An Excursion into the Rituals of Commerce

By Jonathan Cook, House resident and ethnographer

The Chapelaria Azevedo Rua

“Like me, they have an exalted and sad heart. I know them all. Some are shop assistants, others are office workers, and still others are small businessmen. Then there are the conquerors from the bars and cafes, unwittingly sublime in the ecstasy of their self-centered chatter, or content to remain self-centredly silent, with no need to defend what they’re too stingy to say. But they’re all poets, poor devils, who drag past my eyes, as I drag past theirs, the same sorry sight of our common incongruity. They all have, like me, their future in the past.”

These words were written by Fernando Pessoa, the participant observer of Lisbon. Pessoa, in his Book of Disquiet, gave voice to the great disenchantment of modern life, chronicling a despair at the loss of myth and ritual from the desk he held as an ordinary office clerk.

Conventional wisdom has it that ritual died after the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, replaced by the rationalism of science and the free market, the tyranny of Taylorism.

Are we all doomed to Pessoa’s alienation? In ages past, ritual served as a cultural technology designed to manage complexity. Is it possible for a commercial culture as complex as ours to function without ritual?

Rituals mark special occasions, and enable people to achieve remarkable transformations of identity. They are also the cultural setting for the most beautiful creative accomplishments in all of human history, from the cave paintings of the paleolithic to the cathedrals of medieval times.

Lisbon Cathedral, from Alejandro

Perhaps, rather than disappearing, rituals are all around us, woven into the daily experience of our commercial lives, yet so familiar that we fail to recognize them even as we practice them.

On a Friday afternoon in early November, a gathering of thinkers and seekers will exit the studio at Rua Garrett 51 and venture out onto the streets of Lisbon, where old and new worlds meet. The purpose of their expedition: To uncover the rituals of commerce.

Using tools of observational research provided by the Field Manual of Ritual, they will conduct a comparative ethnographic study, beginning with a traditional ritual setting before visiting the most beautiful businesses in Lisbon.

The Embaixada

Exploring the historic Baixa and Sacramento districts of the city, it’s impossible to say exactly what this band of ethnographers will find. While Big Data focuses on the prediction of human behavior, ethnography begins with the acceptance of uncertainty. It’s an open-ended, thoroughly Romantic means of inquiry in which the researcher uncovers cultural secrets and morsels of meaning through participation rather than through the posture of objective removal.

As they begin their study, participants will be searching for clues of ritualized separation and disorientation. It’s likely that they’ll experience transgressions of ordinary cultural expectations and undergo tests of their mettle and determination. All the while, they’ll struggle to interpret the symbolic displays they come across along the way.

I’ll be leading the excursion, using my experience as an ethnographer specializing in the immersive study of the ritual elements of commercial activities. The experience is just one part of the House of Beautiful Business, an event that seeks to reinvigorate the human experience within the world of commerce.

Hosted in collaboration with the BCG Henderson Institute, the House of Beautiful Business will serve as salon, stage, and sandbox for start-up founders, executives, nonprofit leaders, investors, writers, philosophers, scientists, designers, technologists and artists, who are keen on rehumanizing business and exploring meaningful conversations around humanity and technology. You can find more information and buy tickets at: houseofbeautiful.biz

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