Ritual, Sanctity, and Cybernetics


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    This paper was written while I was a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and of the East-West Center. I am grateful to both of these institutions for their support. I also wish to acknowledge the valuable suggestions I have received from Gregory Bateson, Herbert Long, Robert Levy, Mervyn Meggitt, Henry Orenstein, Eric Wolf, and Milton Yinger.


The role of the sacred in human communication and in the regulation of social and ecological systems is approached through ritual. After a brief review of salient features of Maring ethnography, formal characteristics of rituals making them suitable for communication and regulation functions are examined. From this discussion a concept of sanctity relating it to a problem inherent in symbolic communication is derived. The non-discussiue basis of sanctity is then considered and the role of the sacred in the cybernetics of social and ecological systems is then discussed. Next it is suggested that the relationship between sanctity and authority changes with technological development. Finally, some tentative suggestions concerning the origins of the sacred are advanced.