Sincerity or Ritual

Sincerity or Ritual December 15, 2016

The authors of Ritual and its Consequences (104–6) note a contrast between civilizations that are bound by authoritative rituals and those that are not. The latter are deeply concerned with sincerity: “Civilizations or movements with a diminished concern for ritual have an overwhelming concern with sincerity, which we can see in forms as widely varied as those Puritan sermons and the Buddhist concern with uncovering the Buddha nature hidden within each of us. In some sense, then, sincerity works as the social equivalent of the subjunctive, which we discussed earlier. If there is no ritual, there is no shared convention that indexes a possible shared world. Instead, social relationships have to rely on a never-ending production of new signs of sincerity (though of course there can be ritualized forms of the search for sincerity).”

Absent “a common origin in a pre-given and authoritative reality (authoritative precisely because it is assented to collectively), individuals must project alternative sets of bonds to connect to each other.” Without ritualized ways of forming a collective subjunctive, “we can only be bound by the depths of our own sincerity. Sincerity of feeling comes to replace the subjunctive world of shared ‘illusion’ as the new ground of personal commitment and interpersonal bonding. The establishment of a stable and unquestionable as is, rather than a common as if, becomes the projected basis for the intersubjective world.”

A culture of sincerity emphasizes “intent over action,” and in the modern age intent becomes “the touchstone of much of our moral reasoning.” Thomas Nagel pointedly dismissed this focus on intention: ‘‘However jewel-like the good will may be in its own right there is a morally significant difference between rescuing someone from a burning building and dropping him from a twelfth story window while trying to rescue him.’’

Ritual involves an “as if,” a “subjunctive of play, convention, and illusion.” A culture of sincerity detests the artificiality and attempts to found our social interactions in attestation of sincerity: “If our love for each other is registered only in what we say, then we are caught in the perennial chasm between the words (of love) and the love itself. The words are but signifiers, arbitrary and by necessity at one remove from the event they signify. Hence the attempt to express love in words is endless, as it can never finally prove its own sincerity. Ritual, by contrast, is repeated and unchanging, a form of practical wisdom (what the Greeks called phronesis) rather than symbolization.”

The authors illustrate by analyzing two different understandings of the declaration “I love you”: “The emotionally wrought confession by the starstruck young man appeals to the sincere mode. Of course, like all the language of sincerity, we have doubts—perhaps he is just trying to get her into bed. Or perhaps he is indeed sincere and, having established this ‘as is’ of his love, will never feel the need to say those words again, even through decades of marriage. He may also fail to say those words ever again because he is not sincerely experiencing the same kind of love as when he first ‘fell in love.’ On the other hand, we also have the ritual ‘I love you,’ whose performative aspect is more important than its denotative function. This is why one can repeat it for years and years to the same person.”

The authors point to Calvinist and Puritan sources for this cult of sincerity (as does Lori Branch in her fabulous Rituals of Spontaneity). And certain forms of Protestantism are not only sources but products. Few plagues on modern Protestantism have been as damaging as the anxiety for sincerity that renounces dead ceremony.

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