Antistructure in Tahrir
Tahrir is becoming a small free and happy Egypt.
–Post on the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said
One protester compared it to Brechtian theater: singing, poetry recitals, philosophical discussions of human rights and the dignity of man(kind), and political arguments about how best to move forward, all happening simultaneously, commenting on one another to create a meaningful cacophony.
Several participants have expressed their astonishment at the way the protesters pooled their skills and pitched in to organize food banks, clinics, waste management, and even the building of a small catapult to chase a sniper from a nearby location.
Others have emphasized the collapse here of class and sectarian distinctions that have long troubled Egypt and provided fuel for the regimes claims that it stood between a stable society and social collapse.
For the protesters and many of those watching and supporting them, Tahrir represents in miniature the free nation they aspire to. Without leaders, elected or otherwise, but with high energy, charismatic organizers, people step forward and offer their skills where and when needed.
Emil Durkheim, the grandfather of social science, called this surging social energy and creativity “effervescence” and claimed it was at the core of what made humans imagine wholes—like tribes, clans or nations—that are greater than the some of their parts. It was also, he claimed, the root of human ritual behavior.
But a more theorized explanation can be found in the works of Victor Turner and his notions of liminality, communitas and antistructure.
Turner borrowed the term “liminality” from ritual studies to refer to the state of being betwixt and between two states. In a rite of passage, for example, as people move from a state of childhood to a state of adulthood, they usually go through a state of liminality.
Turner showed that many social processes including revolutions and uprisings, have liminal stages, in which the structures of everyday life of the immediate past have been disrupted or overturned, but new structures have not yet emerged to replace them, a situation he termed “antistructure.”
The creative energy and camaraderie experienced by the protesters in Tahrir Square is a common social experience in liminal states, what Turner calls “communitas.” This is an intense feeling of community, social equality, solidarity, and togetherness experienced by those who live together in a site in which the normal social statuses and positions have broken down.
According to Turner, these periods of anti-structure can’t last. The fate of any type of antistructure and communitas is an inexorable “decline and fall into structure and law” (Turner 1969a:132). While they last, however, such situations have enormous transformative possibilities. Indeed, it is that sense of possibility that clearly drives the unprecedented popular struggles we are seeing in Egypt.
For More Information
Deflem, Mathieu. 1991. Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1):1-25
Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine.