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Liminality and Traces of Affectivity in the Work of Arnold van Gennep, by Bjørn Thomassen

by Bjørn Thomassen (Roskilde University)

Linking liminality with affectivity does not mean to propose new and alternative interpretations of what liminality is or could be, taking it to territories distant from its place of origin, quite the contrary: it means to move the concept back to its rightful place in intellectual history, back to the centre of human emotions trembling at the threshold. This can best be indicated by tracing how affectivity was a theme in Arnold van Gennep’s (AvG) life-work, even if it was not a word he used.

Out of van Gennep’s 437 publications gathered in his Biographie, at least 40 of them are categorized under “psychology”. It was also AvG who translated the works of Havelock Ellis into French. AvG emphatically distanced himself from Durkhemian sociology that had categorically separated psychology from sociology, and instead proposed a social science methodology inspired by biology, “une biologie sociologique”. The “biology” to which van Gennep referred was not simply an allusion to the authority and objectivity of natural science, but an insistence that social scientists deal with living facts rather than dead and abstract social facts. Even a material object tells its own story, about the techniques behind its making, its use, its social significance, and how we attach ourselves to it. It is within this horizon of a genuine life science that the concept of liminality belongs. But it is also within this horizon that affectivity was always part of the picture that AvG was drawing. 

While AvG’s path-breaking discussion of liminality was tied to a touchable ethnographic platform, it also belonged to something bigger. Rites of passage, with their symbolic representation of death and rebirth, illustrate in a more general way the principles of the regenerative renewal required by any society and by any human being. It touched upon something perennial and sacred connected to human existence and the very possibility of meaningful social life. AvG’s approach belongs to a philosophy of being and becoming.

Much later, Victor Turner attempted to align his study of ritual passages with an experientially based philosophy, via Dilthey. What Dilthey had objected to was not only the objectifying tendencies of modern philosophy, but also something existing at a deeper level, namely the positing of an external position from where the thinker could engage and order the universe. Such an external position was what unified the worldviews of Descartes and Hobbes, and was brought to its climax in Kant. Dilthey argued that such an external perspective would only create a splintered image of the human being. Dilthey’s philosophy instead took as its starting point life itself as it comes to consciousness in the individual as the act of living experience (Erlebnis). The self is always embedded in transpersonal relations with objects and other subjects. The individual, in the midst of these concrete relations, tries to cognize the world in which (s)he lives with a weltbild. As Turner understood perfectly well, such a weltbild was not just a cognitive phenomenon: it draws on feeling, willing and thinking, on the various conative, cognitive, and affective dimensions, in proportions that depend, but whose weaving together in lived reality has eminently aesthetic qualities.

The necessity of understanding the cognitive, conative and affective dimensions as part of the same reality is arguably in line with what Piaget argued. It is certainly something that AvG took for granted. To him, the study of society meant “to show the interaction of the feelings, concepts, and judgments that constitute individual psychic activity and collective psychic activity within a given social group”. As he jotted down in his unpublished notes, any custom “is the expression of a psychic, rational, emotional and social complex”.

In fact, the term “affectivity” lends itself particularly well to AvG’s approach; in contrast to pure “emotions”, affectivity – at least if we take its etymology seriously - involves something that we do, a disposition, something we act on and influence via that act; it involves intersubjectivity or subject-object relations. We affect and are affected, but it isn’t something we run around and do on our own. AvG studied popular psychology in that very concrete sense: via songs, poems, artefacts – via material and spiritual culture that human beings create and share in their concrete life-worlds.

Arnold van Gennep saw that transition and a change of status is brought about by a rite of passage. In order for this change to be sociologically real, it requires a social recognition of the new skills and qualities of the neophytes – normally secured in the reintegration ritual. It also requires that the change is not just an externally imposed categorization, but involves a foundational involvement and stirring of human sentiments, dreams and fantasies, touching the core of what it means to be human. Without affectivity, there is no liminality. The transition period reaches its emotional climax in the liminality period proper, when all pre-existing structures have been taken apart, subverted and nullified. As one’s previous worldview falls apart, new guiding ideas and markers of certainty are reconstructed in the process of the liminal transition. Human beings are stamped by liminal experiences. From an anthropological point of view, effective change is affective change. The ritual and mythical activities that unfold in the liminal are even beyond the subject-object divide. It is reality itself that is in play; subjects, objects and their interrelationship. If things go wrong, and if the transition is suspended, consequences are bound to be dramatic, and not just for the single person. A temporal or spatial fixation of liminality is a perennial, existential theme in myth, ritual and dream, but it is always and everywhere something to be overcome - except in our worst nightmares. If such a fixation characterizes the times in which we live, then we have a problem.