Ritual and Virtual Worlds

Ritual and Virtual Worlds

I went to an interesting set of presentations this morning about ritual as performed in virtual worlds. The first thing that stuck out for me is that everyone has a different working definition of the word ‘ritual’. For some, everything is a ritual, everything we do, from sitting in a room listening to an instructor or presenter to accepting the eucharist. Because of that wide definition, all kinds of things got crammed into a session about “ritual” and I’m not sure I’m completely in favour of that. For instance, one of the “rituals” presented was online gaming activities, like trying to kill a dragon in online Dungeons and Dragons. Gathering together and attempting to complete a task communally is ritualistic (hiding behind a rock, everyone with their task to accomplish, the order in which people stand in the virtual world, etc.). I can understand how there are traditions and customary activities in that context, but I seriously hesitate to call them rituals. That’s like calling everything that has any impact an icon, which I’m also not delighted about.

But the key piece that I’m going to take away from the presentations and the discussion is the sense I got that in moving ritual and religious experience online, we’ve in a sense brought it back to an earlier form. Religious authorities are not the only ones with rituals to preside over and religious knowledge to impart, and much as christian leaders needed to fight with local ritual and knowledge to be heard in a medieval and early modern European context, so modern religious leaders need to cope with the influx of religious information and authority that’s available online. And one of the points of discussion was this: can you have a legitimate ritual without a body? Apparently there is some debate around this. Can you? My goodness, how can you not? If Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila were given the opportunity to worship God in a ritual that did not include their physical bodies in any way, they would have jumped at it, I’m sure. Christianity has traditionally had such disdain for the physical body, I don’t understand how anyone could suggest that there’s even a question about whether the virtual ritual is possible. The virtual ritual has been the most desireable kind since medieval christians climbed up on pillars and stood on one foot for 10 years. Remove the impact of the body, remove it from your consciousness, and then you are free to approach the divine with your lustful, sinful flesh tamed and left behind. In many ways, Second Life ritual could be seen as the consumate religious experience.

Can the same be said for jewish ritual, however? Jewish traditions isn’t nearly as flesh-hating, and jewish ritual respects the physicality of the performing the ritual itself, often above the intellectual understanding of it. Perhaps jewish ritual cannot move into a virtual context, but I’d suggest that christian ritual absolutely can.

An interesting morning! I never though my Master of Theological Studies degree would could in handy at an internet researchers’ conference, fancy that!

0 thoughts on “Ritual and Virtual Worlds

  1. Hey! Being one of the speakers of the said panel, I´m quite happy to have given you an impulse to think about the stuff and I find your musings very interesting.

    Actually, I think what you are referring to in terms of the early Christian notion of trying (by means of ritual among others) to overcome the boundaries and temptations of the flesh is not exactly the same as having a “virtual” body (or avatar), which again might be confronted to temptations etc. As SL shows us. 🙂 Don´t you think?

    However, our notions towards the problem of embodiment (“real” as well as “virtual”) result from what I from my (I admit it – very constructivistic) point of view would label as “process(es) of ascription” towards these terms. These processes that IMHO derive from all the discourses that the paticipants of rituals as well as the researchers are embedded in, probably lead to the broad variety of interpretations of the term. (Am I making sense?)

    And there are some quite interesting and highly contradictory interpretations and ascriptions to be found out there — especially in Second Life! The contemporary Christian denominations might have lots of trouble thinking of sacraments like the eucharist as something that might be done online (partly because of the problem of the embodiment) — some Buddhists take the complete opposite position!

    In case you don´t know them already, you might be interested to try to look up the places run by the “Milarepa Land Trust” in-world SL and *their* notion of SL and the Internet as religious space! They argue (like many other Buddhist groups and individuals on the online), that the world is illusion anyway — so there´s no difference between the “virtual” and the “real”. Therefore it doesn´t matter if the body consists of cells or merely of ones and zeros … That sounds to me like what you meant above about getting rid of the body.

    Coming back to your ideas about the Christian idea of overcoming the limits of the flesh, the question that´s bothering me is: What would an early modern saint say if confronted to (Christian) rituals online? Especially in Second Life?

    Would he approve of a virtual holy supper? Or a meditation practise? Will *we* – say – in 10 years´ time?

  2. Reading Rochelle’s thought-provoking reflection, and Simone’s equally thoughtful reply, makes me think of two things, seemingly disconnected or only tangentially related to each other, but fitting into different parts of both the posting and the comment. (Enough preambles).

    The first thing is ritual / Second Life -related.

    Yesterday I was listening to a 12:30 CBC Radio One (FM 99.1) show which, in a marvelous turn that only radio is capable of (you can’t see it coming…) brought up Second Life. William Gibson was being interviewed about Second Life, and people holding events, meetings, etc. in Second Life. He had some not-so-great things to say at first (bad first experiences?), but then he said something to this effect:
    “Interactions in the so-called virtual world are, in fact, more socially meaningful and “real” than many things we see as real. Such “real” activities as watching a TV show have, in fact, very little real impact in terms of social connections. They are a kind of VIRTUAL LIFE. On the other hand, the networking and learning in Second Life has REAL LIFE value and is more constructive, more “human”, than many of our daily work or leisure activities.”
    I have collapsed and paraphrased Gibson’s words to get his meaning across, and inaccuracies as well as omissions are mine, of course. It seems to me that Gibson is right. It should be the activity / interaction quality (in terms of effect, as well as affect, on the doer) that matters in determining whether something is “real”. If it has real value, it has a real dimension — it is REAL. “Virtual” rituals (definitions aside) are real, I think, if they conform to Gibson’s social connection criterion.

    Enough on Thing One.

    Thing Two will have to wait until I get home and put my son to bed.

    (I wonder if the CBC interview is Podcasted — probably.)


  3. Heya, Joanna!

    I heard that William Gibson was going to be talking about SL, but I wasn’t home to hear it, and frankly, I wasn’t sure I was going to be impressed anyway. The person I want to hear talking about SL is Neal Stephenson, upon whose work (Snow Crash) SL is based. Sadly he doesn’t seem all that interested in checking it out, so I guess that’s not going to happen.

    We’re still in the infancy of this particular brand of technology, and most people’s comments are more in keeping with “what is this new thing?” than anything else. That was what was nice about AoIR: people presenting there were at least over that hump and were looking at it with a more critical and educated eye.

    The fact that anyone is even tempted to compare the internet with TV tells you just how far the internet had fallen into the “something you watch” category rather than the communication tool that it actually is. That always interests me. But William Gibson is the guy who wrote a book that centred on an online community (Pattern Recognition) without having anyone ever use IM, or IRC, or any other real-time chat function other than the telephone. His interpretation of the internet is so circa popular use 1997. 😛

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