Friday, April 17, 2009

Ritual Phrases

We encounter ritual phrases all the time, both sacred and secular. Any Catholic recognizes a meaning beyond what the words, "Peace be with you," communicates to the uninitiated. We all rely on ritual phrases when faced with the enormity of death, and the insignificance of anything we can say in such situations. Jews have a codified phrase: "May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." The rest of us goyim often fall back to a more secular ritual phrase, like "I'm sorry for your loss," or with somewhat more religious inflection, "She's in a better place." We don't really mean what we say by these things, at least not fully; we really mean, "I want to offer you some kind of comfort, but I know I can't do much for you." Faced with another's grief, we rely on ritual phrases because they excel at the very thing we need at that moment: they give us something to say when we don't know what to say. That, in itself, says something; it confesses our inability to address the situation before us in the usual manner, instead relying on a vocal gesture towards something less easily defined. We point towards common experience, the context of our shared usage of that phrase, and all the meaning that it has accrued from all the times we've used it before.

As a student of permaculture, and as the kind of bioregionalist who looks for stories and language written in the landscape, I naturally tend to think of ritual phrases like oral swales. A swale stops the flow of water, giving the water time to build up in the soil. Ritual phrases interrupt the flow of regular conversation, building up deeper, underground aquifers of meaning that the swale points us to.

That kind of function not only helps us relate in times of great stress, it also provides an excellent means of moving from one "mode" to another. It won't take long for a church-goer to recognize the ritual phrase that marks the beginning of the service, or the much-awaited ritual phrase marking its end (I joked in my Catholic days that the congregation's concluding ritual phrase, answering, "Thanks be to G-d," had simply gotten some minimal clean up from the Church because they felt that everyone crying, "Thank G-d!" had gotten embarrassing).

Ben Lehman's Polaris uses ritual phrases to great effect. The game plays out largely as a negotiation conducted in a ritual language, giving the whole game a particularly ritualistic tone. Other games have played with this idea to one extent or another, including "Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan." Simon C. said of it:

While I'm on the subject, Ritual Phrases! These are so cool! I think they really went a long way towards establishing tone for the game, and formalising the "gameplay" aspect. Each post felt like a concrete "move" in the game, like sliding forward a chess piece or playing a card. The joy of the game was in making a move, and then anticipating the other player's response.

Ritual phrases can establish tone, define the structure of a game, and delineate the social space of the game clearly and explicitly. It can mark the transitions from one phase to the next of the storyjammer's journey. They can serve as prompts when we don't know what else to say—in this case, not because we face the profundity of mortality, but simply because we have to tell a story and feel intimidated, or we just don't have any ideas at the moment.

1 comment:

Bill Maxwell said...

So say we all. :)