Debate Magazine

Repetition & Ritual

By Cris

Repeat after me or do as I do, again and again and again. This is mimesis and it depends on repetition. In Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (1993), Merlin Donald proposes that the key adaptation of early hominins was an ability to mime vocalizations and actions, and then repeat those in invariant sequences. It’s a compelling argument that raises the issue of rituals. At their core, rituals are repetitive sequences. While these stylized actions are more than repetition, the attentional and emotional states induced by repetition play critical roles in ritual.

It so happens that I was thinking about repetition last night while reading this review of Roy Rappaport’s Religion and Ritual in the Making of Humanity (1999). The reviewer wryly notes that Rappaport, who identified repetition as essential to ritual, uses repetition in the book, variously and ingeniously repeating arguments to make his point. As Rappaport circles round and reiterates, the word-rococo is intended to create an effect. This effect emanates from repetitive structure rather than actual argument. Those who experience this effect will, Rappaport hopes, better understand – or feel – what he is saying. Given the density and opacity of Rappaport’s book, I have my doubts.

But I have no doubt that repetition is wonderfully mysterious, as this riveting piece on repetition in music demonstrates. The author, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, does not simply assert that “repeated sounds work magic in our brains.” She has also provided sound-tracks which work that magic, known to music cognitivists as the “speech-to-sound illusion.” While listening to these and marveling at what had happened inside my head, I was thinking: “This is relevant to ritual, Rappaport, and repetition.” As if on cue, later in the article Margulis states:

Anthropologists might feel that they are on familiar ground here, because it is now understood that rituals – by which I mean stereotyped sequences of actions, such as the ceremonial washing of a bowl – also harness the power of repetition to concentrate the mind on immediate sensory details rather than broader practicalities. In the case of the bowl-washing, for example, the repetition makes it clear that the washing gestures aren’t meant merely to serve a practical end, such as making the bowl clean, but should rather serve as a locus of attention in themselves.

In 2008, the psychologists Pascal Boyer and Pierre Liénard at Washington University in St Louis went so far as to claim that ritual creates a distinct attentional state in which we consider actions on a much more basic level than usual. Outside of ritual, individual gestures aren’t usually interpreted on their own terms; they are absorbed into our understanding of the larger flow of events. Ritual shifts attention from the overall pattern of events toward their component gestures. Instead of noting only that a bowl is being cleaned, the witness to a ritual might notice the acceleration of the hand across the bowl’s edge during each wiping gesture, or the way the cloth bunches and then opens as it is dragged forward and back across the surface. What’s more, the repetition of gestures makes it harder and harder to resist imaginatively modelling them, feeling how it might be to move your own hand in the same way. This is precisely the way that repetition in music works to make the nuanced, expressive elements of the sound increasingly available, and to make a participatory tendency – a tendency to move or sing along – more irresistible.

For those who are thinking this sounds a bit esoteric and not really relevant to material or biological anthropology, I encourage you to read Sheila Coulson’s 2011 article (pdf) on “Ritualized Behavior in the Middle Stone Age: Evidence from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana.” Although there are a number of misunderstandings (here) and questions (here) surrounding this site and its significance, Coulson and colleagues seem to be on to something. Seem to be on to something. On to something. Something.


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