Wednesday, July 30, 2014


What is the difference between “liminal space” and “dissociation”?  Both are outside ordinary experience and either can be good or bad, depending on circumstances.  

The main difference depends on the origins of the concept.  “Liminal space” comes from anthropology and was a theory derived from the ceremonies (especially rites of passage) of groups.  In fact, it was developed by observing “primitive” peoples but it soon became clear that it works pretty well for the “developed world.”  Where there are humans, there are ceremonies, and ceremonies work by taking the people across a limen (threshold) of some kind into a sort of changing ground where the group witnesses a shift in status, and then returns the changed person to ordinary society but with a new set of parameters.   The specifics depend on the customs of the culture.  Where it gets into trouble is confusing "liminal" with "numinous" or "theodicy," which are religious terms.

Dissociation comes from psychology.  It shows in behavior and personal reports, but seems to be directly linked to brain function that is detectable with instruments.  (Liminality is maybe not.) Whatever is happening inside the skull of the person may or may not change them as far as anyone else can tell.  Mild versions might be a waking dream or memory gaps.  The most intense would be outright psychosis, although probably coma would be the ultimate.  Dissociation can be imposed chemically or by heredity, trauma, lesion, infection or inflammation.  It can be forced deliberately as torture.  It can be triggered emotionally.  Again, it is confused when the category is considered epiphany or visions, which are spiritual and can easily be claimed by religions.

In my enthusiasm for creating events that would evoke deep meaning, perhaps life-changing, I have not reconciled the “high” that might come from an evangelical tent meeting with the “high” of a person who has a brain tumor.  “Meaning” in our culture seems to be double:  on the one hand the rational thought of the scientist or mathematician, and on the other hand an emotional total-body response.  Our religious institutions offer rational “theo”-ology, reasoning about God or Gods or whatever mask you choose for some almighty power.    They draw diagrams and argue numbers.  But there is nothing rational about the belief that there IS an almighty power.  It’s a felt meaning, which is spiritual.   And not everyone feels it. 

The DSM composed and constantly revised by the psych people is always in pursuit of a final definition of dissociation with little success -- they are trying to impose rationality (like theology or math) on something that is essentially elusive because it is individual.  Psych-handbook people are urged on by pharma folks who want to identify a pill for every symptom and insurance people who want to pin down the exact compensation per symptom.  ("How much is a severed limb worth?"  It's on a list.  Ask your agent.)

Feelings are undependable.  Words are shifty.  Dance, art, music, vids, and the other less scholastic (taught) media are more useful.  Humans are a process, culture is a process, life is defined by being a process -- once it stops processing, it’s dead.  Feelings are embodied, an expression of living bodies.  The state of the body can dictate the state of the felt meaning.  However it was caused, a “high” is not a deduction (rational) but a reaction (emotional).  But it does not deny rational reflection, maybe later.  One can reflect rationally on anything, including the practice of being rational!  (How does that make you feel?)

It occurs to me that institutions are agents of reconciliation between reason and emotion and that they arose as we know them because of the invention of bookkeeping and writing.  Nomadic hunter/gatherers millennia ago had no need for such markings.  Agriculture, which underlies the invention of written records, is rooted in ownership and defense of land and its stored products.  The invention of inventories.  Institutions need to be in a place, so the record books and measuring devices can be kept there. At this point in history war also became located -- no longer done on the run, but marked by the measurements of boundaries, often seeming to be ABOUT the location of boundaries.

Thinking this way lets me make a helpful distinction.  “Liturgy” is usually institutional and based on prescribed -- or at least recorded -- words and possibly actions.  “Ceremonies” might be liturgical, but also could be events that aren’t even considered primarily religious, like the installation of secular leaders.  Institutional religion cherishes liturgy.  Nations need ceremonies.  If the two are mixed, there can be trouble.

Therapeutic exercises, possibly for the healing of individuals and possibly for building group morale, have little to do with written words or prescriptions.   Rather, spoken words, acting out, using props, composing living sculptures of relationships, pretending to be reborn . . . all often improvised.  Try something -- see how it makes you feel.  Follow your gut.

Most institutional therapy is practical and concrete: meds, surgery, electroconvulsive therapy.    Controlling stuff.  These are severe enough that the larger secular institution of the state will try to regulate them through credentialing and even oversight by inspectors and professional peer organizations.  But this does not spare society from major ghastly blunders like lobotomies or pharmaceutical suppression of personality.  Nor does it seem able to control the self-medication of people through street drugs.  It is a puzzle how the institutions came to eject the people they were supposed to help -- some kind of bait and switch.

Religion began to get into the therapy approach through morality.  The Salvation Army, for instance, appeals to people hooked on alcohol to accept the theological “high” of feeling saved.  They offer themselves as a support group that is practical: food and beds, but you must accept their God.  Many “pastors” of mainstream denominations now function as counselors far more than they do as theologians.  Their role in maintaining the institution of the congregation or denomination is always controversial.  Everyone wants the congregations saved, but maybe not on the same terms.

Another escape from institutional theology and control is to the great outdoors.  Some interpret it as returning to the world before agriculture.  This is considered therapeutic but not theological -- some accept spirituality as a middle ground that escapes institutional control, therefore not needing theology.  But spirituality might be mediated or expressed by a person, as in Jesus or Buddha.  Neither was a theologian but both advocated empathy rather than rules.  Compassion for others.  Benevolent masks for God.

Neither liminality nor dissociation has much to do with rationality: math, science and legalities.  Liminality is an art form; dissociation is simply a state of mind.  But both of the them can underlie a demand for justice because of suffering.  Both are forces in a world that gets far too much absorbed in doing what they CAN do (Can we make a weapon we never use?) instead of what they OUGHT to do.  Both can function as alternatives to force/violence/war.  Both can reconcile and heal.

Now that internet culture is escaping the necessity of basing affinity groups on a place, offering close relationships without physical presence, what does that mean in terms of liminality or dissociation?  Some would claim that the Internet IS liminal, over a threshold, and that dissociation IS working in a virtuality, not attached to ordinary reality, particularly when playing cybergames as an invented avatar.  So in a ceremonial sense, how is it connecting us to institutions?  Or is it only a new kind of hunting and gathering?  Whose culture applies or is a new one developing?  (I vote for the second option.) 

It’s clear that governments want control of the internet.  It erases boundaries, evades certification, cannot guarantee loyalty to certain leaders.  Shifty stuff.  It can be “scraped” to give us a nearly theological statistical understanding of what people as a group are doing -- omniscient and provable math/science algorithms about behavior.  It can control feedback to make people believe others are doing what they are not.  But also it can be a surveillance tool, watching individuals, a fox and hounds game that foxes can win. 

Dissociation is a given, one skull planted at the pixel end distribution point of the whole system.  Hypnotic suggestions, arousing and disorienting images and storylines, all the tricks of illusionists are there to be used.  But liminality is something else, dependent on a group that forms the time/space and also, probably, defines the transformation that will happen with the cooperation of the people as equals in consensus.  Screenwriters are liminalists.

The origin of my fascination with all this was high school dramatics -- that simple.  (Unless you count reading.)  Then theatre -- as it is wont to do -- became religion.  Why not play "for reals"?  In both fields the more I went into them, the more mysterious, entwined and unmanageable they became. 
"Beaver Bundle Opening" by Bob Scriver

Since my exposure was to two religious kinds of ceremony, one the Bundle-Keeping of Blackfeet and the other the formal elitist post-Christian Unitarian Universalists, my interest became reconciling them or at least putting them into relationship.  What I find is a need for new terminology, new science, and a heckuva lot more reading.  Excitingly enough, it’s all there -- still in books -- and in retirement I have the time to read.  When I figure it all out, I’ll let you know.  It’s not likely to be theological.  Nor institutional.  Nor even urban.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

Mornin'. Your last writings are a cohesive set of three for me. Very good. You're amazing, flowing seamlessly from the global/universal to the local/personal. Heady stuff, all making big sense. Thanks.