RONALD L. GRIMES
The Kavanagh Lecture delivered October 16, 2003
"Shooting Rites." pacifists would not like the title. After Columbine, the gun metaphor rings violent, especially if the implied subjects in front of the camera are humans. Feminists would likely join the pacifists if the assumed shooter-photographer were leeringly male, and the one upon whom the predatory photographic gaze rested were delectably female. And the post-colonialists would undoubtedly join these other two groups if those shot were objectified, or patronized by either the shooting or the viewing of the shooting.
One would think that a ritual-studies scholar could find a more venerable subject, such as ritual and the sacred, ritual and political power, ritual and racism, or ritual and cognitive psychology. I thought I had cornered a wonderfully obscure topic until someone called my attention to the popular TV series, Six Feet Under. Its funerary voyeurism creates a cultural climate in which rites shot are au courant.
Rites are eminently photogenic. After tall mountains, bright flowers, and towering skyscrapers, what else attracts as much photographic attention as a wedding replete with flowing costume and energetic dance? Or an initiation stained with blood and climaxed with hugs and tears? Pilgrims and explorers have long lugged home souvenirs testifying to their presence at exotic scenes in foreign placeswhat better way to package a culture for export than shooting people's ceremonies and celebrations?
Lots of people shoot rites. Tourists shoot them, hoping to import the local color (duty free, of course). Family members shoot rites of passage, pickling collective memories in order to preserve a sense of belonging. Ethnographers shoot rites in order to salvage indigenous practices before they are gobbled up in the maw of globalization. Documentary makers shoot rites to entertain television audiences (and perhaps, accidentally, educate them). Feature-film makers sometimes shoot rites, usually as framing for more dramatic, non-ritualistic actions. Journalists shoot rites too, but only on occasions when they serve as backdrop for local social dramas or global political events. Religious broadcasters shoot worship, song, and other ritual activities in order to make converts of outsiders, extend sacred space into domestic space, and provide a visible product in return for donations. Even worship leaders and liturgy professors occasionally shoot rites as ways of teaching or evaluating liturgical skills.
But what does shooting rites do? What does it do to the rites shot, the people who shoot them, and those who enact them?
To shoot a rite is to render it an object of study. During my first field research in 1973, I took pictures. For one thing, tourists did that, and a camera helped me blend into the crowd. For another, anthropologists were supposed to record what they observed, and I was a religious-studies scholar being adopted, under Victor Turner's tutelage, into the anthropologists' clan. So I shot the Masses, pageants, and parades of the Santa Fe Fiesta as a form of quick, visual note-taking. The Fiesta was an annual, complex, multi-location event crammed tightly into a few autumn days. I shot its rites and performances because I did not have time to observe them carefully. Shooting was a kind of shorthand, as well as a substitute for really seeing.
Unlike texts and paintings, pageants and ceremonies do not sit still. They are not quite "there." Like all performing arts, ritual enactments evaporate in the doing. So shooting is a way of making them hold still so one can analyze themturn them this way and that. Shooting freezes action, helping a scholar notice details after the action dies down.
But my Fiesta slides, the visual documents created when I first began to study ritual, soon gathered dust, only a few of them making their way into a book. In the book the function of those photos was to testify that I had been there, taken it all down, and completed the anthropological rite of passage called fieldwork. The photos, ensconced in Symbol and Conquest,1 a proper book, were sucked into the service of what was considered real, which is to say textual, scholarship. The pictures, never really valued in themselves, were put to work procuring tenure. So, in the end they were worth the investment in camera and film, although I never really studied those slides as people would today if they were serious about visual anthropology and material culture.
In the early 1990s, almost twenty years after I studied ritual and drama in the Santa Fe Fiesta, a film maker named Jenny DeBouzek went to New Mexico to make a video based on Symbol and Conquest. Her video, Gathering up Again: Fiesta in Santa Fe,2 captures a crucial behind-the-scenes event. The story it tells is this:
Randy, a Pueblo Indian, lives in Los Angeles. One summer he returns to New Mexico, and one of his Hispanic friends invites him to play Chief Domingo in a traditional pageant that celebrates...well, that is the question. If one believes local Pueblo people, it celebrates the conquest of Indians by Spanish conquistadors; if one believes certain bishops and clergy in Santa Fe, it celebrates the conquest of war itself by men of good will, regardless of race, color, or creed.
Since Randy now lives in California rather than in one of the New Mexico pueblos, he does not realize that most Pueblo people have been quietly boycotting the Fiesta pageant, that no Indian has played Chief Domingo for several decades.
It is the day of the Entrada pageant, the ideological heart of the Fiesta, and, it seems, there has not been a full dress rehearsal. Randy arrives, greets his buddies, sees their ragtag, stereotypical "Indian" costumes, puts up with their mock threats about making "Indian" jokes, and prepares to perform. Then we watch as the meaning of the play and his part in it begins to dawn on him. He is humiliated and embarrassed. The camera notices him offstage crying. At one point it seems that an organizer actually has to push him onstage to finish playing his demeaning part. Interviewed after the pageant, Randy admits that if he had known what was going on, he probably would not have participated at all.
Gathering up Again threatened the local sensibility in a way that Symbol and Conquest, a mere book, could not. The video did not merely refer to religious and inter-ethnic difficulties, it re-enacted them, making them present. The video had the capability of renewing the event over and over again. Before our very eyes we watch Randy awaken, his Spanish and Indian cohorts feel shame, and the pageant begin to unravel. The real drama is not onstage but backstage. We not only witness Randy's humiliation but also hear an utterance that one does not hear in Santa Fe: "I was ashamed of being Spanish."
When the state school board began to consider distributing the video to public schools, there was an enormous political outcry in Santa Fe, so much so that the director felt she had to move to another city.
Shot rites, by revealing backstage activity, can threaten or transform them, with the result that ethical and political debates are inevitable.
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