The Spectacle of the American Ritual Cycle

“…the existence of a conventional order is contingent upon its acceptance; in fact a rule or understanding cannot be said to be a convention unless it is accepted. In ritual, however, acceptance and existence entail each other, for a liturgical order is perforce accepted in its realization, in, that is to say, the performance which gives it substance. Since obligation is entailed by acceptance, and the breaking of obligation is per se immoral, the existence, acceptance and morality of conventions are joined together indissoluably in rituals; they are, in fact, virtually on and the same.” — Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity

“When a more complex society finally becomes conscious of time, it tries to negate it, for it views time not as something that passes, but as something that returns. This static type of society organizes time in a cyclical manner, in accordance with its own direct experience of nature.” — Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

I was already thinking about an essay on the US ritual cycle, what with our recent Thanksgiving holiday and all. Then I got Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle for Black Friday (thanks, Phil!) and a mythological story of cyclical time from Doctor Who on Saturday. So, yeah, time to get this one out here.

With Spectacle and Doctor Who already posted or written about here at Eruditorum Press, I will start with ritual. My favorite definition of ritual comes from the late Roy Rappaport, who put it as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers,” with the “entirely” being a late addition. It encompasses both secular and religious practice; today we’ll be concerned primarily with the former. Anyways, what’s notable about ritual is that it is performed, not just spectated; and it is cyclical, even when it varies wildly—not only does it transmit certain information about the larger social system in which it occurs, it orders and structures that very system. It also, in so doing, inherently creates a number of dialectics.

But it’s the distinction of performativity that distinguishes ritual from spectacle. Spectacle is a one-way transmission. Ritual, on the other hand, is self-indexical. For the participants aren’t just recipients of messages, they are also the transmitters, and indeed the message themselves. And because of this, the intersection of ritual and spectacle, kind of like a genre-competition, yields some very interesting results.

With all this in mind, let’s start with America’s “spring rituals” and work our way to the end of the year, which is where (when) we’re at here at the beginning of December.


Valentine’s Day

“Consciousness of desire and desire for consciousness are the same project, the project that in its negative form seeks the abolition of classes and thus the workers’ direct possession of every aspect of their activity. The opposite of this project is the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its own making.” — Debord

Long after the haze of the New Year gives way to a bitter sobriety, the American ritual cycle begins itself anew with Valentine’s Day. While January may present a slew of “great men” ceremonies, these are not, in general, days celebrated by the mass of Americans. Most of us won’t get the day off, nor will we find ourselves immersed in anything but the mundane aesthetic of January. No, it isn’t until mid-February rolls around that we’ve been inundated with heart-shaped boxes of candy at the grocery store, rose-colored walls of greeting cards, and most importantly the expectation to engage in the rituals of courtship, up to and including sex.

Of course, relationship and sex are both powerful motivators of human activity. We’ll do a lot in service to them, by and large. But with Valentine’s Day they are now cordoned off into a ritual cycle. The cycle now takes authority over them. Imperfectly, of course, but perfection is not required, only the appearance of control, which is assumed simply by taking the position that can grant sanctification. And in the capitalist mode, what is a part of ordinary life becomes commodified. Even more so, it becomes a spectacle. All those people dressed up in fancy clothes at fancy restaurants. Glittering cards. Chocolate. It’s a special occasion, but that necessarily entails that the mundane time outside the ritual space is not special. Within the ritual space, as a display of spectacle, courtship and romance and sex become commodities, something to consume, to use up, to expend.


St Patrick’s Day

“The spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence.” — Debord

What was ostensibly a religious holiday of feasting has become something entirely different in the broader United States. It is more a holiday of a particular aesthetic than of its origins, and again, is transformed into rites of consumption. The day was originally to commemorate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. In the diaspora of the Irish in the U.S., it became a day of Irish pride, a rebellion against the stereotypical disparagement directed towards a particular group of immigrants. No more.

Yes, there are still parades, but the status of Irish immigrants was settled long ago – they are white. So what do Americans do? They paint their rivers green. They paint themselves green, whether they’re Irish or not. The red hearts in the grocery stores are replaced with green shamrocks. And the primary ritual is now one of drinking (and yes, Americans will even dye their beer green for this day). The drinking is ironic, despite its unironic execution, for it participates in one of the predominant stereotypes of the Irish in America, that of being lushes.

Drinking to excess, however, has its own meaning, its own encoding, which is necessarily inherent in the experience of oblivion. The consciousness of St Patrick’s Day is destroyed. Gone is the religious dimension. Gone, too, is the political dimension. In capitalist society, it is reduced to spectacle, a spectacle of green vomit.



“…the overwhelming realities of present-day social existence prevent people from actually living events for themselves. Because history itself haunts modern society like a specter, pseudo-histories have to be concocted at every level of life-consumption in order to preserve the threatened equilibrium of the present frozen time.” — Debord

This is one of the two rituals (the other being Christmas) practiced in America in a strangely schizophrenic way – that of being religious and secularly consumptive at the same time. This has two contradictory effects. First, it sanctifies the religion of Christianity over all others – no other religions in America are ritually privileged in this way. Secondly, it denudes Christianity, wrapping it up the capitalistic excess of spectacle and consumption.

For now the stores are packed with eggs, and bunnies, and pastel colors. Children go hunting for secret treasures, and gobble down more candy. It is entirely possible to celebrate Easter in a secular manner, as a marker of Spring, perhaps, with all the fertility symbols on display. And so resurrection can still be consumed, even if you’re not Catholic. Likewise, with the old order of religion safely contained within a capitalistic ritual container, it can be safely ignored during the much more prevalent mundane time of everyday life. Even though the holiday itself is established by religion (according to the particular union of celestial and artificial calendars), its spectacularization stifles its ability to disrupt the power of the bourgeoisie. In this way, the former dominant power becomes subservient to the current ruling class.


Mother’s Day

“Whereas during the primitive stage of capitalist accumulation ‘political economy considers the proletarian only as a worker,’ who only needs to be allotted the indispensable minimum for maintaining her labor power, and never considers her ‘in her leisure and humanity,’ this ruling-class perspective is revised as soon as commodity abundance reaches a level that requires an additional collaboration from her. Once her workday is over, the worker is suddenly redeemed from the total contempt toward her that is so clearly implied by every aspect of the organization and surveillance of production, and finds herself seemingly treated like a grown-up, with a great show of politeness, in her new role as a consumer.” — Debord (mostly)

I debated about including this one, but I think it’s apt. It’s the “endpoint” of this initial battery of “spring rituals,” and a natural antecedent to the fertility imagery of Easter itself. While we won’t find a new set of decorations to put up for the weekend, we will find the day ensconsed in a particular aesthetic, one closely resembling that of Easter, but abstracted out – no bunnies, no eggs, no crosses, but flowers, and pastels, and anything appropriate to marking the height of Spring.

And again, we have to consider the ironic power of the Mother’s Day ritual. For on the one hand, its very existence demands that we accord power and respect to mothers. It always falls on a Sunday – a “sacred” day according to the dominant religion. On the other hand, though, it speaks to the fact that on all the other days of the year, mothers are not sacred. They are workers, for their children at the very least, but more broadly for their entire families. One day off per year from and incredible amount of work. What a blessing. Sleep in. Have family make breakfast, or go out for brunch, in nice clothes. More greeting cards. So the society can’t say it devalues mothers (even though it does in praxis) because of the spectacle of the holiday.

But heaven forbid if you should forget this holiday. I mean, I’m certainly complicit here – I buy my mom a card, a small present, go visit for the weekend (or a weekend near enough, with an additional phone call). My participation in the ritual is an acknowledgement on my part, an acceptance on my part, of the social contract encoded within the ritual, and the relationship. Like every ritual, there’s an element of inherent morality in Mother’s Day. For me, perhaps, it is a way for atoning for the fact that we are separated, a separation which is part and parcel of the capitalist enterprise and bundled up as “normal” for westerners.

So this is one of the ways in which ritual binds us. It doesn’t matter whether we agree or not with the precepts of the rite, or what interpretation we bring to it. Simply by virtue of participating in it, I am necessarily accepting something, even if it’s the tacit admission that I am subject to the authority of another – and when it comes to my mom, I am happily bound to her authority on this matter, because she’s quite important to me.


Memorial Day

“Pseudocyclical time is associated with the consumption of modern economic survival — the augmented survival in which everyday experience is cut off from decision-making and subjected no longer to the natural order, but to the pseudo-nature created by alienated labor. It is thus quite natural that it echoes the old cyclical rhythm that governed survival in preindustrial societies, incorporating the natural vestiges of cyclical time while generating new variants: day and night, work and weekend, periodic vacations.” — Debord

In much of the United States, Memorial Day marks the beginning of Summer. Which is a peculiar function for a military holiday. Memorial Day is ostensibly a day set aside to honor those who’ve died in military service (Veteran’s Day, for those who survived, isn’t nearly as important). And sure, there will be memorials, parades, rituals held in cemeteries. But this is largely secondary in terms of the ritual cycle, in terms of the appearance and practice of the day.

Falling at the end of May in the northern hemisphere, it’s like a warm day. The spring blossoms have largely given way to green leaves. It’s when summer fashions become sanctioned, when community swimming pools open up, when schools let out, more or less. And a goodly number of people get the day off — though proletariats in the “service” sector are still expected to work, which makes this a holiday that helps define class distinctions in the country.

Its biggest televised spectacle is actually the Indy 500, a car race that an absurdly large number of people watch, or at least pay attention to while grilling steaks and hotdogs outside while drinking down cheap beer. Indeed, this is probably the primary form of consumption for the day. It is a “vacation” done in miniature, or perhaps as a synecdoche, given that summer in America is also defined as a time of vacations… which only a few can truly afford to take.


Fourth of July

“Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.” — Debord

This day of the ritual cycle marks mid-summer, more or less, and in terms of its ritualization it strongly resembles Memorial Day – again, we’ll primarily see the practice of grilling meat and the drinking of beer. The stores will be filled with flags, and the décor of the country turns into a gaudy display of flags, stripes, stars, red white a blue. And again, “everyone” gets the day off, except the working poor, who can’t afford it.

But the 4th is perhaps the “purest” of American capitalist ritual, both in the fact that the country doesn’t have to share the ritual service with other concerns, and in the nature of the primary ritual of the day, which is typically an ostentatious display of fireworks at nightfall. Fireworks, of course, are spectacle. They are meant to be watched. And though they often draw immense crowds, especially in the cities, they still function to separate. In the dark, we don’t see each other. In the noise, we don’t hear each other. All there is, then, is spectacle, and it’s only in our numbers that we ourselves participate – we too, then, are simply spectacle.


Labor Day

“Due to the very success of this separate production of separation, the fundamental experience that in earlier societies was associated with people’s primary work is in the process of being replaced (in sectors near the cutting edge of the system’s evolution) by an identification of life with nonworking time, with inactivity. But such inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity. It remains dependent on it, in an uneasy and admiring submission to the requirements and consequences of the production system.” — Debord

Conversely, the final holiday of the summer ritual cycle is the most ironic. Labor Day. A day for “celebrating” labor, which is really just a way of acknowledging that all the other days of the year are day that labor need not be celebrated, let alone valued. And once again, we get a day off. A day for backyard grills. For drinking beer. For mere consumption. So Labor Day is the close of summer, often falling on one of the first weekends when much of the country is “free” from the heat of the season. Schools resume. Fall colors become the norm in terms of fashion. But the Day itself is spent like the other summer holidays. It’s part of a triptych.

While there may be a few parades, however, certainly nothing in the regular media coverage will approach the fawning reverence displayed towards soldiers and flags. And then there’s the position of Labor Day as the end of summer, a position that lends its own intrinsic entailments. Consider that the “birth” of summer comes from fallen soldiers, and the “height” of summer from nationalistic concern – and a celebration of “freedom.” That the “death” of summer coincides with “labor” casts a rather sour note, especially given that summer is purportedly a time of “vacation” and “freedom” from work. So there’s a connotation, then, that Labor itself is complicit or even responsible in the loss of freedom.

Now for the end-of-year rites.



“Although the present age presents its time to itself as a series of frequently recurring festivities, it is an age that knows nothing of real festivals. The moments within cyclical time when members of a community joined together in a luxurious expenditure of life are impossible for a society that lacks both community and luxury” — Debord

Halloween is, of course, the recuperation of death. It may be the ultimate recuperation ritual of the cycle. It’s a holiday of turning everything that’s macabre into something that’s kitsch. And, you know, it can be a lot of fun dressing up as something else, but wait, hold on, what do we dress up as? Often it’s as something transgressive. Hence all the sexytimes outfits. So this is really America’s “Carnivale” except at the wrong time of year (Mardi Gras proper being more a regional expression, primarily along the Mississippi). This is a ritual of inversion.

Look at the trick-or-treaters. Mostly kids, but who in their right (capitalist) mind would train their kids to panhandle? Trick or treating is basically a form of begging. But ensconced in ritual, what is verboten in everyday life becomes “allowed” this one day of the year.

And, of course, there’s the usual transformation of folk ritual into consumptive ritual. So much of Halloween comes from a variety of European customs. But recuperated into America’s spectacle, the rite is now one primarily oriented around consumption, primarily of candy, but also of spectacle itself. See, there isn’t just dressing up transgressively. There’s also dressing up reflectively, mirroring the current icons of pop culture from Iron Man to the TARDIS.

At the same time, though, this is still (by its Carnivale nature) a ritual that can be used for détournement. For example, going as the Halloween ritual itself: the “trick or treaters” bring along a door, and put it up in front of someone’s house, so when they open their door, they just see a door… which then opens, allowing the trick-or-treaters to give away some candy and remark fancifully on the costumes of the people they just visited.



“The spectacle, considered as the reigning society’s method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a false consciousness of time.” — Debord

Finally, the holiday that prompted this essay. This is one of the rituals that I participate in, primarily as an occasion to visit my parents and consume. We went out this year – I got braised peppers, an artichoke flatbread, squash soup, and pesto-stuffed mushrooms. My parents got the usual Thanksgiving fare.

So, about that usual fare. Turkey is a food that makes a lot of people sleepy; this holiday is actually a soporific. Combined with all the traditional “soft” foods – dressing, cranberry nummy, mashed potatoes – well, it’s kind of like regressing to early childhood and eating baby food, then nodding off blissfully surrounded by family. That’s really what this holiday is “about” ritually speaking; these are the obvious effects. It’s childlike consumption (but with wine for adults). The juxtaposition here is harvest-festival levels of consumption and family.

It’s the family part of the holiday that makes it difficult to criticize. Maybe that’s why it’s a family holiday, because yeesh, there’s a lot to criticize here. The make-believe “history” of the holiday, for example, burying the truth of how this continent was taken (which is, yes, another form of consumption). The increasing importance of American Football on the holiday, which is ritualized warfare. And, of course, the spectacle of Black Friday.

Black Friday is a ritual, I should note. It’s a performance, all those people lining up outside all night long, then rushing the doors and eventually coming home with their prizes. The masses of people participating in the quintessential capitalistic act, showing up on the local news, not just watching the spectacle, but being the spectacle. And of course it’s the lower classes who get suckered into this rite, those who are most easily manipulated by low, low prices – and should any violence erupt (and it has), well, guess who gets blamed? Not the pigfuckers, that’s for sure.



“The alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects that result from his own unconscious activity, works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.” — Debord

Christmas might seem like the ultimate capitalistic holiday, but it really isn’t. Sure, it heavily revolves around a tremendous amount of crass consumption, the spectacle of so many presents, and who gets to show off what when we get back to school or work. But in so many respects, it’s a ritual of mitigation.

First off, capitalism has to share the stage with religion again. This might actually be the central function of the ritual, to recuperate something which in many respects should be at odds with the spectacle of capitalism. After all, the religion promotes authority based on a clergy, not the bourgeoisie. And it preaches a greater appreciation for “spiritual” concerns as opposed to “material” ones. Even goes so far as to laud the poor over the rich. Of course, this is very convenient for the rich, for when such a sentiment is recuperated and contained within a ritual system, much like Carnivale/Halloween, that means the sentiment need not be observed during “mundane time” or in “mundane space.”

Secondly, for those who are no longer children, there’s as much if not more of an emphasis on “giving” as opposed to “receiving.” Consumption is transferred (much like the production of labor, oops, sorry about that) and self-gratification is deferred. And this is lauded as a Christian principle. No wonder the religion needs recuperation. And Christmas recuperates the hell out of it, by drenching the culture in a spectacle of lights, song, bells, forced cheer, tinsel, and pine trees. So much, again, borrowed from other rites of other systems, making Christmas “feel” authentic, even though so much of the current ritual is really quite modern.

But this isn’t just a feature of the ability of capitalism or spectacle, to take something and make it its own. This is a feature of ritual itself. See, rituals are always changing, even though they purport to stay the same. Everything changes, though, and there is no “original” ritual, nothing ab initio. It just feels that way, because it’s ritual. Funny thing… when something new gets introduced into ritual, sometimes it sticks. Depends on how well it “works” in producing the desired effects within the ritual participants (kind of like Black Friday being a recent phenomenon within Thanksgiving). And then the ritual changes.

We all have the power to create new rituals, or to change existing ones, and as long it works for us, why not? As long as we keep doing it, it gains strength, and soon the memory of all those rituals done previously inform the recurrence of what we do going forward. In this respect, ritual is a lot like advertising.


The New Year

“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.” — Debord

If Thanksgiving is a return to childhood, and Christmas is a coming-of-age, then the New Year is the step into adulthood, which means a proper acceptance of death. For the primary ritual of the New Year in this country is to drink one’s self into a state of oblivion. Not everyone does it, of course, but nearly everyone who drinks will probably reach this state of oblivion during one New Year or another.

Of course, the ritual is yet again one of spectacle. Not just the drinking, but especially the “countdown” which terminates in an orgy of wasted confetti and fireworks and more drinking. But it’s also a ritual of self-perpetuation. The whole point of examining the American Ritual Cycle is to see that it is a cycle, a cycle that doesn’t just perpetuate the spectacle of consumption in a capitalist society, but one that shapes the very fabric of our culture – nay, one that lays the foundation for how we understand the world around us, especially of how we conceive of time. The year is renewed, so we can do everything over again, year after year. This is the lynchpin, because it’s here that the calendar itself is laid down yet again to structure our every activity.

Now, sure, we can use this day to do thing that better ourselves. There’s a whole litany of New Year’s Resolutions, most of which fail, but it’s a thing. Yet it’s a thing that’s determined by the calendar of the ritual cycle. It’s recuperated, and at a time when we’re not exactly thriving, as most of America is just about ready to be battered by cold, ice, wind, and darkness. Not the sort of conditions conducive to self-improvement.



“In the organization’s struggle against class society, the combatants themselves are the fundamental weapons: a revolutionary organization must thus see to it that the dominant society’s conditions of separation and hierarchy are not reproduced within itself. It must constantly struggle against its deformation by the ruling spectacle.” — Debord

I love this quote above, because it so very well describes a participatory mode of ritual. See, I really don’t think the problem we face is one of ritual or spectacle. These are just tools. Spectacle can dull the senses, but it can also open eyes – it gets attention. And ritual, well, it’s the basis of the social contract. It also gives us the opportunity to commune, with each other and the world around us, because the material reality of the world is in fact cyclical. It can be a means for gathering and reunion, as opposed to separation and alienation.

But first we have to understand them. You can’t swim to shore when you don’t even know you’re drowning, and until you understand the nature of water you can’t understand what drowning even is. So don’t consider this a rant against ritual and delight, against time spent with people you want to spend time with, doing things you enjoy doing. Eat, drink, laugh, make music and love, and set time aside for doing just that, for there will be other times when such is not available.

Ritual, that’s what we do – it’s participatory, and hence co-creative. And what we make, that’s the spectacle. Maybe if we can be a bit more mindful of such, we can ritualize in ways that aren’t against our best interests, and maybe we can make something that’s truly worth gazing at.