How COVID-19 has changed the way we think about ritual

This text is part of a special booklet for the 88th Acfas Congress.

Rites are not limited to the religious sphere, even if they come from it. They appear in different social spheres and give our gestures different degrees of symbolism. According to Angelo Cardita, professor at Laval University and head of the Les rites put à colloquium, they occur, among other things, in everyday life and can be used to describe activities that a person undertakes thoughtlessly and is characterized by repetition. pandemic risk: COVID-19 in light of the ritual studies to be held on Tuesday 4 and Wednesday 5 May.

However, the presence of interaction with other people cannot be ignored in the rite. “The ceremony is a systematic ceremony with precise rules of conduct that has a strong symbolic value for its participants and actors,” explains Pascal Lardellier, professor at the University of Burgundy (France), co-organizer of the conference. There are obvious examples such as religious ceremonies, audiences, protocol meetings, but the rite also extends to courtesy and even dress.

Transformation of practices

Who says that the global pandemic speaks of a lack of contact with people. Containment and health measures have severely restricted the rituals of interaction theorized by sociologist Erving Goffman, and have led to the ban on large gatherings such as religious services, concerts, or school rituals. “We can say that COVID-19 has completely shaken the ritual and symbolic basis of society,” says Professor Lardellier.

For his part, Angelo Cardita is interested in the turmoil caused by the use of the mask. In Greek tragedy, the word prosopon the designation of this accessory also means “human”. “The face is the phenomenology of man,” he explains. If I show you my hand, but I do not show you my face or my whole body, it does not say anything about me. This is an expressionless detail. “

However, the facies reveals as much as it hides. For example, false joy can hide feelings of anger. Thus, the face fulfills a double function, which is confused by the pandemic mask that we have been wearing for over a year. “A mask is essential from a health point of view. But the mask has always been the subject of evocative ritual situations still present in the world of theater and stage direction. “If we stop there, we come to the roots of our anthropological and ethical concepts,” explains Angelo Cardita. The mask is used not only to hide the face, but also to represent a different being from the one who wears it. “

Thus, the mask makes it possible to multiply the identity to infinity. Some theorists, such as Emmanuel Levinas, associate facial display with rituals of interaction and speak of “ethical responsibility.” This is a kind of mutual respect and recognition: I show you my face, you show me yours. Which is far from always possible since the beginning of a pandemic.

The emergence of new rituals

Restrictions are also not the purpose of these codified moments, because due to circumstances, rituals change and new ones appear, for example, in greetings. Thus, instead of shaking hands, some will touch the elbows or other parts of the body.

We also remember the applause at the set time and the honor guards to thank the guardians around the world. “We will be creative to continue to celebrate the community, the values, actors and heroes of the COVID crisis,” says Pascal Lardellier.

Due to the ban on meetings, digital platforms have become important and many activities have been transferred to them, such as the defense of dissertations, which Professor Lardellier talked about. He sees advantages, but above all disadvantages. “We are losing the dramatic presence of a large university theater,” he said. Obviously, in some ways, we also lose friendliness and emotion. However, this new configuration provides a certain organizational flexibility that allows multiple speakers from different time zones to be brought together in one day.

In our relationship with others, “rites are necessary to express and establish belonging,” says Professor Cardita. Currently, most of these practices take place alone behind a screen.

According to Professor Lardellier, it is possible that these new adornments take precedence over previous rites. What we thought was transitory more than a year ago now seems completely normal to us. “Modern technology allows us to continue to live, because some activities are supported, but online,” he notes. They cover the epoch of time and accompany it. So we are in the covidized era and in the acceleration of bound individualism. We meet on Tinder, we’re friends on Facebook, my family and I on WhatsApp, and we’re doing his thesis on Teams. “

It can be said that COVID-19 has completely shaken the ritual and symbolic foundation on which society was laid.

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