by Aaron Jonas Stutz
Ritual is not the only domain of social practice that is defined by its symbolic markedness in connection to unmarked, everyday routine. Indeed, mundane patterns of social interaction, socially influenced routine behaviors, and daily intentional strategic social actions and decisions may be considered the equilibrium zone of human activity. This equilibrium zone is continuously, dynamically set and reset through symbolically structured and structuring practices that may occur across multiple social, geographic, and temporal scales. The equilibrium “routine” zone is symbolically set and reset, sometimes even over short time scales and through small social networks (or subnetworks). The symbolic boundaries of the unmarked routine at the present time would be set for the network participants by earlier structured, intentional excursions from the socially interconnected, everyday routines. The earlier instances of “excursive practices” would consist of intentional departures from the routine that produced an awareness–for individuals or through social interaction networks–that the excursion had evoked a sense of boundary between routine and the non-routine. It should be clear that ritualization is a social process that symbolically sets or resets the boundaries of routine. But play–including genuine free, creative childhood play, highly structured competitve games, improvisational performance following loosely structured rules, and even arguably musical performance and much artistic production–constitutes a complex domain of social practice that structures our awareness and the symbolic setting of homeostatic normative routine zones.
Emma Nilsson’s (2010) thought-provoking doctoral dissertation in architecture explores how play can thoroughly structure not only a sense of the normal or routine, but also a sense of social identity in contrast to the normal. As she argues, this is the case when ubigaming transforms–and its participants then are transformed by–the “city as a field of play.” Nilsson points out that “[p]lay has a double-relationship to rules. On the one hand, freedom to choose is a condition for the game to occur and continue; as soon as conditions are placed on it, it is no longer a game. On the other hand, the game is dependent on rule-making: the game must be irrational but not occur in the absence of logic” (2010:36; my translation). Play first and foremost makes us aware of the excursion from routine by confronting us with the continuous challenge of its ambiguity: it may be markedly orderly and disorderly, predictable and unpredictable, unsurprising and thoroughly surprising at the same time. If we want to play, we have to fully embrace this ambiguity.
From this point of departure, by markedly making us aware of the contrast from routine, it is play that brings into relief what behaviors or decisions are safe and normal. Play then gives us a rich set of experiences in which we can push the boundaries, moving away from routine, producing awareness, not only of the potential for agency and change away from the symbolically set status quo–which may be familiar and routine but which inevitably involves conflicts of interest, mistakes, misjudgments, accidents, injuries, and illnesses. Just as importantly, play can make us aware that excursions from routine may not necessarily point toward or allow exploration of change for the better. Too much choreography or order may be stifling … or may mobilize collective action so effectively that it is dangerous (mobilizing group violence or overexploiting resources beyond renewal rates). Too much free play and testing of boundaries can give us an intimation that even greater danger than we have yet sought out may exist in the universe. Thus, play can have the paradoxical effect of homeostatically reinforcing the symbolic boundaries of routine, by structuring our experience and sense of transformative change as dangerous–barely imaginable, even terrifying–change.
Stories we tell each other can also have the effect of transporting us from the everyday, making us aware of what is normal, routine experience that we’re usually too busy to define. Whereas play tends to produce a vague sense of terror or unsustainable exhilaration in producing an embodied intimation of how moving markedly away from the normal may actually be dangerous, myths have a more specific impact on our awareness of the normal. Mythic stories mark the narrative departure from a normal or mundane scenario by linking the social order in a non-nested hierarchical connection to a more powerful, encompassing realm. Moreover, the myth’s narrative drive comes from inherent ambiguity over whether the threshold between normal society and this more powerful supra-social realm will cause disorder, orderly change, or reinforcement of existing order. The result is that myths can be enormously effective as suspenseful, moving, or comic entertainment, while also clearly conveying values and beliefs about how best to muddle along in the everyday, profane realm. These values and beliefs may be moral in nature (say, about sharing, reciprocity, and honesty), or they may be about the deeper ideological connection between a sacred suprasocial realm, proper rite of passage practices in approaching the threshold of the sacred, and proper kinship and social alliance arrangements for harnessing dangerous sacred power in sustaining society itself. Thus, myth moves us but also much more specifically defines the symbolic, critically mediating boundary between the everyday–as a social order and material environment to be regulated or managed–and a larger cosmological order.
The interaction of play with ritual and myth is underexplored. As Nilsson has argued, the interaction of play with the built environment is only beginning to be analyzed. But it is necessary to consider these interactions, because they constitute a symbolic, structuring system that regulates and constrains our social behaviors and decisions. If we want to understand how the symbolic dimensions of culture actually influence our social practices throughout our lives and across generations, these marked domains of “excursive practice” (again, that is the structured and structuring practices involved in play, ritual, and myth that evoke the symbolic boundaries of the everyday and normal) are the driving system factors. The roles of play and myth help us to understand how rituals can really give us the thoroughly convincing, emotionally intense embodied experience that we’re approaching the sacred and that the very threshold of the sacred can connect us to immanent or greater forces that can influence society’s well-being.
Nilsson, E. (2010). Arkitekturens kroppslighet: staden som terräng. Inst. för arkitektur och byggd miljö, LTH, Lund Univ. Retrieved from http://www.lunduniversity.lu.se/o.o.i.s?id=12683&postid=1600304