Ceremonics concerns the particular ways in which psychopolitics take shape in the realm of public and collective performativity. For collective feelings, which are psychopolitical rather than psychological because they are always contending with each other, are not expressed, but performed. Communications media are now overwhelmingly the ways in which collective feelings are acted out, or, in Sartre’s usage, ‘existed’: given shape, duration, salience and intelligibility. What actual people feel are of negligible interest and importance compared with these symbolic economies of referred feeling, quasifeeling (feelings we are informed that other people have), metafeeling (feelings about what feelings should be had) and feeling-feedback (reported feelings about the reported feelings of others) that are the principal business of communications media. This psychopolitical co-agitation is stochastic but not chaotic, for the realm of communications media has assimilated the functions previously associated with social ritual and ceremony, the liturgical calendar yielding place to the excitatory-tranquilising spasmodics of crisis and oblivion in the news cycle. The crowd-sourced feelings of communications take over the role performed by collective religious belief, but jettisoning the sluggish impediments of actual religious doctrines, to allow for the formation of faith operations set free from credenda.
None of this is new, not even the news of this. In Lyotard’s words from the beginning of The Differend, ‘the rule is that what happens can happen only if … it has already happened’. Lyotard articulates this rule in order to suggest that there might be some ‘ultimate resistance that the event can oppose to the accountable’ (xvi), but there isn’t. This is not because we live in an administered world, or because of the ills of capitalism, or colonialism, or big tech companies, nor is it because we have slipped into the matrix of simulations. It is because we can only live, and only ever have lived, in recognition. We must have objects of attention, and an object, as A.N. Whitehead realises, is merely something of which we can say ‘that again’. A cartoon that appeared during the pandemic has one glum character remarking to another ‘I am looking forward to living in precedented times’. But as the joke makes clear, all times, especially those said to be times of crisis, are precedented. The law of precessive emergence, that there is no first time for happening, operates in every conceivable register: in birthday parties, hairstyles, styles of rage and despair, leave-takings and salutations – during the pandemic people enjoyed beginning emails with the phrase ‘I hope you are safe and well in these strange times’ – obsessions, funerals, declarations of love and war, and famous last words, working practices, programmes of reform and revenge, rescues, romances, revolutions. Because nothing happens for the first time, because projects are prejects, and we are forced to live out our lives in and as amateur dramatics, performances, prescriptions, and anticipatory recognitions, that ritual life is also phantasmal. Unless it is because it is only possible for humans to live in phantasm that nothing can happen for the first time. Seriousness consists in the attempt to rescue tragedy from farce, the first time from the second time round that is always midwife to it.
Ceremonics concerns the forms of collective observance that script and style psychopolitical impulses and orientations, the collective effervescence which Durkheim made out in physical aggregations being accelerated and diversified in forms of clustering-through-communication. The first book of Ceremonics, Giving Way (2019) concerns the social rhetorics of abstitution, for example in withdrawal, recantation, retirement, apology. The second, A History of Asking (2021) examines petitionary rhetorics, such as prayer, begging, wooing, suing and demand. The third book (so far) of the Ceremonics sequence, Styles of Seriousness, examines the import and comportment of different modes of importance, including the operations of admonition, zeal, respect and regret. Further volumes may concern Contumelics, on the rhetorics of insult, ridicule and offence, Lamentations, on the stylistics of suffering and sorrow, and, developing the arguments of the later chapters of The Madness of Knowledge, Perignostics, on the rituals and routines of knowledge behaviour.