Liminality and Political Ritual

2. IV 2019

Ritual is one of the basic social acts. It is a journey, symbolic or literal, at the end of which the traveler returns to its starting point, but as a transformed subject capable of seeing the context with different eyes and a new perspective afforded by the experience of the journey. It is a cleansing of the social palate before commencing the new stage of life. Rituals are mechanisms that convert the obligatory into the desirable. They take place at inflection points where status quo approaches dead end. Rites of passage like entrance into adulthood or marriage are meant to diffuse the anxiety before, and catalyze acceptance of, disruptions of stasis that generally tend to be rejected or (sometime indefinitely) postponed.

Ritual is a play between structure and anti-structure, which resides between thought and action. It is an affair of the tremendum rather than a quite ordinary mode of human social labor[1]. Despite their multitude and diversity, a wide class of rituals follows the same basic structure. The first stage consists of separation – this is when the subject is taken out of context. The second step is transitional or liminal stage. During this phase, the work of the ritual takes place: The order of things is (temporarily) suspended — participants are in a structureless zone ready to accept new rules. In the final, integration, phase the subject is re-contextualized. This is the von Gennep – Turner model of ritual structure[2].

Two modes of betwixt and between

When they turn 16, Amish kids undergo the ritual of rumspringa[3]. They are released into the outside, the Devil’s playground, where they get a taste of the English world and confront its temptations. During that time, which can last several years, the rules of the Amish are suspended. Young Amish living like English teenagers are not fully or properly either of the two things – they are betwixt and between.

Despite all the pacifist bullshit and declarative distancing from various modes of violence associated with the English culture, the Amish actually function as an oppressive cult. However, they have a very non-English way of imposing their rule and a very Zen approach to oppression. They use smart power, which has been the key to their longevity and resilience[4]. To an individual programmatically unprepared for survival in the outside world, options opened by rumspringa do not get exercised through free will – rather, they amount to a free selection among a reduced subset of possibilities. A large majority of Amish kids return to the Amish community. In lieu of basic survival skills, the security of predictable and boring Amish life outweighs the excitement and challenges of the precarious Devil’s playground.

The ritual of rumspringa is essential for the stability of the Amish community. The ultimate goal of the ritual is to foster docility, which comes as a consequence of confusing the free selection for free will and, as such, results in the ownership of the decision to remain in the cult.

Rumspringa outlines the basic structure of ritualistic rites of passage with all three of its stages (separation, transition, and integration). Various rituals, although having the same basic structure, generally differ by the underlying backbone and directionality of purpose.

Another example of the same formal ritualistic structure, with all three stages, but different purpose and backbone, is the American college experience. After a sheltered childhood, where access and exposure to major sources of risk, like excessive time mismanagement, night clubs, drinking, drugs, etc. is restricted either legally or through parental supervision, college kids ceremonially leave their parents’ homes and move into student dorms, the new communal centers where they cohabitate with their peers. Unsupervised and armed with newly acquired fake IDs, they step into the Devil’s playground with access to alcohol, drugs, sexual experimentation, and the host of new experiences, becoming exposed to the risks and temptations of the adult world. No longer kids and not yet adults, betwixt and between, they enter the liminal stage, in which all rules of either life seem to be suspended.

Although Amish rumspringa and the American college experience have the same formal structure, they differ by directionality of their integration and re-contextualization. Rumspringa is a regressive (centripetal) ritual with forces that pull the participant back to the original social structure after spending the liminal period in, what by Amish standard is considered as, structureless environment. In contrast, the American college experience is progressive (centrifugal) with the liminal period emerging as a source of potential alternative structures waiting to be embraced. The progressive backbone of the college ritual is further reinforced by the stigma of failure associated associated with returning to the safety of the parental home. And this emancipatory process goes both ways — most of parents, subsequent to their kids’ departure, declare themselves as empty nesters, repurpose their kids’ rooms and generally adjust to their future life without them. In terms of the integration score, the success rate of the college experience is roughly the same as that of the Amish rumspringa – most college kids succeed by not returning back to live with their parents.

The initiates: Excess population

Capitalism has to be the strangest creation in the history of human civilization. At its core, capitalism has the metabolism of a pathologically self-destructive organism, the self-sabotage emanating from its every action, relentlessly looking for new ways to hurt and undermine itself, always narrowly escaping its own demise, only to continue to search for a new and more potent poison. Whatever is perceived as beneficial in the short-run, becomes fatal in the long run. No other system, living or dead, behaves like this.

An inevitable side effect of capitalist progress and its self-destructiveness is a growing number of those who fall through the cracks. They are the marginalized excess population, pushed to the margins of the social, political, economic, ecological, and biopolitical system, which prevents them from access to resources, assets, services, and restrains freedom of choice and the development of capabilities. They are socially undead, earmarked for recycling or rehabilitation.

When the excess population swells to such an extent that its drainage is blocked, the resulting social configuration becomes unstable. The longer the marginalized segment of the population stays inside the enclosure of prosperity and rubs shoulders with the useful, legitimate, and self-entitled rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous[5] — precarity becomes everyone’s potential destiny. The tensions created by this configuration acquire new quality. The system faces a legitimation crisis. The existing social structure is seen as oppressive and society desires to transcend it. This can be achieved only during the liminal stage of ritual.

The underlying social imbalances need to be addressed either by force or other forms of violence. However, outright physical oppression is an inefficient and expensive way of governing. Instead, power needs to be smart– it has to convince people to voluntarily submit to it. Ritual enters the scene as a form of smart power. Social transformation, thus, takes a ritualistic form where liminality functions as Nay to all positive structural assertions[6]. When applied as a remedy to diffuse the existing social tension and descent, the essence of ritual is to create conditions for the separation phase as a prelude to liminal stage where the existing social rules and hierarchies are suspended.

Social change as ritual: Between marginality & liminality

Liminality and marginality define coordinates of political action. They reside on the opposite sides of social structure. Marginality is an involuntary submission to the capitalist social structure. From the perspective of marginality, structure is oppressive, and ominous. Liminality, on the other hand, is liberation from structure. Even if it might be temporary, it is nevertheless a reprieve– in the liminal phase structure becomes invisible, and the underlying social rules suspended.

Right wing populism resides in the interstices between liminality and marginality. It offers to the excess population ritual instead of real solutions – a simulated Devil’s playground. The mindfuck of rebranding the social change necessary to escape marginalization with liminality — a permanent state with a temporary one — is a way of giving social transformation a regressive ritualistic spin, a political rumspringa of a sort. This is not specific for the current political moment — it has always been the case in history. For many people who have been marginalized, offering ritualistic rites of passage as a surrogate for their social redemption is the only hope of social redemption.

The spurious similarity between the populism of segregated and fractured post-2016 America and single-voice Germany of the 1930s — the two countries a century apart with no socioeconomic overlap — can be traced to the fact that their respective leaders have been engaged in the same ritual practices in different times. Their respective ideologies – unconditional subordination to either national or oligarchic interests — and representative parties, National Socialist German Workers’ Party and National Capitalist MAGA, run in parallel. In both political events, marginalization triggered and shaped rituals that followed. The 1930s was an uprising against the marginalization of Germany as a cultural, industrial and military power of the time. The rise of Nazism was a result of discontent due to loss of privileged position in the global context. As a consequence, the entire country spoke in a single voice. In 21st century prosperous America, which has not had a war on its territory for more than 150 years, it was marginalization of an entire social class and reaction to the loss of the white male privilege of the old days. The consequence was an unprecedented polyvocality as an expression of social divide along cultural, racial and ethnic lines — a class war in a displaced mode, with the entire marginalized class speaking in a single voice only they could understand.

Camouflaging liminality as an escape route from marginality in today’s America has the sole purpose of reconciling the interests of billionaires with those of the marginalized sector of its population. It is an effort to compactify an otherwise fractured political landscape and, by ignoring facts, laws of physics, economic, logic and common sense, connect the two opposite ends of the political spectrum and forge alliances along artificial cultural divides between victims and their executioners.

The roadmap to re-contextualization

Democracy itself has been functioning as a ritual for quite some time. Actual authoritarian power works much better. Authoritarianism has been in place, but disguised as pseudo-democracy with elaborate layers of deceit. (Slavoj Zizek)

The inner space between marginality and liminality defines the politics of change in post-2016 America. This is the territory where two different directions of purpose are drawn – rumspringa vs. college. In the current context of political ritual, post-liminal integration can evolve along three different paths.

1) American rumspringa: Idiocracy crashes and self-destructs reverting to pre-ritual centrism as a lesser of two evils. Suspension of rules masquerading as change serves as an anesthetic for a more extreme status quo. This is the role of the simulated Devil’s playground. The ongoing ritual is an exact replica of the Amish rumspringa. People are compelled to accept the flawed centrism as a less bad alternative to the corrupt kleptocratic configuration of the present. The problem created by social marginality is dissolved through its acceptance and its victims are permanently defeated – their condition appears as an act of their own will as a result of free selection which substitutes for the free will.

2) Emancipatory path: Transformational/progressive integration is directed towards opening a way into new structure as a resolution of underlying tensions. The ideas and practices that have become established during the liminal phase take the quality of structure. After the trance of (political) ritual subsides, return to pre-separation becomes impossible. While liminality is unstructured — a lack of fixed points in a given moment — it becomes an origin of structure. It is the state of “cosmic foam” awaiting a big bang — formless reality out of which forms emerge — the beginning of everything.

While regressive populist offering is liminality without destination, a voluntary submission to the pre-ritualistic phase, the progressive alternative provides a true destination (with minimum ritual), distinct from the pre-separation phase.

3) American twilight: Idiocracy becomes a new paradigm. This is what Victor Turner calls the state of institutionalized liminality or, in Max Weber’s terminology, everydayinization of the out-of-ordinary situations.

Politics turns into a ritualistic orgy and political leadership assumes a shamanic mode of functioning with permanent campaigning (before, during, and after the elections) as the only way of governing. Nothing is ordinary — everything is tremendous. Semiotic excess — lies, deceit, nonsense, and propaganda — has the main purpose of perpetuating the ritual, sustaining liminality, and suspending the rules, while palpable falsehoods become articles of faith. New social identity draws the boundary between us and them and becomes the main theme of political discourse. Acceptance includes tests of authenticity which require participants to go through initiation rites in which they burn bridges by committing deep out-of-the-money unethical acts and physical or intellectual atrocities (sometimes all three), most often led by the political shamans themselves. This ritual within a ritual consists of competitive symbolic self-immolation in the arena of public spectacle that irreversibly closes the doors for their return to pre-liminal life. This is a state of atonal pseudo-totalitarian operetta without a key or meter, the kingdom of arbitrariness where words have no fixed meaning and actions no consequences.

[1] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures (1966)

[2] This breakdown of the structure and the concept of liminality were first introduced by Arnold von Gennep in 1909, Rites of Passage, University of Chicago Press (1961) and later picked up and developed further by Victor Turner, ibid.

[3] Pennsylvania German version of herumspringen, to leap around

[4] Amish population in the US has almost tripled since 1990 and is likely to continue growing at the same rate, expecting to increase from 350K today to nearly 1 million by 2050. This is pretty amazing given the context of social Darwinism of modernity where any inefficiency becomes punitive and its cumulative effect ultimately lethal. The rationale for such growth is simple: Amish offer monotonous life with security against rapidly raising precarity on the outside. The ritual takes away the possibility of descent.

[5] Zigmunt Baumman, Wasted Lives – Modernity and its Outcasts, Polity (2004)

[6] Victor Turner, Betwix and Between: The liminal Period in Rites de Passage in The Forrest of Symbols, Cornell University Press (1967)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s