Ritual, technology, and ritual techniques

31 January 2022

Culture moves beyond text. That at least is what the Berlin philosopher Sybille Krämer and the Berlin art historian Horst Bredekamp argued in their 2003 German article, later translated as ‘Culture, technology, cultural techniques: Moving beyond text’. When I reread this article on the occasion of IRiLiS’ thirtieth anniversary, my attention fell mainly on the word ‘technology’ in the title.

  • Marcel Barnard

Lees de tekst in het Nederlands

Ritual and techniques

The authors argue in favor of approaching culture as a way of doing things, an activity that requires certain skills. This is now commonplace in ritual studies and also at IRiLiS. Think of a title such as The Craft of Ritual Studies by Ronald Grimes. Ritual is not a script but the performance of the script. Liturgy is not the missal but the celebration itself. It is precisely in conversation with anthropology and ritual studies that liturgical studies made the turn from a textual to a more empirically oriented discipline decades ago. Meaning lies in the performance of the ritual—in the celebration. Or should I say meanings, as the leader of the ritual, the designer, the musician, and the participants interpret the ritual very differently? The pastor, the organist, the chorister, the sexton, and the churchgoer all explain the liturgy differently.

But when I reread the article by Krämer and Bredekamp, my attention mainly fell on the word technology in the title. There, I still see homework for the research into ritual and liturgy over the coming years. We are familiar with technique as something that requires skills, art, and craft. But technique is also related to technology—to the practical application of discoveries in the natural and computer sciences. It relates even to artificial intelligence. We need to reflect on this much more deeply.

Ritual and technology

In recent years, and certainly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, several articles (including in our Yearbook for Ritual and Liturgical Studies) and books on online worship and worship online, and online ritual and ritual online, have been published. These would, of course, be inconceivable without digital multimedia techniques. These publications focus on the anthropological and theological consequences of the digital turn. But the technology itself is hardly reflected. More precisely, they do not consider how, in the digital age, people and technology can no longer be seen as independent entities. Thanks to artificial intelligence, how far away is the self-generated mass or church service?

Humans and technology have never been separated. Krämer and Bredekamp once again point to the etymology of culture: cultura is agriculture, the cultivation of the soil. The temples of Kyoto, Reims Cathedral, the Vater-Müller organ in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk, and Gutenberg’s invention are marvels of engineering that profoundly define ritual. But what does “the shift from the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ to the ‘Turing Galaxy’” (as Krämer and Bredekamp say) mean? What does it mean that the symbolic and semiotic can be transformed into the physical and technical? Can ritual sequences ultimately also be converted into an algorithm? Can celebrating human beings finally be caught in an algorithm? In philosophy, the ongoing interlinking of humans and electronic technology is sometimes referred to as posthumanism. This raises a fascinating research question: what does the post-ritual and post-liturgy of the post-human look like?


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