The crisis of modernity from permanent liminality to limivoid: an interview with Prof. Bjørn Thomassen

How anthropology and the study of rites of passage can explain this globalized modernity and its crisis in dealing with limits according to the anthropologist, professor at Roskilde University and founding editor-in-chief of the academic journal International Political Anthropology Bjørn Thomassen.

  1. During the Symposium, when you were discussing the genealogy of the limit-limitless ambivalence and the origin of boundaries you mentioned a liminal crisis: could you kindly explain it and its causes?

First of all, I consider liminality a very broad concept, one of the most important in social science, in particular in the study of rites and rituals of passage, but in fact also Symposium in Global Governance 2018_158applicable to transitional dynamics as such. The book which is widely used today was written by Arnold van Gennep, an anthropologist who in the early 20th highlighted a ceremonial order, namely a kind of inherent sequence in the order of rituals. All the rites of passage have this tripartite structure: they begin with a rupture with the existing order and they end with the third stage of reaggregation or integration in a new normality. However, in between those stages there are a liminal space and liminal time of transformation which are recurrent across all the cultures of the world, although with a lot of substantial difference and complexity, as it is a kind of human way to understand the limitlessness, potential limitlessness, and engage with it, contain it or push it in a right direction.

It is possible to identify two types of rites of passage. One is the individual going through the life cycle, so there is the birth, the coming into manhood or womanhood, which in many cultures are associated to the first menstruations and so on, then the marriage and the moving into the life cycle of different age groups if the society is divided into age groups. These are universal: we still have not found a human community that does not have some kind of rituals which integrate the human being in the society after birth. Then, Arnold van Gennep realised that also different kinds of occasions can have a similar form, when there are events that bring together not only simple groups, but the entire society or the community either in the passage of a year – like moving into the harvest season or moving into a new year with a celebration as in almost all societies there is a change of the calendar related to the movement of the sun, the moon or some other celestial body or related to some belief like Christmas, which is a new beginning of the Christian calendar – or it could also depend on natural disasters, like an earthquake, a flooding, a tsunami, a volcanic explosion, a sudden emergence or threat to human existence. So the crisis may be “planned” as a part of a pre-existing cosmology, or it may be provoked by an external event.

I am coming to your question slowly, but these contexts are absolutely important because the question then becomes what happens in such liminal moments. It is fundamental to remember that in the rites of passage connected to the individual life cycle there are two important kinds of stabilisers. One is given by the barriers of the societies going on with their routine, as there is some stability somewhere in the home environment and no human community has ever existed without the notion of a home. The other stabiliser is, of course, the master of ceremony who has gone through the ritual before, so when you graduate there will be a graduation ceremony and the graduation master will be someone who has graduated himself or herself and can make sure things are done in the proper way.

Thus, the real question is what happens in those large-scale, macro-type of liminality when there is no external reference point of normality and the ceremony master is absent. Just as a parenthesis, this somehow relates to the trickster. Max Weber introduced the notion of charismatic leadership to deal with power in out-of-ordinary situations: in normal circumstances there are traditional power, legal rational power and authority, while in out-of-ordinary situations, someone must come to the force and take the leadership, that is why Weber took the notion of charisma from biblical language and introduced it into political science. To understand this macro-type of liminality we must see who takes power, how is the liminal situation manipulated, who manages to bring society back to level of stability and who may thrive: trickster figures are extremely popular and widespread in many cultures and are connected to some liminal crisis.

So, the question finally becomes who takes leadership and how is the liminal period directed or not into a new kind of normality structure. And then of course this relates to the origin of settlements and of cities. It is possible to argue that the construction of walls and putting people into walls is an answer to some kind of liminal crisis and once the crisis is gone, what was only a monetary solution to a crisis has been permanentized. That is why Arpad Szakolczai on the basis of this recognition describes modernity as a kind of permanent liminality.

  1. So, is it possible have a figure of the trickster which is not only negative but can produce some positive change in the society by promoting a sort of revolution in a situation in which as you said the crisis is becoming permanent and there is a shift from liminal to limivoid which can be described by the metaphor of bungee jumping as you wrote in another article?

It is very important to remember that the trickster in many mythologies and cultural worldviews is inherently ambivalent, it can produce or destroy things, it can be beautiful or ugly, it rapes but it also gives birth and it becomes like a second creator of things, a second god who can have its creative power. One of the most famous books, in fact, is “Trickster makes this world”. But this is a very, very big discussion and for many people, for many anthropologists to think of trickster as a figure is not valid, as it means too many things in different contexts that we cannot even theorise about, so take everything I say with this critique in mind.

The other possibility is to see with Jung the trickster as an architype, a kind of figure that exists in many different forms and shapes and is there even empirically speaking in certain contexts. What characterises trickster figure is that the distinction about what is good and bad is alien to its working. Here, I follow the approach developed by Agnes Horvath, who was the first to bring the trickster concept into social and political analysis. You can relate back to Plato’s discussion about the sophists, individuals who do not know what they know and what their skills are, but can please people, can make them cry or laugh and the effects of this are of no interest as it is only a play with words and emotions, which creates undermining instability and uncertainty. So, for sure tricksters are real figures as it is possible to see them in the world history, incarnated in some personalities which have dramatically managed to inspire or manipulate people into certain modes. Furthermore, they are clearly present in some cultures as you can read some Shakespeare’s tragedies with the trickster exaggerating always differences, escalating into conflicts without a master plan until the tragedy is inevitable while the trickster can never be directly blamed for anything. They produce effects who are beyond good and evil because they are beyond any kind of rationality, that is why I think we need the concept of the trickster to counterbalance Weber’s notion of charisma: a charismatic leader is inherently engaged with his or her community, is part of it and wants to help the community to get out of the crisis. Tricksters, instead, are outside all of this or have no interest in the creation of some form of stability or order, actually quite the opposite, as they thrive in this disorder and ambivalence which is what they tend to produce by their acts.

In my reading, they are fundamental to understand revolutionary processes, if you want to apply liminality to modern political contexts, which I have done in some articles, like in “Notes towards an Anthropology of Political Revolutions” of 2012, analysing who takes power in these revolutionary moments and the frequent trickster-like personalities. For sure, we can say that most revolutions lead to violence, mimetic violence, as they start out by criticising the centralisation of power and the distribution of resources, including political resources and material resources. For example, think about the hungry people having no influence before the French revolution. The revolution ended up producing more State centralisation and violence against the citizens they were supposed to help. There is this striking and scaring parallel between the French and Russian revolutions, with a germ of totalitarianism inside. Remember that the term terror was first used in the context of the French revolution. It does not come from Islam or religion, but from the secular view according to which it is possible to recreate societies on the basis of an ideal rational order and all the people against it, the counter-revolutionists, must be eliminated or scared in order to conform them to the new order. That is the origin of terror: the State killing those who are against revolutions in the name of reason, rationality and enlightenment. In this perspective, tricksters are inherently dangerous if out of control.

Then, the question is also when they gain power. For me this is a big, big question and it is crucial to understand our everyday life: we need this language of power and we have to understand the diagnosis of the power mechanism, which is relevant also outside politics in public administration, management, consultancy, companies and so on. Those figures have no real knowledge, but transform the world and then, once things have been changed, they disappear, it is impossible to keep them accountable for anything they have ever said or done, they delete all their traces. Read Buglakov’s “The Master and Margherita”, trace this figure: tricksters make all the world exploding, ending into a circle, turning the world upside-down, with people going crazy and mimetic violence exploding like in Soviet totalitarianism with an absurd, theatrical mechanism. So, sure, tricksters have power, they exercise power, they produce power, but one must be very, very careful.

To come back to the second part of your question. Yes, I have introduced the notion of the “limivoid”, and it is something I will come back to in future articles. I take it to denote the kind of constant search for excitement or even near-death experiences, where touching the ultimate boundary is the goal, but where there is absolutely no change of subjectivity; the suffering or danger has become the end goal. It is just for fun. There is no narrative that can turn this experience into a meaningful kind of transformation where the human being is prompted to reflect upon values, meanings, life-orientation. It is a playing with limits, but it is void, hence the term, limivoid. This “playing with the void” is an inherent feature of modernity and even underpins, in ways we still need to understand, the modern worldview. It has just become more visible in recent decades, making a proper analysis still more urgent. I want to write more about it because, if I am not wrong, what characterizes much of the cultural and political scene today has to do with a problematic and explosive combination of the way in which we deal with limits – and the limitless – and the playing with the void.



“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” 

This is probably the only part where I am going to use the “I”, because I strongly believe that the ideas and messages I try to convey should be independent and more important than the person behind them. I would love to be able to offer some food for thought, a different perspective or simply a pause for reflection while waiting for the bus. However, what I would appreciate most is to start a debate or a conversation in order to share opinions, thus do not hesitate to comment the blog or contact me privately.

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