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Talking About Liminality in Oxford

May 24, 2012

Can you find me amid all the other brilliant people in this picture? (Hint: I’m in the back, fourth from the right)

The international conference ‘The Egyptian Revolution, One Year On: Causes, Characteristics and Fortunes’ which I attended last weekend (May 18 and 19) at the Department of Politics and International Relations ay Oxford University was absolutely great. I met some amazing scholars, some of whom I knew and some I did not, and I learned a great deal from every single panel, and I have a lot to think about.

What struck me most about the conference was that irregardless of our discipline, we all seemed to be struggling with finding languages with which to describe and analyze this tremendous ongoing transformation of the Egyptian polity. So I learned about “horizontalism,” “securitization,” “informalization,” “street politics” and many other glosses for the kinds of social action we are seeing play out in Egypt.

My own paper, entitled “In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama” borrows not from my usual languages of globalization and practice theory but from the processual analysis of Victor Turner in the 1970s. In particular, I was looking at the notion of liminality.

“Liminality” is the state of being betwixt and between two states. It is drawn from ritual studies, which describes how in certain rites of passage, persons are separated from their normal social positions and enter into a state of being neither one thing nor another before they become reintegrated into society in a new status.

In that state of liminality, people have enormous transformative power and creativity, which makes them at once dangerous and valuable, as change can be for the good or ill, or, as is often the case, a lot of both.

I’m arguing that Egypt is in a state of extended liminality, with no “ritual specialist” (for example, a powerful, charismatic leader) to constrain its dangers. Tahrir Square represents a coherent unit–what Turner would call a “social drama”–of revolution, and we are currently seeing struggles by different political groups to use Tahrir to constrain further social change (as when SCAF insists that those 18 days were the revolution), or to extend the revolution to extend change.

My paper from the Oxford conference can be downloaded by clicking on the title above. The conveners of the conference are planning to put podcasts of our talks on-line as well. I’ll provide a link as soon as I get one.

Update:

The following review of the conference appeared in Jadaliyya

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