What Is Ritual?

Sarah Perry  is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The View from Hell.

If we should inquire for the essence of “government,” for example, one man might tell us it was authority, another submission, another police, another an army, another an assembly, another a system of laws; yet all the while it would be true that no concrete government can exist without all these things, one of which is more important at one moment and others at another. The man who knows governments most completely is he who troubles himself least about a definition which shall give their essence. Enjoying an intimate acquaintance with all their particularities in turn, he would naturally regard an abstract conception in which these were unified as a thing more misleading than enlightening. And why may not religion be a conception equally complex?

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture II


Khlyist ecstatic ritual

What is ritual? The religious studies scholar Ronald R. Grimes presents six pages of short definitions of ritual as an appendix to his The Craft of Ritual Studies; they make for fun reading, but also suggest a hopeless confusion surrounding a tempting and fascinating topic. William James, in his 500-page Varieties of Religious Experience, provides for us, instead of a single essence of religion, what he calls an “apperceiving mass” – plentiful examples through which the nuances of the matter will gradually reveal themselves. Since a blog post is hardly the place for such an “apperceiving mass,” I will attempt instead to define ritual within a tidy framework, keeping in mind that any such reduction will necessarily miss some of the important aspects of a major human domain. Nonetheless, I do think my simple model provides insight into the nature of ritual, and helps us to make sense of the seemingly irrational behaviors of other cultures, as well as the ways in which modern Western culture is itself a strange, ritual order.

Costly Signaling and the Ritual Mental State: Oxygen and Fuel

The first essence of my model of ritual is sacrifice: a costly signal made by participants to the group or to some sacred object of the group. As my colleague Will Newsome put it,

That a behavior is “ritual” is a hypothesis presented when the behavior appears irrational – for example, when resources are sacrificed or behaviors are performed for no visible gain. This may range from the sacrifice of animals or even people, to the potlatch ceremony of giving away (or destroying) gifts on a grand scale, to sacrificing time in prayer or even athletic practice. And with this in mind, a great deal of human behavior comes to look like ritual; it is far from the exceptional case. Indeed, the human order is a ritual order, not a rational one. Language is not our only mode of signaling; much of human behavior, and especially that which is called ritual, is signaling.

Costly signaling is a framework within which the “irrational” sacrifices and acts of ritual can be made sense of. Costly signaling comes from evolutionary biology, and posits that a signal that is very costly to produce is especially likely to be honest. A peacock’s tail is the classic example: only a very healthy and fit bird could get away with growing such a ridiculously impractical tail. Similarly, sacrificing a great deal for one’s group is a costly signal of loyalty, and therefore more likely honest than mere “lip service.”

In my view, this “costly signaling” theory takes us only halfway to understanding ritual effectiveness. Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler’s study of the longevity of communes found that costly signals in the form of behavioral sacrifice (for example, food prohibitions and sexual restrictions) were correlated with the longevity of religious communes – but not secular communes. More demanding religious communes lasted much longer than less demanding communes. And, importantly, non-religious communes had poor survival no matter how much they demanded from their members. The other half of the secret to ritual is the mental states evoked by ritual. A ritual that does not produce the proper mental states will not be effective at facilitating cooperation:

What is important for the argument presented here is that those who experience this numinous sensation perceive the incident to be undeniably true. Because secular rituals do not generate this feeling of numinosity, and the ideology that provides meaning to secular rituals can be evaluated through experience, the ability of these rituals to promote trust and cooperation is ephemeral.

Sosis and Bressler, Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion, 2003.

To someone who has experienced ritual possession by his god, the question of whether his god “exists” is a silly one, not even worth contemplating.

And so, the second essence of my model of ritual is the evocation of specific mental states. If cooperation and the solution of coordination problems is the “fire” of ritual, then costly signaling is its fuel, and the ritual mental state is its oxygen. Here is my model of ritual:

  1. Traditional behaviors are performed, often including speech acts;
  2. Time and other things are sacrificed;
  3. Mental states are evoked and emotional display is constrained;
  4. Certain aspects (purpose, mechanism, history) are opaque or concealed; and
  5. A sacred or otherwise “higher” purpose is understood;

With the function of:

  1. Changing the social status of some member or members;
  2. Strengthening the group; and
  3. Solving coordination problems.

To put it another way, ritual is the process by which:

  • “ends in themselves” (sacred or “higher” objects generally representing the group or some aspect of it necessary for smooth social functioning)
  • are affirmed in value by conspicuous sacrifice and evoked mental states,
  • and the social status of members is affirmed or changed in a way that is expected to have effects beyond the context of the ritual.

Ritual is fundamentally social; Roy Rappaport describes ritual as “the basic social act.” The pair bond is a microcosm of the ritual community, a locus of costly signaling and the evocation of mental states to promote the most fundamental human cooperation. Consider Seligman and Weller’s description of the pragmatic effectiveness of ritual, compared to mere speech, within pair bonds:

Anti-ritualist attitudes deny the value to this subjunctive of play, convention, and illusion. They seek to root interaction in some attestation to the sincerity or truth-value of all categories or interlocuters. Yet,…”the map is not the territory.” If, for example, our love for each other registers only through our words (“I love you”), then we are caught in the perennial chasm between the words (of love) and the love itself. Words are only signifiers, arbitrary and by necessity at one remove from the event they signify. Hence the attempt to express love (or any other truth-value) in words is endless, as it can never finally prove its own sincerity or truth – its “unalloyed” nature. Ritual, by contrast, is repeated and unchanging. It avoids the problems of notation and sincerity because its visible performance itself constitutes an acceptance of its conventions. Unobservable inner states are irrelevant.

Adam Seligman and Robert Weller, Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity

Performance, beyond personal attestation or “lip service,” is what evidences and even creates belief. Sex (the original rhythmic ritual), food preparation and sharing, kind behavior, and gazing into each other’s eyes are the behaviors that power pair-bond coordination, with its peculiar mental state of love. Different, but analogous, ritual acts and mental states underwrite cooperation at larger scales.

Ritual Sacrifice of Time and Other Valuable Things

Time is the default sacrifice. It is the measure of sacrifice that underlies our complex economic order, so it is no surprise that it also underlies our ritual order. In religions that have a Sabbath, an entire day of productivity is sacrificed to God every week. Every ceremony involves the sacrifice of the time of participants; often, ceremonies involve the sacrifice of time by high-status persons. An arraignment is a ceremony in which the legitimacy of a person’s incarceration is established; not much information is exchanged, but the ceremony requires sacrifice in the form of a grand courtroom built for the purpose, as well as the time of grand personages such as the judge and two attorneys. Ritual attendants such as court reporters and bailiffs are required as well. The sacred value of “justice” is understood to be the target of these sacrifices.

Money is a phenomenon with roots deep in human prehistory, allowing for coordination on an international scale. Modern wonders such as vaccines, hot running water, and iPads are possible only because of the organization made possible by money. However, money is, at root, a ritual order. It is only rational to sacrifice valuable goods and services in exchange for pieces of paper, numbers in a bank ledger, or bits on the blockchain because of the group hallucination that such things are, and will continue to be, valuable.

The ritual power of money as a sacrifice is seen in a recent study on treatment for Parkinson’s disease, which found that a placebo that participants were told cost $1500 was more effective at reducing symptoms than a placebo that participants were told cost only $100. When effectiveness is difficult to evaluate, money as a measure of sacrifice (whether by the individual or his collective) has real-world effects. Expensive placebos are perceived as more effective than cheap placebos in the magical domain as well as the medical (and of course the two are inseparable); penis enlargement pills and anti-aging serum are often very expensive despite a lack of proven efficacy precisely because the measure of sacrifice in money terms is the only measure of their value available to the consumer.

Note, however, how often ritual sacrifices “for charity” come in forms other than money. Charity runs, walks, and bike rides allow participants to do “useless” activity – to sacrifice time and comfort – directed toward the sacred object of the charity. This sacrifice allows them to feel less shame at collecting money for the charity, and gives those who would donate, and themselves, a visceral sense of their commitment. Consider the recent popularity of the “ice bucket challenge.” People desire to prove their bravery and sacrifice their comfort for higher purposes, and this viral ritual gave people the opportunity to do that. The opportunity to simply donate money to a charity is not nearly as motivating.

The signaling theory of education posits that education has little effect on intelligence or aptitude, but functions almost entirely as a costly signal (of diligence, intelligence, low time preference, and perhaps faith in the ritual order of our society). In a similar manner to expensive placebos, the high cost of education may act as a signal to participants of its own value. People are willing to pay enormous amounts of money just for the opportunity to invest years of their lives in attempting to become more valuable to their groups. That others are also willing to do so, and that the opportunity is so very expensive, support the belief that education is very valuable.

Another kind of sacrifice is food restriction; many religions enforce dietary restrictions, with taboo foods and prescribed (and proscribed) methods of food preparation. While ritual dietary laws often have health benefits (see the food examples in my essay on cultural evolution), it seems that people have a desire to engage with food in a ritual way that has nothing to do with measurable health. Vegans are often highly empathetic people who desire to sacrifice their own pleasure and health for the sake of the “higher purpose” of reducing animal suffering. Others take a different route, excluding highly processed foods and eating a “primal” diet in order to connect ritually with the humans of the past. The popularity of fasting and “cleanses” (e.g. drinking nothing but lemon juice mixed with chili powder) suggests that people have a desire to engage with food in a religious way, and that food restrictions as costly sacrifices are desirable for their own sake.

I mentioned in my definition of ritual that some aspects of ritual, such as purpose, mechanism, or history, are concealed or otherwise opaque. Not taking a skeptical view of sacred stories and sacred objects may be seen as a form of sacrifice. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, famously says of the sacred, “The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.” Haidt notices that politics is a domain of the sacred, and that the way sacredness functions is to “bind us” (to each other) and “blind us” (to information threatening the sacred value). My co-guest-blogger Haley Thurston defines sacredness in terms of this opaque, concealed quality: “a thing you think is so important that in order to preserve it, you’re willing, consciously or unconsciously, to not examine it.” Maintaining the sanctity of sacred stories and objects is a kind of sacrifice – often taking the form of “mental gymnastics” – symbolically protecting sacred things from profanation, if only by the mind. Sacred, protected things also invoke a special mental state when brought to mind. The next section considers the special varieties of consciousness – mental states – that are the second chief ingredient of ritual.

Ritual Mental States and Group Proprioception

Ritual mental states are not all pleasant. In many rituals, what Harvey Whitehouse calls “dysphoric rituals,” what is sacrificed is comfort: extreme fear, pain, and even humiliation are inflicted on participants. Dysphoric rituals have a particular feature: they help small groups become tightly knit in what Whitehouse calls “identity fusion.” (It is difficult to separate the costly signaling aspect of ritual from the mental states thereby evoked.) Tribal initiation rituals and modern boot camps are examples of this type of ritual. Whitehouse says:

[W]e think dysphoric rituals are a bit like coming under fire in a warzone, except that they are more powerfully bonding, partly because they cannot be explained in any simple causal way. The range of interpretations that one can place on a painful or unpleasant ritual is inexhaustible: it sucks you into an interpretive vortex. In fact, our lab experiments suggest that one’s sense of a ritual’s significance actually increases over time, rather than decaying. In communal ceremonies it is usual to witness others undergoing the same experience, and to imagine them sharing the same rich interpretive process. The forces shaping one’s own sense of self are recognised in a special cohort of others, causing members to ‘fuse’.

Harvey Whitehouse, Human rites

Ritual is play, but it is not all fun; it is frequently painful or humiliating. For examples of dysphoric rituals other than initiation rites, see the rituals of naven and noganoga’sarii in Papua New Guinea. (I have been advised by a reliable source that the fun-sounding Hindu ritual of Holi is actually a pretty unpleasant ritual. This also makes sense of giant stadium concerts.) The unpleasantness is not a side effect to be eliminated, but precisely the source of the rituals’ power.

One way of thinking about this “identity fusion” is as group proprioception: the perception of one’s small group as an extension of one’s own body. Consider this description of a hunting party in New Guinea by E. Richard Sorenson, recording group proprioception from the outside:

One day, deep within the forest, Agaso, then about 13 years of age, found himself with a rare good shot at a cuscus in a nearby tree. But he only had inferior arrows. Without the slightest comment or solicitation, the straightest, sharpest arrow of the group moved so swiftly and so stealthily straight into his hand, I could not see from whence it came.

At that same moment, Karako, seeing that the shot would be improved by pulling on a twig to gently move an obstructing branch, was without a word already doing so, in perfect synchrony with Agaso’s drawing of the bow, i.e., just fast enough to fully clear Agaso’s aim by millimeters at the moment his bow was fully drawn, just slow enough not to spook the cuscus. Agaso, knowing this would be the case made no effort to lean to side for an unobstructed shot, or to even slightly shift his stance. Usumu similarly synchronized into the action stream, without even watching Agaso draw his bow, began moving up the tree a fraction of a second before the bowstring twanged.

E. Richard Sorenson, Preconquest Consciousness

This sense often extends to the sacred objects of a group. A trick of drill instructors in Marine Corps boot camp, in the middle of screaming at a worthless group of recruits in their first few weeks, is to casually allow the flag representing the unit to fall; in almost all cases, one of the recruits will dive to save the flag from touching the ground, even though the recruits have not been told that this is expected of them. Rituals such as drilling together and suffering together make the recruits perceive the sacred objects of their group as in need of protection, almost like a precious body part.

Here is how the Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh speaks of group proprioception, in the Catholic tradition:

Neurologists point out that a human being, so far from being born with innate coordination of its senses, must grow itself into a sort of envelope of sensation which then forms for the individual his or her own peculiar physical and emotional self-image….

Analogously, a corporate entity such as a church might perhaps be said to grow itself into a sort of envelope of sensation which then forms its own peculiar self-image, its own real awareness of corporate identity which is its own fundamental principle of operation. The stimulation process which is most responsible for a church’s growth into its own identity-envelope, and which is therefore responsible as well for how that church functions in the real order, is its life of constant and increasingly complex worship. For in worship alone is the church gathered in the closest obvious proximity to its fundamental values, values which are always assuming stimulative form in time, space, image, word, and repeated act. The richer this stimulation is, under the criteria of the Gospel, it follows that the more conscious, aware, self-possessed, and vigorously operational the given church will be.

Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology, p. 62.

Some ritual mental states, of course, are extremely pleasant, activating subjective experiences not obtainable in mundane life. A Balinese dancer describes the trance state: “the feeling of a flow, no mind, everything is under control by the other realm.” The altered mental states achieved in such rituals as Balinese dance, glossolalia, ritual possession, and less exotic forms of worship are crucial to the efficacy of the rituals, in terms of facilitating group harmony and cooperation. As I noted in the previous essay in this series, cues such as synchronized motion and rhythmic entrainment can produce mental states that facilitate cooperation and bonding, even allowing groups to be braver (and perhaps violent) toward other, threatening groups. How can groups cooperate and trade despite humans’ violent tendencies? The next section explores a major class of rituals that channels violence into harmless ritual: ritual combat.

Ritual Combat

Ritual combat includes athletics, games, and even some actual combat; we might even view combat occurring within the rules of the Geneva Convention, for example, as a form of semi-ritualized combat.

My sport, fencing, is a highly ritualized form of athletic competition that descends directly from lethal forms of combat. Many hours of practice are sacrificed before presenting oneself to compete in a collegiate bout. A very particular uniform is worn, and as with group sports, cheers may be performed prior to a match between teams. Combat is limited to the “piste,” a precisely measured strip of ground, often covered in metal to facilitate electronic score keeping. Before combat, each participant’s weapon is examined and measured; participants salute each other, the scorekeeper, and the officiant in a ritualized manner practiced thousands of times in practice bouts. The signal to be ready and to begin is given, and when a point has been scored, the action is halted. In my essay on children’s ritual culture, I noted that children often have a “respite word” to call a “time out” when play gets too dangerous; the only analogy in adult culture exists in games, and in fencing, this is accomplished by stamping one’s back foot repeatedly on the piste while raising the non-weapon hand (such as when you discover your shoe is untied).

Strong emotion is evoked in athletic ritual, but the range of emotions that may be expressed is also constrained, in different ways depending on the sport and the era. In fencing as in many sports, it is poor sportsmanship to celebrate a victory too raucously, or to fall on the piste in sorrow when one loses (I have seen it happen, but it is rare and considered shameful). Participants must solemnly shake (non-weapon) hands at the beginning and end of bouts. This ritual control of emotional display – in the service of “sportsmanship” – is one of the most important features of athletic ritual. I have also had the good fortune to experience an altered mental state during a fencing tournament, what is often described as “flow” – a narrowing of vision and perception, combined with what seemed to be the ability to slow down time, to reach in and touch my opponent with the point of my weapon wherever I wanted, and protect my own target effortlessly. Perhaps those who have experience with team sports can advise me as to whether “group proprioception” or other altered states occur in that form of ritualized combat.

Restricting emotional display is a sacrifice, both in the aforementioned courtroom, in ritual combat, and in other ceremonies – it is difficult to rein in one’s emotions! But restricting the display of emotion (as well as engaging in ritual display of emotion, such as weeping, tearing clothes or cutting hair in mourning) can also help evoke the proper ritual mental states. Again, the sacrifice is often inseparable from the evocation of mental states.

Clifford Geertz’ excellent Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight provides a model of ritual combat in which “irrational” amounts of money are bet in proportion to the status and reputation of the owners of the roosters, which in turn is proportional to the quality of the roosters themselves. This ritual violence, while perhaps shocking to Western sensibilities, provides a satisfying and effective substitute for human-on-human violence:

Fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite, because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”

Ingroup formation and conflict with the outgroup are human universals; channeling this tendency into cooperation is a major challenge (see, e.g., Muzafer Sharif’s Robbers Cave Experiment). The play of ritual, including ritual combat, allows our dangerous “murder ape” tendencies to be subverted.

From Grooming to Ritual

Our species’ nearest relatives solidify social bonds mostly through one-on-one fur grooming. Grooming takes time – it is a costly sacrifice – and also, presumably, creates a mental state in the participants that helps the sacrifice achieve its cooperative ends (think about how pleasant it is to be cuddled or massaged). Robin Dunbar’s theory of grooming and gossip posits that for groups too large and complex for one-on-one grooming to organize, language, especially social gossip, takes over the role of grooming. Having explored the nature and power of ritual, it seems likely to me that ritual – including music, rhythmic entrainment, dance, singing, and the like – form a more general candidate for “what replaced grooming” in our own complex social species.

Human-specific behaviors include not only language, but also tears and laughter. Kevin Simler has argued that the human-specific phenomenon of tears acts as a costly signal to conspecifics, sacrificing status and evoking a mental state of pity, offering “friendship at a discount.” Laughter is a social phenomenon, occurring much more often when people are together than when they are alone, and often in response to social cues rather than a genuinely mirthful stimulus.

The field of evolutionary musicology is a relatively new field in an early stage of development and rigor, but offering at least hypotheses about the origin of music. I suggest that music is a part of the ritual order that builds on and replaces grooming, and that language may originate in this new rhythmic ritual order, with ritual preceding language. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, possess some of the capabilities underlying rhythmic ritual, although among primates only humans have elaborated this capacity into music, dance, and ritual. Perhaps ritual found us first, and the words only discovered us later.


What is the opposite of ritual? Defecation, an act shared with all animals, does not seem like a ritual; rituals are social, and defecation is performed in private; rituals involve the sacred, and defecation is the epitome of the profane. However, the act involves many behavioral sacrifices for the community; it must only be performed in particular locations, and hygienic rituals such as wiping with toilet paper or washing oneself with the left hand (and tabooing its use in other contexts) are required. Hand-washing after defecation is a sacrifice to the health of the group that is more likely to be performed if others witness one’s performance. We have a rational reason for hand-washing – the prevention of infectious disease – but the practice precedes the germ theory of disease, and many hand-washing ritual performances today are not actually effective at preventing the spread of disease. Interestingly, the very privacy expected during defecation is subverted toward ritual ends by the historical (and perhaps contemporary) practice of boot camp “heads” (bathrooms) not having walls separating the toilets. Perhaps the extreme destruction of privacy facilitates group “identity fusion.”

While there is probably no domain of human activity that ritual does not invade, watching television must score very low on the ritual spectrum. It involves the sacrifice of time, in a sense: perhaps some people watch television in order to participate in social gossip with other people, a sacrifice of time for community. But there is another perspective that probably accounts for more viewer hours: perhaps television absorbs time that the community has no other use for, ritual or economic. Advanced industrialization has left us with cognitive surplus – spare time that our groups have no demands on. Spare time that is of little value to our groups may also be of little, or even negative, value to us; television offers a way to get through time. It does not offer us much in terms of opportunities to be valuable to each other.

The internet, under the definition presented here, holds much more promise than television as a ritual domain. Our sacrifice of time to the internet, our mutual evocation of mental states, and our display and constraint of emotional response, are much more likely to be directed toward others, or toward sacred objects of our groups, than time sacrificed to television. New groups are forming and changing, offering new sacred objects and new rituals, including new forms of ritual combat. Social status is negotiated, affirmed, and changed within the ritual order of the internet. Perhaps seeing internet rituals for what they are will helps us select the best ones, and elaborate new ones to participate in.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Great article. Helped to clarify a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about on my own end of things.

    As a former (and recovering) musicologist the blurb about evolutionary musicology was pretty interesting too — helps to remind people occasionally that music is built on a rhythmic foundation, in which all things come only after.

  2. Ritual is fundamentally social

    Bad news for Venkat’s “grounding rituals”. Now that you have grabbed back the word “ritual” and filled it with all kinds of group related meaning and communicative purposes ( costly signaling ) the beauty of splitting the empty and meaningless sequence of actions from the “spiritual” content is gone. I do understand that communication or “signaling” turns a seemingly irrational action into something rational within a socio-economical framework but then there is no place for disposing the social by something which acts exactly like a ritual – but is none according to your prescription.

    • :) And the dialectic continues. It’s partly why I invited Sarah to resident-blog. I could sense from her other writing that she naturally heads social where I head individualist.

      I’m now plotting my individualism counterattack.

  3. TV feels like its lost some of its ritual attributes, but they are there: watching one of three network channels in the 1950s demonstrated to your office mates the next day what you had done the night before, and binge watching every episode of a Netflix series in one day demonstrates your commitment to that tribe. TV made the ritual location independent, and the VCR made the ritual asynchronous, but the ritual remains.

  4. There is even a term of art for television which has had some of its ritual nature restored. Personally I find TV has more ritual quality than the internet, which is too scattered and distracting. Ritual is about socially shared focused attention and the internet is almost the opposite of that. Not that there isn’t potential for ritual there, but I don’t see it happening yet.

    Do you know Erving Goffman’s work on face-to-face social rituals? That version of ritual doesn’t seem to have much associated sacredness, it means more like “stylized performances”. Although the values social rituals are intended to reinforce (“face” and status) have an element of the sacred about them I guess.

    • There are at least 3 possibilities. First, new kinds of IRs [Interaction Rituals] may be created, with new forms of solidarity, symbolism, and morality. In this case, we would need an entirely new theory. Second, IRs fail; solidarity and the other outcomes of IRs disappear in a wholly mediated world. Third, IRs continue to be carried out over distance media, but their effects are weaker; collective effervescence never rises to very high levels; and solidarity, commitment to symbolism, and other consequences continue to exist but at a weakened level.


    • Venkatesh and I occasionally discussed the possibility of a-synchronous ritual systems — like you, I tend to be skeptical about its actual implementation, although the internet definitely has been effective at disrupting the existing temporal norms of modern societies. (e.g. reading your newspaper in the morning, watching TV after dinner, etc.) Disrupting the status quo isn’t the same as building new ones, though, and I think the tech industry generally has underestimated how hard the latter can be.

      It’s possible to have a completely de-socialized ritual — say, the ritual of doing something in the same way everyday as a personal activity, for example. But it’s not possible for rituals to be decoupled from the world itself, because even personal rituals derive their authority from the structures of the cycles of nature (days, years, seasons, etc.) So you then have a situation where people might worship the cycles of nature itself (found in a lot of new-agey spiritual beliefs) — maybe indirectly at first, but it does serve as a glue for building social layers on top of that.

      Either way, this post has been pretty helpful for clarifying some of the things I’ve been thinking about in the back of my mind. It’s interesting to think about how years and days derive their authority from nature, but months and weeks are more of a human-based construct. My next (and probably last) article will focus on how these things are interrelate in tech and startups in general.

      • That’s your version of our discussions Ryan :)

        I think asynchronicity and atemporality are in fact the natural default and it is rhythmic ritual that has to be artificially created and maintained, as a low-entropy temporal construct. So asynchronicity doesn’t get manufactured, but simply appears where synchronicity fails.

        24-hour news cycle and outsourcing-based 24-hour code-factory models emerged that way. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma, even if it were true (and I don’t agree) that a shared rhythm would be to everybody’s benefit, so long as there is an advantage to one party unilaterally breaking the deal, it will break.

        The rise and collapse of “weekends” as a work-free time is an example. In the 19th century West, at best workers could hope to get Sunday mornings off for Church and part of Christmas day. Then the labor movement got it up to 2 days off by consensus.

        Then it fell apart as economic good times wound down and a fraction of people emerged who needed money more badly than they needed breaks.

        Latest example: online ecommerce vs. Black Friday. Cyber Monday is something of an ironic joke because ecommerce retailers are effectively laughing at the “open at 3 AM” bullshit from offline, since they are always open, all year.

        • Actually I agree with most of what you’ve said — part of what technology has done is that they’ve dismantled a lot of the artificially created rhythmic cycles that rose during 20th century modernism. I do think that we’re moving into a new era of sorts, but the tricky part is creating new rhythms that allow people flexibility but at the same time be in sync with each other. This is a problem that has yet to be solved, imo, although I understand for some people that may not even be of concern.

          But even after everything artificial becomes dismantled, the time it takes for the earth to rotate (days), to move around the sun (years), seasons (depending on where you live), and the positions of the stars and so on still remains. So there’s a number of rhythmic cycles that derive its authority from nature, that serves as a kind of scaffolding for rituals that have a paganistic quality to them. (Turning astronomy into astrology, in a way.)

          Things are still a little murky in my mind, but the plan is to make some of these connections more clear, since I do think that a lot of it informs the values and practices of SV and the tech industry in general. Like — why is Burning Man a thing?

          • I sense a strong drag towards classicism, concrete forms and human proportions: the projection of the idea of a natural order against a divine disorder.

            In one of J.G.Ballards short stories a post-industrial society is portrayed, which destroyed modernity because of regret. Modernity is regretted in the form of a slavery induced by the clockwork which made possible the industrial age and the acceleration of life. Guardians preserve the new status quo. The protagonist is a boy, a dreamer, who becomes obsessed by the idea of restarting all the clocks in town which have not yet been destroyed and who imagines the dynamism and the vitality of the industrial age. As the story goes he takes action and gets into trouble. – In a funny twist Ballard takes our postmodern sentiment for granted and then he turns modernity into a transcendental vision. Modernity is nothing utilitarian for Ballard but a fatal strategy. It haunts us in our dreams.

          • Well, the most powerful technologies seem to be about breaking out of the constraints of natural rhythms. The electric bulb broke the tyranny of day/night. The steam engine broke the tyranny of the circadian cycles involved in muscle breakdown and repair.

            There is a basic philosophical difference here: seeing rhythms as constraints that enslave some more than others, and seeing rhythms as reassuring sources of certainty in life. All tech has historically been driven by the former view I think. Every major tech breaks more rhythms than it creates, creating net surplus arrhythmia (the frequency domain equivalent of atemporality).

            Low levels of human infrastructure, such as agriculture, are still strongly constrained by natural rhythms, but the higher you go in terms of economic sophistication, the freer things become.

          • @Venkatesh: Yep — still no disagreement here. I think we might differ on how far humanity might be able escape from the “tyranny” of natural cycles, and whether the escape from such is scalable or sustainable in the long run. (Or even desirable to some — one person’s prison is another’s sanctuary, after all.)

            Even though we’re not obligated to on a purely technical level, most of us still get up in the morning and go to sleep at night — while jetlag is almost universally considered a bug, not a feature. (And also largely a first-world problem.)

            I normally don’t have any love for older aesthetic models, but the classical idea of using nature as your fundamental scaffold, then building sub-dividing proportions within them does appeal to me to some degree. It’s largely how Western musical systems worked and still work, from rhythms to pitch to durations and harmony. Better to derive your authority from the world itself, rather than be at the whim of the habits of some random individual on the internet, I’d say.

          • Kay — who was that “drag towards classicism” comment directed at? Sarah, Ryan or me? It’s unclear.

            Ryan — I think I reject the natural/artificial dichotomy at a very fundamental level. I am with Herbert Simon: the artificial is just as natural as the natural. I like an idea that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature”, but this is not so much a “return” to nature as sacred reference point, and more the natural end point of all evolutionary processes (including tech).

            The other problem I have with any special status accorded to “nature” is that it is a combination of displaced anthropocentrism combined with a mistaken idea that nature is in fact more stable and rhythmic than it actually is. I wrote a post on this called meditation on disequilibrium in nature.

            To use your example, human sleep patterns HAVE changed significantly. For instance, people used to sleep in two phases (first and second phase) and wake up far earlier than they do now in general. Of course, you can’t arbitrary mess with human biological firmware, but far more than we usually assume.

          • Sounding a little Herzogian right now, Venkatesh, hehe. “The fundamentals of life/nature rests in chaos, not order”, or something or some such.

            I think we’re using the word “nature” too loosely here. If you’re talking about life (organisms, animals, people, societies), then I’d agree with you about the inherent chaotic nature of it, with evolution being a very messy process. But there’s a level of stability in physical phenomenons, which makes the practice of science possible to begin with. Maybe environmental things might change slightly over time, but they’re slow enough for people to adapt, while some things like the Earth’s rotations, gravity, or positions of the stars fundamentally don’t change at all. Maybe the distinction to be made here isn’t so much artificial/natural, but changing/unchanging.

            Maybe not all people, I do think that most have a yearning for a kind of connection that makes them feel part of something universal, timeless, and eternal. Hence these consistencies (or perceived ones, at least) become scaffolds for rituals and spiritual practices, where people bond over the common, universal experience. Scientism is a kind of belief in the universal/timeless too, since it’s derived from physical laws that don’t really change over time. It intersects in weird ways with pagan cultures, especially in the tech industry, which I think is pretty interesting.

          • Kay — who was that “drag towards classicism” comment directed at?

            To Ryan – the comment is properly nested, unlike this one ;-)

  5. I think the social gossip element of TV watching is very substantial for a lot of people. I would say that the Super Bowl seems to be the peak TV ritual experience for Americans- my entire Twitter feed gets blanketed in it. I definitely know of people who start watching a TV series only because all their friends are talking about it!

  6. aptenodytes forsteri says

    @Venkat :
    This is irrelevant to your discussion of ritual, but I’ll ask this question because I feel it’s urgent enough:
    Do you believe that industrial civilization might transcend fossil fuels as a basis for its survival and render the models of the 1972 “The Limits to Growth” moot?

    • Yes, with about 60% probability :)

      • aptendytes forsdteri says

        Why do you think so ?

        • I’d like to know that also, even if it’s off topic for this discussion.

          I think a lot of things in industrial society are invisible to the average citizen. One of them is the sheer magnitude of the energy flows that make our way of life possible. It’s interesting to look at the energy flowcharts for the U.S. from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:


          Solar and wind have grown tremendously but are still a trivial part of our energy use.

          Since the functioning of industrial society is dependent on constantly increasing flows of cheap energy (vital for economic growth and the payment of debts), how can you be so specifically confident in the face of resource depletion?

  7. It’s not mentioned anywhere but Collins’s work on interaction rituals seems to be very relevant to this piece and is his attempt to frame everything we do as humans into an all encompassing sociology of interaction rituals.

    This review is a nice overview and critique: http://www.cjsonline.ca/reviews/interactionritual.html

    The core critique on any such approach of course being that generalizing everything humans do into such a model (appeals to a magical entity such as ’emotional energy’ notwithstanding) does not actually explain anything.

  8. Tanima Raghuvanshi says

    Eureka! On having rediscovered you. Why not write something about current India’s situation unemployment and slow economic growth. How will the drop is the oil prices affect India positively or negatively?

  9. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.”


  10. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring scandalized polite society because modernists wanted to bypass submission to traditional western ritual and find a universal primordial truth uncorrupted by systems of thought. At least western ones. Unfortunately, modernism created its own system, a will to power, unable to escape the “libido dominandi” through traditional transcendence. Bummer.

  11. I noted that children often have a “respite word” to call a “time out” when play gets too dangerous; the only analogy in adult culture exists in games

    Actually, you’re missing a large (and salient) source of analogous rituals: BDSM, with its associated “safe words”.

  12. Perhaps those who have experience with team sports can advise me as to whether “group proprioception” or other altered states occur in that form of ritualized combat.

    Club dancing can be ostensibly solitary, but still requires large amounts of spatial awareness to move more than minimally without collisions. And large-scale boffer LARP combat is nearly as ritualized as fencing, especially in lightest touch systems.

    The former has evoked something akin to that proprioception around other skilled dancers, to collectively evade and channel the less skilled or more intoxicated among us. I’ve had snatches of it in the latter, and have watched experienced groups move like they were wired together.