On Rituals and Meaning

WGD recently gave an interview on Parallax Optics, On Orthodoxy, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm. It’s a dense piece that could easily stand to be 10x longer, but I think the point is basically about how we understand the world.

WGD talks about the cycle of iconogenesis/iconoclasm, particularly in the context of modern politics:

Iconoclasm is therefore the elimination of local faith loci (I often use the term “intermediaries” when discussing divine loci, because the infinite creator is ineffable, and our minds seem to require a compiler). In Judaism this is largely precluded by preventing the formation of these loci (although the Black Swan is pretty impressive when one does form), but progressivism has no pre-emptive measure, creating an iconogenesis/iconoclasm cycle that moves at the speed of information. …

Progressivism is, in some senses, the willingness to destroy or route around a locus. In our modern times, with any meritorious loci destroyed as quickly as it is discovered, progressivism is forced to turn iconoclasm itself into a locus. …

Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

My basic reaction:

The universe is real, but much vaster than we can really comprehend or deal with in any practical manner, so we have to divide it into useful chunks. The chunks we happen to chose are not arbitrary; they are only useful inasmuch as they are real, and are useless if they are not real.

A dog, for example, is a real thing. It is different from a cat or a wolf. A dog is a real part of the universe.

Words, however, are arbitrary. They’re random collections of sounds we ascribe meaning to. It doesn’t matter that “dog” has the sounds d-o-g in it. It would work just as well if we used the sounds c-a-n-i-s or p-e-r-r-o to denote a domesticated canine. But we use “dog” because we have a common, agreed upon understanding that this collection of sounds signifies something.

Being arbitrary in sound does not make it arbitrary in meaning.

Words are arbitrary, but the things they refer to are not. We have words for the wider dog family, including foxes and wolves: canines. We have a word for general domesticated animals that live with people: pets. We do not have a word for “the set of things that includes only dogs and dinosaurs,” because this is not a useful category: it does not refer back to a real set of things.

Words are the smallest unit of meaning. Cultures build up layer upon layer of meaning through things like a common stock of songs we’ve all heard and literature that we’ve all read and can allude to (“Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him well”). This accretion of meaning allowing us to increase the conceptual density of communication. I don’t even like Shakespeare that much, but we have hundreds of years of culture and communication built on him, so we can’t just toss him out in favor of a “non dead white male” without losing something important.

Removing these arbitrary cultural norms (on the grounds that they are “arbitrary”) leaves people unmoored. We end up with idiotic things like corporations referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women” because they are afraid of offending the screeching masses who want disassemble language. These people object to the conceptual density of “woman” and so insist on breaking it into its component parts, but this makes communication much more difficult. Language forms symbols and layers of meaning naturally and attempting to pull that apart is unnatural and damaging: 

Culture goes well beyond language. We have clothes and games, rituals and holidays.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gives the best explanation I have seen of the importance of rituals:

It was then that the fox appeared. …

‘Come and play with me,’ suggested the little prince.’I’m terribly sad.’

‘I can’t play with you,’ said the fox. ‘I am not tame.’

‘Oh! I beg your pardon,’ said the little prince. Then, after a moment’s thought, he added:
‘What does “tame” mean ?’ …

‘Something that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It meam “to create ties” … To me, you are still only a small boy, just like a hundred thousand other small boys. And I have no need of you. And you in turn have no need of me. To you, I’m just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world.’

‘… My life is very monotonous. I run after the chickens; the men run after me. All the chickens are the same, and all the men are the same. Consequently, I get a little bored. but if you tame me, my days will be as if filled with sunlight. I shall know a sound of footstep different from all the rest. Other steps make me run to earth. Yours will call me out of my foxhole like music. And besides, look over there! You see the fields of corn ? Well, I don’t eat bread. Corn is of no use for me. Corn fields remind me of nothing. Which is sad! On the other hand, your hair is the colour of gold. So think how wonderful it will be when you have tamed me. The corn, which is golden, will remind me you. And I shall come to love the sound of the wind in the field of corn…”

The fox fell silent and looked steadily at the little prince for a long time. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘tame me!’

‘I should like to,’ replied the little prince, ‘but I don’t have much time. I have friends to discover and many things to understand.’ …

‘You have to be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘First, you will sit down a short distance away from me, like that, in the grass. I shall watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing; words are the source of misunderstandings. But each day you may sit a little closer to me.’

The next day the little prince came back.

‘It would have been better to come back at the same time of the day,’said the fox. ‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, when three o’clock strikes I shall begin to feel happy. The closer our time approaches, the happier I shall feel. By four o’clock I shall already be getting agitated and worried; I shall be discovering that happiness has its price! But if you show up at any old time, I’ll never know when to start dressing my hearth for you… We all need rituals.’

‘What is a ritual?’ said the little prince.

‘Something else that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox.

It’s what makes one day different from the other days, one hour different from the other hours. There is a ritual, for example, among my huntsmen. On Thursdays they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a stroll as far as the vineyard. If the huntsmen went dancing at any old time, the days would all be the same, and I should never have a holiday.’
So the little prince tamed the fox.

Not all rituals are good or important. Of course not. We can make a very long list of terrible rituals humans have come up with over the years. But that does not mean that all rituals are bad. Indeed, most rituals humans have come up with are probably good.

The rate of technological change in modern society is such that we have been forced to give up a good many of the rituals that we used to find pleasant or comforting. This is not all bad–we have gained a great deal of nice technology in exchange–but it takes time to build up new, functional rituals to replace the old.

Anyway, it’s an interesting interview, so I encourage you to read it.

What is Thanksgiving?

Holidays don’t come naturally to me.

Much like religion and nationalism, I don’t really have the emotional impulses necessary to really get into the idea of a holiday dedicated to eating turkey. Maybe this is just my personal failing, or a side effect of not being a farmer, but either way here I am, grumbling under my breath about how I’d rather be getting stuff done than eat.

Nevertheless, I observe that other people seem to like holidays. They spend large amounts of money on them, decorate their houses, voluntarily travel to see relatives, and otherwise “get into the holiday mood.” While some of this seems to boil down to simple materialism, there does seem to be something more: people really do like their celebrations. I may not be able to hear the music, but I can still tell that people are dancing.

And if so many people are dancing, and they seem healthy and happy and well-adjusted, then perhaps dancing is a good thing.

The point of Thanksgiving, a made-up holiday, (though it does have its roots in real harvest celebrations,) is to celebrate the connection between family and nation. This is obvious enough, since Thanksgiving unifies “eating dinner with my family” with “founding myth of the United States.” We tell the story of the Pilgrims, not because they are everyone’s ancestors, but because they represent the symbolic founding of the nation. (My Jamestown ancestors actually got here first, but I guess Virginia was not in Lincoln’s good graces when he decided to make a holiday.)

In the founding mythos, the Pilgrims are brave, freedom-loving people who overcome tremendous odds to found a new nation, with the help of their new friends, the Indians.

Is the founding mythos true?

It doesn’t matter. Being “literally true” is not the point of a myth. The Iliad did not become one of the most popular books of all time because it provides a 100% accurate account of the Trojan war, but because it describes heroism, bravery, and conversely, cowardice. (“Hektor” has always been high on my names list.) Likewise, the vast majority of Christians do not take the Bible 100% literally (even the ones who claim they do.) Arguing about which day God created Eve misses the point of the creation story; arguing about whether the Exodus happened exactly as told misses the point of the story held for a people in exile.

The story of Thanksgiving instructs us to work hard, protect liberty, and be friends with the Indians. It reminds us both of the Pilgrims’ utopian goal of founding the perfect Christian community, a shining city upon the hill, and of the value of religious tolerance. (Of course, the Puritans would probably not have been keen on religious tolerance or freedom of religion, given that they exiled Anne Hutchins for talking too much about God.)

Most of us today probably aren’t descended from the Pilgrims, but the ritual creates a symbolic connection between them and us, for we are the heirs of the civilization they began. Likewise, each family is connected to the nation as a whole; without America, we wouldn’t be here, eating this turkey together.

Unless you don’t like turkey. In which case, have some pie.