Rituals are the process by which we fully inhabit time in the way that humans are meant to. Do we experience time in clicks? In bandwidth? In quantifiable streams of data, raw and mindlessly accumulating? “Today,” explains Han, “time lacks a solid structure. It is not a house but an erratic stream. It disintegrates into a mere sequence of point-like presences; it rushes off. There is nothing to provide time with any hold [Halt]. Time that rushes off is not habitable.”
This ritualistic meandering within time belongs to the symbolic order. “Rituals are constituted by symbolic perception,” Han reminds us. And the symbol is a sign of recognition and repetition. Its historical meaning was a recognition of the relationship between guest and host, sealed with the promise of recurrence. In truer sense, Han’s sense, symbols are perceptions of “the permanent: the world is shorn of its contingency and acquires durability.” Han quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writing in his novel Citadel to provide an example of such ritualistic durability:
And our immemorial rights are in Time what the dwelling is in Space. For it is well that the years seem to wear us away and disperse us like a handful of sand; rather they should fulfill us. It is meeting that Time should be a building-up. Thus I go from one feast day to another, from anniversary to anniversary, from harvestide to harvestide as, when a child, I made my way from the Hall of Council to the rest room within my father’s palace, where ever footstep had a meaning.
It would be easy to say that we no longer live in a world where every fooststep has meaning. But we do. Every footstep does. We just also happen to live under an economic and political regime which devalues symbolic logic. For the purposes of production and efficiency, our current social dispensation instead silos us into autonomous experiences, financializes communication, and urges us towards auto-exploitation. “The disappearance of symbols points towards the increasing atomization of society,” writes Han, “While at the same time society is increasingly becoming narcissistic.” Form is anathema to narcissism. Narcissism devalues form as just another barricade hedging in a restless self. Subjective states are preferred to objective form. But most importantly, symbols disrupt the suzerainty of the narcissistic ego. “Those who devote themselves to rituals must ignore themselves,” Han writes. “Rituals produce a distance from the self, a self-transcendence. They de-psychologize and de-internalize those enacting them.”
In DeLillo’s books, rituals are like punctums. They are tiny fissures or wounds through which the enigmatic can speak. Characters instinctively engage in ritualistic behavior while at the same time they long for the kind of symbolic vision which would give the ritual life. Rituals devolve into cargo cults, their value diluted by a culture without recourse to symbolic logic. Mao II begins with a mass cult-wedding in a baseball stadium. In White Noise marriages dissolve and recur with the same ease as changing a television station. Pilgrimages decay into tourism. Deaths are either too easy or impossible.
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