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  • Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance by Matt Tomlinson
  • Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki, Matt Tomlinson, cultural anthropology, ritual, Fiji, ritual entextualization

Matt Tomlinson. Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance. Oxford Ritual Studies Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xi + 192.

Matt Tomlinson’s Ritual Textuality: Patterns and Motion in Performance at first appears to be deceptively modest. It is a rather slim volume, drawn entirely from fieldwork in Fiji performed during the last half of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Content wise, it is comprised of what at a surface level seems to be a disjunctive series of ethnographic sketches of Fijian ritual life: a night at a Pentecostal crusade headed by a visiting Texas preacher, Fijian Methodism’s Eucharist rite and chiefly kava drinking ceremonies, nineteenth-century missionary accounts of Fijian converts experience of “happy deaths,” the empty verbiage used by the leaders of one of Fiji’s many military coups. One might think that the volume is of parochial concern, something only to be attended to by linguistic anthropologists, scholars of Oceania, or perhaps ethnographers of Christianity (which are all fields to which Tomlinson has contributed before1).

The text does excel when taken at that level, of course; Tomlinson is a lively writer with a keen ethnographic eye, and each one of these scenes manages to convey a sense of the day-to-day life that is often what people associate with a successful ethnography; further, in an age suspicious of totalizing anthropological accounts, the sense of disconnection in subject matter could be taken as ethnographic parsimony. Adding to a possible sense of a lack of underlying unity, each chapter is chiefly read through the theoretical lens of a different linguistic anthropologist or author influential to linguistics anthropology. Our Texas revival is apportioned to J. L. Austin; both Kava drinking and the Eucharist are understood as examples of Michael Silverstein’s account of chiasmus; the deaths of nineteenth-century Fijian believers are viewed as moments of Susan Gal’s fractal recursivity; and in what appears to be a man-bite-dog sort of moment, the authoritarian dictates of Fiji’s military government is read through the works of Bakhtin, a thinker usually associated with dialogic.

But for all this seeming lack of unity, there is a red thread running through [End Page 242] the volume, and it is what makes this book worthy of much wider attention. For Tomlinson, all of the ritual moments and organizational frameworks that sustain and inform them are products of what may appear to be the two contradictory forces of movement and entextualization. The seeming opposition between these two forces arises from the association of text with a certain stillness and permanence; for many, that spills out into reading moments of entextualization, the process of treating segments of spoken language as having similar fixed and iterable characteristics, the antithesis of movement. But the iteration that comes with the entextualized language, which is common to so much of ritual, presumes at the same time a temporality that at once summons up the dynamism and processes of self-differing that can be glossed metaphorically as movement (Tomlinson is careful to stress that movement here is a metaphor, even as he also reminds us that sometimes metaphors also can have what Edward Sapir called a “soundness” to them). In the context of the increasingly recursively patterned semiotic activities that are labeled as ritual, for Tomlinson iteration often comes from a strikingly truncated set of operations: sequence, conjunction, contrast, and substitution.

While Tomlinson would never use this term, we can think of this set as being in effect the “primitives” of ritual. Here we mean primitives in the sense of foundational elements, rather than primordial throwbacks; and one of the pleasures of this book is seeing the understated but sure way in which Tomlinson uses these atomic elements of semiosis to construct more familiar large-scale linguistic anthropological structures like chiasmus or monologue. What we are given by Tomlinson, though, is a heuristic and not an ontology. He is at pains to say that this is neither a typology, nor is it an exhaustive list of all...


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