Liminal experiences in large-scale societies::Liminality


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Liminal experiences in large-scale societies The concept of a liminal situation can also be applied to entire societies that are going through a crisis or a “collapse of order”.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 19</ref> Philosopher Karl Jaspers made a significant contribution to this idea through his concept of the “axial age,” which was “an in-between period between two structured world-views and between two rounds of empire building; it was an age of creativity where ‘man asked radical questions’, and where the ‘unquestioned grasp on life is loosened’”.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 19-20</ref> It was essentially a time of uncertainty which, most importantly, involved entire civilizations. Seeing as liminal periods are both destructive and constructive, the ideas and practices that emerge from these liminal historical periods are of extreme importance, as they will “tend to take on the quality of structure”.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 20</ref> Events such as political or social revolutions (along with other periods of crisis) can thus be considered liminal, as they result in the complete collapse of order and can lead to significant social change.<ref>Thomassen 2006, p. 323</ref>

Liminality in large-scale societies differs significantly from liminality found in ritual passages in small-scale societies. One primary characteristic of liminality (as defined van Gennep and Turner) is that there is a way in as well as a way out.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 21</ref> In ritual passages, “members of the society are themselves aware of the liminal state: they know that they will leave it sooner or later, and have ‘ceremony masters’ to guide them through the rituals”.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 21</ref> However, in those liminal periods that affect society as a whole, the future (what comes after the liminal period) is completely unknown, and there is no "ceremony master" who has gone through the process before and that can lead people out of it.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 22</ref>

In such cases, liminal situations can become dangerous. They allow for the emergence of “self-proclaimed ceremony masters”, that assume leadership positions and attempt to “[perpetuate] liminality and by emptying the liminal moment of real creativity, [turn] it into a scene of mimetic rivalry”.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 22</ref>

Permanent or Fixed liminality

Turner suggested that “a liminal state may become ‘fixed’, referring to a situation in which the suspended character of social life takes on a more permanent character.”<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 15</ref> This idea of permanent liminality has been elaborated on extensively in numerous works by sociologist Arpad Szakolczai.

Within the context of ritual passages, a key feature of liminality is the final stage of reintegration, in which the initiand is recognized as a part of the social order and is welcomed into that order with a new role, “stamped by the formative experience”.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 22</ref> When this reintegration process does not take place, liminality becomes permanent, and can also become very dangerous. In his book Reflexive Historical Sociology, Arpad Szakolczai argues that there are three types of permanent liminality, each closely related to one of the phases of the rites of passage.<ref>Arpad Szakolczai, Reflexive Historical Sociology(London: Routledge, 2000) p. 220</ref> He acknowledges that “liminality becomes a permanent condition when any of the phases in this sequence becomes frozen, as if a film stopped at a particular frame”.<ref>Szakolczai 2000, p. 220</ref> Szakolczai provides three examples of each type of permanent liminality: “monasticism (with monks endlessly preparing the separation, [representing the first stage]), court society (with individuals continuously performing their roles in an endless ceremonial game, [representing the second stage]), and Bolshevism (as exemplifying a society stuck in the final stage of a ritual passage)”.<ref>Thomassen 2009, p. 23</ref>

Imitation, leadership, and the role of the trickster

Mimesis, or the imitative aspect of human behavior, is an important aspect of liminality.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 154</ref> Individuals who are trapped in a liminal situation are not able to act rationally for two reasons: “first, because the structure on which ‘objective’ rationality was—based has disappeared; and second, because the stressful, emotive character of a liminal crisis prevents clear thinking”.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 154</ref> This can lead to “mimetic” behavior on the part of the trapped individuals: “a central characteristic of liminal situations is that, by eliminating the stable boundary lines, they contribute to the proliferation of imitative processes and thus to the continuous reproduction of dominant messages about what to copy”.<ref>Horvath 2009, p. 55</ref> Without stable institutions (which are effectively broken down in a liminal period), “people will look at concrete individuals for guidance”.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 156</ref>

This notion of imitation is closely tied to that of the trickster figure. The trickster is a universal figure that can be found in folktales and myths of nearly all cultures. These tricksters can be characterized as follows:

[they] are always marginal characters: outsiders, as they cannot trust or be trusted, cannot give or share, they are incapable of living in a community; they are repulsive, as – being insatiable – they are characterized by excessive eating, drinking, and sexual behavior, having no sense of shame; they are not taken seriously, given their affinity with jokes, storytelling, and fantasizing.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 155</ref>

In the context of liminality, the trickster is a very dangerous figure: “in a liminal situation where certainties are lost, imitative behavior escalates, and tricksters can be mistaken for charismatic leaders”.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 155</ref> This means that in their search for guidance, the individuals caught in the liminal situation might choose to follow a trickster, whom they confuse with a charismatic leader capable of “saving” them. Liminal periods that affect entire societies are characterized by the absence of a “master of ceremonies” (the leadership figures that are supposed to lead the initiands out of the liminal phase), which can in turn lead to the rise of tricksters into positions of power. When a trickster enters into a position of leadership, “liminality will not be restricted to a temporary crisis, followed by a return to normality, but can be perpetuated endlessly”.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 155</ref> This can be explained by three important characteristics of the trickster: his lack of a home (the trickster is, by definition, homeless and an outsider), lack of deeply felt human relations, and lack of existential commitments.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 13</ref> These traits cause the trickster to have no interest in solving the liminal crisis; “on the contrary, being really at home in liminality, or in homelessness, his real interest lies in its opposite, in perpetuating such conditions of confusion”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 13</ref> On the other hand, the trickster is also a mime. “Imitation, whether in learning or in social activity, is only possible in so far as we are not aware that we are actually imitating…because as soon as we do so, imitation becomes a mere miming and would produce no effect in learning or no pleasure in involvement”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 14</ref> Seeing as the trickster is incapable of “experiencing learning or the pleasure of sociability” as others do, he can be considered a mime rather than an imitator.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 14</ref> He thus appears to act just as everyone else does. With this in mind, there are “two characteristics [of the trickster] that under certain conditions could turn to be profitable, even [leading him to gain] unlimited and total power”: “his permanent state of exteriority helps him to think rationally and makes him a good mime: he cannot learn by genuine imitation but learns how to mime others and this produces laughter; thus he receives appreciation that otherwise he would never obtain”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 15</ref>

The term schismogenesis, developed by British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, can be used to describe situations of permanent liminality. Through this concept, Bateson suggested “that societies can be stuck for a long time in a state where the previous unity was broken, and yet the schismatic components are forced to stay together, producing an unpleasant, violent, harrowing, truly miserable existence”.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 155</ref> Bateson further suggested that “entire cultures might systematically produce schizoid personalities” and, by combining such an idea with the work of Turner and anthropologist René Girard, one could say that the trickster is capable of founding such a culture. Girard’s concept of mimetic desire (and, more importantly, the phenomenon he called the “mimetic crisis”) can be linked to the trickster and to absence of masters of ceremonies in large-scale instances of liminality:

When a mimetic crisis is artificially staged in the ritual process, it always happens in the presence of a “master of ceremonies” who maintains order once the stabilities of everyday life are dissolved in the rites of separation. When the schism takes place in real life, however, it is not certain that charismatic heroes emerge that are up to solving the situation through eidetic perception, in the Platonic sense.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 13</ref>

In any normal situation, the trickster would not be able to gain any appreciation from others, but in a crisis situation (which, as an outsider, the trickster has no emotional connections to), “might come up with a rational way of ‘solving’ the crisis by turning things into his own image”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 15</ref> It is precisely in these situations that “schismatic doubling and copying are escalated, and the erratic, even repulsive, becomes normal”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 15</ref> Once others become aware of the true nature of the trickster’s behavior, it “becomes a genuine problem as a trickster character cannot be altered, so there is genuinely no solution”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 14</ref> It is also not possible for the trickster figure to be punished, as “punishment is only meaningful if there is a chance of correction and improvement, which is hopeless in the case of a trickster character”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 14</ref>

Some examples of trickster figures of 20th century politics include Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 157</ref> Szakolczai describes what can happen when such tricksters emerge in positions of power:

When trickster figures are mistaken for saviors, then emotions will be continually and repeatedly incited, until the community is reduced to a schismatic state. Societies can maintain themselves in such situations of oppression and violence for a long time, without returning to normal order, if stable external referent points are absent. This is why schismogenic societies need to maintain themselves in a perpetual state of war; presumably surrounded by enemies who try to conquer and destroy them.<ref>Szakolczai 2009, p. 157</ref>

Thus the culture that is established by such tricksters following their rise to power “can have its structure and persistence, as the negative sentiments of hatred, hostility, fear and envy, based on vital instincts of self-preservation, can indeed maintain in the long term a social order in a relative state of stability”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 15</ref> But in addition, this same society would “preserve, forever, its broken, fragmented, schismatic character”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 15</ref>


In Reflexive Historical Sociology, Szakolczai elaborates on the classification of “Soviet-type Bolshevism” as an example of the third kind of permanent liminality:

The communist regimes in Europe and Asia were all established under one very special kind of condition: the end of a world war. If all wars are liminal situations in which the cycle of mimetic violence escalates beyond measure, then the closing stages of a world war, and especially the process of reconstruction that starts after such massive warfare, can be conceived of as a rite of reaggregation. The singular specificity of communist regimes, however, was to play continuously on the sentiments of suffering, revenge and hatred, prevent the settling down of the negative emotions, stir up the worst in human feelings by submitting a population…first to an endless civil war and then to a period of forced and unintelligible terror. Communism was a regime in which the Second World War never ended.<ref>Szakolczai 2000, p. 223</ref>

The liminal period that began at the end of World War II allowed the communists to take power “and unfold a characteristic self-sustaining mechanism, turning the entire mechanism of crisis solution into reverse gear: tricking and fixing an entire country into the position of the outcast for generations to come, first in the original Russian case, itself a miming copy of the French Revolution, and then in its East European satellites”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 17</ref> It was the conditions of “disorganization, depravity, and suffering” present following the war that allowed the communists to rise to power, as “the normal mechanisms of social and political order [had] become so weak that even the minuscule forces that a Communist party [managed] to mobilize [was] enough to grasp power”.<ref>Horvath 2009, p. 52</ref> In the wake of the war, “populations had already suffered immensely due to economic or political crises, but then, beyond that, with the establishment of communist power, the entire past, the history, identity, and memory of these countries were demolished, until a new and total imprint was stamped upon them through cunning thinking and trickery, forming a new type of ‘objective’ existence”.<ref>Horvath 2009, p. 69</ref>

The communists pursued a “revaluation of values” in order to reinforce their own system. The trickster used the technique of “flirting” to achieve this, meaning the “systematic teasing of the population with an imminent state of bliss”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 18</ref> By using this technique, the communists “were able to perform the feat of maintaining adherence to their policies by a significant minority of the faithful while keeping hidden what was actually going on as well as the resulting fear and disappointment”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 18</ref> Horvath and Thomassen cite Hungarian communist party and state leader Mátyás Rákosi’s political speeches to the public as an example of the importance of the trickster’s political communication. Such speeches “communicated a shared liminal condition, as messages sent out to evoke the sympathy of other defenseless human beings in the same position of the outcast”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 16</ref> In these speeches, Rákosi also provided a justification for the need of communist rule: “The speeches promise relief from pressures to worry and concern by substituting it with their own version of vigilance that is centralized and mechanical, and where the communists can serve as guides”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 16</ref>

Another aspect of the communist strategy of seizing power involved the “overplaying” of the identity “between their position as the outcast and the general state of the population”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 18</ref> Immediately following the war, the communists had to “render identical two different types of motivations: the normal, healthy attempt at reconstruction and the redressing of social grievances at the political level, and the attempt by the communists to satisfy their own fascination for recognition and appeal that had already become chronic, short-circuited and endless due to long decades of repression”.<ref>Horvath and Thomassen 2008, p. 18</ref>

Liminality sections
Intro  Rites of passage  Communitas  Types  Liminal experiences in large-scale societies  Depth psychology  Examples of general usage  Liminoid  See also  Notes  Bibliography  

Liminal experiences in large-scale societies
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