The Politics of Ritual
- ISBN: 9780691198927
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: March 2023
Molly Farneth’s The Politics of Ritual provides a welcome contribution to ritual studies and to the study of religion and politics by offering a nuanced and compelling account of ritual activities and their public/political role. Employing a broadly pragmatist approach, Farneth insightfully draws the literature around ritual (both theological and anthropological) into conversation with democratic theory and practice. In so doing, she attends to the political significance of rituals, broadly construed, and their contributions to making communities more equitable and just. In other words, the book aims to unpack the distinctively political work that rituals perform. Farneth’s combination of theoretical acuity, lucid writing and argumentation, and frequent use of examples make this text a valuable resource for undergraduate and graduate classes on any of the aforementioned topics.
This book is a natural successor to Farneth’s previous work, Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation (Princeton University Press, 2017), as the two books share both a broad theoretical framework and a concern for theorizing the collective practices around and through which communities allocate power and navigate conflict. Taking ritual as her central topic in this new book, Farneth sets out to explore “how rituals give rise to communities, by creating and transforming their boundaries and distributing goods within them, and . . . how rituals transform the people within those communities, by shaping their habits and dispositions” (3). After offering an account of rituals in the first chapter, Farneth dedicates a chapter each to the ways ritual practices perform the work of communal boundary maintenance and manage the distribution of goods (chapter 2), sustain and sometimes challenge authority (chapter 3), encourage the cultivation of virtues (chapter 4), and foster solidarity (chapter 5). To get Farneth’s core arguments in view within limited space, I will focus on the book’s first three chapters.
In the first chapter, Farneth argues for what she calls a “social practical account” of rituals that eschews any fixed or essentialist definition, leading her also to resist any clear distinction between religious and secular rituals. For Farneth, rituals are characteristically social practices that invoke a community’s established norms, but they often do so in creative and reflexive ways. Like all social practices, she maintains that rituals evolve over time and thus ought to be understood as sites of ongoing negotiation between tradition and change.
Farneth argues, “When people enact rituals, they engage in shared activities that create and distribute goods and ills around a community and at its boundaries. This means that rituals are wrapped up in concerns about justice” (37, emphasis original). Construing the work that rituals perform as a matter of justice, Farneth thinks through the ways that rituals function (or not) to provide people what they deserve. Importantly, she explains that rituals do more than merely demonstrate a community’s practices and beliefs; they often operate as “performatives,” as activities that can “bring about changes in the social world” (42). Seeing rituals as performing this sort of work means they are always already political, and a significant implication of her account is the unsettling of any firm divisions between public and private spheres of life and between the domains of religion and politics.
The second chapter examines how ritual activities “do boundary work,” such as helping to “define who is in and who is out [of a group] and on what terms” (50). Using an array of examples—most prominently, two rituals that regularly take place along the U.S.-Mexico border on the Pacific coast: Las Posadas sin Fronteras and the celebration of the Christian Eucharist passed through the border fence—Farneth focuses on how rituals enact, enforce, or contest communal boundaries. Here she finds that, because rituals function “as sites where people recognize others’ social standing and distribute social goods,” the political work performed by rituals pertains (a la Nancy Fraser) both to matters of recognition and distribution (73).
Farneth’s third chapter considers how rituals often involve invocations of authority. She centers the chapter around the actions of the Philadelphia Eleven, a group of women who challenged sexist exclusion from the Episcopal clergy in 1974 by taking ordination rites in a service presided over by sympathetic bishops. Farneth uses examples like this to show how authority often depends upon its acknowledgement by others, which entails that rituals are not inescapably conservative or reliant upon settled power. Farneth sees in the case of the Philadelphia Eleven clear indication that “the authority to perform rituals is a matter of ongoing practices of recognition rather than prior authorization” (108). So, against Pierre Bourdieu and others, Farneth argues convincingly that rituals are not simply left to inherit existing structures of authority and power. Rather, she demonstrates that they can also play a significant role in protesting unjust arrangements and in advancing the establishment of novel and more just ones.
Farneth’s pragmatist approach to the topic, and the way she thinks through its many dimensions, is especially helpful for getting the reflexive and potentially progressive function of rituals in view. These and other aspects make the book a generative conversation partner for political theory, political theology, and even theological or confessional accounts of ritual. What is more, this volume could well serve communities of ritual practice by providing a framework for self-analysis and social criticism. The book focuses mainly on Jewish and Christian rituals, and it would be valuable to extend its observations and insights to the study of rituals in other traditions and contexts, including non-Abrahamic ones.
The Politics of Ritual exhibits a number of strengths, among them a deep engagement with social and democratic theory. As mentioned, another high point is the book’s compelling use of examples that serve as both cases to analyze and illustrations of the claims Farneth makes along the way. From activists publicly reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for Eric Garner in Manhattan to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, and others, the book’s use of examples from recent history bolster its arguments and make it an especially engaging text for classroom use. Above all, Farneth succeeds in making the case that rituals not only have decidedly political dimensions, but also that they have a critical role to play in the building of more just and democratic communities.
Nicholas Buck is professorial lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University in Washington, D.C.Nicholas BuckDate Of Review:October 31, 2023