I have recently been engaged on LinkedIn with Jonathan Cook, who is writing a book about ritual in the advertising business. It has been a delightful conversation, with a lot of productive to and fro, but yesterday Jonathan wrote something that I strongly disagreed with. In responding to him, several different arguments that I have been thinking about for years suddenly clicked into place. Here is what I wrote. I will be happy if it proves useful to someone who reads it, ecstatic if they reply and push my thinking in new directions.

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Ritual, Liminality, and Social Facts

Jonathan, when you write that, "To me, the distinction between liminal and liminoid is a way of indulging in the biased presumption that culture is something that other people have," you lose me. I have no particular desire to defend "liminoid" as a concept, and the word is ugly as hell. But here is the way I think about ritual and liminal states.

My starting point is the observation that ritual, conceived conventionally as the repetition of set forms, is what Durkheim calls a social fact, something that is taken as given in social life. Ritual is, in fact, the exemplary social fact. The question is how does it get that way. For an answer I turn to Berger and Luckmann and their description of the process involved in the construction of social reality. The process can be broadly described has having three steps. First, somebody comes up with an idea. At this stage it is just their idea. Second, they show it to someone else. At this point something interesting happens. The idea's existence no longer depends exclusively on the individual who came up with it. That person may discard the idea. That person can die. But as long as the second person still has the idea, the idea lives on. In step three, a group of people all embrace the idea and come to take it for granted. Now that idea has become a social fact. Individuals can come and go, but as long as the group takes it for granted, it affects and may even determine their behavior.

A ritual, as I think about it, is the culmination and epitome of this process; and, yes, the ad world has its rituals, at all sorts of levels from project teams (in Japan we assemble and wait for the creative director to initiate the conversation) to presentations (in Japan, the account executives act as moderators, introducing the marketing researchers and creatives who make the pitch; they attempt to retain the neutrality that allows them to provide reliable feedback from the client), to the industry as a whole (there are annual ad contests and awards ceremonies, for example). The differences between Japanese and other advertising culture rituals can lead to friction when two sets of "taken for granted" point in different directions. Culture itself might be usefully conceived as the taken for granted that surfaces when quarrels and conflicts occur. Have you ever noticed? At least in business settings, people only talk about culture when misunderstandings divide them.

How, then, does the liminal fit into all this? There is a subset of rituals called rites of passage, that have the classic separation, betwixt-and-between, reintegration pattern that van Gennep described and Turner developed with his studies of what happens in the betwixt-and-between "liminal" phase of rites of passage. Turner noticed a recurring pattern in which initiates (those undergoing the passage) are stripped of their previous social identities, reduced to bare humanity, and compelled to undergo tests that demonstrate their qualifications for the new status they will possess when reintegrated into society. And here is the critical point: similar rituals are found all over the place. They occur in African bush camps where boys are circumsized or healing rituals performed. They occur in military training. They occur in frat house initiations on many American college campuses. In a mild form, I went through a similar process myself being confirmed as a full member of the Lutheran church in which I grew up, for which I had to spend time in confirmation classes, memorize Luther’s small catechism, and repeat the responses properly at the ceremony that marked my liturgical adulthood. Ever been to a bar-mitzvah?

But are rites of passage the only kinds of rituals there are? I don’t think so. The most basic ritual in Chinese popular religion, for example, involves preparing offerings, lighting incense, bowing and presenting the offerings to the spirit to whom the ritual is directed, requesting a favor, and divining whether the spirit is inclined to grant it. Is there a liminal period in this ritual? Only in the sense that the ritual usually involves entering a sacred space and leaving when it is over. Has a passage occurred? No. The worshipped and spirit end with the same relationship with which the ritual began. The worshipper leaves by the same door she entered. This ritual doesn’t dramatized a change in status. Instead it dramatizes asking a favor, cutting a deal, maybe offering a bribe.

I have rattled on far too long. The point is that nowhere in this analysis is it posited that ritual is something for “them” not “us.” Ritual is something human, with a diverse array of forms, not all of which are rites of passage, with liminal phases like those that Turner analyzed among the Ndembu. What, then, are we to do with rituals that may show family resemblances to rites of passage but differ in important detail. That was the problem that Turner was beginning to grapple with when he coined "liminoid” and, then, unfortunately died too young to develop a richer theory. Had nothing whatsoever to do with seeing culture as their thing but not ours.

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Comment by John McCreery on January 28, 2014 at 2:55pm

Logan, thanks for the stroke. Jonathan Cook, the fellow to whom I was writing, is an interesting guy. You should check out his currentdepths.com Website. You might also have a look at the LinkedIn discussion from which my comment was taken. 

Comment by Logan Sparks on January 28, 2014 at 2:40pm

thanks for this. I have linked to your discussion here at my Ritual Studies Forum on facebook.

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