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Thinking about affectivity and liminality together

by Paul Stenner and Megan Clinch

In the preface to his Theologico-political treatise, Spinoza draws a contrast between well structured and rule bound situations, and situations of doubt in which people are ‘driven into straights where rules are useless’. In well-structured circumstances, he suggests, the human mind tends to be ‘boastful, overconfident and vain’. Most people, ‘when in prosperity, are so over-brimming with wisdom (however inexperienced they may be), that they take every offer of advice as a personal insult’. Put these same people in the straights of more chaotic circumstances, however, and Spinoza finds that they ‘know not where to turn, but beg and prey for counsel from every passer-by’. They fluctuate ‘pitiably between hope and fear’ and become superstitious and generally ‘very prone to credulity’.

At first glance the chaotic and highly affective situation that Spinoza describes seems to be one that is impossible to overcome. That is, chaos and the subsequent emotion that it engenders means it becomes difficult to think of ways of working through such circumstances. However, as we would like to begin to suggest in this blog post, when viewed through the lens of liminality, it is possible to see how such sensitive points - in which the usual structure of things is suspended – can in fact provide the conditions for change to occur. That is, building on the work of Van Gennep, Victor Turner, Arpad Szakolczai and others, we want to draw attention to how such liminal and highly affective situations can in fact provide the conditions for personal and social transformation.

In order to illustrate this position we will provide a selective summary of the seminal article ‘Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille’ by the historian William Sewell (1992). In his paper Sewell only hints at how liminality can make sense of historical events. Therefore, in this post we tinker with and use it to inspire a process of conceptual development, through which we hope to convincingly claim the value of thinking about liminality and affectivity together.

Sewell’s argument rests on an analysis of what is considered the foundational event of the French Revolution, the taking of the Bastille on July 12th 1789. In particular, Sewell focuses on the of the 12 days of ‘generalized insecurity’ that followed this event – a stretch of time that we suggest can be thought of as liminal, and which as Sewell describes, was highly emotional. As he writes, the 12th to the 24th July ‘was an extraordinary period of fear, rejoicing, violence, and cultural creativity that changed the history of the world’. Echoing Spinoza, he explains:

‘During this period, the usual articulations between different structures became profoundly dislocated. Actors, consequently, are beset with insecurity: they are unsure about how to get on with life. This insecurity may produce varying results, sometimes in the same person: anxiety, fear or exhilaration; incessant activity, paralysis, extreme caution, or reckless abandon. But it almost certainly raises the emotional intensity of life, at least for those whose existence is closely tied to the dislocated structures. And when, in France in the summer of 1789, the structural dislocation is pervasive and deep, virtually everyone lives on the edge’.

Sewell’s main conceptual distinction, as suggested by this quotation, is between the concept of an event – like the revolution - and the concept of social structure or structures. For Sewell, structure refers to the consistent and stable reproduction over time of streams of social practices across a range of domains (e.g. economic, military, governmental, religious, cultural etc.). Structures are composed of modes of power, distributions of resources, and cultural schemas, which provide meaning and ‘know-how’ to social actors. Events are sequences of occurrences that result in the transformations of structures. Events re-articulate structures, but such re-articulation presupposes a prior rupture through which structures become dislocated. We propose that events in Sewell’s sense can be thought of as transformative actions that occur in liminal situations. That is to say, they are liminal enactments and occurrences that take place in situations that, to borrow a phrase from Victor Turner, exist betwixt and between more orderly and structured circumstances.

Van Gennep identified liminality with the middle phase of a rite of passage preceded by rites of separation and followed by rites of incorporation. Sewell invokes three similar moments with regard to the transformation of structure via events: 1. The rupture of previous structural arrangements; 2. Moments of accelerated change initiated by transformative events; 3. The establishment of durably transformed structure. To illustrate this process, we turn to Sewell’s elegant account, of the taking of the Bastille.

At the time of the taking of the Bastille France was wrought with deep structural dislocation. The state was nearly bankrupt, traditionally powerful social institutions were in disarray, and there was a constitutional crisis with regard to taxation. Moreover,  there were two competing rationales of governance jostling for position, and the power to manage such dislocations, – the pre-existing divine will of the king and the emerging, and untested, natural rights of the sovereign people. To deepen this state of crisis further there was also a looming biological threat – the possibility of a poor wheat harvest for the second year in a row.

As Sewell highlights such ruptures and subsequent dislocations generated a degree of uncertainty that rendered normal life increasingly impossible. However, as he also points out, such seemingly impossible conditions also stimulated ‘bursts of collective cultural creativity’, which, in turn, stimulated the transformation of structures into a form that was genuinely new. It is this phase of collective cultural creativity and accelerated change that we describe as liminal.

To substantiate this claim when describing this phase Sewell points to some of the key characteristics of liminal situations originally described by Van Gennep and Turner. In particular he writes not just of the heightened emotionality at play, but also the profound ambivalence and uncertainty: the oscillations from exhilaration to fear, from paralysis to reckless abandon. His fine grained analysis also demonstrates how the symbolism that emerged around the taking of the Bastille helped to crystallise the new idea of a political revolution (i.e. a new type of cultural schema), a development which helped to shift the modality of power from sovereign to people, and contributed to a novel re-articulation of structure.

One example of such liminal enactments and structural re-articulation concerned the collective performance of rituals that had traditionally been an expression of kingly and military power. Following, the storming of the Bastille rituals, such as the displaying of the heads of the defeated opposition on poles and processions marking victory in battle, were performed by the newly emerging ‘sovereign people’. Thus such ritual acts provided a means through which the people could enact power in a way that was recognisable, but also, novel, thereby strengthening the purchase of the newly emerging proto-structural articulations.

It is through this discussion of ritual that Sewell explicitly refers to liminality. However, he uses it as a way of describing how historical events are punctuated by ritual, thus limiting his use of the term to its application in anthropology as a middle phase in a rite of passage (rather than larger occurrences of structural transformation). Regardless, one aspect of his discussion of liminality is, for our purposes, very useful. In the traditional anthropological usage, the affectivity associated with liminality is generated by way of carefully staged rituals. However, when discussing liminality Sewell makes a perceptive reversal. He notes during  the events of July 1789 the opposite relation between ritual and affectivity was at play. The affectivity and collective effervescence generated in the events themselves ‘induced those present to express and concretize their feelings in ritual’. Critically these rituals, that became possible through the dis-articulation of structure and associated heightened emotion, were key ingredients in establishing the semantic basis for the crystallization of new structure. Such rituals helped create a new meaning of political revolution and popular sovereignty that would form the discursive basis of the new political order. In other words, part of the creative process in the liminal phase was the invention of these novelties that we now take for granted as discursive ingredients in modern politics.

To end, what interests us about such liminal situations is not just the enhanced affectivity and emotionality, but more primordially the focus on transition, transformation and in particular, becoming. As Thomassen (2009) puts it, the relevance of attending to such sensitive junctures of transition is not that they explain anything. On the contrary, they point precisely to situations of potentiality in which ‘what happens’ might take many different courses, but the actual outcome is uncertain. The concepts of liminality, affectivity and event, in other words are about understanding the process of becoming and not about explaining what already exists. Liminal situations, as we see them, are the gaps, ruptures and voids in structure. They are the marginal places and times where new structure is created.

Our interest in thinking affectivity and liminality together, then, is that this juxtaposition enables us to identify and signpost these pockets of potentiality or hotspots of becoming. They provide a lens through which to view contemporary processes of social and personal transition. In a follow up blog post we will write further about liminal hotspots that occur at the margins of social structures, such as systems of health, welfare, finance, justice, employment, migration and education, which are commonly described as being stuck in a state of perpetual crisis. Discussions of such contemporary hotspots will provoke us to identify and imagine ways of structuring and travelling through situations of doubt in more detail.

The themes discussed here will be developed through an ESF Exploratory Workshop entitled: Affectivity and Liminality: Conceptualising the dynamics of suspended transition, which will take place in November 2013.