The modern era has bestowed various titles on cultural, social, and philosophical research: ‘death of the subject’; ‘anthropological catastrophe’; and ‘the end of history’ are just a few. If these titles do not accurately reflect the current state of anthropological and social thought, they certainly indicate the deep identity crisis that exists within it.
Judging by the finality of these titles, nothing can save classical and rational forms of anthropological and social processes that are verified by history. Leaving aside an axiological evaluation of these changes, let us concentrate on their major characteristic. This is the critical or marginal state of transitivity or ‘liminality’ as defined by folklorist Émile Nourry in Les rites de passage. Etude systematique des rites (1909) and later picked up by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.
As opposed to this, modernity as a continuity of natural and artificial factors affecting people demands a cross-disciplinary approach that would leave no detail outside the focus of the researcher. This requires synthetic or synergetic approaches that involve external factors, but also an internal logic of processes that can lead to innovative methods that are indivisible into original components.
In general, efforts to consider anthropological and social processes imply that the movements of systems are predictable as they are governed by mathematical or quantitative patterns. Is it possible to say similar about individuals in liminal states? Such a question leads to issues concerning individuality and if an individual exists as something that can be described or studied?
The modern anthropological crisis
Paradoxically, the ‘death of the subject’ as a topic became a logical extension of the ‘anthropological turn’ in 20th-century philosophy. This was the first stage in the development of a post-anthropological discourse that searched for the means to describe the human. This turned into a conceptual choice between the tautology of modernism (“a human is human”) and universal models of psychoanalysis and structuralism that demonstrate that the empirical subject completely depends on factors that form it.
On examination, the individual turned out to be a phantom untraceable by direct scientific research methods. He is either ‘here and now’ or he is not. This latter state exists when the biological mechanisms, language, culture, or authority are substituted for the individual. In the philosophical discourse of the second half of the 20th century, the individual simply does not exist as he is subsumed entirely into communicative patterns and the logic of consumption.
Setting aside philosophical interpretations of the term ‘death of the subject’, it should be noted that the information age, which is historically post-anthropological, leaves open the question of whether the subject is really dead (in this case anthropological approaches in science will be pure archaeology), or if there is something that overarches ‘death of the subject’. This concerns the core of subjectivity that, despite rational logic, has become the focus of marketing research that aims to create concrete and effective strategies of working with the ‘human’.
Uncertainty as the field of risk
The ‘open society’, as defined in the works of American economist Abram Bergson and philosopher Karl Popper, was considered the ideal in the 20th century as opposed to ‘closed’ societies, which were seen as intertwined with traditions of the past and ‘totalitarian’ models. A famous remark by Fukuyama (1992) about liberal democracy being “free from fundamental internal contradictions” lies in the same paradigm of understanding the social as a collection of rational individuals.
Openness is one of the basic concepts that describe the process of unfolding subjectivity. It is no coincidence that every predetermination by structures, whether social, symbolic, or value-based, appears in this paradigm as a limitation on the qualities of humanism. Thus, in the articles ‘Norm and its ambiguity’ and ‘Norm must disappear’ (1996), Jacques Derrida turns to the paradox of freedom: the condition for the existence of freedom and responsibility is nonexistence or the absence of norms. When Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) says that “postmodernity” is “distrust towards metastories”, he captures, the destructive desire of subjectivity as it is unfolding in the modern age to negate not only ethics, metaphysics, and morality, but also certainty as an ontological quality.
In the interpretation of Soviet philosopher Merab Mamardashvili (1992, p. 107), by denying the principles of Descartes (person as the source of thought and action) and Kant (person as a moral being), Western civilization creates “zombie” situations that seem humanlike, but in fact, imitate humanism. “Their product, unlike Homo sapiens, (who know good and evil), is “a strange person”, “an indescribable person”.
In the article ‘Consciousness and civilization’ (1984, p. 108) he states: “In the great number of frightening catastrophes of the 20th century, the main one and the one that is often hidden from the eyes of the intellect is the anthropological catastrophe expressed neither in such colourful and spectacular phenomena as an alleged explosion of a close supernova or the collision of the earth with a big asteroid, nor in dramatic depletion of the earth’s natural resources, or excessive growth of population, and not even in ecological or ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ nuclear tragedies. I mean the event that is happening to the individual and is related to civilization in the sense that something vital can irreversibly break down in him, which directly depends on the destruction or just the absence of civilizational foundations of life and communication. This event is already well underway.”
Mamardashvili describes this event through the concept of “uncertainty” (1984, p. 121): “Abnormal symbolic space is absorbing everything it touches. Human consciousness is annihilating and in the situation of uncertainty, where everything is not just ambiguous, but has multiple meanings, the individual is annihilating too: no courage, no honour, no dignity, no cowardice, no dishonour.”
Anthony Giddens points out that the change of social paradigm from traditional models connected with the past to openness towards the future is one of the factors that enhances the feeling of fear. “Common threat, uncertainty, and fear are the main social factor of the risk society. It should be noted that firstly, this uncertainty has no specific or directed nature, and secondly, this state of fear and uncertainty is formed ‘atop’ the society, its institutions and norms.”
Crossing the boundary as a measure of humanness
We are facing a hermeneutic circle with a negative result: eliminating boundaries as a marker of ‘humanism’ leads to the risk society (uncertainty) and negative values, which ‘removes’ basic qualities of ‘humanism’ related to ‘positive’ values such as moral principles and value systems.
Interestingly, in modern psychology personal boundaries are considered a critical part of personal identity. This phenomenon allows the empiric subject to be ‘Self’ and distinguish himself from ‘non-Self’. The same phenomenon allows dialogue to take place.
This means that ‘boundaries’ are not just positive or negative but can be of different quality.
Mamardashvili (1992, p. 107) examining the concept of civilization using a purely anthropological approach, as opposed to a social one, emphasizes the apparent positive meaning of the boundary. “Everything that exists must surpass itself so that it can remain itself the next moment in time … Civilization is a way to provide such kind of ‘support’ for thinking. It provides for the distance from specific meanings and contents; it creates space for actualization and gives an opportunity for the thought that started at moment A, to continue being a thought at the following moment B; or when a human condition that began at moment A, could remain a human condition at moment B.”
One can say that Mamardashvili uses the concept of ‘civilization’ outside the cultural and historical context. To an extent, it is an element of ‘anthropological’ deconstruction when specific human content opens from within social concepts. To remain human, the continuity of human transformations neither removes the concepts of boundaries and certainty, nor establishes them. It means that humanness is a development or becoming, but with the help of boundaries and certainties. In this regard, the boundaries and certainties turn out to be ‘floating’, movable, and transformable.
Intercultural and inter-civilizational in anthropology
According to the Dutch-German-French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep in Les rites de passage (1909), “rituals that accompany every change of place, state, social position, and age” extended to the whole spectrum of social phenomena. This idea is still intrinsic to modern social anthropology.
British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner (The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, 1991) focuses on the phenomenon of liminality related to the procedure of transition from one cultural or social state to another. He remarks that transitional states are intricately connected to uncertainty and instability: “liminal beings are neither here nor there, neither one thing nor another; they are between the positions, prescribed and distributed by law, custom, conventions, and ceremonial.”
However, it should be mentioned that classical liminality, as described by Turner, is related to transitions within one culture. This means that it is impossible to apply this model to intercultural and inter-civilizational processes without reservation. Meanwhile, it is obvious that many features of liminality work well in situations of intercultural contacts. Both Turner and British anthropologist Mary Douglas (1984) make a point that the social environment responds to liminal individuals as to danger.
It is interesting to note that liminal beings are perceived by well-established cultural and societal structures as dangerous not only in the context of their uncertainty. Turner remarks that the state of liminality embraces the thing called ‘open morality’ in the spirit of Henri Bergson in contrast to the ‘closed morality’ of traditional society. He gives examples of artistic images that describe this state of openness of morality in the spirit of “mystic love to mankind”: the merciful Samaritan in the Bible, the Jewish violinist Rothschild in Chekhov’s novella Rothschild’s Violin, and Dostoyevsky’s Sonya Marmeladova in Crime and Punishment. Paradoxical features of open morality always baffle traditional society, causing uncertainty.
Negative identity assemblage points often appear as a response to this uncertainty: extremist and nationalist models (the ideas of ‘pure race’, etc.) that try to remove the phenomena of uncertainty in culture by eliminating otherness. As Douglas remarks, “the ultimate paradox of the quest for purity is that this is an attempt to forcefully squeeze the experience into logical categories of non-ambiguity.”
In Turner’s analysis, liminal beings are passive by their social nature – they are waiting for the restoration of social or cultural boundaries. However, since their values are not defined, they are expecting regulations, values, and their future social roles from spiritual leaders. In this period, social messages and rituals sacralise as “sacred text”, preparing the initiated to acquire a new status.
Thus, in contrast to blurred national and cultural orientations, the role of religion as a uniting factor and steady foundation of identification is growing under the erosion of cultural traditions. Both Olivier Roy in Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (2006) and Akeel Bilgrami in “What is a Muslim? Fundamental Commitment and Cultural Identity” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1992) make this point.
Within Turner’s theory, we see one more mechanism of social anthropology that attaches a sacral status to any message that seems ‘spiritual’. This relates to an interesting observation by Arne Seifert about the expansion of religious impact on the migrant environment through the events of daily life: “This also explains the significant role mosques play. They are not just places for praying, but also provide migrants with help in finding a job or housing. At the same time, migrants who do not take part actively in such religious activity are held up as an example of what can happen when strict adherence to tradition is abandoned. Islamist recruiters frequent mosques, halal cafes, and bazaars to spread warnings about such rootless behaviour.”
Interestingly, according to Turner (1991) only the situation of transition and “liminal time period” gives rise to the “model of a non-structural or rudimentary society and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, a community or even communion of equal individuals subordinating to the supreme authority of ritual elders.” The observation of Sergey Abashin from the European University of St. Petersburg in “Central Asian Migrants in Russia: Will there be a Religious Radicalization?”, (Central Asian Program, 2017) supports this: “Migrants are not radicalized alone, but through and with social networks. The internet plays a big role; recruitment is relational rather than done in isolation.” Today social networks imitate the exact characteristics of “communitas”.
Summing up the analysis of intercultural and inter-civilizational processes in the light of social anthropology, one can see that by being intrinsically ‘harmless’, the mechanisms of liminality are unconsciously loaded with negative connotations on the part of traditional social structures and are quite consciously used by extremist communities.
Modern liminal processes as mirror reflections
We have discussed liminality as a model when something new (migrants) comes into the territory of the traditional and well-established (receiving culture). However, does this model exist in reality?
As a rule, Western European migration policy practices adhere to this model. To obtain economic benefits, a migrant should show signs of agreement with social and cultural models of the host country (attend meetings for migrants, participate in social inclusion practices, etc.). In other words, migrants must at least formally assert themselves as full members of a new social structure.
From the viewpoint of liminality, the process of transition is completed when the liminal person acquires distinctness. However, in the situation of erosion of traditional values, the space of new culture and new social life itself turns out to be equally, if not more, uncertain for the initiated person than the cultural model he had to abandon. It means that as a carrier of certainty and stability (even in categories of the past), the liminal person will treat the new European homeland as uncertain and therefore hostile. Consequently, we can reframe the model of liminality to reveal a completely different content.
In this respect, Andrey Yakimov, a researcher of migration processes from Saint Petersburg, offers an interesting perspective in his paper ‘On boundaries and overcoming them’. He considers that, in view of 20th-century history, all of us are migrants to an extent.
“History clearly demonstrates fluidity and instability of state borders. Just try to reproduce a historical video that illustrates the development of states on the geographical map in an accelerated mode and you will be amazed at the scale and chaotic nature of this Brownian motion. After that, the phrase ‘tomorrow we’ll wake up in another country’ does not seem so ironic any more: it applies to every generation in Russia and Germany that kept waking up day after day in a completely new reality, similar to Groundhog Day. This happened, for example, to the citizens of the Soviet Union one fine morning in 1991, when they became residents of about 15 independent states. Since then, visiting relatives, moving to another city, entering university or changing the place of work in many cases involved international migration within the Commonwealth of Independent States, or even States of the Council of Europe.”
In this situation, it is not the individual, who changes the borders, but the borders that divide the individual beyond his will.
There is one more category of modern ‘migrants’: the young. Recently scientific communities have actively discussed the social and psychological qualities of the youth including the well-known term of ‘digital natives’. An example is Marc Prensky in “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” (On the Horizon, Vol. 9 No. 5, 2001). On one hand, modern youth is liberal towards cultural and social boundaries. They actively take advantage of the economic growth possibilities provided by globalization.
On the other hand, as Michael Walsh remarks in his blog, digital natives are people, “who were born in the age that is completely immersed in and dependent on technological process”, that is why “they fully rely on technological items in completing everyday tasks for their personal benefit.” With complete trust in “free internet”, they have hardly any significant cultural competence since they perceive the world globally.
Here we can speak of risk groups: those young people for whom the uncertainty of personal existence becomes a traumatic factor. Saint-Petersburg Teacher Training University in Russia conducted social research to determine the reasons why ethnic Russian youth convert to Islam. The results showed that one of the motives for conversion was the attainment of certainty, which neither traditional religion (Orthodoxy), nor cultural and family environments could give them. Several European studies have shown that social media posts made by young people expressing the feeling of loss (frustration) and uselessness were targeted for further recruitment in extremist associations.
It becomes obvious that liminality as a state of non-culture worldview is a universal problem of modernity.
The ‘desire to exist’ and negative reflection
When we speak of human subjectivity as striving for boundless self-unfolding, as a rule, we set aside the concept of purpose. However, no process can be characterised as development or becoming in the absence of a specific purpose and meaning. Even if the person has no specific goal to achieve, he or she still wants to be noticed by others or necessarily needs the recognition of his or her presence.
Benno Hubner began his studies of modernity within his doctoral dissertation using a ‘speaking’ title, ‘Boredom and meaninglessness of today’s existence’ (1962). In the article ‘Voluntary ethos and compulsory aesthetics’ (2000), he remarks that a person has a metaphysical need “to transcend the Self”. He states that the intrinsic need of human nature is not only in the existence of the Self, but also in attaining the meaning of such existence. Taking Friedrich Nietzsche as an example, he shows that the absence of any definite meanings and articulated values leads the person towards attempts to find meaning through nothing: horror vacui (fear of the void) making him turn from the position “I don’t want anything” to the statement “I want nothingness”.
In Meaning in MEANING-less time (2006), Hubner makes an extremely subtle and precise observation on the distinct perception of the individual obsessed with the will for nothingness. He writes that, “the meaning is in the action itself, action for the sake of action … The thrill of action can withdraw nothingness and void in the soul for a moment. However, not every action has the power of existential proof due to the total eclipse of MEANING/meaning. The action must be seen, the cry must be heard. Other people should perceive this action as witnesses, which will indirectly draw attention to the criminal. With the help of other people, sensationalism of the action proves to the criminal that he exists.”
Hubner’s observation resonates with the current understanding of the phenomena of selfies, video-bloggers, etc. Today the need to identify personal subjectivity has become universal as a protest against the loss of personal identity and values. Being noticed by society is a non-axiological tendency of modern times.
As to intercultural and inter-civilizational processes, the same desire ‘to be noticed’ can push liminal groups and individuals toward aggressive social acts. The more attention mass media and social networks pay to these fallouts from normal ‘humanness’, the greater feedback the criminal receives: suddenly he or she becomes not a liminal and not even a marginal person, but a ‘hero’ or a ‘star’, even if with negative connotations.
Borders and meanings in the cultural dialogue
Mikhail Bakhtin, the Soviet philosopher and an author on the concept of dialogue, wrote in The issues of literature and aesthetics (1975, p. 25) that, “You shouldn’t, however, regard the field of culture as a spatial whole that has borders, as well as inner territory. Cultural field doesn’t have inner territory: it is situated on the borders, the borders are everywhere…”. The paradoxical process of shifting borders and newly emerging restrictions is integral to the development of culture. Unfolding his or her subjectivity, the individual defines and overcomes the boundaries. One culture becomes enriched with new content when opening itself to another culture. However, in intercultural processes the development takes place only in the situation of a dialogue.
As previously mentioned, the boundaries and borders become the foundation for the psychological phenomenon of the dialogue. Only through becoming aware of his or her identity and through separating himself or herself from ‘the other’ can the individual hear the word and answer back.
As Bakhtin writes in To the methodology of human sciences (1979, p. 361), the lost meaning is resurrected through dialogue. “At any moment of the unfolding dialogue there exist huge unlimited masses of forgotten meanings, but at certain moments of further evolution of the dialogue, they will come back reviving in a new form (in a new context). There is nothing absolutely dead: every meaning will have its feast of revival.”
Does this mean that the modern individual is summoned to overcome his or her liminality, define the new boundaries of cultures and civilizations, and thus, contribute to the revival of meaning?
Kira Preobrazhenskaya, Valeryi Znoev, and Andrey Yakimov
Copyright © 2018 by Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute.
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