History & Liminality, Part 2: Dancing about the Ruin  

Jun 16th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

liminal hitler

Words & images by Jasun Horsley

Blood Cement: Concretizing the Abstract

In a recent conversation with paranormal researcher George P. Hansen, Hansen told me that liminality does not lend itself to abstract expression: it is very hard to talk about liminality in the abstract, Hansen said; you have to refer to concrete examples.

Liminality is anti-structure, and language is an expression of structure. It is both the result of structure and a means to impose structure onto things. To talk about liminality, then, is to attempt to drag language beyond the limits of what language is capable of expressing or describing. As the famous phrase has it, it’s like dancing about architecture. (This phrase itself enjoys a kind of liminal status, being a quote with no precise source, most commonly attributed to the musician Martin Mull, who allegedly said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” No actual record of this exists, apparently.)[i]

The point here is that, when we talk about liminality (or write about music, or dance about architecture), there is a disproportionate amount of room for error, or at least subjective interpretation, because the description tools aren’t well matched to what’s being described. Using concrete examples reduces this problem (in the case of liminality, at least) in a similar way to how using metaphors helps us understand abstract questions. Examples and metaphors speak to a more direct experience, that of the body and of images, and they leave at least some of the interpretation to the reader or listener. This allows us to reach our own understanding, rather than having to follow the speaker/author’s.

Fortunately, this loose series of essays began when the author discovered an example of liminality so striking (and well-known) that it inspired him (that’s me) to use it as the basis for an exploration of liminality, a demonstration of how, as a lens through which to view history and human behaviors, it offers a whole new potential for clarity and perspective. A new context. This example is one that’s raised (without any reference to, or apparent awareness of, liminality) by the US author and lecturer, Timothy Snyder, in a lecture he gave about his book, Bloodlands.

In the lecture, Snyder makes a bold attempt to offer an explanation for the persecution of the Jews in Europe during the late 1930s. Snyder starts by pointing out that only a tiny percentage of murdered Jews were killed inside Germany; the vast majority was killed in Nazi-occupied countries such as Austria, France, and Poland. The reason Snyder offers for this is simple but surprising: the systematic persecution of the Jews depended on the nation where it happened first being severely destabilized. Since destabilizing Germany was the last thing on the Nazis’ minds, persecution of Jews couldn’t occur inside the national borders to the same degree as it did outside of them.

To illustrate his point, Snyder gives the example of Estonia and Denmark, both of which were Nazi-occupied during the 1930s. According to Snyder, while the Danish people rescued 97% of its resident Jews from death, the Estonian people cooperated in the extermination of 97%. The difference, according to Snyder, is simple: Denmark retained its sovereignty, its national identity (and consequently its stability), Estonia did not.

For a nation, or more precisely, for a people previously belonging to a nation or a social community who are identified with the institutions, values and mores that held that nation-state together, losing sovereignty means entering into a period of liminality.


What the Other Might Do: Preemptive Mimetic Violence


For a community or a nation to enter into a period of liminality, or anti-structure, means the institutions and social conventions begin to collapse. Individuals who belong to a community identify with the structures around them, both social and “moral”. When those structures start to collapse, people’s internal sense of identity soon follows. Which way is up and which way is down? What is acceptable behavior? There is no way to tell. Everything is suddenly “up for grabs.” (Often literally, as in the recent case of Greece.)

To give a more current example, it has often been noted how, when inner city rioting occurs as a result of some social injustice, rather than directing the anger and frustration at the classes above, the rioters begin looting, destroying, and burning down their own neighborhood. Apparently this is because, without a sense of stability within their own community, people enter a liminal state in which they no longer feel safe as individuals. Reacting with irrational panic, anxiety, and rage, individual survival becomes their only concern. “The other” then becomes, potentially, anyone and everyone around them (notwithstanding the formation of mobs).

Simply put, as Snyder describes it, the people living in those European countries where national institutions were collapsing felt personally unsafe. Witnessing the people around them being killed for no obvious reason, they feared they would be next. The surest way to feel safe under those conditions—to escape the fate being inflicted on the Jews, gypsies, and other targeted groups—was to side with the conquering forces—i.e., the victimizers. If, on the other hand, the nation they belonged to retained its sovereignty, if the institutions remained intact, as in Denmark, the populace felt secure enough not to side (so quickly) with the invaders. Evidently, it even felt safe enough to identify with the victimized, and to choose to protect them.

In Snyder’s thesis, the Nazis were fully aware of this fact. They recognized that the infamous Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”), in which thousands of German Jews were rounded up and murdered, was an extremely risky move on Hitler’s part. They were adamant that such tactics should not be repeated within the borders of the Homeland, because if the German people sensed that their institutions were unstable, they would panic and rise up—not in defense of the Jews but in fear for their own livelihood.

Snyder’s reframing of the Nazi occupation of Europe and the persecution of Jews and other peoples is subtle but I think quite profound. He makes the obvious point that one of the main reasons the inhabitants of occupied countries cooperated with the Jewish persecution was that they feared not to do so would be to jeopardize their own lives and the lives of their families. But he also adds that this wasn’t necessarily a direct fear of the occupying German forces. More likely, he says, it was a fear of their own neighbors (and even family members), of anyone who might report their activities if they chose to defy the Nazi invaders and rescue Jews. Is it so hard to imagine that, possessed by such fear, unable to be sure our own community members wouldn’t betray us, many of us would choose to cooperate with the occupying Nazi forces?

This reading of familiar-to-the-point-of-contempt events isn’t really surprising; once it’s spelled out clearly enough, it even seems self-evident. But what’s compelling (to me at least) is how it reframes the events that occurred in Europe during the 1930s, sourcing them not solely in the actions of the Nazis, but in the imagination of ordinary people. In the fear of what the other might do.

In periods of liminality, as the integrity of the community is undermined, individuals’ sense of identity becomes unstable. The collective identity that arises in a time of liminality—chaos, upheaval, and trauma—is a negative identity, one that can affirm itself only by negating that which it is “not.” The need for a scapegoat—an Other—therefore increases, as a way to reestablish some of the lost solidarity to the community. Within larger communities, such as a nation, an individual scapegoat is not enough, and entire groups are targeted. When the Other is identified as not merely a single individual but a large, and somewhat amorphous, group of individuals, it becomes less clear where the line between the community-identity being affirmed and the “other” being negated lies. The way to avoid becoming the other—to avoid being negated by the community—is to participate in the negation of the designated Other. To refuse to do so is to implicitly affirm the Other, which is to negate one’s own identity. It is kill, or risk being killed.

This is an essential, mysterious fact about periods of liminality: mimesis, or unconscious imitation, becomes contagious. Simply put, by imagining the terrifying possibility of what their neighbors might do, many people during this liminal period in Europe opted to do it first. It was a case of preemptive mimetic violence: imitating not what others are doing but what it was feared they might do.

This is also known as “Do unto others before they do it unto you,” and is sometimes attributed to the more psychopathic personality types. In fact, it’s something we have probably all been guilty of at one time or another. Anyone who has been in a long-term sexual relationship will have experienced it. How many times have you imagined your partner or workmate was thinking or doing something you found objectionable and reacted accordingly, only to discover the slight was mostly in your imagination? How many times have we judged another, out of a sneaking suspicion that we were being judged?

Biologically, the ability to place oneself in another’s person’s shoes and deduce what they are thinking is known as theory of mind. Theory of mind is often seen as fundamental to empathy and compassion, or at least consideration for others, and it may well have been instrumental in causing those few who chose to rescue persecuted people in 1930s Europe (Jews, gypsies, et al.) to do so: an ability to imagine their suffering and to want to oppose it. It may have also been the primary cause of the opposite decision, to participate in the persecution~ and on a much larger scale.

So what if mind itself is nothing but a theory?


Mind the Theory: Embracing Liminality

In the movie The Matrix, when Thomas Anderson is unplugged from the matrix, he undergoes some physical reactions: he seems unable to stand up, his eyes hurt, etc. After he finds out the truth, he throws up. Yet psychologically speaking, despite discovering his entire life has been a lie and that he is not who he thought he was, he remains essentially the same person.

In reality, if you or I, as individuals, were forcibly removed from the matrix of our social identities, if we had all value and meaning by which we have lived stripped away in an instant, not just externally but internally, what would there be left of us?

The movie can’t show this, of course. It can’t show it because the most logical way to show it would be for Thomas to be reduced to a wild animal and a raving lunatic. It also can’t show it because there is no way to posit an existence outside the social values we have grown up with from inside the framework of those same values. There is no way to dance about architecture. If The Matrix had faithfully represented Thomas’ experience outside the matrix, it would have been completely incomprehensible as a movie.

Religion (and spirituality), society, politics, and even psychology, may all have their own equivalent uses for liminality. But that is all they are: uses. Liminality itself can’t be seen as a stage between states because that presupposes the existence of both a past and a future state surrounding it. The nature of liminality is like that of the gypsy or the wandering Jew: to be forever moving, without a nation, or even a name; to be a man or woman between.

If Snyder’s treatise is correct (if my brief synopsis does it anything like justice), and if collective and individual violence is a direct result of the loss of identity, both national and individual, then one question that arises is, can a devastating loss of structure be met with a matching ability to relinquish our own internal structures? Is real unplugging even possible?

On the other hand, if the architecture of civilization is all coming down—if all roads lead inexorably to ruin—what’s left to do but dance about it?
[NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Zero Books will not abide holocaust denial in any form. We are not interested in hosting a skeptical conversation on the subject. Comments that stray into the territory of holocaust denial as we define it will be deleted.]


Jasun Horsley is the author of Seen & Not Seen: Confessions of a Movie Autist, from Zer0 Books.

His website is http://auticulture.com


[i] The first known citations appeared in a music magazine in 1979 and an arts magazine the same year; the latter referred to it as a “famous dictum.” The website Quote Investigator traces a similar phrase all the way back to a 1918 edition of the New Republic, however: “Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.” QI continues: “In 1921 the remark reappears in the form of a sphinxlike simile. The format of the comment uses the word ‘like’ once and the word ‘about’ twice. This conforms to the most common modern template. Writing about music is like ____ about ____. The first slot contains terms like dancing, singing, or knitting and the second slot contains terms like architecture, economics, or football.” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

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2 Comments to “History & Liminality, Part 2: Dancing about the Ruin  ”

  1. Lea Atiq says:

    Thank you for this great article. It made me think about many experiences but the most poignant was a memory I had when I was 6 years old. This happened 50 plus years ago when children were not as mushy as they are now. One girl, Marsha, was a little over weight and for this reason she was ostracized by her class mates, teased and taunted, and abused. This was probably the reason why she was so shy and quiet, and sad. She sat next to me and I felt sorry for her. We started to interact on the sly and I remember that I liked her and she was fun. But I was always afraid that the other children would see me with her. My fear of being treated as she was came fiercely to the fore. As a small girl I struggled with the decision to continue our friendship. I had no one to talk with about this dilemma and eventually I made the decision to distance myself from Marsha. I have never forgotten her. I know exactly what she looks like, her facial expressions, and her body. Oddly, I cannot remember her voice. My heart still aches for her because I was fond of her and I knew that shutting her out was a terrible thing to do. I think this was the first time I felt the mimetic pressure so clearly.

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