Ritualization of transgressions and normativities in the European Mediterranean public space

A review by Jules Bigot, Marysia Ciupka, and Luis Ollivier—Boisdron, interns at CEFRES

This workshop, coorganized by CEFRES in partnership with the Faculty of Social Sciences (FSV UK, Prague) and as convenors, by Michèle Baussant (CNRS, CEFRES), Yoann Morvan (CNRS, MESPOLHIS) and Alessandro Testa (FSV UK, associated at CEFRES and holder of the ERC project „Re-enchanting Central-Eastern Europe”), took place at CEFRES, Prague, and on line on February 28th, 2022.

Ritualization of Transgressions. The Anthropological Approach

The first part of the workshop was devoted to the specificity of the anthropological perspective on the topic.

Introduced by Michèle Baussant, the chair of the panel, the discussion was opened by Dionigi Albera (CNRS, IDEMEC) who stated that, for him, the specific and constitutive elements of anthropology, namely fieldwork and ethnographic approach, could provide helpful tools in the understanding of ritualization processes. Contrary to the approaches from other disciplines, the ethnographic one allows for a better understanding of the social background of most ritualization processes. Fieldwork allows for a deeper understanding of the rooted realities, which scientific literature or theories might overlook because these realities do not necessarily fit the general frame that they are presumed on. An element which Albera pointed out, further developed by Viola Teisenhoffer (Charles University / Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest), was the comparative nature of anthropology. According to Teisenhoffer, the dimension of the analysis of ritualization crucial for its understanding, is the time frame dimension, which includes the transformations and evolutions of the process in question. A time frame, which is easier to study within a comparative approach, will allow such a dynamic analysis, and may lead to a redefinition of the ritual. Concerning the continuity of this space and time frame mentioned by Viola Teisenhoffer, Yoann Morvan underlined that the anthropological approach also allows for the use of multiple frames. Morvan supplemented the discussion with insights from his urban anthropology research on the French Communist party, in which he also applied the frameworks of anthropology of religion and political anthropology. Teisenhoffer’s and Morvan’s points further demonstrated that the anthropological approach can allow both a multi-level approach, as well as a comparative approach, not only in time and space but also within the different frames of anthropology, a concept later referred to by Alessandro Testa as anthropological stratification.

The next question proposed by the moderator of the panel Michèle Baussant, was related to the constructing and deconstructing role of ritualization processes in the public sphere at both local and global levels.

Dionigi Albera referred to his research on religious spaces which were attended by believers of different religions, and evoked Elijah Anderson’s concept of “cosmopolitan canopy”, referring to spatial enclaves within which social conflicts become neutralized. In the discussion, it was further underlined that it was important to set a distinction between public space and public realm, the latter not depending on the types of relations that operate within it. Alessandro Testa also put forward the idea about the neutralization of conflict during ritualized events, such as carnivals in Spain, although he underlined that this phenomenon could also create new lines of divisions. The idea of the ambiguity of the public space as a space of confrontation of different actors was later discussed by Viola Teisenhoffer, who used the example of Budapest to illustrate her point. Furthermore, the concept of ambiguity in the context of public space was also discussed, and was defined by Dionigi Albera as the action of pushing in two opposite ways, with the potential to redefine the movement of previously established norms in a given public space.

Using the example of Belarus, Ronan Hervouet (CEFRES / University of Bordeaux) developed the idea that social media could participate in the ritualization of certain practices, for example in the countries where the population protests against its government. This was an argument supported by Yoann Morovan, stating that the compression of temporality created by the social media makes it easier for its content to go viral. Another important element put forward by Viola Teisenhoffer was the fact that this compression of temporality could also contribute to the ritualization of an event which in real life would not attract a lot of people, so which was kind of built up by social media.

Jérôme Heurtaux insisted on the fact that despite the growing importance of social media, no revolution could take place online, for blood cannot flow from a screen. Heurtaux then posed the question about the notion of consent in the ritualization process, the way this consent is built, and on which basis. Dionigi Albera emphasized that within the ritualization processes, people’s participation always remains ambiguous, nevertheless these ambiguities never hinder the very process. This brought the discussion over the discursive practices of assessing these movements, then of crediting something or someone, which both impact the scientific work on the processes of ritualization.

Ritualization of transgressions in Central Europe

Martin Pehal, an anthropologist and religion scholar from Charles University, opened the second part of the workshop, presenting about ritualization and transgression in the context of modern secularized Czech public space. Pehal initiated his talk by sharing insight from his experience as a co-organizer of the Velvet Carnival – a procession of civic groups and NGOs commemorating the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia on 17 November 1989, the so called Velvet Revolution. The initiative was formed in response to the lack of a symbolic, cohesive form of celebration of the events in 1989 in contemporary Czechia – Pehal emphasized the dissonance between the Velvet Revolution’s symbolic function for the Czech society and the relatively low level of its commemoration, with the exception of isolated events, such as demonstrations, or concerts. Pehal also considered how the form of carnival celebrations and its inherent reflexivity seem adequate for both the disruptive nature of the Velvet Celebration and its commemoration.

At first, Martin Pehal raised the question of the particularity of public space in post-communist countries, and the necessity to consider what public space really means in post-communist contexts, and whether it is possible to disrupt it. According to Pehal, after the fall of the communist regime, the Czech society has not yet managed to discuss what public space should be about, and the debate around that topic remained lively. Furthermore, Pehal pointed to the paradoxical nature of the reflexivity of carnival, and of any other subversive practice. Once fossilized, the dynamics that intended to be disorderly or disruptive cease to be so, and lose their reflexivity. In modern secularized societies, Pehal concluded, it is difficult to maintain the ritualized forms of transgression, since that transgression quickly becomes mainstream and commodified.

Finally, Martin Pehal used the example of Fasnacht Carnival in Basel, Switzerland, to show how the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to a reinvention and reconfiguration of the dynamic of the ritual. Banned from gathering in bigger groups, the carnival organizers came up with an alternative way how to honor the ritual: They distributed carnival masks among people staying indoors. This, reported Pehal, contributed to an inverted situation, and paradoxically allowed for the carnival’s logic to exert its subversive and rupturing nature.

Viola Teisenhoffer (Charles University / Eötvös Loránd University) devoted her paper to the pagan revival in Hungary, and its ambiguous position, as a transgressive or a normative practice, in the context of the contemporary Hungarian public sphere. Since the 1990s, the pagan movement in Hungary has evolved through events, historiographies, historical reenactments, celebrations, managed and led by autodidacts, non-mainstream historiographers, as well as the followers of the local forms of Neo-shamanism.

Teisenhoffer provided context and drew parallels between the contemporary Neopaganic ideology and the ideology of the right-wing politicians and activists, often based on romantic nationalism and theories about the origin of the Hungarian nation. She emphasized the potential connection between the Pagan revival and the rise of nationalism in the past decades, and offered a comparison between the presence of Pagan revival in the public space and the approaches to the pre-Christian past promoted by official politics and history.


The ethnographic data provided by Teisenhoffer indicated that the involvement of the Hungarian political right, and therefore the politics of memory promoted by the Hungarian government, in the Pagan revival was not self-evident, and rather ambiguous. This conclusion can be surprising in the light of common perception that nationalist ideology is shared by both the political right-wing and many Neopagan practitioners. Providing evidence for her conclusions, Teisenhoffer recalled examples from her fieldwork, such as some Neopagan’s practitioners’ critical remarks about the Hungarian government, or their complaints about Hungarian right-wing politicians being not “Hungarians” enough. Additionally, Teisenhoffer’s consideration of the Pagan revival in the light of politics of memory further reinforced the idea that Pagan revival remains a marginal phenomenon in the Hungarian public sphere, as it maintains an ambiguous position towards religious, scientific, and political institutions.

Then, Teisenhoffer asked how these new religious forms that draw on national myths so deeply ingrained in Hungarian culture, at the same time remain to be perceived as alternative by both their practitioners and scholars. It is, perhaps, that marginality of the movement that gives it power, and hinders from becoming more institutionalized.

The last presentation of this workshop’s part, entitled “Polish Catholicism and “re-enchantment”: exploring conflicting imageries of anti-abortion protests in Poland”, was delivered by Agata Ładykowska (Charles University / Polish Academy of Sciences), who attempted to approach the rituals and civic practices of the anti-abortion legislation protests in Poland from an ethnographic perspective.

In the investigation of the civic rituals in the anti-abortion protests, Ładykowska’s major category of analysis is change, predominantly in terms of the change of attitudes toward religion in the Polish society that has been taking place since 1990s. In her approach, she follows Jon Bialecki’s concept of religion as a virtual field of potentialities with effects on the formation of the actual. Within that framework, it is possible to study the issues related to religion through the perspective of non-religious phenomena and actors, and an ethnographic study of  anti-abortion protests in Poland, as practices emerging in repsonse to the hegemonic position of the Catholic Church in Poland, consitutes a promising case for such investigation.

Ładykowska supplemented her presentation with ample photographic and video documentation from the anti-abortion protests in Poland from the recent years, pointing to the fact that these protests are not merely an expression of society’s frustration with the abortion restrictions, but at the same time contest the hegemonic position of the Roman Catholic Church in society, culture, and politics. Thus, the analyzed practices, while approached through a critical adoption of the re-enchantment concept, can be at the same time interpreted as an expression of the process of disenchantment, as the relationship of Poles with Catholicism has been on the systematic decline.

In the discussion section of the workshop, the participants considered the case studies from Czechia, Hungary, and Poland in the light of social identity, reflexivity of the phenomena and their actors, transnational networks, and the relationship between the local, the national, and the global. Another interesting question proposed concerned the nature of the crisis that each of the discussed phenomena respond to. Ładykowska and Testa debated the application of Agnieszka Pasieka’s concept of hierarchical pluralism in the study of the contemporary role of the Catholic Church in Polish society, vis à vis Gramsci’s cultural hegemony.

Historical Anthropology of Popular Carnival in Europe

In the third part of the conference, Alessandro Testa (Charles University) presented his book Rituality and Social (Dis)Order: The Historical Anthropology of Popular Carnival in Europe (Routledge, 2020). The presentation was followed by a discussion with Martin Pehal and Dionigi Albera, as well as other participants of the conference. Alessandro Testa focuses on the European history of carnivals in the pre-modern era (“Ancient Regime”). His book is divided into four chapters: historiography (1); the diversity and the unity of carnival (2); the origins of the carnival (3); the political interpretations of the carnival (4). To describe carnival, Testa uses the Southern-Mediterranean anthropological tradition, including the theories on popular culture, folklore, and cultural hegemony. These theories, mostly studied by Italian and French scholars (e.g. Antonio Gramsci) are essential for a better understanding of European premodern societies, especially in terms of hierarchization and absence of social mobility. The author wonders how a such repressed, marginalized and transgressive social phenomenon emerged, developed, and survived over one millenary in a continent that has drastically changed.

For the political interpretations of carnival and carnival inversion, Alessandro Testa uses the structuralist and neo-structuralist meaning of “event”, and incorporates the scholarship of writers such as Victor Turner. Testa considers the different interpretations of carnival (subversive, conservative, contextualist) to elucidate the  perspectives on the function of carnival.

Martin Pehal emphasized the Southern-Mediterranean perspective of Testa’s research, especially as this tradition was neglected in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the advantages of the use of the work of conservative scholars. Dionigi Albera also acknowledged this approach, and highlighted the significance of the English-language scholarship on the topic, which helps deprovincialize the object of study. Albera also emphasized the links between the intellectual theory of carnival and the studies of Pygmies and found the importance of the influence of Muslims over carnivals (Muslims would be indirectly excluded from it because they don’t eat pork and don’t drink alcohol). Then, to consider the political interpretation of carnival, he wonders what its organizers do for the rest of the year and whether they engage in transgressive behaviors outside of the carnival. Albera finished his intervention by pointing out the similarities between carnival and Roman public events during Antiquity. As a reply, Alessandro Testa insisted on the importance of keeping the same symbolic elements of carnival through time – for example, the use of specific animals. He also mentioned the importance of gender and age divisions. Indeed, 95% of carnival activities are activated and inactivated by men until the late modern times, with a difference between the class of men and the subclass of young men. Masculinity is constructed through carnival which serves the function of social reproduction. These elements tend to be challenged these days, as women seek to participate in carnivals and as animal-rights activists condemn some carnival traditions.

Then, in the context of heritagization of the carnival, UNESCO finds itself in a difficult position between the claims for inclusivity and the respect for original tradition. Testa also admitted he would have liked to work more on the gender issue, or on the concepts of irony, sarcasm, laughter, and mocking – popular perspectives on the carnival, which are not present in this synthetic volume. The book yet offers a rich and unique historical comparative anthropology of European Carnival in the English language.

See the complete program and the thesis of the workshop here.