Old-school anthropology was big on what it named as sorcery and witchcraft. The discipline devoted years of academic time to the study of symbols. And as for rituals? We could say that this stood at the heart of the ethnographic enterprise for unreconstructed, pre- Writing Culture anthropologists. Ah, ritual: the more esoteric, the better. And if violence was involved, then whoop whoop!
All this, of course, as the discipline realised (when it had a belated collective wake-up from its colonial legacies) played into some nasty representational politics, relating to Orientalism, exoticism and to the relegation of the peoples who had been made into Others into some imagined space outside of time.
The next generation of ethnographers earnestly studied political economy, everyday life, gender – anything, just so long as it did not carry the burden of the ‘exotic’. Said’s Orientalism and the Writing Culture revolution had raised our consciousness about the bad faith inherent in anthropology’s focus on symbol, magic or ritual. We’d also realised that to study these topics would – seemingly inevitably – make our research respondents into something Other, alien and strange, once we tried to write.
But in our hearts, we anthropologists know that understanding the value and force which symbol and ritual hold for all humans remains important work. (Just ask any business user of ethnography, such as people working in UX).
Turning that understanding towards ourselves in a reflexive move is a helpful way to appreciate the dynamics of ritual. Here we go, then …
New Year’s Eve 2018 at the Cellar Arts Club was advertised as a party of the usual CA kind (top-class classic music, cheap drinks, uninhibited crowd).
Smack in the middle of the small dancefloor was an unusual addition: an enormous headshot print of The Donald. If you wanted to dance – and many CA folk did – you’d be stomping on Trump’s face. Throughout the evening, party people grinned in complicity at each other as they jumped, stamped, twisted and slid on that huge poster.
Every so often, a song would seem to offer an especially irresistible invitation to the dancefloor. Balkan Beats – stomping! Shantel – on it! When Nancy Sinatra’s, ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ came on, even many of the bar-drinking crowd couldn’t resist the call to Walk All Over Donald, and they too swelled forward to join the dancefloor.
Midnight. A moment of silence, followed by the countdown and generous kissing – a moment in which we are party, via our profligate embraces, to the human potential for radical hospitality. Old rituals. Then, a new one.
Marker pens appeared from nowhere. The crowd knew what to do. People stepped back and opened up space around Trump as the first defacer stepped in. Pen in hand, they looked thoughtfully at the poster, (miraculously intact despite all the stomping) and drew the inaugural blacked-out tooth and eye-patch. Satisfied, they passed the pen on. Two or three others stepped forward, eager to play their part. Each artist worked fast and the pens flew around the circle. Nose-bogeys, goatee beard, Hitler moustache. Within minutes, Donald was defaced.
A conservationist drew a speech bubble. Donald now sneered, “Climate change is for Beliebers”. Out of the other side of his mouth, he promised us, “No queers”.
A fourth wave feminist crouched, writing intently. Trump now offered us, “Systemic Racism? Yas Queen!”
Others were more succinctly classical: Trump Wanker. Fuck You, Trump!
After ten minutes, the work was done. People took photos, inspected the finished portrait, and shared laughter and enjoyment at the final result. The DJ cranked up the music and the dancing resumed.
We’d raised collective effervescence – that intangible thing that even Durkheim could not, in the end, pin down (leaving a sociological puzzle of the irreducible to this day) but that we certainly feel and know when we experience it. The energy in the room was defiant, powerful, full of human-kindness and fellowship. Each party person was refreshed and strengthened by the sure knowledge that where they stand, stomp and call out against an unfair world order, many, many others join them.
We were privileged to witness and participate in the birth of a ritual. It might be a one-off or it might continue. As any anthropologist will tell you – all traditions are invented. (Your tame anthropologist will also remind you that you have to capture and work with the registers of the imagination and the symbolic if you want to bring change or affect people).
Finally, it’s good to remember that a ritual does not require pomp, special costumes or complex incantations. At Cellar Arts on NYE 2018, a cheap A1 poster and a bunch of marker pens were enough.