Marcel Jousse: Forgotten Pioneer of Media Studies

Marcell Jousse was a pioneering scholar of gesture and orality. He was a younger contemporary and student of Marcel Mauss. During the inter-war years, he published a series of seminal studies on orality and gesture that garnered wide spread recognition. The publication of his first book in 1925, The Rhythmic and Mnemotechnical Oral Style of the Verbo-motors, caused an immediate sensation and earned him a series of prestigious posts in Paris, including a stint at the Sorbonne. However, shortly after his death in 1961, Jousse’s work fell into relative obscurity. Because his work is only recently finding its way into English translation, thanks largely to the efforts of Edgard Richard Sienaert, he is little known in the English-speaking world. (To get a feel for how little known, take a look at his Wikipedia page). But his work did not escape notice altogether. It features prominently in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

Ong advanced a simple, yet profound thesis: “writing restructures consciousness.” As Ong traced the antecedents of his thesis, which was largely the synthesis of a substantial body of existing work, he acknowledged a debt to Jousse’s distinction, based on his rural upbringing and extensive field work in the Middle East, between “oral composition” and “written composition.” Further on, Ong succinctly summarized Jousse’s larger theoretical framework:

“Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rhythmic, for rhythm aids recall, even physiologically. Jousse has shown the intimate linkage between rhythmic oral patterns, the breathing process, gesture, and the bilateral symmetry of the human body in ancient Aramaic and Hellenic targums …”

Ong also deployed Jousse’s formulation, verbomotor, to designate cultures that “retain enough oral residue to remain significantly word-attentive in a person-interactive context (the oral type of context) rather than object-attentive.” It may not be entirey unreasonable to suggest that Ong’s work is in large part an elaboration of Jousse’s research. And, while I haven’t done the research to confirm this, I’m willing to bet that somewhere along the line he played part in the thought of Marshall McLuhan.

Not unlike McLuhan, Jousse’s method and writing was controversial, and in some respects ahead of his time. Here is Sienaert’s description of his fist book which was at the time was termed “The Jousse Bomb” (I’m not making that up):

“The Oral Style is a most unusual book. Jousse had read some five thousand books from a bewildering variety of disciplines. From these, he selected five hundred pertinent to his topic, and from them he chose extracts which reflected in some way his observations, which he linked by his own bracketed words, sentences and paragraphs. He thus recycled old materials, building a new house from old bricks, following his own research injunction: The aim of research is to quest for and discover fresh insights and under­standing. But how can we discover something fresh and new when it appears as if all has already been discovered? By the incessant, meticulous and de­tailed scrutiny of the Old.”

Ivan Illich also drew on Jousse in his study of medieval cultures of reading, In the Vineyard of the Text. Illich was particularly impressed by Jousse’s work on psychomotor reading techniques employed in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic settings. Memorization in these contexts was construed as a fully embodied rather than strictly mental activity. Illich noted that the content of sacred texts was memorized “through careful attention paid to the psychomotor nerve impulses which accompany the sentences being learned.” In Koranic and Jewish schools, students read aloud as they swayed and rocked back and forth and in this way were able to later “re-evoke” the text through the activation of those same body movements. In this analysis, Illich is explicitly drawing on research conducted by Jousse:

“Marcel Jousse has studied these psychomotor techniques of fixing a spoken sequence in the flesh. He has shown that for many people, remembrance means the triggering of a well-established sequence of muscular patterns to which the utterances are tied. When the child is rocked during a cradle song, when the reapers bow to the rhythm of a harvest song, when the rabbi shakes his head while he prays or searches for the right answer, or when the proverb comes to mind only upon tapping for a while — according to Jousse, these are just a few examples of a widespread linkage of utterance and gesture. Each culture has given its own form to this bilateral, dissymmetric complementarity by which sayings are graven right and left, forward and backward into trunk and limbs, rather than just into the ear and the eye.”

Ong’s and Illich’s concerns overlap with, but do not encompass the scope of Jousse’s ambitious anthropological project. Jousse developed a cosmological, mimetic theory of human communication. The universe, according to Jousse, impresses itself upon human beings. In fact, it impresses itself on all objects and organisms. The whole of reality is acting and acted upon. Human beings, however, not only receive this impression; they also act out the impression they have received, and this acting out is originally gestural. Sienaert summarizes:

“Man thus first relates to the world which imposes upon him the play of actual experiences. But this is not a passive process: on reception of reality, man is also animated by an energy that is released and that makes him react in the form of gestures.”

Moreover, human beings are uniquely capable of not only responding in their gestures to the impressions of reality, they are capable of re-playing or re-presenting those impressions. In other words, they can remember, they have memories. And before the advent of language, these memories were carried in the body. The transition from gestural to spoken language marks, in Jousse’s view, the transition from anthropology to ethnology. Generic humanity is particularized through the conventional language into which they are socialized.

Yet, even after this transition, the gestural foundations of communication and response to the universe remain embedded in the human being. These underlying structuring principles reveal themselves in what Jousse termed “the oral style.” The oral style is encapsulated in three laws summarized as follows by Sienaert:

1. Le rythmo-mimisme: the law of rhythmo-mimicry. Man is a mimic, he receives, registers, plays, and replays his actual experiences; as movement is possible in sequence only, mimicry is necessarily linked with rhythm.

2. Le bilatéralisme: the law of bilateralism. Man can only express himself in accordance with his physical structure which is bilateral—left and right, up and down, back and forth—and like his global and manual expression, his verbal expression will tend to be bilateral, to balance symmetrically, following a physical and physiological need for equilibrium …

3. Le formulisme: the law of formulism. The biological tendency towards the stereotyping of gestures creates habit, which ensures immediate, easy and sure replay; it is a facilitating psycho-physiological device as it organizes the intussusceptions and the mnesic replay in automatisms—acquired devices necessary to a firm basis for action …

In formulating these laws, based on his study of oral cultures, Jousse came strikingly close to the most prominent contours of the phenomenological account of the body’s role in human perception developed independently by the tradition of thought spanning Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. These laws, in other words, may be understood to govern not only verbal expression, but also embodied experience as a whole.

Presence Emerges: Bodies in Conversation

Sunday before last I opened up my Twitter feed to find Sherry Turkle getting pummeled for her opinion piece in the Sunday NY Times, “The Flight From Conversation.” Rarely has my feed spoken with such strident uniformity; Turkle had clearly struck a nerve. With other more pressing commitments demanding my attention, however, I bookmarked the essay and several of the responses that came in over the next few days. A little over a week later, the storm having mostly blown over, I want to throw in my belated two cents.

Critics noted that Turkle presented a false dichotomy. Conversations can still happen even in a world that includes social media and text messaging. This is true in principle, of course. And, in principle, I suspect Turkle would agree. But I’m not sure this is really the best way of approaching these sorts of concerns.

Perhaps it would be better to reframe the issue in terms of presence. Granting that, in the abstract, the use of electronic forms of communication does not necessarily preclude the possibility of conversation, and granting, of course, that not every conversation is nor ought to be of the deep and absorbing variety, it seems worthwhile to explore how actual instances of face-to-face conversation might be affected by the kinds of technology Turkle has in view.

And to narrow our focus even further, I’ll focus on the cellular phone. It is after all the cellular phone that materializes electronic communication across the whole field of our experience, and it is the materiality of the cellular phone that presents itself in the context of face-to-face conversation.

It seemed to me that Turkle’s concerns were strongest when they dealt with the manner in which technology impinges on face-to-face communication. And on this point many of her critics agreed with her concerns even while they disagreed with the manner in which they were packaged. This is also the aspect of Turkle’s work that seems to resonate most widely. After all, much to her critics bemusement, the threaded comments seemed mostly to validate Turkle’s point-of-view.

It is easy to see why. Most of us have been annoyed by someone who was unable to give another human being their undivided attention for more than seconds at a time. And perhaps more significantly, most of us have felt the pull to do same. We have struggled to keep our attention focused on the person talking to us as we know we ought to, and we know we ought to because some shred of our humanity remains intact and we know very well that the person in front of us is more significant than the text that just made our phone vibrate in our pocket. We have been on both ends of the kind of distractedness that the mere presence of a smartphone can occasion, and we are alive enough to be troubled by it. We begin to feel the force of Simone Weil’s judgment: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

And so Turkle’s piece, and others like it, resonate despite the theoretical shortcomings that make certain scholars cringe. After all, what difference does it make that some study showed that a statistically significant portion of the population reports feeling less lonely when using social media if I can’t get the person standing two feet away from me to treat me with the barest level of decency.

The question remains, however, “Are smartphones at fault?” This is always the question. Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us lonely? Are smartphones ruining face-to-face conversation? Put that way, I might say, “No, not exactly.” That’s usually not the best way of stating the question. Rather than begin with a loaded question, perhaps it’s better simply to seek clarity and understanding. What is happening when cellular phones become part of an environment that also consists of two people engaged in conversation?

Out of the many possible approaches to this question, it is the path offered by Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “intentional arc” that I want to take. Merleau-Ponty writes:

“The life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life – is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past, our future, [and] our human setting ….”

Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher whose work has built on Merleau-Ponty’s, adds this explanatory note:

“It is crucial that the agent does not merely receive input passively and then process it. Rather, the agent is already set to respond to the solicitations of things. The agent sees things from some perspective and sees them as affording certain actions. What the affordances are depends on past experience with that sort of thing in that sort of situation.”

Here’s what all of this amounts to. The “intentional arc” describes the manner in which our experience and perception is shaped by what we intend. Intending here means something more than what we mean when we say “I intended to get up early” or “I intend to go to the store later.” Intention in this sense refers to a mostly non-conscious work of perceiving the world and how that perceiving is shaped by what we are doing or aim to do. Our perception, in other words, is always already interpreting reality rather than simply registering it as a pure fact.

This work of perception-as-interpretation builds up over time as an assortment of “I cans” carried or remembered by our bodies. This assortment becomes part of the background, or pre-understanding, that we bring to bear on new situations. And this is how our intentional arc “projects round about us our past, our future.”

What is particularly interesting for our purposes is how the insertion of a tool into our experience reconfigures the “intentional arc” that is supporting our experience. The phenomenon is neatly captured by the expression, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” This line suggests that how we perceive our environment is shaped by the mere presence of a tool in hand. (Notice, by the way, how this “effect” is registered even before the tool is used.)

Merleau-Ponty might analyze the situation as follows: The feel of a hammer in hand, especially given prior use of a hammer, transforms how the environment presents itself to us. Aspects of the environment that would not have presented themselves as things-to-be-struck now do. Our interpretive perception interprets differently. Our seeing-as is altered. New possibilities suggest themselves. The affordances presented to us by our environment are re-ordered.

Try this at home, go pick up a hammer, or for that matter any object you can hold in hand that is weighted on one end. See what you feel. Hold it and look around you and pay really close attention to the way your perceive these objects. Actually, on second thought, don’t try this at home.

Another example, perhaps more readily apprehended (and less fraught with potential danger) is offered by the camera. With camera in hand our environment presents itself differently to us. I would go so far as to suggest that we see differently when we see with camera in hand. The concrete objectivity of the world has not changed, but the manner in which our perception interprets the world has; and this change was effected by the presence of a tool in hand (even prior to its use).

In this sense, the tool does have a certain causal force, it causes the environment to present itself differently to the user. It may not cause action, but it invites it. It causes the environment to hail the user in a new way.

Returning to the situation with which we began, we can ask again how the presence of a smartphone reconfigures face-to-face conversation. How does it alter the intentional arc that suspends the act of conversation? I first began thinking through this question by focusing on the phone itself, but this approach foreclosed itself; it wasn’t proving to be very helpful to me. But then I thought about the act of conversation itself and the question of presence. What would it mean to be fully present to one another and what difference would this make for the act of conversing?

I realized then that the really interesting dynamic involved what two people offered to one another in the act of conversing face-to-face. Presence was not a uni-directional phenomenon involving the intentionality of each partner individually. Presence was not something one person achieved. Rather presence emerged from the manner in which the act of conversation coupled the intentionality of each individual. To borrow Merleau-Ponty’s lingo (and give it my own somewhat sappy twist), two intentional arcs come together to form a circle of presence.

Merleau-Ponty spoke of our body’s natural tendency to seek an “optimal grip” on our environment. In face-to-face conversation, our bodies seek an optimal grip as well. While our conscious attention is focused on words and their meaning, our fuller perceptive capabilities are engaged in reading the whole environment. In conversation, then, each person becomes a part of a field of communication that includes, but is not limited to verbal expression. To put it another way, our intentional arc includes acts of interpretative perception of the other’s body as well as their words.

When we perceive eyes and hands, facial gestures and posture we perceive these not merely as eyes or hands but as eyes that signify, hands that mean, etc. We are attuned to much more than the words a person offers to us. Conversation involves the whole body in an act of holistic communication. And we perceive much of that communication at a non-conscious level; perceiving these dynamics becomes a part of our pre-understanding applied to the act of conversation.

But this dynamic that enriches and shapes face-to-face communication depends on each person offering themselves up to be read in certain ways. Our attention intends the other’s body as a nexus of communication, but when the other’s body is not engaged in the act of conversation, dissonance results and presence is broken.

Back to the smartphone. When the smartphone enters into the dynamic it disrupts the body’s communicative patterns. Gestures, eye contact, posture, facial expression — all of it is altered. It no longer means in the way our body is used to perceiving meaning. Perception finds it impossible to achieve an optimal grip on the embodied interaction. And because our bodies give and receive this sort of communication tacitly and often in remarkably subtle ways, we may not be conscious of this dissonance in the act of conversation. We may only register a certain feeling of being out of sync, a certain feeling that something is off. Presence fails to emerge and conversation, of the sort that Turkle champions, indeed, of the sort we all acknowledge as one of the great consolations offered to us in this world — that kind of conversation becomes more difficult to achieve. Given the bodily dimensions of face-to-face conversation, I’m not sure it could be otherwise.

It is not that “social media” in some abstract generic form or the practice of texting in general that threatens conversation. It is the concrete materiality of the device entering into the intentional arcs of our perceiving and meaning-ful bodies engaged in face-to-face communication that is troublesome.

Body and Soul

From Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals. Speaking of Aristotle’s many commentators:

“They have underestimated the importance of the fact that our bodies are animal bodies with the identity and continuities of animal bodies. Other commentators have understood this. And it was his reading not only of Aristotle, but also of Ibn Rushd’s commentary that led Aquinas to assert: ‘Since the soul is part of the body of a human being, the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I” (Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians XV, 1, 11; note also that Aquinas, unlike most moderns, often refers to nonhuman animas as ‘other animals’). This is a lesson that those of us who identify ourselves as contemporary Aristotelians may need to relearn, perhaps from those phenomenological investigations that enabled Merleau-Ponty also to conclude that I am my body.”

This passage struck me for two reasons. The first is the host of assumptions that are challenged by that one line from Aquinas. That line alone troubles all sorts of commonly held misconceptions regarding the theological anthropology of the medieval Christian tradition. Misconceptions held both by those inside and outside of the tradition.

The second, of course, is MacIntyre’s recommendation of Merleau-Ponty and his investigations of the body’s role in structuring experience. Seconded.

Creatures of Technological Habit

Sometimes the most obvious realities are those that slip just below our awareness of things, blending into the background of lived experience, surreptitiously shaping and forming our assumptions, intentions, and actions. These realities are in a sense too big to notice, or better, too pervasive to notice. Their very ordinariness renders them ordinarily invisible.

When we think and talk about technology, particularly digital technologies or the Internet, we tend not to think very much about our bodies. In fact, digital technologies have inspired dreams (or, nightmares) of disembodied existence and uploaded consciousness. Even if we are not quite entertaining the possibility of digital immortality, we do tend to talk about digital technology in language that obscures the body’s presence. The Cloud, the Information Age, virtual reality — each of these terms, and others beside, suggest something ethereal and abstract. In any case, they certainly do not invite us to notice the role our bodies may play in the digital order of things.

The scholars associated with the website Cyborgology have coined the phrase digital dualism to describe the tendency to abstract the virtual world of bits and data from the “real” world of atoms and stuff when we talk and think about the Internet. I’m sympathetic to their critique of digital dualism. There are different kinds of realities at play, each with their own distinguishing characteristics, but one is not less real than the other and each affects the other in very real ways. Simply put, there is only one reality with digital and material dimensions always informing one another.

But dualisms can be hard to overcome. We like to think in oppositional pairs or binaries. Interestingly, like many of our habits of thought, this may in part be linked to our experience of moving about as bodies in physical space. The world presents itself to us as either here or there, near or far, up or down. As we move about, we are faced with a choice between left and right, backward and forward. And so it may be that digital dualism is built upon a much earlier and more venerable dualism — the old fashioned mind/body variety usually associated with Descartes.

But, consider the following for a moment:

When we update our status on Facebook, we are doing something with our body.

When we send out a tweet, we are doing something with our body.

When we take a picture with our phones, we are doing something with our body.

When we enter and send a text, we are doing something with our body.

When we search the Internet, we are doing something with our body.

And on and on it goes. Our bodies are the one intractable fact that we cannot escape. The body is the ground of being. And I say this while not adhering to philosophical materialism. We may be more than our bodies, but we are certainly not less than our bodies. But we really need not get caught up in metaphysical debates here. What I’m talking about is tangible, not unlike Samuel Johnson’s stone.

Dancers, athletes, craftsmen, and members of liturgical religious communities have an intuitive grasp of the body’s often unnoticed but pervasive influence on the conduct of our everyday lives. Let me illustrate with a personal anecdote or two from the realm of athletics.

A few days ago, when I was getting ready to go running I asked my wife to toss me a shoe that was just out of reach. She did, and without thinking about it, as the shoe was coming toward me, I “trapped” it with my foot using the same gesture I would’ve used to trap a soccer ball. Now it has been a very long time since I’ve played soccer, but that gesture materialized without any conscious thought on my part. It was instinctively activated from a repertoire of possible techniques that my body knew and deployed without my conscious reflection. It became a part of this repertoire by being repeated until it became habitual.

When I played baseball I was a catcher. To this day, some years since I’ve actually caught a game, if I crouch I can feel all sorts of latent bodily “I-cans” coiling up. I can feel the movements of the arm and wrist used to receive a pitch. I can feel exactly what to do if a ball comes in the dirt or if runner breaks for second. These movements are inscribed in me as a form of bodily, non-theoretical know-how. I am told that the experience of professional dancers is similar as is that of craftsmen who have honed an intuitive feel for their work in whatever their medium of specialization. The craftsmen is an especially apt example for our purposes for the way in which tools are implicated in the craftsman’s bodily skill. Finally, consider also the religious believer shaped by a liturgy. For example, the Catholic who crosses themselves reflexively at appropriate moments.

All of this reflects what Henri Bergson called “habit memory.” The temptation may be to minimize this form of memory when compared to our explicit memory of people, events, images, etc. But, returning to my example above, I remember less and less of my soccer games in that sense, while I will never forget how to trap a soccer ball (even if my ability to actually do so wanes significantly over time).

Our ordinary experience in the world is constantly mediated by this kind of embodied, not quite conscious “know-how.” The preeminent philosopher of the body, Merleau-Ponty, called it coping. Hubert Dreyfus, building on Merleau-Ponty, has called it “intelligence without representation.” It is the way in which we are constantly and non-consciously fine-tuning our movements and actions so as to find the best “grip” on reality as we experience it.

Charles Taylor offers this illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of coping, or how we make our way about the world:

“Living with things involves a certain kind of understanding, which we might also call ‘pre-understanding.’ That is, things figure for us in their meaning or relevance for our purposes, desires, activities. As I navigate my way along the path up the hill, my mind totally absorbed anticipating the difficult conversation I’m going to have at my destination, I treat the different features of the terrain as obstacles, supports, openings, invitations to tread more warily or run freely, and so on. Even when I’m not thinking of them, these things have those relevances for me; I know my way about among them.”

The best way to become aware of this dimension of our experience is to think about the moments when it breaks down. My favorite example of this is the Empty Milk Jug Effect. When you pick up an empty milk jug that you think is full, you’re caught off guard; you experience a palpable rupture between non-conscious, embodied judgments and the feedback flowing back through the embodied instantiation of those judgments. The point is that without consciously thinking about it, your body had adjusted itself to find “optimal grip” based on habit memory and when those adjustments proved inadequate you get that sudden sensation of applying way too much force. But what we need to consider is how infrequently this happens. Most of the time our bodies, the world, and our non-conscious thought processes are more or less in sync.

One more example to bring it closer to the realm of digital technology. Since I’ve become habituated to the use of my MacBook, I have an odd experience every once and awhile. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m willing to bet it’s not. When opening a new window or tab I often begin scrolling with my fingers on the track pad simultaneously with the loading of the page. There are times, however, when there is a slight delay in the opening of the page and I experience a momentary visual disorientation as my eyes move to track with a page that isn’t moving as it should given my habit memory associated with my fingers scrolling on the track pad.

Now at one level this may seem insignificant, but it functions like the tip of an iceberg. It’s a momentary awareness of an immense but ordinarily veiled reality that structures the whole of our experience. (I could be talked down from the scope of that last statement, but I’ll let it stand for now.)

Taylor added that “our grasp of things is not something that is in us, over against the world; it lies in the way we are in contact with the world.” And this brings us to the point: we are in contact with the world through our tools. Our tools, our bodies, our brains, and the world form a circuit of pre-understanding, perception, thinking, and action. A large portion of this circuit is composed of non-conscious habit-memory, and some of that habit-memory is formed through our technologically mediated engagement with the world. The way we use our tools can form habits that sink below the level of consciousness and thereby become part of the pre-understanging through which we navigate experience. And this happens because we use our technologies with our bodies and repeated bodily actions turn into our habit-memory.

We casually (with a nervous laughter) speak of being addicted to the Internet or to Facebook or of panicking when we forget our cell phones. We feel a certain compulsion, but we tend to psychologize this compulsion, that is we render it a mental or emotion disposition. And so it may be, in part. But the compulsions of technology may be less in the mind than in the body. Or better yet, they are anchored in the mind through the body.

Moreover, because our technologies enter into the circuit comprising our engagement with the world, they change the nature of our experience. As we navigate the world, our pre-understanding does not merely recognize objects in themselves within our field of experience. Rather, we perceive objects as they are for-us and how they figure in whatever activity we are engaged in. Our tools then shape how things and experiences appear to be for-us. Having hammer in hand changes how things present themselves; it opens up new possibilities for action that were not present before. For the person with a smartphone, their grasp of things lies in all of the ways the smartphone enables contact with the world. Repeated, embodied activation of these possibilities form habit memories that are then sedimented into the pre-understandings we bring to bear upon experience.

We have formed countless habit memories with our digital technologies, especially as they have become increasingly portable and handheld. We instinctively relate to the world through the capacities and capabilities that we have learned through the embodied use of our tools.


Two related posts:

Technology, Habit, and Being in the World 

Technology Use and the Body

Ritual, Remembrance, and Communities of Memory

This week Jews celebrate Passover and Christians will celebrate Easter. In both cases the celebration will be anchored in the memory of an event upon which each community grounds its identity — the Exodus from Egypt and the death and resurrection of Christ.  And in both cases again, the celebration is not only anchored in the memory, it sustains the memory of the event in the present and for the future while also grounding the community’s identity in the founding memory.

The commemorative function of religious celebrations and rituals plays a critical role in Paul Connerton’s analysis in How Societies Remember.  Connerton’s thesis is simple and elegant:  whatever societies care to remember most, they entrust to embodied ritual and practice.  There are a variety of reasons for this which Connerton explores, but for brevity’s sake I’ll mention only one.  Remembrances carried by and enacted in the body  are more durable and less contingent than verbally articulated forms of remembrance precisely because they are less subject to verbal manipulation and critique.

Connerton begins by defining ritual as “rule-governed activity of a symbolic character which draws the attention of its participants to objects of thought and feeling which they hold to be of special significance.” He then elaborates this definition of ritual by proposing three things that rites or rituals are not.

  1. “Rites are not merely expressive … They are formalized acts and tend to be stylized, stereotyped and repetitive … They do discharge expressive feelings; but this is not their central point.”
  2. “Rites are not merely formal.  We commonly express our sense of their formalism by speaking of such acts as ‘merely’ ritual or as ’empty’ forms … But this is misleading. For rites are felt by those who observe them to be obligatory … and the interference with acts that are endowed with ritual value is always felt to be an intolerable injury inflicted by one person or group upon another … To make patriots insult their flag or to force pagans to receive baptism is to violate them.”
  3. Rites are not limited in their effect to the ritual occasion … [W]hatever is demonstrated in rites permeates also non-ritual behavior and mentality … Rites have the capacity to give value and meaning to the life of those who perform them.”

Each of these three elaborations by Connerton pose something of a challenge to conventional understandings of ritual and rites.  Contemporary culture, and large segments of the Christian community will take issue with the lack of expressivity and fail to recognize the formative power of ritual.  Connerton, however, is judicious in his formulations.  Rituals can be expressive, that is simply not their chief end which is, rather, remembrance.  Those who question the power of ritual should ask themselves if they would willing partake in the rituals of another religion not their own or salute the flag of a foreign country.  And finally, Connerton claims that rituals have the capacity to reorient the worshiper’s life, not that they will necessarily accomplish this.

Moving from what rituals are not to what they are, Connerton writes, “All rites are repetitive, and repetition automatically implies continuity with the past.”  In other words, by repeating you are automatically bringing into the present something that was done in the past.  But many rites not only imply continuity with the past, but explicitly claim such continuity and they “do so by ritually re-enacting a narrative of events held to have taken place at some past time … Nowhere is this explicit claim to be commemorating an earlier set of founding events in the form of a rite more abundantly expressed then in the great world religions …”

So for example Judaism:  “The core of Jewish identity is established by reference to a sequence of historical events.”  The social and cultic life of Israel is more or less geared toward remembrance.  And, according to Connerton,

“Nowhere is this theology of memory more pronounced than in Deuteronomy.  For the Deuteronomist the test of showing that the new generation of Israel remains linked to the tradition of Moses, that present Israel has not been severed from its redemptive history, is to be met by a form of life in which to remember is to make the past actual, to form a solidarity with the fathers.”

Christianity also “stands or falls with the tie that binds it to  its unique historical origin.”  Amid his discussion of the Christian liturgical calendar, Connerton fastens on the historical character of the Christian faith and the subsequent burden of remembering those events that is borne by Christian worship:

“The period of time evoked by the Gospels and recalled in the liturgy is not, as in archaic religions, a mythical time, and the events annually recapitulated in the sacred calendar are not to be thought of as events that occurred ‘in the beginning’, ‘in illo tempore‘.  The events took place in a datable history and at a clearly defined historical period, the period in which Pontius Pilate was a governor in Judea.  Those events and that period are commemorated annually in the Good Friday and Easter festivals.”

In support of Connerton’s thesis it should also be noted that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which historically has been the linchpin of Christian worship, is fundamentally an act of remembrance and re-enactment.  And while words are pronounced, and this is not insignificant, it is principally something that is done and not said.  What is more it is a robustly sensual act that incorporates vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, all in the service of engraving a memory on our bodies that it may then go with us and permeate our lives and shape our identity.