Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rite of Passage

Jimmy Page was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Surrey on Friday 20th June, for services to the music industry. The ceremony was held in Guildford Cathedral. It seems to have been a full Pomp & Circumstance affair.

Jimmy Page received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music on Saturday May 10th.

The members of the Led Zeppelin group I frequent seemed to prefer to eschew ritual altogether. Their comments were:

The first thing I thought of when I saw it was clowns. How can the prestigious unis of England have such outrageous costumes for their doctors? LOL!!!

I just saw this online - that outfit is HY-sterical!

he looks like a jester!

Awww thats too cute. I wonder if he felt ridiculous in that outfit?

Writer's Block Central asked the fundamental question:

What's up with dressing people who graduate (or get honorary degrees, etc.) in brightly colored robes? Why robes, for that matter?

Good question. Glad you asked! The robes mark a fundamental change in the individual's relationship to society.

Charles-Arnold Van Gennep wrote the canonical works on Rites of Passage, the near universal tendency of human societies to perform ceremonies when marking the major changes in the social status of an individual. The rites show that the person's change in status is recognized and validated by the society in general. Such major transformations include birth, adulthood, marriage and death, and there may be similar rituals marking initiation (academic, religious or into a secret society), attainment of a new degree in that establishment, and taking political office.

Rites of passage help preserve the stability of society by ensuring that individuals do not change status without the knowledge and guidance of society. Change is surrounded by ritual and incorporated into society at large, minimizing disruption and disequilibrium. Individual struggle for recognition is replaced by a general validation of the new status. A rite where many individuals are in a cohort being recognized also serves to produce strong bonds between the persons present at the ritual who may maintain social contacts afterwards, further strengthening society as a whole.

Van Gennep compared the rituals in different cultures and discovered that the rituals normally involve three stages.

1. Separation from society
2. A 'liminal' state where one belongs to neither the old order nor the new
3. Reincorporation into society with the new role or responsibility

I will leave out any anthropological asides and not discuss ceremonial rites such as circumcision, tonsure or scarification. The ceremony is often likened to a rebirth: the individual is "killed", undergoes a period of non-existence and then is reborn into the new role, with helpers present to reintroduce the individual into society in their new role.

The graduation ceremony is a modern rite of passage. Graduation from school or attainment of a baccalaureate may be considered the equivalent of attaining adulthood. The higher doctoral degree is more akin to entry into a magico-religious or secret society.

The rules for academic clothing are long and complex – for instance, the candidate will be required to wear the gown at the academic procession, i.e. on the way to receiving the degree, but the candidate may not wear the hood until the degree is conferred. The dress itself dates back to the 13th century, and is itself liberally surrounded by ritual and arcane knowledge. An academic in the 13th century would also have taken clerical vows, which adds another layer of complexity to the dress and may also explain why the ritual seems to be preparing the candidate for a much more fundamental removal from secular society than is normally associated with a modern doctorate. The tam, or academic hat, may have originally served to cover the candidate's new tonsure.

For the doctoral degree ceremony, the three Van Gennep stages are still observed today. The ritual dramatizes the change in status by removing the candidate from their usual abode to a building or room decorated for the purpose. This removal from society is often achieved by a formal procession to the ceremonial hall, along with the other candidates. Their regular clothes are covered with gowns, signifying their change in status from a secular role to academic society. In the procession and the subsequent ceremony, the candidates' membership of their new group is emphasized, superseding their previous identity as members of mundane society.

In the hall, they are in the liminal stage, neither members of society nor yet doctors. They listen to an address to the candidates by the master which outlines their new responsibilities and the fundamental changes in relationship with their peers that they will undergo. The degree is then conferred. In most doctoral ceremonies, the master hoods the student for the first time.

The new role confers not only the change in dress, but also a change in name. On re-entering society, they will henceforth use the title "doctor" instead of "mister".

Some observers believe that capitalist societies shun rituals of Rites of Passage. The American dream is predicated on the belief that each person is just a purchase away from attainment of fulfillment. Where one adheres to the old paradigm requiring society approves of and validates changes in status, the capacity for ultimate happiness is removed from the hands of the individual. Change in status in America today is advertised to be a function of purchasing power, and there is a mythology heavily promulgated by those with a financial stake in growth and change that there are no barriers which cannot be overcome by a sufficiently motivated individual.

With this significant difference from the societies originally studied by Van Gennep, there has been a change in the mix of rituals which are valued by the population. The rituals of adulthood and marriage – representing major changes in financial status – are still almost universally celebrated. They are open to anyone, and shore up the belief that changes in status are within the grasp of all. The rituals of attainment of degrees or initiation into limited societies are celebrated mostly by the ruling classes and/or by the intellectually elite. Individuals not selected for the new status regard the clothes and ritual as outlandish, which is entirely true. The candidate has left the common society and become a member of another, elite, society.

Further reading:
University of Surrey Press Release
Wikipedia: Rite of Passage
Wikipedia: Academic Dress
Guildford Cathedral
Graduation at Oxford regarded as a rite of passage.
List of some transitions in life that are marked with ceremonies.
Academic Costume Guide (American)
Lecture notes on anthropological rites of passage


Mike said...

I never attended my graduation ceremony. I guess that explains a lot.

Peromyscus said...

Don't tell anybody, but neither did I.

Malia said...

Shame on both of you! With only the mildest of threats from my poor dear mother I gladly attended my college graduation. I attended a friends doctoral hooding ceremony a few years ago, it was a beautiful culmination of the years of hard work she put in to become a MD. Jimmy's degree is more sentimental, and despite the unfortunate plant on the head photo, a lovely honor.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin
I sometimes mention a product on this blog, and I give a URL to Amazon or similar sites. Just to reassure you, I don't get paid to advertise anything here and I don't get any money from your clicks. Everything I say here is because I feel like saying it.