The Camera and the Rite

Continuing with my reports on the research being presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  One note to Zero Equals Two readers:  The Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion gathers more then 9000 scholars of religion to present their research and to do the business of being a scholar.  So, there are a multitude of presentations, and my reports are by nature guided by own own obligations (as co-chair of the Ritual Studies Group steering committee) and my research interest.  So with that cavaet, on to the report.

This morning’s session was also on video and ritual (like the Descending with Angels session yesterday).  Yesterday’s session focused more specifically on the creation of documentaries as a mode of presenting and analyzing ritual.  This morning’s session seemed more concentrated on the use of videos as a component of and complement to analysis.  The format was somewhat interesting, with eight scholars involved, four who were there to have their video material presented and four who offered critique and comment on that video material.

Kathryn McClymond started off the session by looking at Ron Grimes’s videos posted on Vimeo, intended as a complement to his recent book, The Craft of Ritual Studies.  Take a look at the videos, as they provide some interesting footage and material for the contemplation of ritual and festival that I think is valuable to Thelemites, especially those of us working in the public context as in O.T.O.  McClymond discussed showing the videos in her own classes to her students and highlighted some of the issues she and the students noticed with the video, specifically the loss of precision and analytic depth that a viewer loses if they watch the videos without the compliment of the book.  So, I guess the lesson is: Read the book.  Ron Grimes provided some comments in response.  He also highlighted how a correspondent reported not understanding what the Santa Fe festival was about, and he suggested how important it was to see the videos to understand the material.  Having used video to teach and discuss religion and ritual in the classroom, I can testify to the value of video in understanding ritual for people who are not regularly participants.  The challenge, he claimed, is getting people to engage both video and text together — as people to tend to either want watch the videos or read the text in isolation.

Timothy Beal then looked at the work of Barry Stephenson.  Barry Stephenson was sick, so he was not make it to San Diego, but Timothy Beal was still able to offer his analysis.  Barry Stephenson recently published a book, Performing the Reformation, which Timothy Beal discussed as both a book and video project (the book includes a DVD production).  Stephenson’s book focuses on ritual re-enactments associated with Martin Luther that take place in Wittenberg, Germany, a locale has become an increasingly popular tourist location because of its historical association with Luther and the Reformation.  Beal offered interesting observations on how the video actually tended to dampen down the sense of intensity of the ritual, and highlighted the mundane nature of the ritual enactments, as we observe bored bypasses and tourists wonder by the scene in his videos.  I’ve noticed this in various projects to document ritual in the Thelemic world, where much of the sense of the rite, which can be carried in text, is stripped away as the camera both gives a pretense toward immediacy and authenticity, but also strips away actual immediacy leaving an observer with no sense of the power of the rite, so dependent on being in space with the ritual performers. Interestingly enough, it requires substantial editing and staging to capture that immediacy.

Sarah M. Pike then offered some comments on Lee Gilmore‘s research on Burning Man, published in her Theater in a Crowded Fire, which also included a DVD with the book.  Sarah pointed out that one issue with Gilmore’s video is the way it seems to capture burning man for the audience, but actually presents the festival in a way it existed over a decade ago, and has changed from, a problem not so much with this particular film, but with any documentary film.  She suggested, again because of the supposed immediacy of film, it often looses the the kind of contextualization in time and place that scholarly analysis can provide.  I often use Gilmore’s film in my classes, in part because unlike the Grimes and Stephenson’s films above, she provides narration and analysis as part of her film, often providing commentary on the more general themes of her book over montages of material from her film footage from Burning Man.  Pike also highlighted the loss of a sense of disruption that Gimore reported on regarding a Jewish Shabbat ceremony at at Burning Man, and suggested that part of what is lost in the video presentation was that sense of disruption through the smooth editing and presentation of the ritual.  Gilmore offered some very interesting comments in response on the process of creating the video with allies in her own family and on how you examine a project that is 15 years old.

Finally, Frederick M. Smith offered his analysis of Ute Hüsken‘s work.  Ute Hüsken published a recent book called Vishnu’s Children: Prenatal Life Cycle Rituals in South India, on childhood rituals in the old Vedic system, a book that also included a DVD as part of its production.  As Smith pointed out, these are very different kinds of ritual then the festival moments of the other three projects, which are focused on enacting rituals from ancient texts.  Interestingly, he discussed the fact that there is an extensive body of videography going back to Fritz Staal’s Altar of fire in 1975.  A lot of his focus was on the way the video often captures elements of a complex ritual that the scholar may not bring out in analysis, bringing up questions for the viewer about the significance of those elements.

I am struck through all this by the issue of the pretense toward immediacy in film, the sense that we can “capture” a reality for viewers that is lost simply in the text.  What seemed valuable from this session was the highlighting of the challenge of doing this effectively, a challenge I see for scholars but also for creators in the Thalamic community who are trying to create a public presentation of our rites, whether it is the Gnostic Mass or daily rites, for a larger public to have access they might not have from a local O.T.O. body.  What is an honest representation of the rite, and how much does an effective presentation require the craft of editing to draw the viewer into the scene of the ritual?  I do wonder if our various attempts of presenting our rites to the public in video might be aided by either narrative voiceovers or subtitles explaining and discussing some of the elements of the rite.

Grant Potts

Professor of Philosophy and Religion, O.T.O. Initiate, Dad.

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