Form & Content in Ritual Studies

I’m finding the discussion between form and content in ritual studies to be unbelievably interesting, yet not nearly as fruitful as I think it could be. It seems that the concepts are so abstract that it becomes difficult for theorists to engage in meaningful debate. However, taking Harman’s distinction between the foreground and the background into account, it appears that whenever ritual theorists stress the role of “form” (or even acknowledge that “form” and “content” are distinct), they end up trying to think through the background.

This leads to a list (if we include Harman’s examples) of background thinkers like this:






Perhaps Rappaport at certain points, but it seems that he flips back and forth.

It’s a weird basket to say the least. But if Tambiah rejects the distinction between “form” and “content”, that doesn’t necessarily leave him solely as a theorist of the foreground. It seems that he too collapses the foreground into the background occasionally. However, Tambiah and Rappaport seem to me to be primarily theorists of the foreground, due to their emphasis on Peircean semiotics and performance.

For the second chapter of my thesis, I’m attempting to really think through the puzzle of ritual and content to see how “form” as aesthetic quality differs from “form” as ontology – as in substantive forms in the Aristotelian tradition. This is the question I posed to Harman last night and he confirmed my suspicions – that OOO generally uses “form” in at least these two ways – ontological form and aesthetic form.

When ritual theorists bring up the term form to compare it with content, from what I can tell, they seem to exclusively refer to the aesthetic category. That leaves both form and content as qualities for the withdrawn object that remains inaccessible. Does this then drop us into metaphorical/theatrical relations with the ritual?

Of course, the big problem with pure formalism or pure contentism is that you lose the ability to account for change (think of structuralism and functionalism in anthropology). You need both the foreground and background in order for any dynamism in theory.

In this sense, the medium is not the message. But the message is also not the medium.

Instead, we need three terms – the medium (ritual), the message (content), and the mode (form).

The medium is then in a tense relationship between its message and mode.

The message and mode also need to be considered distinguishable and here I’m in agreement with Dietrich Harth (2007). However, Harth’s example suggests that the mode can return without the same message (think secularized yoga). What would the message look like without the same mode?

Furthermore, it must be the changes in message and mode that trigger the medium to change. This is what I observed in my fieldwork and it’s also what seems to crop up again and again in ritual studies.

Following this line of thought, however, proves rather circuitous.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: