Freedom, Liminality and Social Change

The notion of Rave events as vehicles for social change may be illuminated by the notion of liminality, a term originated by Arnold van Gennep in Rites of Passage (1909) and later expanded by Victor Turner. Liminality refers to the ambiguity of the ritual realm, where everyday reality is transformed into a symbolic, ‘commitarian’ experience which thereafter affects the individual’s lived reality. In this way it can act as a catalyst for social change. In psychological terms, ritual can be viewed in terms of flow as a ‘psychophysical experience of involving oneself totally in an activity’, which provides the individual with the opportunity to assess his/her normal life, and that this can induce personal and social change.

Turner argued that the dialectical relationship of ritual to social structure can facilitate creative responses to the negative aspects of day-to-day social structures, such as ‘divisiveness, alienation and exploitation’. In binding individual elements of the social fabric together in a whole, ritual serves to create a sense of community among its participants, reinforcing those ‘communitarian values’ which hold people together. In turn, ritual threatens the status quo by undermining status positions when participants share in the creation of new (albeit temporary) social roles, encouraging experimental ‘direct and egalitarian exchanges’ between people. Finally, in serving the common good it reinforces people’s sense of community, a sense of which they can take back with them into everyday life.

Ritual can also undermine the social structure, in that people find instruction in it as to the fundamental ‘organizing principles and values’ upon which they base their society. According to Turner, ‘structure and anti-structure’ are brought into balance, as the bonds of conventional social construction are loosened and interaction becomes more egalitarian. In this way, ‘Ritual is a principal means by which society grows and moves into the future’.

In his semiotic analysis of rituals, Keyan Tomaselli defines them as ‘The collectively patterned performance forms through which processes of cultural or sacred signification are integrated into consciousness and social practices’. They are also ‘enacted’ by sign-user communities to confirm cosmological locations, relationships to universal forces and to solidify social organisation. Through ritual, the social world is realigned with the world of belief, lending to the latter a ‘transformative power’.

Tomaselli identifies the liminal state as one that enables the individual to question traditional ways of operating and to recognise new possibilities. Liminal states are also where the noumenal is oft to be found; ‘noumena’ in Tomaselli's view are ‘things and processes which resist scientific understanding’, which range from the paranormal to the supernatural.

If liminal states are induced through processes of ritual they may be utilized to effect changes in consciousness where people experience a sense of spiritual unity, which can then be translated into social movements aimed at transforming the nature of society. This already happens to some extent, with musical genres such as punk rock and techno being associated with the DIY (Do It Yourself) anarchist movement, though at the same time this movement is scattered and sporadic rather than being an organised force in society.

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