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CCIG Lecture series: Paul Stenner on 'Living on the line: conceptualising liminal enactments'

Tuesday, 25 June 2013, 18:00 - 20:00

The Open University in London, 1-11 Hawley Crescent, Camden Town, London, NW1 8NP, Rooms 2b&2c

This keynote is part of the CCIG Lecture series on 'Being on the line: citizenship, identities and governance in times of crises'.

We are living on the line. Ours is a time of intensified disruption of the familiar. Rights depletions, loss of public and community life, identity crises, pervasive insecurities, and lack of imaginative governance seem to rule the day. Yet, living on the line is also living in sites of contestation and reinvention where new possibilities for citizenship, identities and governance are competed over and mediated. The now is never just new but neither can it be reduced to old frameworks, to instituted traditional conceptions. In this lecture series, leading CCIG researchers put social sciences on the line. We examine its limits, rework old concepts and develop new ideas and methods to draw out possibilities for critique, social justice and positive social change in times of crises. The lecture series brings research at the cutting edge of the social sciences to bear on contemporary predicaments and in particular on our understanding of how transformative processes work by challenging divisions, intolerance and discriminations.

Living on the line: conceptualising liminal enactments

This lecture was given by Prof Paul Stenner, who explored how during phases of crisis (financial, political, social, etc) more and more people (in the milieu of more or less well ordered organizations) are likely to find themselves ‘on the line’.

When we use phrases like putting ourselves ‘on the line’, or ‘living on the line’ we evoke an unpredictable situation in which stakes and risks are high and outcomes are potentially transformative. The phrase suggests a link between a particular kind of social situation (e.g. a social crisis, a transformative political event), and a particular set of subjective or experiential responses, or perhaps a moment in which the two cannot be neatly separated (and we might even reach for the word ‘psychosocial’). This observation is not new. 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 the former (well structured) circumstances, 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’.

This lecture called social scientists to explore what ‘being on the line’ means concretely for people, and what implications its study might have for a whole set of social scientific concepts, such as structure and event, enactment and act, resilience and becoming, criticality and resistance. It suggested that a dynamism could be added to social theory if the static binary concepts of ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ were supplemented with the third term liminality, and if attention were directed to the distinctive features of psychosocial activity in liminal situations (i.e. ‘in between’ situations where the taken for granted order of things is either temporarily suspended, or collapses).


Estrid Sorrenson (Professor of Cultural Psychology, University of Bocchum, Germany)

Vikki Bell (Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths College)

Videos of the event

Videos of this event are now available here.


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