A fashionable term at the moment used to describe the world that we now inhabit is the geological concept 'the Anthropocene.' Although the validity of the concept within geological discourse remains contested, it seems to have become a common albeit loosely defined term for a geological era following the Holocene defined by the (detrimental) impact of humanity - the Anthropos of the Anthropocene - on the geological strata of the planet.
Facing the Anthropocene, what we are called upon to do, is to find other ways of inhabiting our bodies - of being embodied - and other ways of collectively inhabiting the geosphere - of being, in a sense, embedded. This involves aesthetics and ethics; developing sensibilities, forms of attentiveness, and constructing, or designing, universes in which life can be sustained. In this task, the notion and practice of ritual, if retuned to face the Anthropocene, may come to play a most crucial role.
If we consider the etymology of the word 'ritual,' from early 14th Century Latin ritus, and detach it from its religious context, what we get is a sense of 'observance' taking the form of 'ceremony' but also the form of 'customs' and 'usages'; to be observant of and attentive to a principle or decree, manifests itself in the ceremonial as well as in the everyday; in the funerals and weddings as well as in the daily custom of brushing of one's teeth, or the usage of utensils for food consumption.
As for the origins of the Latin root itself, it has not been established with certainty. There is, however, a compelling argument linking it to a Proto-Indo-European word for 'reasoning' and 'counting;' two words that both involve a process of thought by which we make sense of the world.
Arguably, ritual today has little to do with thought and reflection, and more to do with habits and traditions, often problematic ones, and with activities that we do precisely without thinking, such as brushing our teeth. It is as if the link between observance, attention, and reflective thought, on the one hand, and ceremony, custom and usage, on the other, has been severed. We are no longer attentive to the rituals that make up the texture of the universes in and through which we live.
Now, our argument is not that we should return to a pastoral or archaic past where this would have been the case but we would like to propose two more speculative questions: First, what if we were to turn our thinking toward the rituals through which we construct a life in order to figure out what it is we are observant of and attentive to in the Anthropocene; what our ceremonies, customs and habitual uses of the things that surround actually mean? Second, what if we were to turn to ritual as a form of practical and speculative thinking in order to figure out how to construct universes for ourselves within the Anthropocene, in which life, in some fashion, can be sustained and enriched?
Ritual would then, perhaps, become the site of an emerging ethics (in the Greek sense [ethos], as having to do with 'habitual character' or 'disposition', or better perhaps, 'ways of living') and an emerging aesthetics (again, in the Greek sense [aisthanesthai], as having to do with aesthesis, perception, or the development of sensibilities and forms of attentiveness). Developing sensibilities and practices of attentiveness, and constructing ways of life on the basis of embodied and embedded, attentive experiences; another word for this might be 'care.'
Care is an interesting word that is often understood superficially in a sense closely associated with the word 'cure.' We care for the ill in order to restore them to health; we care for the poor by easing their suffering; we care for our children by offering them our protection and unconditional love. The two words 'care' and 'cure', however, have very different etymologies. Whereas the word 'cure' stems from a Latin root, cura, meaning 'healing, paying attention to,' the word 'care' has a Proto-Germanic root in a word that bears connotations such as 'lament,' 'loss,' and 'grief.' Residual use of the word in this sense can be found in phrases such as, 'she doesn't have a care in the world.'
Within the context of the Anthropocene, 'care' becomes a very interesting choice of word as the configuration of an ethical, or ethicoaesthetic site for new ways of living is defined by a sense of irrevocable loss. We live through a period of likely extinction that will require us to fundamentally rethink our understanding of what it means to be human beyond the Anthropos. What we stand before, then, is the task of finding out what it may mean to live a certain kind of extinction. This is an ethicoaesthetic task, and it is one premised on a sense of loss. We do have a care (a loss, a grief, a lament) and we do need to start caring for (paying attention to) the geosphere within which we construct our universes and to those with whom we labour in order to do so. This involves practicing 'care' and not least experimenting with the design of rituals of care.
2016. 1-3 p.
November 21 – 24, 2016 Hong Kong, China Hosted by the Hong Kong Design Institute