The Encounter Never Ends: A Return to the Field of Tamil Rituals. Isabelle Clark-Decès. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2007. x+146pp.
Article first published online: 11 MAR 2010
© 2010 by the American Anthropological Association
Special Issue: Rethinking Autism, Rethinking Anthropology: Guest Editors: Nancy Bagatell and Olga Solomon
Volume 38, Issue 1, pages 1–3, March 2010
How to Cite
Kostick, K. M. (2010), The Encounter Never Ends: A Return to the Field of Tamil Rituals. Isabelle Clark-Decès. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2007. x+146pp. Ethos, 38: 1–3. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2010.01104.x
- Issue published online: 11 MAR 2010
- Article first published online: 11 MAR 2010
This relatively short book offers an alternative to functionalist approaches to ritual and seeks to study ritual “in its own right” (p. 11). Reconsidering ritual in the context of ritual itself rather than by reference to other social, historical, or ecological variables, Clark- Decès attempts to connect ritual performance with “a wider field of ceremonial dynamics and practices” (p. 12). The book is self-reflexive in tone and provides a thoughtful, if brief, critique of functionalism and objectivism in the study of ritual.
Based on a re-reading of her previous work on Tamil ritual in Somatur (a pseudonym) in South India, the author compares two rituals encountered during fieldwork in order to demonstrate how rituals “borrow” rules, notions, and aspects of performance from others. The result is an overlap of symbols and meanings having less to do with the facts of Tamil society and history than with an ongoing dialogue among the rituals themselves. Minimizing the influence of other sociocultural variables, Clark-Decès seems to suggest that ritual is a closed-system of meanings and symbols. She does, however, hint that certain aspects of Tamil rituals “coincide” (p. 108) with social dynamics, and convincingly describes in Chapter 1 how the plurality of ritual behaviors in Somatur reflect deep social divisions in post-colonial India. Nevertheless, in her conclusion, she admits her “reluctance” to suggest a causal relationship between social dynamics and ritual, and perhaps without warrant, takes her comparison of two rituals as evidence that the logic of rituals depends on other rituals rather than on the “outside facts” (p. 100) of Tamil society.
The “killing of the worst person” is described in Chapter 2 as a ritual performed to end a drought believed to be punishment for the sins of the “worst person” in the village. Villagers burn an effigy (kotumpavi) to absolve themselves of the worst person's sins and to “open her eyes” just before she dies. This ritual is compared to a sorcery-removal ritual in which dolls (pavai) resembling demons have their pupils dotted with charcoal paste to “open the eyes.” The author asserts that the similarity between these rituals suggests a common symbolic framework in which the act of “opening the eyes” provokes a psychological eye-opening or personal crise de conscience among participants, stimulating self-growth and transformation. Clark-Decès proposes that these rituals are performed less for their overtly-stated purposes (e.g., to eliminate drought, pollution, etc.) than to remind participants to engage in critical self-reflection. Though the author argues that “the fundamental subject of Tamil religion is identity” (p. 12), she stops just short of characterizing self-awareness as the primary function of Tamil ritual.
Clark-Decès later compares the “eye-opening” common in Tamil rituals to the ethnographer's task of analyzing ritual. She explains in her introduction that the book is not only a re-reading of her original fieldwork notes, but also of ethnography itself as a limited tool for understanding ritual. Ethnographers have traditionally characterized ritual as a shared social reality, existing “betwixt and between” a more quotidian reality (Turner 1967), uniting individuals together in a single moral community (Durkheim 1912, 1995), or delineating social and personal boundaries (Douglas 1966). By engaging in ritual, individuals enter into a shared realm of experience, interact according to shared prescriptions for behavior, and manipulate symbols with shared significance. However, Clark-Decès warns in Chapter 4 that ethnographers tend to overestimate the degree to which meanings in ritual are shared. In an unexpected reinterpretation of Geertz's famous dictum on winks and blinks, the author suggests that meanings and interpretations are so layered and numerous that ethnographers would do better to replace their search for deep shared meanings with an acknowledgement that ritual's primary substance for participants is “activity” (p.97). Clark-Decès explains that, in the absence of shared meanings, participants emphasize rules and prescriptions in ritual over collective meanings, experiencing ritual as activity for its own sake. The primary meaning attributed to rituals, she argues, is personal (and hence, diverse) rather than collective.
The third chapter is much less about Tamil ritual than a commentary on the potential for misrepresentation in ethnography. The author draws a parallel between ethnography and other historical accounts from Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the 1600s, demonstrating how they reveal more about the changing perspectives within Catholicism than about Tamil life in South India. Similarly, the author persuasively argues that accounts offered by British orientalists, priests, and officials of the colonial state after 1803 shed more light on colonial religious and theoretical paradigms than on those of Tamils. While readers may be sympathetic with her point that ethnography is guided by bias, a comparison between ethnography and colonial or missionary accounts may be gratuitous.
The book's central thesis is that the plurality of meanings in Tamil rituals is explained by the dialogic nature of ritual itself, evidenced by two observations: 1) participants' overemphasis on rules and performance rather than on meaning in ritual; and 2) the borrowing of symbols across rituals. While certainly plausible, the development of this argument would benefit from a more extensive examination of borrowing among other Tamil (and/or non-Tamil) rituals, and more evidence of the diversity of meanings reported by ritual participants.
In keeping with Tamil notions of eye-opening, Clark-Decès' book strives itself to be an “eye-opener” to ethnographers of ritual in pointing out how the multivocality of ritual meanings prohibits systematic analysis. However, the author neglects to address an important question: How can ethnographers confidently discount the influence of external social, political, or ecological factors? Further, while Clark-Decès argues that the aspects of ritual cannot be explained by their function, she herself convincingly makes the case that “eye-opening” has become a common feature of Tamil rituals because it functions to “create a human being that is more self-aware, more reflexive and therefore more alive” (p.80). Despite this contradiction in the author's thesis, the book is nevertheless an engaging depiction of Tamil ritual in the context of historical change in South India, and should be of interest to scholars of ritual and the dynamics of Tamil society.
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