Of gowns and guilt

The Master said, Ritual, Ritual! Does it mean no more than presents of jade and silk?

-- Confucius

Marking Passage

Rites of passage seem like marginal procedures in a society that gives the prime marker of status, consumption, to anyone who has money. Something about formal, dignified ceremonies that mark the transition between youth and adulthood is irredeemably quaint today. When one does turn up an example of a rite of passage, such, perhaps, as the English teenager’s first night in the pub, it has an improvised character that seems quite at odds with the change in legal status and mode of production that endless study of the Nuer has led us to expect. Ritual, rites of passage, seem no more than jade and silk, empty trimmings: the real power, the economists tell us, is elsewhere.

If this is the underlying feeling in our society, then anthropologists most take at least part of the blame for it.

In my first fieldwork, I asked a question which must have echoed every anthropologist since Heredotus: “why are you doing that?” The response tended to be either a blank look or a long and involved explanation that seemed to have little to do with the ceremony in question. Reasoning, even of the large underlying structural kind, has little to do with ritual in general. This was first noted by Wittgenstein in his remarks on Frazer. It is a comment that has been ignored by anthropologists, who have tended to give large scale explanations of the meaning of ritual which has had the effect of making us think that every ritual or rite of passage must be imbued with the utmost seriousness. It is perhaps this implicit dichotomisation of rites of passage into either meaningless formalities or profound seriousness that has blunted both our appreciation of the open quality of all rites of initiation and our ability to see rites of initiation appearing in our society in less formalised ways. Against the economists, we need to show why speaking Latin to uncomprehending initiates at Oxford graduation ceremonies is still where the power is at…

Marking Time

However, one can have some sympathy for the mother who said, on leaving the Sheldonian: ‘it really is a different world here.’ Capitalism discourages rites of passage. What is characteristic of this mode of production is what we could call flat time. The unmoved mover of our time is not God, but the consumer. Temporal restrictions, such as not being able to eat certain things during a certain period, not only restrict consumption, but work to undermine the idea that one is always just one purchase away from contentment. The levelling process of making more and more objects in a society exchangeable makes it harder and harder to justify the genuine differences that rites of passage bring about.

Correspondingly, we have moved towards a single age-set of the always-young; an emphasis on equality in political and social life and a rhetoric against the type of hierarchies typically produced by rites of passage. Thus does not mean hierarchies and culturally constituted forms of group initiation have ceased. In such an age, where the boundaries between different groups and classes appear more and more transparent, rites of passage such as Oxford graduation conversely play an important function.

Despite the importance of ceremonies such as Oxford Graduation, questions remain as to whether it can be considered a rite of passage in the same sense that Nuer initiation can be considered a rite of passage. This essay will offer a brief analysis of the Oxford graduation ceremony and trace the differences between the tribes of Oxford and Nuerland. Given my limited exposure to Oxford graduation, my lack of a historical perspective, and the absence of a rigorous comparativist framework, this analysis is necessarily a rather limited one.

On the Threshold

In the era of Evans-Pritchard, a Nuer who wished to be initiated had to go first to his father, “he afterwards goes to the member of his father’s age-set who performs a rite to give him a blessing of the clan.” As Evans-Pritchard notes, these rites are merely formalities, for, as long as there are sufficient supplies of grain and milk, a father will never refuse his son. For to do so would be to bring shame onto his own head.

Analogously, there is a prior restriction to graduating at Oxford. Other than being a member of a clan, one must also have passed the examinations. However, like the blessing of the father before a Nuer initiation, the pass rate for Oxford exams indicates that determining failure/success is not the point of this stage of group initiation. Also analogously, one notes that as a father refusing the son will bring disgrace upon the head of the father, as failing the exams will bring disgrace on the college, imparted through that old method of clan competition, the Norrington table.

Here can observe that while the only crucial boundary to initiation is being a member of a clan, it is formally necessary to seek the permission of your elders before going through the rite of separation. This period of necessary prostration before your elders is emphasised in Nuerland by the Dung thrown at you during a critical stage in the initiation process, and in Oxford by the exams one is forced to sit, where one regurgitates the words of one’s professors.

The Ritual Process

Van Gennep’s schemata for Les rites de passage has the distinction of having been left untouched for nearly 100 years. The author will not attempt to change this sorry state of affairs, but rather follow it in its entirety.

The Nuer ceremony of initiation does not have to be taken in a particular year, however, those that take it at the same time are then bound to a particular age-set. Likewise, the Oxford graduation does not have to be taken in a specific year, however, one is bound rather to the year of matriculation (the year you enter university), than to the year in which you graduated.

This difference indicates one of the peculiar characteristics about the Oxford graduation. In middle class England, it is university itself which is regarded as the rite of passage. One is secluded from society and kin for a specific time period. During this time “licentious horseplay and the singing of lewd songs.” is tolerated, as it is for Nuer initiates in their time in the bush. This is followed by a liminal period, distinguished by the pain of exams and circumcision, respectively. The ceremony marks the end of the relationship of the initiate to the university as an undergraduate (Fig. I) and their re-entry into society.

In the diagram above we can that the Oxford graduation ceremony not only has the structure of a rite of passage in and of itself, but that this structure is homologous to the structure of the broader rite of passage which is the university experience.

The Remains of the Day

The young initiates begin the day with their families. If it is an afternoon ceremony, then a lunch will be had before the parents are sent on ahead to the Sheldonian theatre. They will talk to their sons and daughter only after they have been reborn, outside the operating-theatre of their transformation.

This conforms to Van Gennep’s first stage: the separation of the initiates from the society. They are given a talk by the Dean of their college, to remind them of the continuing responsibilities they have towards their college. Here they are also informed of what they will be swearing in Latin. Now unless one is seriously intending to lecture in the village of Stamford, or have designs upon the throne of King James, these oaths have no substantive content. Rather, their transformational power is apart from their content, and serves to bind you to the college.

One then dons sub-fusc. This is the third time that the young initiate is required to don sub-fusc (aside from dinners). The first two correspond to the period of separation (matriculation and entering the university) and liminality (the pain of going through the exams). Thus, we see that wearing sub-fusc closes the circle of the period of initiation. This is analogous to the wearing of white clay by the young Nuer initiates to mark them out during their rite of passage.

This period of seclusion is marked out by the procession through the street wearing sub-fusc, lead by the Dean. This marking out of the initiates binds them together. Here we must remember that the process of initiation marks a series of different boundary crossings. It both represents an individual boundary, as the young initiate prepares to re-enter society, and a communal boundary, as the clan and university recognise a member with new legal status. These dual processes can be seen in the marking of collective identity through out the rite of passage.

But does anyone believe it?

Once in the Sheldonian Theatre, one is given an explanation of the process, in English. Here we must follow Wittgenstein in asserting that explanations of what happens in a ritual never explain anything, but may constitute a part of the rite in themselves. The explanation given explains the continued use of Latin as a way of paying respect to our exalted forbearer’s. This discursive marking of ‘tradition’ is perhaps exemplary of modern approaches to rites of passage. Rather than the tradition itself having the power to carry the ritual through (offering its own explanatory power) it is the pointing to tradition, much in the same way that the grave points to the absence of the person, that it expected to offer a framework to make things comprehensible.

Such an implicit dichotomisation as the one offered above would offer Nuer initiation as something in which people ‘believed’, while the ritual of Oxford would be an empty ceremony given in Latin. There are numerous reasons to be unsatisfied with such an account. Primarily, it is dependent on accessing the inner states of the participants, which is something one cannot be sure about. Even to say that a rite of passage is dependent on displaying a state (whether it is ‘felt’ or not), is difficult, for one has to correctly surmise what the state is. Further, the state is part of the action of the rite of passage itself, and as such cannot legitimately be used to determine what is or is not a rite of passage.

What remains to be explained is not why Oxford graduation is a rite of passage, but why anyone might think it is not. This feeling originates in an underlying sense that rites of passage must connect to the greater community, as in Nuer initiation one enters an age-set universally recognised. In Oxford, one of course does enter an age-set universally recognised within the bounds of the university. Further, in the link to the previous ruling classes of England, and in the very exclusivity of the ritual, one gains access to a hierarchy in the broader English society.

After the master(s) of ceremonies has read out the list of the people to graduate, they walk down the carpet which the young initiates will shortly have to walk down. Symbolically, this previous walking can be seen to bind the young initiates into the previous path of other graduates, and conversely, also to give an authoritative sanction to the clearing of the way.
In the segmentary organisation system that is Oxford University, the graduation represents a temporary unification of the colleges. Each dean leads up the members of his respective college, and they each swear fealty to the university. Following this, one swiftly leaves the Sheldonian theatre, one’s passage through the world of Oxford undergraduate life now complete. What remains is to change one’s robes to the new commoners gown that one is allowed to wear after one has graduated. This physical change allows the changing of social persona and when one then walks through the Sheldonian, it is as a new person.

But is it a rite of passage?

They now cease to look after the calves and sheep and goats and to perform the more menial services of kraal and byre

After Nuer initiation, they are allowed to tend to the cattle, a fundamental change in the organisation of labour. The analogy in Oxford graduation is to the ability to enter the graduate work force. While one of course can get a job before one has graduated (or without ever going to university), and even work your way up to a graduate position, it remains that it is not the done thing for the middle class who are Oxford principal patrons.

Previously, one had to graduate in order to receive one’s diploma. The practical considerations of postgraduate applications (a concession to the market place) means that it is no longer necessary to graduate in the ceremony. Given this fact, it is striking how many people do choose to graduate. This fact stands testimony to the continued importance of Oxford graduation as a marker of symbolic change. Perhaps it also stands testament to the continued need of people to divide their lives into temporally meaningful segments in the face of a society which seems to what to impose only the time of the market.