Ritual, Performance and the Senses

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Jon P. Mitchell, Michael Bull
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The editors of Ritual, Performance and the Senses, a slim, but very fine collected volume, must be highly commended for their inspirational approach to the field of ritual studies combining cultural and cognitive methodologies. All authors share enthusiastically their interest in exploring the entangled body and embodied brain in such a way as to take seriously the effects space, time, repetition, practice, mimesis, and performance have on how we as humans perceive the world through our senses and bodies. Taking performance studies and anthropology of the senses as the starting point, cognition and culture are theorized as co-dependent. Rituals impact human motor skills, habits of perception, and the neurochemistry of the brain. Alternatively, the human body with its autonomous nervous system, sensory-perceptive systems, and mirror neurons (or rather all of its anatomy and physiology) changes in quite specific ways when confronted with cultural symbols, values, and practices.

In his chapter on visionary experiences in Malta, Jon P. Mitchell explores the analytical potential of the concept mimesis, understood as a fundamentally generative process of making present and appropriating ritual symbols. He argues that “a focus on performance takes us away from the search for a categorical logic, or ‘truth,’ and towards an understanding of the experiential, or existential, grounds of religiosity” (29). Drawing on definitions of mimesis by Merlin Donald (cognitive neuroscientist) and Michael Taussig (cultural anthropologist), Mitchell tells the story of Angelik, a Maltese husband and father of four, who has visionary experiences and possesses a bleeding statue of Mary. g. By copying certain postures and gestures in the tradition of Medjugorje and the veneration of a local dockyard saint, corresponding emotions and experiences are created and not simply represented (20f.). The point for Mitchell is, therefore, not the truth “behind” the visions, or the doctrinal consistency of bleeding statues, but the way in which Angelik creates sacred presence through his corporeal mimesis of Catholic symbols (crucifixion, mass, and the like).

Neurophysicist Robert Turner and neuroanthropologist Greg Downey reinforce the argument made by Mitchell in pointing towards the brain’s plasticity and neurological flexibility and how it is being shaped by human experiences while shaping them at the same time. As Turner argues, “the skillful sequencing of ritual symbols” results in “durable alterations in the connections within our brains. These alterations, which are only visible using modern neuroimaging methods, have overwhelming importance in determining how we decide, and how we act” (43). But, as Turner maintains, these alterations are specific to concrete practices and emotional experiences, and are therefore not universal, but tied to a very specific religious-cultural context: “Repeated calendrical religious ritual, insofar as it continues to induce emotional involvement among its participants, thus consolidates in brain networks the assumptions and values that are constitutive of the religion” (44).

Following a different pathway, Richard Schechner takes the reader on an extended tour following the month-long Ramnagar Ramlila performance in which the Ramayana epos is enacted in various locations in the city of Ramnagar with the spectators moving along with the actors night after night. In a close ethnographic description, Schechner invokes the “environmental theater town-as-stage” (100), thus vividly engaging the imagination of the reader. Zoila Mendoza, studying an Andean pilgrimage procession, unfolds three sensory dimensions which only as a unit render the pilgrimage unique: the visual (landscapes and paths), the auditory (music), and the kinesthetic (the walk). In the final chapter, David Howes provides a wide-ranging set of examples, underscoring his concept of the extended sensorium grounded in theories of the extended minds and Birgit Meyer’s notion of sensational forms (155). He argues that cognition must be conceptually linked to the body and the environment as a socio-culturally constructed world with the senses taking on a mediatory role in this “looping” process.

The multi-methodological approach to ritual represented in this volume may be subsumed under the emerging field of aesthetics of religion (e.g., The Bloomsbury Handbook for the Cultural and Cognitive Aesthetics of Religion, Bloomsbury, 2019). In Ritual, Performance and the Senses, the well-known tensions between cultural and cognitive perspectives in all body/senses/aesthetics approaches to ritual and religion are constructively addressed in the introduction (Michael Bull and Mitchell) as well as by Mitchell and Howes in their respective chapters. But these differences are not overrated. Instead, they allow a multilayered argument to arise through the summation of brilliant observations in each study. Purely neurocognitive articles stand side by side with classic ethnographic accounts, but none privileges universalism, naturalism, or mentalism.

Bull and Mitchell provide a truly thought-provoking collection of essays by renowned authors widely influential in the fields of performance studies, sensory/sound studies, and cognitive neuroscience/neurophysics. It is a must-read for all interested in ritual plain and simple as well as for all interested in the complex interplay of cognition, senses, and performance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katharina Wilkens is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Interfaculty Programme for the Study of Religion at the University of Munich, Germany.

Date of Review: 
January 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Bull is Professor of Sound Studies at the University of Sussex.

Jon P. Mitchell is Reader in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex.


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