Monday, March 13, 2023

Molly Farneth's "The Politics of Ritual"

Molly Farneth is Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Haverford College. She is the author of Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation.

Farneth applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, The Politics of Ritual, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Politics of Ritual, I introduce the concept of “vocatives.” Vocatives are a category of speech acts in which the speaker calls another: “A vocative, then, hails a person or group. In doing so, it recognizes that person or group ... and then calls him, inviting his response. [The person hailed] can recognize the call as directed to him, or not.” I connect this concept of vocatives to what Louis Althusser calls “interpellation” into an identity or subjectivity. On Althusser’s account, “when a person hails someone or something, they are not only recognizing the already-existing identity of that person or thing; they are also contributing to the creation or constitution of that identity within particular social structures.”

Taken on its own, it isn’t immediately clear what this page has to do with the argument of the book. In that respect, the Page 99 Test doesn’t work here! But the introduction of vocatives and interpellation sets up a major theme of the book: that liturgies and rituals can work like speech acts to change the social (and political) world. For example, when a prayer leader says, “Let us pray!,” they hail an “us.” Their hail names a group, and calls to that group, inviting them to respond. The people who are hailed, I argue, can recognize or refuse the call. People can – and do! – disagree about who ought to be included in these hails and about how those hailed should respond. Their disagreements can change the ritual, or even change the group itself. As I write a few pages later, “a prayer leader who says ‘Let us pray!’ may have a particular ‘us’ in mind, but the people who hear those words need not show up or respond as that ‘us.’ Sometimes unexpected people show up. Sometimes the expected people show up but respond in an unexpected way… [This] suggests that the authority to perform a ritual, or to have one’s role or status conferred or changed through such a ritual, depends on practices of recognition (103).”

The Politics of Ritual shows how rituals create and maintain groups. Rituals regulate the boundaries of groups, and distribute social goods including power and authority. Rituals also shape the habits and dispositions of the people who participate in them. But The Politics of Ritual also shows rituals’ dynamism – the ways that people recognize, refuse, and reshape the rituals that constitute their lives together. Page 99, and its discussion of vocatives, is one piece of that bigger argument.
Follow Molly Farneth on Twitter.

The Page 99 Test: Hegel's Social Ethics.

--Marshal Zeringue