This is really just a note to myself, partly because I want to remember some things I learned about Victor Turner this year, and partly because it’s good for me to remember that I learned them from my students. I’m not going to explain the background, so if you’re not at least marginally familiar with Victor Turner this is not for you.
It’s well-known and obvious that Turner has two accounts of liminality, one drawn from his ethnographic work on the Ndembu and a second where he goes ballistic and starts seeing liminality everywhere in human social structure, and as I taught him I was mentally labeling them the “narrow” account and the “grandiose” account. The first insight I came to, arising out of class discussion, was that they could also be labelled the “temporal” account and the “spatial” account. Thus, in the first, a ritual will allow a practitioner to pass into a state of liminality and then back out of it to a profane state of normalcy in which she fulfills her role in the social hierarchy, while in the second, certain figures (Turner mentions hippies) are liminal to others: they do not stop being liminal, not because they do not go through changes or enact rituals, but because the word liminal is now being used to describe a cross-section of social relations viewed from a static lens.
One of my best student papers this semester puts the two accounts together in what I think is an entirely convincing way. “While Turner,” the student writes, “argues that it is liminality itself that works to reveal and create communitas, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the liminality recreated in ritual actually achieves this end. Ritual arises in a response to liminality and ultimately functions as a reproduction of it; the ritual process first recognizes liminality as a distinct form of existence, in a way fixing the liminal individual within the social structure just as surely as their social position might have. The ritual subject has deviated in some way from their position in society, and naming this deviation functions to highlight the importance of social structure and the cultural values manifest in the society’s social categories.” In short, the function of ritual, for Turner, is to allow individuals who are liminal (spatial account) symbolically to reproduce that liminality (temporal account) in order to overcome it, and in this way, “ritual uses liminality to reify the social order and fixed relationships within the community, thus working to generate communitas.” The paper is titled “Yo Dawg, We Heard You Like Liminality, So We Put Some Liminality in Your Ritual about Liminality So You Can Be Liminal while You’re Being Liminal,” and the author is Sarah Patzer. Of course the account only works to bring the spatial sense of the word into the temporal or ritual sense, not to bring the latter into the former.
Which leads me to another excellent paper reminding us that the two accounts remain distinct. Aliyana Gewirtzman points out that if applied to literature, Turner’s temporal account would be more or less identical to the home-away-home pattern as analysed by scholars of children’s literature, or the hero’s journey as analysed by Joseph Campbell. But on the rare occasions Turner mentions literature, he does not use the temporal account, but instead the spatial one. Thus, for Turner, Sonya in War and Peace is a liminal figure and remains a liminal figure, and Turner seems not to turn his attention to literary characters who pass through a state of liminality and then return. Putting Gewirtzman’s argument together with Patzer’s, one would say that Sonya stays liminal because Tolstoy does not give her a chance symbolically to reproduce her liminality. But it is probably truer that Turner has no ear for literature.