Edward L. Schieffelin- Performance and the Cultural Construction of Reality

Schieffelin, E.L. (1985). “Performance and the cultural construction of reality.” American Ethnologist 12(4): 707-24.

Symbols of ritual have meanings that are social made.

Rituals cannot be universally characterized.

709- rituals effect transformations in symbolic meaning through effecting transformations in the organization of their performance

Performance does not construct a symbolic reality in the manner of presenting an argument, description, or commentary. Rather, it does so by socially constructing a situation in which the participants experience symbolic meanings as part of the process of what they are already doing.

Schiefflin is using the construction of seances to demonstrate his point–

713- sustaining the performance space means that the medium must draw the audience into the task of participating in its construction, and this is accomplished in part through the songs.

Songs provide momentum for the ritual -715

The audience is crucial for the seance as they are the ones doing the most– they aren’t passive, but active participants in the performance. 717

The direct challenge to structuralism:

“One interesting consequence of this situation is the difficulty it poses for conventional ways of talking about a “belief system.” A common approach would be to look for unifying themes and cultural assumptions that underlie the individual versions, but to give an account of this system by reducing it to its common denominators would clearly distort it. The best way to preserve its ethnographic integrity is to look at it in terms of the way that it is socially con- structed, that is, as a system that consists in the continuing interaction between what people already know of spirits from oral tradition, everyday conversation, and remembered (or re- ported) past seances, and whatever new experience occurs in the present seance performance.” (720)

Schiefflin is arguing for seance as an emergent social construction instead of prescribed values/beliefs coming out. 722- The socially emergent dimension of performance, constructed through the interaction of the performers and participants but not reducible to them, constitutes the reality in which the actual work of the seance gets done

Because ritual in performance is a reality apart from its participants, the participants may not all experience the same significance or efficacy…rituals (certainly Kaluli seances) do not exist in a vacuum of structural scripts and frames.


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