Liminality in a time of Pandemic

(This blog post from Timothy Carson previously ran on TheLiminalityProject.org)

As I opened up a small tutorial class in the Honors College of the University of Missouri this week, I checked in with students, asking them how they were doing. It was more than rhetorical; I really wanted to know, considering the big changes unfolding around us. Following a short silence one of the students simply said, “Every day just gets stranger and stranger.” That pretty well summed it up. He didn’t have to delve into the various layers of emotion. The rest of us could fill in the blanks.

It could be said that most everyone affected by the current rising pandemic is sensing something similar, that things are getting stranger and stranger. Oh, yes, the emotional underlay might be fear, or anger, or a sense of helplessness, but the overwhelming sensation is one of strangeness. I don’t think that is so unusual. In fact, when whole societies cross certain thresholds that separate them from what was their familiar way of life and plunges them into a whole new way of things, we say that they have plunged into a state of social liminality, betwixt and between, an ambiguous, undifferentiated state in which familiar and even taken for granted landmarks are absent.

In a larger sense, the Corona virus pandemic belongs to a family of related pandemics throughout history, pandemics that all brought about severe social disruption. And pandemics belong to the even larger category of disasters – fire, war, earthquake, flood, hurricane, tsunami, drought, exile and migration, explosions, and revolutions. All of these chaos events cast whole groups of people into a new state of things. They often necessitate great efforts at survival. Organizational structures are shaken and reorganized. Some things later return to their former state of being before the disaster and some do not.

In Rebecca Solnit’s in-depth study of disasters entitled A Paradise Built in Hell she identified dozens of social disasters of various kinds and analyzed their impacts, aftermath and communal responses. Her conclusions are very interesting as they stand in some sharp contrast to prevailing assumptions about what disasters yield. In fact, many of the researchers who specialize in disasters in the aggregate or in particular disasters cite the same difference between popular assumptions and reality.

One of the assumptions about large chaos events is that the society will devolve into anarchy, rioting, and violence. Though that occurs in some measure, the opposite is most usually the case. What normally occurs is a gathering of the tribe for mutual survival. Class distinctions are often set aside. Individuals and sub-groups self-organize for the public good – like providing shelter, food, water and medical attention. In liminal studies we say that such groups facing similar challenges experience Victor Turner’s now famous coined term, communitas – a special community of the in-between.

In many cases governmental structures can be helpful – if they are already effective and serving the interest of the people. When they are not they often only protect their self-interest, even worsening the aftermath of disasters by enforcing unnecessary marital law, applying violence where it is unnecessary and impeding recovery rather than facilitating it. That was conspicuously in play in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

One of the key findings of disaster studies is the relationship between disasters and revolutions. In almost every case that governmental structures were either the cause of enormous human suffering or were incompetent, the disaster shook loose the hold of that government on its own power. Revealed for what they were or were not, governments fell from the raw power of disasters, losing their mandate and position as a result. The people not only welcomed the fall but worked to make it so. A sweeping disaster can either start or complete a process of social transformation, thrusting the society into liminal chaos until it reconstitutes itself. This can take place quickly or stretch into a rather indefinite process.

In our world-wide pandemic many things will transpire as a result of a great disruption. The familiar and supposedly safe structures of life will give way to uncertainty. The time of chaos will reveal true resiliency among groups of people who will not only protect themselves, but come together in common cause. Ineffectual and self-serving government and its officials will be revealed for what they are and give way to forms more responsive to the people. Local and regional efforts will rise to the top as models of what the tribe may do on the front lines of challenge. And in the best case scenario we will discover what is needed to address the new normal, a way of necessity that is discovered in the midst of liminal time and space, positioning us individually and socially to move forward differently.

We shall be changed. Into what is yet to be determined. But the artists of the human spirit will be crafting new vehicles to take us there as they navigate that liminal dark energy that defies our every attempt to control it.

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