Supply Everyone With Every Nutrient

An introductory note to my ongoing “ritual pattern language” project – on ritual practice as cuisine, and the roles of inclusion and exclusion

Every human group has faced different obstructions related to diet. Groups faced geographic restrictions (rainforest, desert, or arctic tundra?), cultural limitations (what agricultural products and food processing methods are available?) and biological limitations (does your group have the right genes to digest lactose?). These restrictions fed off of and influenced each other; as milk-producing animal technology became available, in certain geographic regions, some people developed the ability to take nutrition from the new source. But each human group, as proven by its long-term existence, has found a way to supply all the necessary nutrients to its members. While we have a pretty good idea of the nutrients necessary to prevent most forms of malnutrition – macronutrients, vitamins, minerals – the role of, for instance, microorganisms is just beginning to be widely understood, and obesity is a common form of malnutrition that our culture does not seem to be able to reliably prevent or cure.

Similarly, there are social and behavioral “nutrients” – that are very poorly understood – the lack of which causes suffering akin to malnutrition. Everyone in solitary confinement endures severe suffering from the social equivalent of starvation; but there are likely a host of complex social behaviors and interactions that produce the “social nutrients” necessary for flourishing and well-being, the social and psychological equivalents of bright eyes and shiny fur. As with food nutrients, people likely vary in their needs, and they certainly vary in their ability to extract “nutrition” from different sources. People who are lactose intolerant cannot get calcium from milk, but they still need calcium.

The ritual patterns presented here represent ingredients or techniques for a possible “cuisine of social behavior.” It is very important that not everyone will be able to practically participate in each ritual pattern enough to extract the “nutrient” that it represents. A person with hearing loss will have a harder time participating in singing; a person without much mobility will have a harder time participating in synchronized movement rituals. A person with severe face blindness will not be able to participate in greeting everyone by name, and would likely feel distressed if expected to do so.

That they might exclude someone, somewhere, does not mean that these rituals should never be performed by any groups, on general principles. Every ritual necessarily excludes many people, and that is part of the point of ritual, to draw a boundary around a group. But the whole point of a group is to satisfyingly provide “social nutrients” to all of its actual members. Just as geographic, cultural, and genetic obstructions formed the context in which nutritional traditions had to fit, the brains and bodies of group members define a large part of the given landscape that a group’s ritual practice must fit.

Imagine a cuisine that anyone on earth can eat: lactose-free, gluten-free, free of nuts and all allergens, vegan, kosher, not spicy, etc. Those few foods that would be left (if there are any at all) would not satisfy any particular person’s aesthetic and nutritional needs well. But imagine a group with various dietary restrictions cooking lunch together every day. Some members probably have some dietary restrictions, but probably not all the possible dietary restrictions are represented; many foods can be eaten together. And there is no requirement that each food be eaten by every person. Evolving rituals that fit a particular group is a similar creative process of experiment, communication, and play.

If the obvious forms of the presented patterns are not practical for supplying a particular member (or even several members) with a necessary nutrient, the group may need to supply that member or those members with the nutrient in a different way, or may need to supply all members of the group with that nutrient in a different way. Being excluded from a ritual that one’s group all participates in can be distressing and painful, depending on the circumstances. This is especially difficult, because the “nutrients” supplied by a particular ritual are not always legible to us. But this is the essential task for creating beautiful rituals that fit the members of the group. It is similar to designing beautiful, functional clothing or buildings: always adapted to the specific, local situation of body, group, weather, and land.


2 thoughts on “Supply Everyone With Every Nutrient

  1. One of my pet theories is that many formal belief systems that come with dietary restrictions evolved partly as cultural retention mechanisms.

    The theory assumed that people who have been infected with the belief system by their parents, and whose extended family are also infected with basically the same memes can be kept from “breaking bread” with people who are not also infected with the same memes, and thereby avoid acquiring memes that might out-compete their native culture. Presuming vertical transmission of culture, and thus a basic healthiness of said culture, dietary restrictions that work like this would be a sign of a robustly functional and distinct subculture that is competing with rival neighboring memeplexes. If the theory is right, such practices should be a sign of a cultural niche.

    Some monastic diets are probably like this, but with some measure of design, and perhaps distinctive goals.

    Modern evangelical vegetarianism appears to be a special case within this scheme.

    As someone who is interested in breaking into the deep and old meme-pools (to steal their secrets and gather data from which to derive the underlying principles of culture formation) my personal dietary “restriction” is a reversal of this dynamic. If I’m with someone who has a weird dietary preference or restrictions, I make efforts to play along with them, so we can break bread, and I can learn more things from weirder people!

    Also, I miss frisbee and fish tacos and conversation in San Diego. If you are ever in Silicon Valley, please look me up and perhaps we can break bread 😉

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