by their fluid semiotic natures. They argue that ritual is its own ‘vehicle’ in the historical process and not simply a tool for retrospection or conservatism, and this concept liberates its study from traditional Western categorisation. Thus when examined in culture-specific examples alongside the historical background it can be seen how ritual responds to changing circumstances by either sustaining old, or disseminating new, ideas. They argue that ritual creates meaning to provide acceptable resolution for perceived paradoxes; that it arises as a response to discrepancies such as the gap between the ‘rational’ forces of modernity and progress and their ‘mystical’ or unexplainable realities. Thus ritual is a prime lens through which the effects of such global forces can be examined without losing sight of local particularities and histories.

Their re-conception of ritual galvanizes questions on the development of rituals – how is it that changing symbolic meanings are understood? Do they require a common consciousness? If so, how is this created? And if ritual can be a ‘vehicle of history-in-the-making’, is it controlled? Or is it random? The Comaroff’s introduction shows perfectly how the marriage of different disciplines (in this case anthropology and history) can uncover fascinating new routes for discourse.

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