While very much enjoying the seminar on Martin Holbraad's paper "Can the thing speak?" I have been wishing that we had a bit more ethnographic data to discuss. This link will take you to a set of photographs taken in 1970, during my first fieldwork in Taiwan. In them you will see critical moments in the ritual by which my Daoist master, Tio Se-lian, consecrated the statue of Lao-tzu, which I had purchased for the Puli Hai-kok-tong, Master Tio's storefront temple, partly as payback for letting me hang around and partly because I was eager to get photographs of this particular rite.
As an experiment, you might want to pause a bit and see what the things in the photograph say to you before you read my explanation....
You may have noticed the importance of sunlight, fire, and blood from the comb of a white cock in this ritual. All are, in Chinese terms, filled with Yang, the bright, active, masculine energy associated with gods and deployed to control or exorcise Yin, the dark, passive, feminine energy associated with ghosts. The most straightforward reading of the ritual process as a whole is that, during this consecration, the statue of Lao-tzu is being charged with Yang energy to make it a proper embodiment of the god invited to occupy it. Also, care is being taken to expel any ghosts who might try to slip in instead.
The detail to which I wish to call attention, however, is not in the photographs. It is in the notes I took when discussing the ritual with Master Tio. I asked him what he would do if no white cock were available. You could, he said, use cinnabar dissolved in rice wine to make a red ink instead.
There is a lot going on in this simple-seeming substitution. Cinnabar is mercury sulfide, a mineral long famous for its unusual scarlet red color and mined in the West at least since Roman times as a source of mercury. In China, red is the color associated with Yang. The alcohol in the rice wine also has Yang properties. Adding Yang to Yang in this way makes the red ink a fair substitute for the red blood from the missing white cock.
But that, of course, raises the question, why, if the red ink is an adequate substitute, bother with the white cock in the first place? This is, of course, only one instance of a question that can be raised about all ritual that involves more than what is strictly necessary to achieve the purpose in question. (Why, for instance, to note a more familiar example, do families bother with lavish weddings, when a quiet visit to the registry office or justice of the peace will produce an equally legally binding marriage?)
The answer, I suggest, has to do with considerations similar to those that preoccupy advertising creatives when we move from proposing to executing ideas — when material details, the things on the set, may make all the difference in the world between humdrum and compelling. Perhaps if we took more seriously the connection between ritual and theater....