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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World by Mario Perniola, translated by Hugh J. Silverman (Philosophy and Literary Theory: Humanity Books) Mario Perniola ranks as one of the most impressive figures in contemporary Italian philosophy, along with Gianni Vattimo and Umberto Eco. The work translated here, Ritual Thinking: Sex­uality, Death, World, is a composite of two major books by Per­niola, La society dei Simulacri (The Society of Simulacra) and Transiti (Transits).

Perniola examines the role of eros, desire, and sexuality in our experience of the aesthetic, the technological, and in the oper­ation of the postmodern world. He does this through a wide range of inquiry into the role of art, the erotic, seduction, and simulation in Nietzsche, Ovid, Gracian, Luther, Heidegger, and other key figures in the Western tradition. Five chapters each from The Society of Si mulacra and Transits illustrate Perniola's philosophy of the present in terms of. linkage, representation, and the ritual without myth. This last concept arises from a society whose be­havior seems no longer directed by customs or by individual con­science. Nonetheless, the demystification of myth in rituals that lack a mythical dimension does not entail a process of secularization, nor does it compromise the sacred character of myth. Looking to Roman religion, Perniola shows that it is, instead, an attempt to forge a link or transit between the sacred and the profane.

Transit, simulacrum, and ritual without myth are among the cornerstones of Perniola's radically new theory developed in these two important works. Translated into English for the first time, these challenging and stimulating essays will be invaluable to phi­losophers and students of Cultural Studies, and all those inter­ested in continental philosophy.


Mario Perniola is one of the most impressive figures on the contem­porary Italian philosophical scene. He ranks as a dominant figure among the somewhat younger generation of Italian thinkers (after Gianni Vattimo and Umberto Eco) developing an original, imaginative, and critical style of writing in the broadly aesthetic frame. Like Vattimo and Eco, he was a student of an almost mythical figure in the person of Luigi Pareyson, perhaps the most notable philosopher in Italy after the Second World War. Pareyson made his career as Professor of Aesthetics at the Uni­versity of Turin in northern Italy (Piedmont) where he wielded enormous influence on the philosophical and academic scene. His intellectual prowess as well as his responsiveness to both the intellectual culture and the Italian Catholic worlds of his time and context made him a formidable figure. Pareyson was especially important for these young exciting intel­lectuals seeking to rethink the history of philosophy as well as theoretical philosophy and the broader development of aesthetic thinking in Italy. As Vattimo and Eco were completing their studies under Pareyson and com­peting for the best academic posts in the Italian university system, some­what younger philosophers such as Mario Perniola sought to formulate their own philosophical identity.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, and particularly in ana­lytic circles, the field of aesthetics is sometimes regarded as a less than cen­tral area of philosophy (situating it as a form of value theory alongside epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and so forth). In Italy, by contrast, the Professor of Aesthetics is one of the most important chairs of the philo­sophical disciplines. Those commissioned to teach aesthetics are also expected to illuminate students of literature, the arts, and culture. This broader mandate means that the Professor of Aesthetics (and some uni­versities such as Milan even have three Chairs in Aesthetics) has many more students to teach and is expected to address a much more signifi­cantly interdisciplinary group of students than other professors of philos­ophy. As Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Rome-II this newer campus of the state universities in Rome located outside the walls of the city-Mario Perniola not only teaches an interdisciplinary cadre of students but he supervises research-oriented students pursuing advanced study in aesthetic theory. Hence Perniola's own work covers not only the history of aesthetic theory-see, for instance, his recent highly original book on twentieth-century aesthetics, but also highly theoretical, original, insightful, and critical studies of contemporary cultural experience and modes of communica­tion. He draws not only from issues that address topics in the various modes and artifacts of expression from the arts, technology, and the media of today, but he also recognizes that they are acutely imbedded in the various western traditions that produce the enigmas and secrets of Egyptian and Roman cultures of ancient times as well.

Ritual Thinking is only the second of Mario Perniola's many books to be translated into English. And Ritual Thinking is itself a unique work as it actually combines the best of two separate volumes published in Italian in the 1980s: namely La Societa dei Sirnulacri (Bologna, 1983) and Transiti (Bologna, 1989). In close consultation with the author, the seasoned translator Massimo Verdicchio (who provides here a superb and sensitive rendition of Perniola's thought) and I have put together this volume of the most important and relevant selections of these two books for the Eng­lish-speaking world. Those chapters that were either largely particular to the Italian scene or that have less lasting importance were omitted in favor of those that reflect the genius of Perniola's thought and its broader impli­cations. It is a delight to present this new and unique volume of Mario Perniola's writings in English for the first time.

Perniola's work is often associated with the writings of Jean Bau­drillard in France. As the title of one of the two books combined here (La Society dei Simulacri) suggests, the role of simulations as images without referent is crucial to Perniola's thought as it is to Baudrillard's Simulations and Simulacra (Paris, 1981). Perniola's account of simulations focuses on the logic of seduction (also a Baudrillardian theme as in his 1979 De la seduction). Seduction in rhetoric, in the libertine, in politics has as its dominant feature the production of emptiness, showing without hope or illusion, but nevertheless historical and concrete. Seduction is an empty exterior with no hidden meaning or identity. In simulation, the image is valued as an image, not for what it refers to, corresponds to, or represents. Images are simulations in that they seduce and yet out of their emptiness they have effects. Perniola demonstrates the role of such images in a wide range of cultural, aesthetic, and social contexts.

A full overview and account of Perniola's thought is elaborated in detail by Massimo Verdicchio in his "Translator's Introduction." My pur­pose here is to invite the reader to savor the breadth and insight of Perniola's contribution in Ritual Thinking--a kind of thinking that touches on (as the subtitle suggests) sexuality, death, and world. This work of the 1980s is the crucial backdrop to his account of enigmas; where enigmas are shown to go beyond the secret and the fold. Perniola points out in Enigmas that "the nature of enigma is transit," and transit has to do with the "going from the same to the same." This movement from the same to the same marks the place of spectacle, image, reality. Enigmatic thinking elaborates "the unitarily enigmatic character of reality" The enigmatic is present, felt, secret,-a fold. "Enigma originates at the precise moment when past and future are both collapsed into an ambiguous, supremely problematic pre­sent." He calls this present an "Egyptian effect" because it has to do with the fascination of pyramids and hieroglyphs-enigmatic experience.

Perniola's account in Enigmas is a further elaboration of what is fully articulated earlier in Ritual Thinking in connection with the various forms of seduction, simulation, and transit. Thinking enigma is ritual thinking by its attending to transit, this moment in which the same becomes the same by virtue of difference. Difference, then, is enigmatic and highly seductive. Pyramids are seductive, Jurassic Park is seductive, deferred action is seductive. All these simulations are felt, sensed, experienced. Art and its seductions are no longer concerned with truth (as Heidegger had insisted), but with the production of the beautiful (as Plato through Kant had stressed) and the mimetic without re-presentation of objects. Art and its seductions are images that are sensed (felt) and, a as Perniola elaborates even further in Of Sensing, The Sex-Appeal of the Inor­ganic, and Art and Its Shadow; they form the enigmatic link between the human and things. "We are witnessing a strange inversion: humans are becoming more similar to things, and equally, the inorganic world, thanks to elec­tronic technology, seems to be taking over the human role in the percep­tion of events"

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions by Catherine M. Bell (Oxford University Press) From handshakes and toasts to chant and genuflection, ritual pervades our social interactions and religious practices. Still, few of us could identify all of our daily and festal ritual behaviors; much less explain them to an outsider. Similarly, because of the variety of activities that qualify as ritual and their many contradictory yet, in many ways, equally legitimate interpretations, ritual seems to elude any systematic historical and comparative scrutiny. In Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, Bell offers a practical introduction to ritual practice and its study; she surveys the most influential theories of religion and ritual, the major categories of ritual activity, and the key debates that have shaped our understanding of ritualism. Bell refuses to nail down ritual with any one definition or understanding. Instead, her purpose is to reveal how definitions emerge and evolve and to help us become more familiar with the interplay of tradition, exigency, and self- expression that goes into constructing this complex social medium.


While the activities we think of as "ritual" can be found in many periods and places, the formal study of ritual is a relatively recent and localized phenomenon. When made the subject of systematic historical and comparative cultural analysis, ritual has of­fered new insights into the dynamics of religion, culture, and personhood. At the same time, it has proven to be a particularly complicated phenomenon for scholars to probe‑because of the variety of activities that one may consider ritual, the multiplic­ity of perspectives one may legitimately take in interpreting them, and the way in which defining and interpreting ritual enter into the very construction of scholarship itself.

In contrast to an earlier work, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, which addressed specific theoretical issues concerning the dichotomy of thought and action in ritual theory, this book is meant to be a more holistic and pragmatic orientation to mul­tiple dimensions of the phenomenon of ritual. 1 It provides a fairly comprehensive depiction of the history of theories about ritual and religion (part I), the spectrum of both ritual and ritual‑like activities (part II), and the fabric of social and cultural life that forms the context in which people turn to ritual practices‑and even to ritual theories (part III). In continuity with the earlier book, however, this study brings a particular perspective to these discussions, namely, the position that "ritual" is not an intrinsic, universal category or feature of human behavior‑not yet, anyway. It is a cultural and historical construction that has been heavily used to help differentiate various styles and degrees of religiosity, rationality, and cultural determinism. While ostensibly an attempt to identify a universal, cross‑cultural phenomenon, our cur­rent concept of ritual is also, and inevitably, a rather particular way of looking at and organizing the world. The import of this particularity is one of the concerns of this book. While sections of part III extend some of the theoretical arguments raised in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, for the most part, this study is also a broad applica­tion of the methodological suggestions raised there.

To anyone interested in ritual in general, it becomes quickly evident that there is no clear and widely shared explanation of what constitutes ritual or how to understand it. There are only various theories, opinions, or customary notions, all of which reflect the time and place in which they are formulated. This complexity is portrayed in the organization of this book. Traditionally, comprehensive surveys of a topic lay out their subject in either of two ways: as a narrative telling of the "story" of the topic or as an analytic "inventory" of the topic's subtopics. This book attempts to take a third course by presenting the fluidity and confusion, as well as the consensus and commonsense, that have shaped so much of the way we have talked about ritual. Therefore, instead of approaching ritual as a clear‑cut and timeless object of scrutiny, the following chapters focus on how a variety of definitions and constructed understandings of ritual have emerged and shaped our world. As such, this presentation recognizes that any discussion of ritual is essentially an exercise in reflective historical and comparative analysis.

While each of the major sections of this book plays a role in constructing the overall argument about ritual, they also organize the issues and data autonomously in terms of three distinct frameworks. Part I, Theories: The History of Interpretations, presents a roughly chronological ordering of the most influential approaches to defining and explaining ritual behavior. It begins with theories concerning the origins of religion and then depicts the emergence of various schools that have developed distinctive perspectives for analyzing ritual. While far from exhaustive, this account tries to highlight the significance of ritual to most of the important understandings of religion and culture. This account also suggests that the history of theories contains only limited instances of any progressive development and refinement of the idea of ritual. To a great extent, multiple and even mutually exclusive perspectives on ritual continue to coexist due to fundamental indeterminacies that attend the identification of ritual, on the one hand, and historical changes in the projects of scholarly analysis, on the other. Nonetheless, to provide as much clarity as possible, there are three special sections that present extended "profiles" of specific rituals that have been much studied by the preceding theoretical schools. These profiles give readers the opportunity to compare and contrast how different theoretical approaches have actually interpreted particular rites.

Part II, Rites: The Spectrum of Ritual Activities, opens by exploring those activities that most people consider to be good examples of ritual: birth and death ceremonies, healing and exchange rites, sacrifices and enthronements, and so on. In each case, the analysis attempts to uncover the particular logic and symbolic structures of these familiar genres of ritual practice. However, by shifting attention to various activities that are not ritual but are readily thought to have "ritual‑like" qualities‑such as etiquette, meditation, and certain sports or theatrical performances it is possible to uncover some of the fundamental ways of acting that are intrinsic to ritualizing in European and American culture. These examples suggest that larger questions concerning the nature of ritual action may be very dependent upon the context in which certain qualities of action are elaborated or muted.

Part III, Contexts: The Fabric of Ritual Life, explores the broader relationships between ritual activities and social life, specifically addressing why some groups have more ritual than others, how rituals change, and the place of ritual in so‑called traditional and modern settings. The vitality of much traditional ritual, experiments in new forms of ritualization, the influence of anthropological writings, and the development of a new paradigm for self‑conscious ritualization‑all indicate the variety of factors that influence both how we view ritual and how we do it. In this section, the instabilities of theory and data uncovered in parts I and II are recast in the context of the very emergence of "ritual" as a category for depicting a putatively universal phenomenon. Critiques of the function and operation of such universal categories necessitate a more systematic awareness of the way in which concepts like "ritual" construct a position of generally scholarly and objective analysis in contrast to the activities identified as data and as irredeemably locked within their cultural particularity.

These three frameworks contribute a number of perspectives to an overall analysis of the phenomenon of ritual. Let me highlight this analysis as succinctly as possible. Today we think of "ritual" as a complex sociocultural medium variously constructed of tradition, exigency, and self‑expression; it is understood to play a wide variety of roles and to communicate a rich density of overdetermined messages and attitudes. For the most part, ritual is the medium chosen to invoke those ordered relationships that are thought to obtain between human beings in the here‑and‑now and nonimmediate sources of power, authority, and value. Definitions of these relationships in terms of ritual's vocabulary of gesture and word, in contrast to theological speculation or doctrinal formulation, suggest that the fundamental efficacy of ritual activity lies in its ability to have people embody assumptions about their place in a larger order of things.

Despite the consensus surrounding this perspective on ritual, the emergence of the concept of "ritual" as a category for human action is not the result of any single or necessary progress in human development. Nor can the concept imply that all so-called ritual practices can be reduced to a uniform, archetypal, or universal set of acts, attitudes, structures, or functions. The definition, incidence, and significance of so‑called ritual practices are matters of particular social situations and organizations of cultural knowledge. These have varied greatly even in European and American history. Critics of what we call ritual are found among the Old Testament prophets, Greek philosophers, Protestant reformers, and many secular participants in the current scene. Promoters of what we mean by ritual are just as varied. While r7thcentury Quakers espoused a particularly radical antiritualism, the late‑zoth‑century African‑American writer and founder of the festival of Kwanzaa, Maulana Karenga, sees ritual as a primary means for self transformation and cultural revolution.

Ultimately, this book will argue that talk about ritual may reveal more about the speakers than about the bespoken. In this vein, analysis of the emergence of the concept of ritual and its various applications make clear the way in which the concept has mediated a series of relationships between "us" and some "other"‑be they papist idolators, primitive magicians, or the ancient wise ones who have resisted the forces of modernity. The concluding arguments of part III attempt to demonstrate how the emergence and subsequent understandings of the category of ritual have been fundamental to the modernist enterprise of establishing objective, universal knowledge that, as the flip side of its explanative power, nostalgically rues the loss of enchantment. Overall, the organization of the book attempts to introduce the general but serious reader to the basics as well as the complexities of this area of discussion about religion. As part of that project, it includes familiar figures and ideas, and some of both that are not so familiar. I hope that the mix will stimulate fresh inquiry on the practices of religion.

The ancient Chinese sage Xunzi (pronounced Shyun'‑dz), quoted in the epigraph, offers three pieces of practical advice for anyone attempting to talk about ritual.  In effect, he warns against the temptation to reduce this complex phenomenon to simplistic formulas or strict categories. He also suggests that elaborate theories constructed by means of labyrinthine methodological considerations will only lead one away from reality. Finally, he reminds us that we will never understand ritual if we are apt to look down on what other people do and view their actions from a position of intellectual or observational superiority. While recognizing the self‑serving significance of this argument for a major proponent of Confucian teachings, this is still valuable advice that I have tried to take very seriously

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