Full Project Description

Calendric Public Rituals as an Expression of Identity: Central Europe and the Balkans 1985–2005.

The disciplinary goal of this project is to examine how Calendric Public Rituals (CPRs) in Central Europe and the Balkans are constructed discursively, and how they contribute to the articulation of identity in the interplay between the regional, national, and transnational.

We focus on the period from 1985 to the present, a turbulent time in this respect. Methodically, the project especially emphasizesdiscourse analysis, which utilizes and unites the research group’s skills in language, text, literature, and area studies.

Due to the dramatic recent history of the countries in this region, CPRs in Central Europe and the Balkans are an especially interesting topic to study in connection with processes of identity construction. In recent decades, these countries havemoved from communism to democracy and market capitalism, including membership – or desired membership – of the EU and NATO.

This transition has been characterized by a revival of national values, but also by new significance of regional and transnational ties. Particular tension stems from the fact that so many traditions have been better preserved in this region than in western Europe, even though the communist period represented a total transformation of society in most respects.

CPRs in traditional (i.e., rural) societies have often been an object of research. However, modernizing processes have altered the role of CPRs. In modern societies, those that produce and administer rituals are not unproblematic, authoritative spreaders of sense: they are social participants that have been separated from their roles.

The audience, for its part, has been separated from the ritual production: participation in and approving of CPRs has become a question of choice rather than one of obligation. Nonetheless, following a change of regime, the official state politics may decide to introduce new national holidays, or initiate a “rediscovery” of traditional CPRs. When new countries seek approval, not least of all for their status as independent states, this also happens alongside decisions to introduce new CPRs.

A state’s national holidays are part of its symbolic and official image. Establishing and rediscovering new symbols (i.e., the national holidays) represents an important aspect of the construction of the official self.

Furthermore, CPRs may construct order: when they are performed, they help to construct what is perceived as an unchanging reality. CPRs presuppose an awareness of rules that offer a space for renegotiation of power.

CPRs are therefore a phenomenon that we may study in order to understand social transformation. CPRs are also related to concrete or metaphorical objects or places with a strong, symbolic representation. Some objects or places are viewed as sacred” in connection with CPRs (in the countries involved in this project, these include the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Václav Square in Prague, and the Kosovo plain). Such “sacred” objects and places are central to communal identity. They create a field of particular significance.

CPRs may be divided into three main groups: political (eg, national or independence days, and memorial days for special groups or individuals), religious (e.g., days dedicated to saints and celebrations in connection with religious holidays), and popular (e.g., celebrations of local and rural events related to the annual cycle).

The distribution is somewhat uneven within the region (there are more popular CPRs in southeastern Europe than in central Europe), but some CPRs are shared and may form a basis for comparison.

Main Perspectives and Analytical Questions

CPRs can be examined from four research perspectives: identity, cyclicality, articulation, and public performance.

  • Identity: The populations of the central and southeastern European countries have experienced the question of identity acutely following the collapse of communism. After all, identity is a key issue in understanding how social life and personal experience is in a process of change within our lifetime. Socio-political, cultural, religious, and gender and sexual identities are undergoing a process of continuous alteration. We live in a time of constant change in which a consumption mentality prevails; our identities are floating in a world characterized by radical global changes, and where national geographical borders are increasingly being torn down (Bauman 2006). CPRs are a central component in the construction of national identity (i.e., national or independence days), but some CPRs transcend political and administrative borders, and are important for the experience of regional or transnational identities (e.g., International Women’s Day). Many CPRs are expressions of traditions that stretch back centuries, whereas others have their origin in more recent political changes (e.g., Holocaust memorial days, and gay parades). In some cases, there is a conflict of “ownership” of a CPR, and the celebration of a CPR may contribute to undermining the official politics of a country or region (i.e., the celebration of international Human Rights Days under communism).
  • Cyclicality: CPRs are a process with both continuity and construction. In both cases, the historical dimension is central (Ensink and Sauer 2003). CPRs depend on historical and cultural memory, but may also be consciously altered, reconstructed, controlled, and prohibited, and new CPRs are being introduced. Tradition, then, is not a set of static values, but a creative process in which each individual, each generation, and each community decides on its own cultural inheritance and identity. CPRs are therefore ideal as an object of study of the tension between repetition and innovation.
  • Articulation: Only through social participants and their actions can meaning be realized and influence be given. When rituals are performed and repeated, the ritual becomes visible as a standardized event. Thus, CPRs reflect a community’s attitude towards its own past and future. The rituals are controlled and instructed by their scripts – that is to say, their “macro-program” of rules for the form and content of a ritual. However, the precise performance of a ritual is never fully controlled by the script. CPRs may bridge the span between diverse individual perspectives, and thus construct an already mutual or desired social reality.
  • Public performance: The word public is decisive because public discourse constitutes the arena where the self-image of the entire community is constructed, and where self-representation is judged. Some components in CPRs may certainly be reflected in the private sphere, but it is public rituals, be they at a national level and reflected in mass media or at a local level (e.g., in a village), that have the power of social or political influence.

The topic of CPRs in central Europe and the Balkans has been widely studied. Most of this research, however, has primarily focused on popular CPRs, and many projects have approached the topic from other, quite different points of view than the ones we are setting forth here.

This project will concentrate on the discursive dimension of CPRs: we are focusing on 1) language and verbal texts as a part of ritual practice, and 2) how CPRs are reflected discursively. Several contemporary theoretical approaches to rituals are relevant to our project in varying degrees: the existentialistic and the genealogic approach, hermeneutic philosophy, and cognitive research. Existentialism helps us in interpreting CPRs as a way of existence in the world, as a synthesis of body and soul.

The genealogical approach is used to study how rituals create people’s wishes, expectations, and feeling of self. Hermeneutics allow us to “read” CPRs as activities that are both meaningful and bearers of meaning, analogous to (verbal) texts. The cognitive approach can show how bodily experience underlies the metaphoric dimension of CPRs.

Linguistic philosophy after “the pragmatic turn” enables the interpretation of language and text in CPRs as language games and speech acts. Thus, they may also be understood as rational in their own right. In his later works, Wittgenstein (1953) rejects the idea that meaningful language must be descriptive.

Language is used in many legitimate forms: when we act out a play, sing songs, solve riddles, tell jokes, ask questions, thank or curse someone or something, greet, or pray. These ways of using language follow their own rules (in the same way that games do) and originate as ways of thinking in specific ways of life where they have signification. In this way, Austin’s (1965) speech act theory also becomes relevant to the study of CPRs.

Austin states that words may have illocutionary power: the words we use may create real changes in the world. This may also be said of the language used in CPRs: Ritual language may alter our feelings and unleash psychological powers thatmay promote real action (Ray 2000).

Several analytical questions arise from the factors mentioned above:

* Which phenomena from the community’s past are chosen as a basis for CPRs, and to which sphere do these phenomena belong?
* How and by whom are the phenomena that are to be celebrated as CPRs chosen?
* What arguments are used when CPRs are chosen, established, and maintained?
* Who interprets this process, what is the interpreter’s goal, what is the conceptual system and system of values of the community/individual, and how does this relate to the social, cultural, and political context?
* How are CPRs celebrated (e.g., participants, activities, and use of semiotic systems)?
* What does media coverage mean for these events?

These questions may be researched through analyses of verbal texts –that is, mass media texts (newspapers, blogs, and possibly texts from radio and television, if and when these are available) – and literary texts. The texts we will study may be divided into two main categories:

1. Verbal texts that are included in the celebration of CPRs; for example declamations, speeches, songs, and slogans. These will be analyzed along three lines: a) the interplay of the verbal texts and other semiotic resources (i.e., lyrics and music in songs, inscriptions, and pictures in banners); b) the position of the text in the specific CPR, its importance compared to other components and to any other texts that might be included; c) textual pragmatics. In the divergence between the illocutionary speech act and the perlocutionary effect, it is possible to study how the text’s intended effect corresponds to its obtained effect.
2. Verbal texts that give significance to CPRs. This group consists of texts in which the participants discuss the meaning of the ritual, and its relevance, history, form, and changes. Most of these texts are produced before or after the ritual, but some CPRs, especially those that include original speeches, also contain reflective texts within the ritual itself. The cyclic character of CPRs enables diachronic analyses that allow the aspect of change to become clearly visible. All texts in this group will provide important information on how rituals are constructed and charged with meaning, as well as provide extensive evidence of political attitudes and decisions (Chilton and Schäffner 2002).

In the analyses of the texts we will:

* Identify various attitudes towards rituals. The analyses will particularly focus on central concepts (i.e., by exploring the names of CPRs and the use of evaluative adjectives) and textual modality (with particular attention to deontic modality, that is to say, expressions of commitment and permission based on social norms and ethical principles).
* Uncover shifts in the dominating attitudes of the community. The analyses will explore the accepted, undenied truths of the community, their doxa (to use Bourdieu’s term, 1977) by studying the text’s presuppositions, and their co-referential chains of designation (Daneš 1993). Attitudes in conflict with doxa may be uncovered, among other things, by analyzing the sentential relations of the texts.
* Explore how social groups acquire CPRs. Through the analyses, we seek to identify the empirical source persons of the texts and their positions within the social group they speak to or on behalf of. This analysis must be related to an analysis of how the text’s sender is constructed. Narratology provides a number of methods for resolving this task (Bal 2004).
* Study the recipients of the text. Texts have both empirical recipients and recipients that are constructed within the text (i.e., “model readers”, Eco 1979, Schmid 2005). It is important to identify these readers because the reader-in-the-text must overlap with the empirical reader to a certain extent if the communication is to succeed. Analyses of the model reader will therefore help us understand the possible effect of the text on social groups. By exploring the codes used in the texts, we will be able to decide the following: the age of the model reader, geographical location, linguistic knowledge (including sociolects and dialects), general level of education, and degree of collaboration in the reading (i.e., whether he or she adopts particular perspectives for the various parts of the text).


* Austin, J.L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Bal, Mieke (ed). 2004. Narrative Theory: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.
* Bauman, Zygmunt. 2006. Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
* Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Chilton, Paul and Christina Schäffner (ed.). 2002. Politics As Text and Talk. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1-41.
* Daneš, František. 1993. “On the Stylistic Aspect of Coreferential Naming Chains”. In Jan Chloupek and Jiří Nekvapil (eds.), Studies in Functional Stylistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 146-162.
* Eco, Umberto. 1979. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. London: Hutchinson.
* Ensink, Titus and Christoph Sauer. 2003. The Art of Commemoration. Fifty Years after the Warsaw Uprising. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
* Ray, B. 2000. “Discourse about Difference: Understanding African Ritual Language”. In K. C. Patton and B. C. Ray (eds.), A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Schmid, Wolf. 2005. Elemente der Narratologie. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
* Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Published Aug. 24, 2010 3:37 PM - Last modified Sep. 17, 2010 1:33 PM