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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Turner’s Topic Mirrors the Turbulent Times

Synchronistically, in 1964, V. Turner wrote a paper about liminality called “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.”  This betwixt and between condition refers to the placement of the liminal period between two stable conditions.  V. Turner's book The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure, published in 1969, elaborates on these ideas. 

Hansen (2001) explains that rituals serve to assist individuals with psychological changes that occur as a result of these changes in status and they also help to solidify the new structure. Hansen also points out the dangers inherent in liminal periods, and quoting anthropologist Mary Douglas notes:

“Ritual recognizes the potency of disorder.  In the disorder of the mind, in dreams, faints and frenzies, ritual expects to find powers and truths which cannot be reached by conscious effort.  Energy to command and special powers of healing come to those who can abandon rational control for a time.”  In disorder, comes power, too, in disorder there is danger . . . . All this is directly applicable to the trickster because he is a denizen of the interstitial realm.  (pp.  66-67)

When things or people change, whether states, positions, styles of organization, etcetera, there is an interval of liminality, which however brief, constitutes a moment of “pure potentiality” where the past is momentarily negated, suspended, or abrogated and the future has not yet begun” and in this instant, “everything, as it were, trembles in the balance.” (V. Turner, 1982b, p. 44)

V. Turner (1982b) then discusses revolutions, insurrections and romanticism as “late social processes”—in these times or movements there is an inversion and the liminal becomes the norm:

For in these modern processes and movements, the seeds of cultural transformation, discontent with the way things are culturally, and social criticism, always implicit in the preindustrially liminal have become situationally central . . . . Thus revolutions, whether successful or not, become the liminal, with all their initiatory overtones, between major distinctive structural forms or orderings of society . . . . Revolutions, whether violent or nonviolent, may be the totalizing liminal phases for which the liminal of tribal rites de passage were merely foreshadowings or premonitions. (p. 45)

These revolutionary times or movements are the liminal times between two different structural periods.  The 1960s was such a revolutionary time.  As mentioned above, these times can be dangerous, and they are especially troubling to those such as George Banks in Mary Poppins or the establishment in the 1960s, who value order.  ∆RC[mp9]

V. Turner (1982b) notes that since liminality is an ambiguous state, it “may be for many the acme of insecurity, the breakthrough of chaos into cosmos of disorder into order, [rather] than the milieu of creative interhuman or transhuman satisfactions and achievements.”  Although the structures of society inhibit us in certain ways, they also provide security," while “liminality may be the scene of disease, despair, death, suicide, the breakdown without compensatory replacement of the normative, well-defined social ties and bonds.” In tribal societies domestic witchcraft, hostile dead and vengeful spirits were denizens of liminality, and “in leisure genres of complex societies [the dark side of liminality] may show up as extreme situations of existentialist writers: torture, murder, war, the verge of suicide, hospital tragedies.”  The bottom line, as V. Turner states is that “liminality is both more creative and more destructive than the structural norm”  (pp. 46-47).

This was evident in the 1960s.  The stable structure of life in the 1950s provided a respite from the atomic anxieties after World War II, but it was also stifling to many, and the structure of society itself was flawed in many ways. The different revolutionary movements in the 1960s sought to shake loose this structure, and to fashion it anew.  In Mary Poppins, George’s overly orderly life is stifling to his family.  His wife and children in their own ways are rebelling against it, and the children’s latest rebellion led to the hiring of Mary.

Writing in the 1960s, V, Turner expanded van Gennep’s notion of liminality, and distinguished different groups that remained liminal at all times, including, shamans, court jesters, dharma bums, and hippies.  Bert is an example of an ever-liminal person. We will explore Bert's liminality during the scene-by-scene-play when we examine "Chim Chim Cher-ee."

People in liminal positions often defy classification, like the Trickster and play itself, being liminal similarly eludes categorization; this is due to their antistructural nature.  Discussing the function of societal structure, Hansen (2001) notes its more Saturnian side: “roles give definition and continuity to a person’s life… by its nature, structure produces social distance and inequality…. some alienation results from all structure” (p. 54).  During liminality, antistructure, a breaking down of structure occurs, which is Plutonic in nature. During rites of passage, this breaking down of structure occurs within the group of initiands, whose condition V. Turner (1982) describes:

Initiands are often considered to be dark, invisible, like the sun or moon in eclipse, or the moon between phases, at the “dark of the moon”; they are stripped of names and clothing, smeared with the common earth rendered indistinguishable from animals.  They are associated with such general oppositions as life and death, male and female, food and excrement, simultaneously, since they are at once dying from or dead to their former status and life, and being born and growing into new ones . . . . Thus the ritual subjects in these rites undergo a “leveling” process, in which signs of their preliminal status are destroyed and signs of their liminal non-status applied. (p. 26)  

It is worth mentioning that I was born at the dark of the moon and the moon in my chart is also conjunct with Pluto. This may explain my continuing fascination and affinity with liminality.


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