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On religious ritual as deference and communicative excess

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I shall argue that most religious ritual is a performance that not only invokes but also performs communication. The ethnographic material from which I derive this argument is from China, in particular the temple rituals of local festivals. My argument is that a deep obeisance of welcome and departure that is both like and not like the normal ritual of greeting marks a religious from a non-religious ritual occasion and place. It is a ritual doubling that makes the honoured guest also a host. Religious ritual is a medium, and as a medium it is double in another sense. It is deference and deferral, a repeated transmission of obeisance to authority that has the authority of repetition. As well as doubling, religious ritual is excessively communicative. The medium is a performance not only of invitation and departure but also of communicative response, and it repeats this communication as a test of communicative response over and over again. Religious ritual performs both the opening and closing of communication, both the seeking and the responsive reciprocation of gift offerings with bounteousness. It is shadowed by the possibility of no response, of giving offence, of being abandoned. This possibility is acknowledged by being prevented, while the possibility that the performers are their own responders is disavowed.

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