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Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance comes out of ethnographic fieldwork and archival research carried out in Fiji between 1996 and 2011 by Matt Tomlinson.  The book begins by warning of the way metaphors direct and shape our thinking, and highlights the prevalence of metaphors of motion in anthropology: the “swims”, “flows”, “frictions” and “shifts” which lead anthropologists to define themselves as dwellers in flux or investigators of cultural laws of motion.  Tomlinson then describes his own interest in using those metaphors in a particular way, by focusing on the “patterns people create as they articulate signs and texts in performance” (1).  In his account, rituals as “acts of entextualization…the process of turning discourse into texts that are detachable from their original contexts”, and he examines “the creation and replication of semiotic and textual objects in ritual performance” which “occur in regularly patterned ways”. (2)

ritual textuality

Tomlinson identifies four prominent patterns: “sequence”, “conjunction”, “contrast” and “substitution”.  These are exemplified in turn by the case studies he presents: a Pentecostal rally at which a Texan preacher speaks, kava-drinking sessions and their relationship to the Eucharist, accounts of “happy deaths” which indicate the soul of the dying is going to heaven and the “People’s Charter” published by the military government.  In these engrossing chapters he demonstrates the movements of discourse into loops which encourage participants to believe, commit and take action, or into channels which attempt to cancel previous discussion of a topic, or chiasmic sequences which bring two modes of being into contact which each other.  As that brief account suggests, the concepts being handled and reworked are both abstruse and metaphorical, but Tomlinson works hard to keep them grounded in the actual practices and situations he describes, and the use of Bakhtin in the chapter on political discourse is particularly effective.  The ideas he introduces from Fijian culture – such as vanua, which can mean land, people and body politic – make repeated appearances across the chapters, giving the reader a chance to discern their interrelations from different angles.

There are some areas where I personally would have appreciated some more specificity around the theoretical work.  The introduction of performativity in the first chapter usefully refers to J.L. Austin’s “lectures on speech act theory”, but given the way How To Do Things With Words revises its own ideas as the book progress, the fact that it was put together from notes and transcriptions, and the many competing readings of Austin’s ideas, it would be helpful to have a more explicit account of what is being taken from his work (6).  It’s something of a quibble to point out that Austin did not really give “classic lectures on speech act theory”, but gave lectures on certain uses of language which Searle decided pointed to a theory which Searle then developed.  Nonetheless it does highlight the contested legacy of Austin’s work, and when performativity reappears in the next chapter it is described as “speaking in order to fit or shape the context in which one’s words are judged forceful or effective”, as very particular and potentially limiting account (26).  The taxonomy of kinds of speech deployed by the preacher which follows – “declaration”, “promise”, “action” – is a little less persuasive because of this brief account of performatives.  It has the effect of glossing over the preacher’s ambiguities, pivots and slides between the different categories it outlines: the pattern which Tomlinson identifies is definitely there, but the theory behind it could have provided a richer account.

The only other section I would have liked to see developed more is the brilliant discussion of why the parallels between kava-drinking ceremonies and the Eucharist do not mean that the two rites can be merged, but in fact keep them apart.  This is not at all due to any problems in Tomlinson’s writing, just a desire to see the ideologies which are enmeshed in the rituals being given a thicker description.  The particular Eucharistic theology involved might have been explained in more detail, rather than leaving it at a general descriptive level, given the wide variation in what people imagine they are doing when they take part in the sacrament and how that must affect the chiasmic patterns he identifies.  (Given this is true of one system, I wonder if the same might be true of the kava-drinking.)  Tomlinson’s work is obviously more concerned to develop metaphors and models than to discuss theologies, and he effectively shuttles between abstract scaffolding and thick description, but in this particular case going further into the belief system might have helped.  (Though perhaps I simply mean it would have interested me!)

Overall, this is an intriguing and meticulous study, developed over years of fieldwork, which brings together widely differing social practices in a compelling account of ritual movements.  Tomlinson convincingly proposes entextualization as the right intellectual tool to account for the shifting and repeating patterns which we find in ritual performances of various kinds, and performs effective close readings of ritual situations in the process.


Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance.  Matt Tomlinson.  Oxford University Press: 2014.  £22.99  978-0199341146.  I am grateful to Oxford University Press for providing the volume for review.