Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The healing power of the community

RITUALS / The compulsion of neoliberalism to communicate, make visible, be busy, creates a reflex of narcissism, depression and psychological emptiness.

The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present
Author: Byung-Chul Han
Publisher: Polity, USA

Every summer vacation, my dad taught me to cut flutes. We put them in a row and, eventually, I learned to play a tune. In the winter, he made things in leather, and I can remember its smell, the sound of the cut, and the calm that I associated with the workshop.

Others can remember the sound of a rooster crowing, which came from far away, morning after morning. Not least, the farmer who has experienced the change of seasons and rhythm as part of a basic living experience.

Before it became a faith and institution, religion was associated with initiation, trial, and festivals celebrating the coming of the light. Today, many non-believers experience the liturgies of the Church, its song, music, and choir, as empowering and healing.

All of them can be seen as different kinds of rituals. Determining the ritual is through repetition, the densification of an experience, the stabilization of a way of life, and a community-forming force. Through rituals, we feel connected to a shared reality, something non-measurable. For example, my childhood memory is also a bodily memory that can be grasped in an image that directly opens up a world. But the crucial insight of the ritual is that reality does not circulate the self, but that which «brings together» (synagogue), also known from the Jewish Sabbath. As such, a counterweight to any market economy thought.

The ritual marks a central symbolic practice in all cultures and has played an important role in relation to religion, play, war, honour, social ties, tragedies, eroticism, seduction and intimacy. But the demand for constant production, short-term utility and gain, increased speed, constant networking and communication has brought us into a time when rituals seem to play a vanishing role, thus bringing the healing power of the community into crisis.

Ill. Faditoon

The compulsion to production

The South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han (Professor of Art and Media Theory in Karlsruhe) is known for his small critical books on neoliberalism and the existential consequences of technology. One basic idea for Him is that the «I-can» of the action gives birth to an immediate «I-must», that is, compulsion. Specifically, the compulsion to production – a way of being connected to the compulsion of neoliberalism, to communicate, to make visible, to be busy that, according to him, creates reflex, narcissism, depression and an aggressive psychological emptiness.

Rituals and repetitions create what we lack in our time, what he calls «a limited space of transitions» – where we can dwell, listen and lift ourselves. Childhood is such a space. In fact, several phases of life are this. But these phases need space and thresholds, densification of experience, resistance, and special encounters.

Thresholds are there to go through something. In the serial experience hell, we do not evolve through restricted spaces, transitions, and thresholds. We live a transit life without closures. We’re just slipping through. Things lose duration. We do not age – this phase of life where you must be old is detached from the production mania.

It is this capacity for repetition that modern expelled society has lost. Instead, we get a sense of momentary effects that eventually end in emptiness. A tired time is a poor time.

A tired time is a poor time

Affect communication and intimacy tyranny

The other day I went to a Buddhist funeral for a Danish poet who, throughout his life, was inspired by a Buddhist view of life. A Tibetan nun ordained for 25 years presided over the ceremony. Framed in a repetitive 30-minute-long mantra, I had an experience of a very organic, circular state. A shared healing experience where death is not experienced as a limit – we are just passing through.

I thought it had something to do with what he refers to as the «formal grips» that characterize rituals and, (e.g. Japanese) culture. While we see the formal in the ceremony as something distancing, in Japan, it is a necessary framework that does not block, but releases. The carefully coordinated movements in the tea ceremony, the wrapping of gifts, etc.

The real function of the consciousness of form is to remove ourselves from ourselves; away from the psychological, away from the ego, because it is an illusion. Communities grow out of an everyday experience with a sense of silence, which gives room for listening, good craftsmanship, and good conversation. Living communities depend on a sense of form and formal rules, not affect communication (Tweet / Facebook) and intimacy tyranny that plagues public space and TV.

Sense of distance and courtesy remove us from the centre, while form and limitation create a ramp for thought and exploration. «We rarely read poems anymore», he notes. «Unlike crime novels, they contain no definitive truth. The poem plays with porous boundaries. «But it has become difficult to play, the serious play, the play as a mental image of an ethos and healing power – an image of reality that has been hijacked by gaming, capitalism’s corporate life and event culture.»

The sacred and the profane

A pervasive weakness is Hans’ tendency to divide the world into the sacred and the profane, where the sacred is the name of the enchanting and unifying, the profane is the name of the loss of all this. To me, it has to do with his tendency to reduce rituals to the symbolic. He underlines the practical dimension of rituals, a practice that invites the participants to a free common use (cf. Agamben). Thus also a practice in which criticism profanes, i.e. sanctifies, that which culture and the economy elevate to a special status, such as work, news, and the pursuit of success.

In his view, rituals tend to end up as a description of a conservative cultural figure. For me, the strength of the ritual is a practice that feeds on a rich world of experience that, in addition to being anchoring, also changes me. I take part in something to understand my affiliation but also to become someone else.

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera is a Danish essayist and writer.

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