Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

On Boundaries and Their Permeability

Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of complex systems. Boundaries arise at all scales, defining the entities that they surround and protecting them from some kinds of outside intrusion. To be functional, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the entities to take energy and information from outside themselves. If we are looking at complex systems, we will find boundaries everywhere.

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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.

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Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture

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

A selective sweep occurs when a new, beneficial gene mutation appears and quickly sweeps across a population, erasing the genetic diversity that existed prior to the sweep. Similarly, languages have “swept” across continents as the cultures they belonged to gained unbeatable advantages (often agricultural or military), resulting in losses of language diversity from earliest human history to the present day. Today, half the population of the world speaks one of only thirteen languages.

These are not controversial claims. More controversial is the idea that human prehistory (and even history) hosted a wide variety of human consciousness, not just language, and that these disparate kinds of subjective consciousness were destroyed upon contact with new forms of consciousness. Most dramatically, Julian Jaynes famously argued (in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) that human consciousness changed drastically in the past few thousand years, from an archaic bicameral form in which one side of the brain shouted orders and the other obeyed, to a modern, introspective form. My claim is not so extreme: I simply argue that there are and have been many forms of human consciousness, varying in particular ways, that we retain the “hardware” capability for many forms of consciousness, and that humans are constrained into particular mental states by their cultures, especially through group ritual (or lack thereof). In order to explore this claim, it is helpful to think about our own form of consciousness in detail – a form of consciousness that is novel, contagious, and perhaps detrimental to human flourishing compared with more evolutionarily tested forms of consciousness running on the same hardware.

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