A Post-Modern Defence of Ritual

Making Usu-cha from the series A Tea Ceremony Periwinkle (1897), a woodblock print by Toshikata Mizuno (1866–1908).

This short book (about 100 pages) could be described as a post-modern critique of the forces that are destroying both traditional societies and the remaining traditional elements of Western civilisation. It is not unique in this project, but it is a representative example of a kind of book that has become more common in recent years, and the arguments it contains are worthy of serious consideration by conservatives approaching the issues from a rather different perspective.

I am not an expert on Han’s sources—Gadamer, Foucoult, Baudrilland, Barthes, and others—so I take Han’s arguments simply as presented in this work. They display some of the characteristics of post-modernism which make it such a frustrating area to work in: sweeping generalisations, simplistic contrasts, dubious historical claims, and inconsistencies. To give an extreme example, Han appears to believe that ancient warfare did not involve projectiles (arrows and so on), which I think would have been a surprise to anyone living at the time. To some extent, one has to go along with him and see if a sound argument can be constructed out of the impassioned and intriguing elements he presents.

Han’s primary contrast is between a ritual society and a non-ritual one. The latter is what we have in the developed world, emerging out of the former. The rituals Han has primarily in view are social—etiquette, playing one’s conventional role in society, and so on—but he includes religion as well. Han explains the erosion of ritual not only in terms of the Enlightenment, but also in terms of capitalism and, more recently, social media.

In order to be authentic in the sense popularised by Romanticism, we cannot simply be what we are made by our social role: a carpenter, a husband, or a father, for example, all things understood in a particular way in a ritual society. To allow ourselves to be formed by those roles would be inauthentic; it would not be a genuine reflection of one’s true inner identity. Instead, we must carve out our own identity.

The apotheosis of this process is the carefully curated social media image, created out of nothing by the individual, a product which Han places in the context of capitalist production. For these images are products for others to consume and that are to be sold by the social media platforms, indirectly, to their advertisers. We are play-acting ourselves, out of necessity rather than playfulness, and not for our benefit, as slaves of liberal capitalism.

The anti-traditionalist may insist at this point that it is the individual in the ritual society who is play-acting, by conforming to a social role which has not sprung up from within himself: this implies a conflict between one’s inner reality and outward behaviour. Han observes that self-constructed modern people with their artificial public social-media images are actually the ones whose external appearance is most at odds with how they really feel and who they really are. This is a telling point, but with an insight which I think is worth the cover price of the book, Han goes beyond this. He writes:

As a form of ritual, politeness is without heart and without desire, without wish. It is more art than morality. It exhausts itself in the pure exchange of ritual gestures. Within the topology of Japanese politeness as a ritual form, there is no inside, no heart that would render the politeness a merely external etiquette. It cannot be described using the opposition of inside and outside. It does not dwell in an outside that, a pure semblance, could be juxtaposed with the inside. Rather, one is fully form, fully outside.

Han is saying that in a ritual society it does not make sense to contrast the internal and the external in the way Romanticism encourages us to do. It does not make sense to ask, when an individual expresses welcome, friendship, or gratitude, through the appropriate ritual gestures, “Is this genuine? Does it come from the heart, from inside?” These questions do not make sense because there is no inside to be at odds with the outside. The individual is completely identified with the meaning of the ritual.

Han writes of the Japanese tea ceremony:

The proper movements of the hands and body have a graphic clarity, and there is no uncertainty about them deriving from the influence of the mind or soul. The actors immerse themselves in ritual gestures, and these gestures create an absence, a forgetfulness of self.

The Enlightenment accusation, against traditional societies, is that their members’ behaviour, because set by custom, is not authentic, because it has been set by custom. Han responds that the outward appearance is all there is, because the individual has identified with it. There is no conflicting inner self struggling to be free.

This may sound as though Han thinks that rituals are performed by slaves or machines, but he suggests the reverse is the case. The forgetfulness of self he refers to frees us from the narcissism characteristic of non-ritual society and makes play and art possible. Indeed, for Han, ritual is both play and art: it is the playful addition of unnecessary, decorous features to otherwise bare human actions and artefacts: and, indeed, to the naked human body.

It would have been helpful if Han had further developed the implication that identification with ritual does not destroy creativity but on the contrary makes it possible. Indeed, the whole world of art is a convention, a form of ritual in a wide sense. The boor who says ‘art is bunk’ is the ultimate convention breaker, and in breaking the fundamental convention of art, by breaking the spell, he would make art impossible.

Again, Han identifies ritual with the possibility of freedom, the sovereign freedom of the warrior, for example, who is willing to give his life for a ritual construct such as honour or community. The self-made product of capitalism is too selfish for such a sacrifice: he could not see the point of it. All he has left is the production and consumption of things directed at his basic desires. For Han, this makes him the true slave.

Three difficulties occurred to me as I read this book. One is that Han repeatedly contrasts ritual with communication. But in an obvious sense, ritual communicates a great deal: the important difference, for example, between welcome and hostility. In fact, Han’s contrast is between the elaborate packaging of a Japanese present, of an elegant but trifling witticism, or of a ceremonious seduction, with the undecorated, un-signified world of goods, data, and pornography. Han tells us that in a ritual, the packaging is more important than the contents. By contrast, modernity demands content with the minimum of packaging: the facts, without the ceremony. One can see Han’s point, but to limit the term “communication” to the passing on of bare data is unhelpful.

A second problem is that contrary to Han’s arguments, traditional societies can be very concerned with the contrast between inner and outer: with sincerity, the heart. In the Biblical tradition, we often hear the complaint made by Isaiah and quoted by Christ: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8). In general, the people of traditional societies care deeply about disloyalty, betrayal, lies, ingratitude, and oath-breaking, crimes which they regarded with horror.

Han seems to be making his point, however, by reference to the ideal: in the ideal knight, for example, wholly taken up in his role, there is no contrast between inside and outside. When someone falls short of this ideal, he has held something back, like a corrupt judge who holds back from complete identification with justice, to keep a space for venality.

A third difficulty is Han’s contrast of ritual with “morality.” Morality, a concern for “souls,” he tells us, has taken over from politeness, the following of rules.

Forms of politeness are disappearing, disregarded by the cult of authenticity. Beautiful forms of conduct are becoming ever rarer.…Apparently, the ascendancy of morality is compatible with the barbarization of society. Morality is formless. Moral inwardness dispenses with form.

Han seems to have identified morality with a Kantian focus on the inward self as a source of guidance, in which sincerity and consistency are prized above forms of life specific to a community. (Han’s idiolect here is reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s.) In the normal sense of ‘morality,’ the customs and obligations of each community must find their context in a system of universal principles of justice: as Aquinas said of human (positive) law, it can add to the obligations of natural law, but not contradict it. Han does not appear accept the notion of a universal law of nature, or anything equivalent to it.

As far as Han’s conclusions are concerned, there is no doubt that he is correct to see a conflict between the post-Enlightenment obsession with self-creation and community. A community can only exist to the extent to which a group of individuals have something in common, and if a household, village, or nation is to have the character of a community, its members must allow themselves to identify with values and ways of life which they have inherited, and not created for themselves. The internet provides spaces where people can come together who have by mere coincidence created similar identities for themselves, but these identities are not commitments, and such groupings last only until their members re-create themselves in a new way.

Given this, it is difficult to reject Han’s association of the rejection of ritual with isolation, loneliness, and narcissism. What is left to us, when community and indeed relationships are removed, is, as Han suggests, work, something encouraged by what Han calls “the neoliberal regime.” The focus on work as what gives meaning to life is opposed to contemplation, whether religious or artistic, which depends on our ability to use words and indeed ourselves not in the most literal and prosaic way, but playfully, lingering in a festival or in a village’s central gathering space, disconnected, at least for a time, from utility.

Han announces in a “Preliminary Remark” that “[t]he present essay is not animated by a desire to return to ritual.…Avoiding nostalgia, I sketch a genealogy of their disappearance, a disappearance which, however, I do not interpret as an emancipatory process.” This, however, is not true. Throughout the book, the imperative for restoration is implicit, and occasionally Han makes it explicit. “We might thus expect a re-enchantment of the world to create a healing power that could counteract collective narcissism.” “What must be won back is contemplative rest.” “Against this formless morality, we must defend an ethics of beautiful forms.”

Han, a Korean by birth and German by adoption, represents something interesting and relatively new in this debate: an articulation of the case for ritual by someone highly educated in Western ideas but whose cultural heritage is in the ritual societies of the Far East. We do not have to agree with everything he says to appreciate the importance of his perspective. At the least, Han draws attention to the value of things which have been the subject of neglect and indeed vilification for three hundred years in the West: inherited loyalties, roles, and customs. He does so, moreover, from a cultural and political direction which may make his arguments harder for the opponents of tradition on the political Left to dismiss.

Joseph Shaw is a senior research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the faculty of philosophy. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, and president of the Una Voce International Federation.

The Disappearance of Rituals was first published in German as Vom Verschwinden der Rituale: Eine Topologie der Gegenwart, Berlin: Ullstein, 2019.


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