Ritual as Dissipation System

Ritual operates as a self-organizing dissipation system for ontological embodiment. Philosophers really know how to take all the fun out of something like ritual. Permit me to rephrase by saying that ritual permits the flow of energy, which is akin to a pathway or dissipation system. This idea is based upon David Depew and Bruce Weber theory of Non-equilibrium Thermodynamic as it relates to biological evolution as found in “Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition” and personal conversations with them along with Eric D. Schneider’s “Thermodynamics, Ecological Succession, and Natural Selection: A Common Thread.”

Self-organizing dissipation systems are stable over time but are also dynamic. These systems are pathways for excess energy. Being far from equilibrium, these systems are often non-deterministic. Systems, structures, and processes such as ecosystems, evolution, culture, weather, and cities are all subject to non-equilibrium thermodynamic. Based on this principal of the vast excess energy of the sun, ecosystems (as well as all these others ones) have developed into self-organizing dissipation systems.

Ritual may be understood as stable over time and dynamic. Ritual provides a structure for a plethora of human activities. So that ritual may be a self-organizing dissipation system for energy to flow through. Part of that energy is the basic for creating the ritual structure, which I am suggesting is ontological embodiment. Ritual then is a lived experience. (I may have taken ‘lived experience’ from Edmund Husserl but I am not sure if directly, it has been a long time since I have read anything by him, or if through some other philosopher.)

Ontology is the nature of being, which includes questions of what or how one interacts and understands existence and reality. This is part of the fundamental question of how things are in relationship. The embodiment part is our action, while ritual is a first-person experience. That is to say human perspective of the world becomes part of one’s being through ritual. This view is in agreement with the part of biogenetic structuralism that “[r]itual activity facilitates the penetration and embodiment of symbols into human selves” (Grimes 2006:139).

However, there are limits to ontological embodiment. Margaret Thompson Drewal wrote about the play in ritual and expands the idea of performance based upon the Yoruba-speaking people’s understanding. The Yorba are peoples of southwestern Nigeria who conceive ritual as “journeys” (1992:xiii). Ritual as journey speaks to ritual as a pathway for a flow of human activity, as for example, piety. The interplay of ritual, festival, spectacle, and play seems to push these boundaries by the “overlapping and interpenetrating” of the words themselves (1992:12). Drewal writes that “nobody can witness a Yoruba performance in its entirety, not even ritual specialists themselves” (2001:24-25). This speaks about the reality of living and having limits. In limits categories arise.

Hence, ritual becomes the frame in which religious and secular activities can manifest. Because neither ontology nor embodiment is limited to religious experiences, secular activities should be included. A good example of secular activities is Lee Gilmore’s Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man.

Works Cited

Depew, David and Bruce Weber. (1988). “Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition.” Entropy, Information, and Evolution. Ed. David Depew and Bruce Weber. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Drewal, Margaret Thompson. (1992). Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Grimes, Ronald L. (2000) “Ritual.” Guide to the Study of Religion. Ed. Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon. New York: Cassell. Pp. 259-270.

— (2006) Rite out of Place: Ritual, Media, and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Schneider, Eric D. (1988). “Thermodynamics, Ecological Succession, and Natural Selection: A Common Thread.” Entropy, Information, and Evolution. Ed. David Depew and Bruce Weber. Massachusetts: MIT Press.


About William Blumberg

I engage in religious philosophy within a Pagan context. I serve on the Board of Directors of Cherry Hill Seminary and the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.
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