Thursday, January 12, 2023

“Catholicism or Post-Catholicisms?” — Part 3: Rappaport’s Conception

We continue the publication of Dr. Tomasz Dekert’s “The Effects of Catholic Liturgical Reform Considered in the Light of Roy A. Rappaport’s Theory of Ritual.” (Links to Part 1; Part 2)

Rappaport’s Conception
Roy A. Rappaport
Seeking an answer, I propose to look at this situation through the prism of Roy Abraham Rappaport’s theory of ritual, which is located entirely outside of the Catholic universe of meaning. This should, at least initially, allow for the construction of a hypothesis to explain why such consequences issued for the Church from the liturgical reform (as problematized above), seen from the point of view of what a liturgical ritual amounts to as an anthropological phenomenon, as distinct from something whose reality depends on some theological interpretation or other. This does not mean that I intend to treat these two dimensions as being somehow opposed; rather, in view of the mutual antagonism just noted between emically divergent instances of Catholic hermeneutics, it seems justified to reach down to some more basic level, where liturgy is viewed precisely as just ritual, and where various construals of it might therefore converge.[26]

Roy Abraham Rappaport (1926–1997) came to prominence primarily through his research conducted among the people of Maring (Papua New Guinea), and his works based on them, in which he initially developed an ecological approach, where this meant seeking to explain cultural facts through the prism of their relationship with the environment.[27] Although he never completely abandoned the ecological and adaptive paradigm in the context of the study of religion, in his later works he definitely shifted the emphasis to semiotic issues and the role of language and communication.

Ultimately, his theory as explained in his magnum opus Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity[28] is “an anthropological combination of the theory of ecology and linguistics into a coherent concept that definitely fits in with the cognitive and structural tendencies of contemporary research on religion.”[29] In this sense, Rappaport’s conception goes far beyond its empirical source context—something which gives it great analytical and explanatory power. It also sheds light on the problem outlined above, or at least provides a functional framework for arriving at a better understanding of it.

Considering the importance of what the emergence of language brought to mankind (i.e. the ability to communicate through symbols,[30] combined according to the rules of grammar “into semantically boundless discourse”), Rappaport points out that, in addition to the adaptively important and beneficial role that this played in the history of human beings, it had two broadly construable negative implications: the possibility of lying and the idea of a grammatically implied alternative.[31] The former results primarily from the conventional nature of the relation between the symbol and what it denotes. This relationship is relative and contingent, so there is a wide range of possibilities for manipulating it.[32] The latter, on the other hand, is rooted in the fact that grammar allows for the construction of different and/or contradictory statements: from the point of view of the grammatical rules themselves, the sentences “YHWH is God and Marduk is not” and “socialism is preferable to capitalism” are valid, but so are their converse forms, and it is well known that the alternatives generated by this sort of grammatical implication are invested with more than a purely nominal significance. As Rappaport writes, “Grammar makes it possible to conceive of alternative worlds, that is, of alternative orders governed by either the laws of Marduk or those of YHVH, or of worlds organized in terms of the principles of socialism or of capitalism.”[33]

Both the possibility of lying and the seeming grammatical validation of an implied alternative are weaknesses of language, and thus also inherent weaknesses of human systems—in which, apart from genetic information common to the rest of the natural world, cultural information, symbolically encoded, plays a key role. The human world is first and foremost a world of meanings. The threat posed by lies, and thus disorder in respect of meaning, lies in the potential for a collapse of intra-social communication reflecting a breakdown in trust and credibility; uncertainty as to the truthfulness of messages generates less predictable reactions and introduces social disorder into life.[34]

In turn, the grammatical alternative lies at the very basis of ideas about what is possible, and “as such it may be a first step toward the disruption of prevailing social and conceptual orders.”[35] However, on a deeper level, it asks a person not only what—of the two (or more) members of the alternative—really is the case, but also, and perhaps even above all, what should be so. And, to a large extent, it does not apply to physical or chemical phenomena and processes, but rather to what depends on symbolic beings and values, whose reality, and therefore validity, cannot be discovered empirically: “The actuality or reality of any symbolically contingent element of the world becomes known, in the first instance, as a consequence of its construction, establishment and maintenance by those who would take it to be actual.”[36]

Faced with the possibility of lying and the presence of an implied alternative, human socio-cultural worlds face a constant danger of disintegration. According to Rappaport, religion—and, within its framework, above all the ritual from which it de facto grows—mitigate the problems resulting from falsity-inducing aspects of language and partially eliminate the destructive effect of the alternative. (They “mitigate” and “partially eliminate” them, because it is impossible to completely remove them, as to do so would involve taking away language itself). As one of his commentators puts it, the role of religious rituals is to “resolve conflicts inherent in culture understood as a kind of self-directed cybernetic system.”[37]

Rappaport defines a ritual as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.[38] Each of the elements of this seemingly simple definition has far-reaching implications, and their coexistence is a sine qua non condition for our speaking of something as a ritual.[39] The key aspect of this approach is the fact that the ritual is not seen here through the prism of its “sense,” “content” or “meaning,” but rather in terms of its exterior, as a special relationship between perceivable elements: in short, through the prism of a performatively activated form. This does not in any way mean that Rappaport does not take into account the semantic layer of ritual, but it is known that in this respect human religious rituals are both highly and profoundly diverse, whereas he is interested in what they all share, this being the fact that the ritual constitutes a performance or execution of a certain ready (“not entirely encoded by the performers”) form.

As such—and this is extremely important—ritual is not one of the “alternative symbolic media,” dramatically or performatively expressing the same as what was contained in the ritual texts themselves, or in the holy books, theological treatises, and so on. Here Rappaport takes issue with Edmund Leach, who holds that “myth regarded as a statement in words” says “the same thing as ritual regarded as a statement in action.”[40] Rather, the uniqueness and indispensability of ritual lies in the fact that it adds to its symbolically encoded content something that the latter, precisely because it is symbolic (in the Peirce’s sense), is unable to produce on its own account. To put it as concisely as possible, it approaches, albeit asymptotically, a thoroughgoing unambiguousness.[41]

Such functioning on the part of ritual results from the special coexistence of two types of messages, which Rappaport refers to respectively as self-referential and canonical. Importantly, separating them from each other is an analytical procedure, foreign to ritual practice, but necessary in order to highlight how it operates. As he states, the clue to ritual action lies in their mutual relationship.

Self-referential messages show up in all rituals, be they human or animal. Through them, the participants of the ritual furnish themselves and others with information about “their own current physical, psychic or social states.”[42]. The primary medium through which these messages are broadcast are signs of the kind referred to in Peirce’s typology as indices. In contrast to symbols, in the case of such indices, the link between the signifiant and signifié is tight and results from a certain vital and obvious—usually physical—relationship between them.[43] Therefore, the main “sphere of transmission”—if one can use such a term—is, broadly construed, the physical one, ranging from the issue of one’s presence or absence (this is also a specific message), through location in space, to unconsciously transmitted and subliminal perceived minor muscle contractions signaling emotional states.

The obvious and indispensable presence of self-referential indexical messages in ritual is responsible for its two dimensions. First, even in the case of the most hierarchical and meticulously defined rites, there is always a margin of variation in the act of their being performed, related to the immediate and current (in a temporal sense limited to the hic et nunc) nature of the stream of self-referential information broadcast by the protagonists. This dimension is a constitutive component of what we can define as participation. Second, indices do not generally afford scope for someone to engage in lying, as the non-conventional link between the signifier and the signified is concrete, unambiguous, and hard to rupture or distort.

Rappaport notes that while there is a potential for multiple references to a single index—for example, slurred speech may indicate either a stroke or drunkenness—“ritual relies heavily on indices that are virtually impervious to falsification and resistant to misinterpretation.”[44] That is why it is that it is thanks to the presence of self-referential messages that ritual makes it possible to overcome, or at least mitigate, the danger of lying that threatens every culture on account of the dominant character of symbolically encoded meaning. Of course, they do not accomplish this in and of themselves, but only in conjunction with “messages borne by the liturgy’s invariant canon.”[45]

The terms “canon of liturgy” or “canonical message,” as understood by Rappaport, can be confusing to the ears of someone accustomed to the meaning they possess in theological discourse. Canonicity is, of course, a relative category, and one that makes sense within a given cultural and religious system, but in that context it actually refers to the “more or less invariant” components of the ritual. At the level of communicated content, “the canonical… is concerned with enduring aspects of nature, society or cosmos, and is encoded in apparently invariant aspects of liturgical orders.”[46]

Generally speaking, the “canon” is everything forming a part of a given ritual that is not found to be encoded by its protagonists themselves, and in the context of which, while performing the ritual, they enter into or execute gestures, poses, movements, words, or artifacts, ways of using these, and so on. Giving a canonical message is tantamount to performing a ritual consistent with rules that are objective (in the sense that they are external to the performing subjects).

Canonical information is in many ways the opposite of self-referential information. The latter is temporary, and expresses the current state and/or status of the participants in the ritual, while the former is by no means limited to the present: Rappaport is even inclined to argue that it can be viewed as standing entirely outside the space-time continuum.[47] This is closely related to the classes of signs that they respectively use. Self-referential information is conveyed mainly, if not entirely, through indices. Canonical communication, on the other hand, while it may use both indices and icons, is—because of the fact that its “significata may be, indeed, usually are spiritual, conceptual or abstract in nature”[48]—nevertheless primarily a domain of symbolic coding.[49] Paradoxical as it may sound, the canonical message itself participates in all the weaknesses of language, such as the possibility of lying and being susceptible to the curse of the Tower of Babel (to use Rappaport’s metaphor) resulting from the grammatical entailment of alternatives.

The irreplaceable importance of ritual for each and every religio-cultural system lies in its unique combination of a self-referential and a canonical stream of information. Thanks to this, the participant, by virtue of the very fact of taking part in the ritual (not to mention their active involvement in it), on the one hand “reaches out of his private self, so to speak, into a public canonical order to grasp the category that he then imposes upon his private processes,”[50] and on the other, by saturating with indexical self-referentiality the canonical message they are engaged in broadcasting, abolishes its symbolic ambiguity, limiting the room for any sort of lie. In fact, in ritual action there is a fusion or union of protagonists with the canonical and self-referential messages they broadcast:

To say that performers participate in or become parts of the orders they are realizing is to say that transmitter-receivers become fused with the messages they are transmitting and receiving. In conforming to the orders that their performances bring into being, and that come alive in their performance, performers become indistinguishable from those orders, parts of them, for the time being. Since this is the case, for performers to reject liturgical orders being realized by their own participation in them as they are participating in them is self-contradictory, and thus impossible. Therefore, by performing a liturgical order the participants accept, and indicate to themselves and to others that they accept whatever is encoded in the canon of that order.[51]


[26] Of course, I am aware that such a claim is, in and of itself, simply naive. In the field of anthropological and religious theories of ritual, especially in their postmodern versions, there is an absence of agreement concerning not only its operation, but also its very existence, at least in the sense described by classical anthropology (see Mateusz Dąsal, Rytuały, obrzędy, ceremonie. Antropologiczna konceptualizacja rytuału  [Kraków: Wydawnictwo NOMOS, 2018], 26–9). This is a problem that cannot be fully discussed here. The basic intuition behind the thesis that a descent to the level of anthropological reflection practiced by authors such as Rappaport (i.e., those who have not succumbed to the supremacy of postmodern deconstructionism) may allow us to overcome the problem of conflicting versions of the Catholic hermeneutics of the liturgical reform results from the belief that in relation to the Catholic religion and its liturgy it is an adequate tool: that is, one properly adapted to its subject. Some contemporary liturgists, such as Nathan D. Mitchell, try to disavow the “classical consensus” of anthropology regarding ritual (one of whose representatives would be Rappaport, see Mitchell, Liturgy and the Social Sciences, 63-4) by showing that both historically, and with regard to the present day, the understanding of “ritual” as something “symbolic, structured, canonical, invariable, non-technical, traditional and repetitive in nature” misses the reality. For example, based on the Talal Assad’s analyses of early Benedictinism, he argues that the monastic approach to liturgy requires that we see it not as something carrying a meaning that must be decoded, but as an exercise (a technology) of the self, shaping a new identity through various kinds of practice (“eating, working, walking, sleeping, praying”). This is supposed to be something distant from “canonicity” as Mitchell believes Rappaport to understand it. Thus, the early Benedictine practice would prove that the Christian ritual is something that does not fit within the “traditional consensus” of anthropological approaches to ritual, as it is much more indefinite, non-systemic, ambiguous, etc. (see Mitchell, Liturgy and the Social Sciences, 71–5). In my opinion, the incompatibility of monastic ritual as it shows up in Assad’s and Mitchell’s interpretation with Rappaport’s own conception is readily apparent. However, apart from that, while I appreciate the sensitizing influence of such approaches, I believe that to treat them in terms of tools for analyzing the central currents of the Catholic liturgy and its modification would be simply wrong. Catholicism is a religion that has a very specific ritual system that cannot be reduced to the category of emerging rituals, individual and contingent “ritualizations,” “techniques of self,” and similar categories, even taking into account its enormous historical diversity. In the case of the Catholic liturgy, the theory has been left behind by its subject matter, in that it can be shown that the anthropological “classical consensus” understands ritual much as, in the form of the liturgical system within the Catholic religion, it did actually function. It is no coincidence that I have used the past tense here, because what the ritual is, and how it works, in post-conciliar Catholicism, is less obvious. Even so, this is not, in my view, a reason to reject the tools of classical anthropology: due to their compatibility with the pre-conciliar liturgical ritual, they provide a unique opportunity to see the nature of the change that violated this compatibility.

[27] See especially Roy A. Rappaport, Ecology, Meaning and Religion (Richmond: North Atlantic Books, 1979); Pigs for the Ancestors. Ritual in the Ecology in the New Guinea People, 2 ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). 

[28] Roy A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). In fact, we see him developing in this work considerations and intuitions already present in some of his earlier texts (e.g., Rappaport, Ecology, Meaning and Religion).

[29]  Andrzej Szyjewski, “Sacrum od działania do mowy – Roy Rappaport w środowisku rytualnym,” introduction to Roy A. Rappaport, Rytuał i religia w rozwoju ludzkości, trans. Adam Musiał, Tomasz Sikora and Andrzej Szyjewski (Kraków: Wydawnictwo NOMOS, 2007), XI.

[30] Rappaport extensively adopts the trichotomous typology of signs proposed by Charles S. Peirce. Hence, the concept of a symbol should be understood here as Peirce understood it—namely, as a sign in which the signifiant and the signifié are linked by convention, with the primary example of this being the word (see Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 462 note 1). According to Peirce, the other classes of signs are indices and icons.

[31] See Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 4.

[32] “When a sign is only conventionally related to what it signifies… it can occur in the absence of its signification or referent, and, conversely, events can occur without being signaled.” Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 11 (original emphasis).

[33] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 17 (original emphasis).

[34] See Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 15. Of course, Rappaport is not considering the “truth” of a given statement in absolute terms, but in relation to specific worlds of socio-cultural meaning. Hence, the lie is not universal here—except, of course, for the fact that the possibility of its occurrence results from the very nature of language.

[35] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 17–18.

[36] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 19.

[37] Jakub Bohuszewicz, “Skuteczność jako cecha rytualnej komunikacji w koncepcjach Victora Turnera i Roya Rappaporta,” Ex Nihilo 1 (2009), 91.

[38] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 24 (original emphasis).

[39] Rappaport takes a very broad view of the scope of ritual when construed within the social communication system and its meta-elements in these terms: “I will argue that the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers logically entails the establishment of convention, the sealing of social contract, the construction of the integrated conventional orders we shall call Logoi…, the investment of whatever it encodes with morality, the construction of time and eternity; the representation of a paradigm of creation, the generation of the concept of the sacred and the sanctification of conventional order, the generation of theories of the occult, the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, the grasp of the holy, and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic.” Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 27. A full grasp of the liturgical reform in the light of his theory would have to include an analysis of its impact at the level of all these implications. However, I leave this task for another occasion.

[40] Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure (Boston: Beacon Press, 1954), 13, as cited in Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 38.

[41] Cf. Bohuszewicz, Skuteczność, 93.

[42] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 52.

[43] Peirce formulated several definitions of an index, the simplest of which says that it is “a sign which refers to the Object it denotes by being really affected by that Object.” Justus Buchler, The Philosophical Writings of Peirce (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 102, as cited in Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 54. A commonly invoked example is smoke, about which it cannot be said that its “meaning” is fire (as then it would be a symbol), or that it shows fire on the basis of some relation of likeness to it (which would make it an example of an iconic sign), but rather simply that it points to fire as its cause. Analogous examples can be given as regards messages on the social level: a bow does not “symbolize” respect, but points to it, and not only to it, but also to the social structure in which there are those who bow and those to whom ones bow, or those who bow to each other, etc. Rappaport (Ritual and Religion, 58–68) discusses the problem of indices in detail.

[44] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 56.

[45] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 58.

[46] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 58.

[47] Cf. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 53–54.

[48] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 54.

[49] As an aside, it is worth noting that within literate cultures, a kind of hyper-symbolization can and does occur, when the canonical information is itself included in the written word, and then those aspects of the ritual that are in themselves indices (e.g. body positions) are also in a way “symbolized”—i.e. rendered in a symbolic order. The best example of this is the Roman Missal with its division into nigrics and rubrics. Obviously, however, this does not imply a change in the semiotic nature of the liturgy itself when celebrated in accordance with such scenarios, because no ritual involves the proclamation of stage directions, and a gesture remains what it is—a gesture—regardless of whether it is performed in line with what some custom dictates or out of obedience to a rubric.

[50] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 106.

[51] Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, 119 (original emphasis).

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