IRN RITMO² (2020-2024) eng

The IRN RITMO2 “From repetition to innovation in Mesoamerica Interdisciplinary approaches to transmission and change in past and present societies”

This International Research Network is a follow-up of the GDRI RITMO Ritual actions and time: Creation, destruction, transformation in Mesoamerica, 2015-2018, which generated intense collaboration between 10 international research partners from France, Germany, Italy, Mexico and the United-States. This research dynamic led us to conceive a new collaborative project, which widens the previous topics, deepens the analytical levels, reinforces the interdisciplinary and comparatives frameworks and further strengthens the international partnerships.

The first RITMO project has shown that the association of temporalities of different orders is constitutive of Mesoamerican rituals. Network participants have sought to identify specific modalities of temporal composition in Mesoamerica, concluding that a multitemporal ritual composition can be generalized to other cultural contexts and even integrated into a definition of ritual. Indeed, far from being timeless or simply re-actuations of the past, as sometimes proposed, rituals make co-present diverse temporalities, which they articulate, juxtaposing, synchronizing, condensing or dissociating them according to varied processes. This temporal dynamic impinges on the internal evolution of ritual performance as well as on the transformations intended by their execution. Thus, rituals are characterized by anchorings in multiple temporalities. Such anchorings are deployed in external temporal frames in different scales (for example, calendrical or myth-historical time) as well as on indexical space-times constrained by the precise socio-historical context of ritual fulfillment (the political time of a confrontation, of an alliance between agents, of a therapeutic cure). They cause interactions among entities of different ontological status (deities associated with calendrical units, ancestors or the dead, spiritual guardians of particular spaces, cosmological beings or accumulated cosmologies…). These entities exist with their own duration and specific rhythm, which entail different periodicities in ritual execution.

Within this framework, the Mesoamerican modalities to control and elaborate tensions have been objects of exploration. These tensions, between a fixed, expected and projected structure, on the one hand, and an emerging, polyphonic, contextualized and creative interaction structure, are constitutive of ritual. This research has confirmed the central character of recurrence in ritual schemes from the point of view of ritual efficacy as well as from that of transmission modalities. It has also confirmed the central character of attachment to repetitive performances, justified by a will to rely on tradition. By the same token, the following topics were studied: the different forms of rhythmicity between and within ritual occurrences, the meaning of gesture and offering reiterations, types of ritual series, the modalities and values of reenactment, etc. Furthermore, the repetition of recurring structures constitutive of ritual – when it effects transformations- stimulates the elucidation of the devices linking different stages. The latter are perceived and analyzed as the product of an alternation, of a differentiation, and a transformation due not only to external causes but also to a linking of internal, ordered modifications.

For the second network research phase planned for this project we wish first of all to extend and broaden our conversation on Mesoamerican ritual temporalities, attempting a longer engagement with interdisciplinarity at the theoretical level. We will address cognition research (such as cognitive psychology and quasi-topology), which are a source of useful questions for the disciplines already involved: archaeology, anthropology, ethnolinguistics, ethnohistory, iconography, epigraphy. Thus, we propose to focus on operational concepts which at the levels of cognition and practice will allow each of our disciplines to reflect and analyze their specific elements while interrogating in new ways tropes and fundamental processes of Mesoamerican ways of acting and thinking. Second, because making sense of the recent past entails a comparison with the distant past, we aim to contribute to a broader understanding of the addressed topics beyond Mesoamerica. In this sense, the second phase of the project will entail comparisons between different cultural areas, and at different scales.

Finally, whereas thinking about ritual temporalities has enabled us to disentangle the multiplicity of frames and agencies involved, the operations of reiteration and the role of inventiveness in the observed processes lead us to extend our analysis to the micro rituals of everyday life, if one wants to understand the resistance and fragility of repetitive forms. To do this, one must examine the textures of action chains, their rhythms and discursive routines, technical activities (body techniques, tool technologies, mental technologies – accountability, measurement…) in order to construct an image of repetition at the moment in which innovations are produced. Previous work on ritual temporalities offers descriptive instruments and subtle analytic concepts to focus on the diversity of temporalities constructing transitions at different scales.

Highlights of the above include objects of different nature deserving an analysis grounded on repetition – giving it the status of process to be investigated, which we wish to do in different contexts and in different situations. It will thus concern, on the one hand, an extension into every day ritual, going as far as what we understand as habit, an expertise that has produced original conclusions about superimposed temporalities; on the other hand, we will inquire about repetition modalities, so valued and researched in Mesoamerica, and about the elements which it uses to generate changes (under cover of reiteration). We analyzed in previous works the notions of variant and variety, describing transformations and their contexts as well as constraints and limits of variability. The study of temporalities has yielded important progress about their role in the constitution and performance of ritual. Our goal is to concentrate on the factors, which starting from repeated models induce for the researcher but also for actors and speakers, the new face of action, of ritual, discourse, fashion, style, etc. One will be less tied to the results of change than to its step-by-step progression, and therefore to the role of repetition processes in the generation of novelty and its integration to practice, cognition and temporality schemes.

This general topic will be addressed through four main lines of inquiry:

  1. Patterns of repetition
  2. Repetition and transmission: imitation, adoption, variation.
  3. Repetition and projection: expectation, anticipation, prevision
  4. Repetition and emergence: transition, rupture, innovation.


These four lines will structure our research calendar the first four years, the last one providing the main guideline. Intra-Mesoamerican comparison will be constant throughout the project. The comparison with other cultural areas will be a recurrent concern, and the main topic of our last year’s research agenda and final conference. Our multidisciplinary network aims at strengthening interdisciplinary approaches which should lead to innovative research proposals.

1/ Schemes of repetition in Mesoamerica

Our aim will be to identify conscious or unconscious canonical models of repetition from the materials and practices under study, namely:

– what is perceived and conceived as repetition by the Mesoamerican actors (daily routines, rhetorical processes, technical and ritual schemes applied to varying extents, or natural processes), and their various components (identical reiteration, stacking, parallelism, inventory, symmetry, duplication, response, ritual cyclicity, etc.);

– what is interpreted and constructed as repeated events (for instance, successive misfortunes leading to illnesses that seem to “repeat” themselves, epidemics or other catastrophes, recurring encounters with spirits, historical events);

– what is explicitly open to variation and what varies under the appearance of repetition. Occurrences of repetition are almost never identically performed or expressed, and it is precisely those variations in repetition that induce change when a number of internal and external contexts are brought together. This is particularly important in the case of the Mesoamerican semiotic forms, which show a constant search for variation in repetition.

2 / Repetition and transmission: imitation, adoption, variation

Repetition is a major tool for learning and transmission, ranging from routine activities to conscious copies or reiterations of chains of actions, gestures and words. We will consider the role of repetition in the transmission process, by focusing on the forms of mimicry, as much as on more intentional and reflexive techniques or imitation games. On a larger scale, this reflection will lead us to consider the mechanisms for the adoption of techniques, models, habits and so on, over one or several generations. Lastly, we will question the cultural imprint of diffusion phenomena by imitation, as facilitated by various technological advances at different periods in time (molds, printing, photos, videos, Internet, etc.). In all these cases, we will work on the modalities of change, whether desired or otherwise, brought about by the introduction of variations in repetition.

3 / Repetition and projection: expectation, anticipation, prediction

The projection of a stable content resulting from repetition is essential for apprehending the future. It lays the foundation for expectations regarding events, and governs anticipation behaviors by setting the praxis and epistemic framework for its comprehension. We need to understand how these expectations are constructed according to the forms of repetition used, from the daily routines and the structures of certain narratives or other forms of oral tradition, to recurring events, based on historical cyclicity models. Here, from both an ethnographic and an historical point of view, the questions of identity values, similarity or comparability, are crucial. They must be contrasted with their respective creation strategies, sometimes by means of a certain staging of repetition for the purpose of facing uncertainty or, conversely, through a diversion of repetition – possibly until its reversal – as forms of action or manipulation of the past as much as of the future.

4 / Repetition and emergence: transition, rupture, innovation

The final aspect takes up the previous questions but focuses on the process of the emergence of change and innovation from the structures and modalities of repetition. Repetition ensures intergenerational transmission and the forming of traditions and habits while at the same time triggering change. How does this occur? What types of variations can be introduced and what is the point at which transition begins to veer towards difference? How is innovation (such as a new technology, the replacement of an artifact, the appearance of a ritual or neo-ritual style) integrated into a continuity of models perceived as being traditional? How is change constructed and perceived in societies that value repetition variations?

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