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The Modern Day Ritual

By Seth Freilich | Miscellaneous | April 22, 2009 |

By Seth Freilich | Miscellaneous | April 22, 2009 |

When I was in college, I took an amazing course called Art, Gender and Ritual. The “ritual” aspect of the course was the part that, years later, I still find the most intriguing and resonant in my own life (recognizing, of course, that “ritual” is often inexorably tied to art and gender). Growing up, we all go through many rituals, celebrating good times and mourning bad times. Rituals that are sometimes religious, sometimes societal, sometimes both, and sometimes even something else altogether. As the primary part of our final exam in the course, the students were simply asked to do something that, to and for each of us, encompassed the course and what we took out of it. One student did a grand cultural ritual involving a trek across main campus to the bell tower (and almost included the live sacrifice of a chicken!) and several other students did various pieces and forms of artwork incorporating many of the themes and issues we had broken down over the course of someteen-odd weeks. I basically blended the course’s main themes to create one of those “something else” rituals — it wasn’t inherently religious or societal, but offered me a way to embrace, process and publicly deal with my mother’s death in a way I had never before done, despite having had almost a decade to do so.

It was a shared moment with the other dozen people in the class, as were their own ritualistic and artistic endeavors. And while I took many things away from that course, the sheer power of the ritual is the one thing that has most stuck with me over the years, particularly as it pertains to the public sharing of pain and suffering, which at its best is also a joined celebration of life and diversity. I’m not much of a spiritual man, and I’m not at all a religious man, but since that time, I’ve been able to understand why so many people make houses of worship such an integral part of their lives, because rituals are fucking powerful.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in the context of the “modern ritual.” Several things have happened in recent days which got me thinking that we might just be starting to see the beginnings of an entirely new form of ritual, as communal as the most religious of ceremonies, but without much of the pomp and circumstance or centuries-old subtext (not that either of these don’t have their places and purposes).

This first really dawned on me in the wake of Amanda/Alabama Pink’s far-too-soon departure. Here was a woman who few of us had ever met in person, whose death touched us as if we had lost one of our own. And in the following days, we saw what certainly felt like a new breed of online ritual. This website basically sat shiva (albeit for a day, rather than seven), a minuscule corner of Facebook held a modern-day public wake, and the amount of emotion being poured into the various comment threads on both sites was nothing short of astounding (with a fair amount of heartbreak thrown in for good measure).

And then, a small number of us watched, online, the memorial service that Amanda’s wonderful family and friends put on. The book I quoted from up top, Tom Driver’s The Magic of Ritual, is one of the things we read in that college course, and in his introduction, Driver presented several overarching, generalized tales, including this one:

A woman has died. Her sister attends the funeral out of duty, not expecting it will do much for her. Sure enough, the service is pro forma, something everybody does at a time like this, so hold your breath and go through it. The ceremony is not in the least transforming, and the sister knows she will have to deal with her grief some other way.

Those of us unfortunate enough to have sat through our share of funerals and memorials may understand this sentiment all too well. And while I think it’s safe to say that our online view of Amanda’s memorial was every bit as emotional, heart-wrenching and celebratory as attending a live memorial can be, it also had something more. Given that we were able to have our own running commentary thanks to an IM sidebar, it was actually considerably more communal than these types of things tend to be, at least for those of us participating in that manner (when a string of “so say we all” started pouring forth at one point, no matter how much you might diss SciFi nerds, that shit was intense). I can’t speak for anyone else, but the fact that we could laugh and make jokes, throw out comments that we know Amanda would want and appreciate, while still allowing this moment to fulfill its “traditional” purpose, may not have been entirely transforming, as the best of rituals are, but it sure has hell felt like something important.

At one point in his book, Driver talks about a fundamental thing that he’s really writing in response to:

At its most elemental level, this book is a response to what I shall call “ritual boredom.” That is, a condition in which people have become fundamentally weary of the rituals available to them for giving their lives shape and meaning…. The causes of this boredom seem to me twofold: Either the rituals, in their form, content, and manner of performance, have lost touch with the actualities of peoples lives and are thus simply arcane; or else the people have lost the ability to apprehend their very need of ritual, do not see what rituals are good for, and thus do not find them even potentially valuable.

In an age where the internet is allowing Community to develop in entirely new and diverse/broad ways, online communities have the potential to allow new rituals to grow and develop. Rituals that aren’t “simply arcane.” And by being able to allow people to develop their own rituals in ways that suit a given community’s interests and needs, in ways that hopefully connect with those people, rather than just serving to connect them, I think the power of ritual may be something that can be rediscovered.

One of the great things about Pajiba is how personal things get here. We’ve developed a true community in every sense of the word. At various times, each of the writers have shared their dark-and-dirties in a very open and public manner and, as a result, the commentors frequently do so as well. Even the vast majority of folks who never make a peep, never leave a single comment, are an integral part of this process, simply by the sheer fact that they read what we all share (taking it to the quantum physics level, you can even say it’s a type of “observer effect,” insofar as the fact that what folks chose to click on the site slowly shapes the nature of the site itself, since the click is king).

A few weeks back, we posted a heartfelt book review where the reviewer, in a short few paragraphs, opened up about some personal shit in a manner far more revealing than I’ve ever seen from some of my “real world” friends. Many commentors were understandably moved. And I, myself, was moved to send a private message to this person I’ve never actually “met” before, telling her of my own similar experiences and expressing some things that I’ve only ever told to one other person. Through this review, the author had performed her own public ritual, sharing her pain and guilt and accepting comment, empathy and discussion in return. As Driver discusses, one of the three societal impacts of ritual is its ability to transform (the other two being the provision of a sense of order and community). And while I won’t hypothesize as to whether this mere book review and the ensuing discussion lead to any transformation in the author, I am willing to speculate that she likely walked away from it with at least a glimmer of something in her that wasn’t there before (hope or acceptance, a lessening of her own guilt or suffering, or even just the realization that she’s not at all alone in the shit she’s dealing with).

Of course, I realize that Pajiba is by no means the only internet community, and while we like to think we’re above everyone else, in this sense at least, we’re no different than a lot of other “homes” on the net. So I don’t say this as a Pajiba-only thing, but about all of these little intimate groups and communities that have sprung up on the internet, made up of folks who have never physically looked each other in the eyes, but who have nevertheless truly seen each other. In fact, this whole thing came to the forefront again for me last week when the Voice of the People, Harry Kalas, died.

Fans of the Philadelphia Phillies — or NFL Films, or baseball history, or radio broadcasting in general — were all saddened by the loss of the Hall of Fame broadcaster, who died after after falling unconscious in the press booth (before a game, thankfully, rather than during the broadcast). And from the moment word leaked that he had fallen in the booth, before he had even been taken to the hospital where he passed, a form of ritual had already begun. I was pulled into it with a simple text message: “Pray for Harry Kalas. He was found unconscious in the press box at the Nationals stadium.” I received similar texts and e-mails from others, some of the senders again being people I have never met in the “real world” sense. Across the world, others received similar texts and e-mails, and in an insanely short amount of time, a network of well-wishers, of folks who have never met but who shared a love for this man, blossomed.

That soon turned to a network of mourners, unfortunately, and the collective prayers turned to a widespread memorial. There were more texts and e-mails (one of my bosses, to whom I speak about sports plenty but probably never said a word about Kalas, sent me an e-mail from the midst of his vacation, some 3,000 miles away: “Sorry about Harry Kalas”), Facebook statuses were changed to quotes or commentaries on Harry the K’s legacy, and websites started pumping out entries discussing Kalas’s significance, his impact, and the collective loss we were now all sharing in.

Gone are the days when a beloved public figure passes and you don’t hear about it until the evening news, and don’t read something moving about it until the next morning’s paper or the next week’s issue of some magazine. Gone are the days when a beloved private figure passes and is only mourned and celebrated by a select few. Gone are the days when you have to be in a specific place, at a specific time, to take part in a specific moment. I wonder if some odd years from now, when folks look back on what is still, really, the dawning early days of the information age, if this isn’t one of the aspects that will be seen to have had the most widespread impact. The communities and bonds and public rituals that developed as a result of some tubes letting folks all over the world share some thoughts we each other. I hope so, because it’s some shit.

Ritual controls emotion while releasing it, and guides it while letting it run. Even in a time of grief, ritual lets joy be present through the permission to cry, lets tears become laughter, if they will, by making place for the fullness of tears’ intensity — all this in the presence of communal assertiveness.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.