But Turner also proposed that liminal moments are a constant of all societies in all times, including our own. For ultimately what is at stake in such rites, he declared, is the tension that always exists between hierarchical status-bound social structures and the insight into a deeper reality that arises during periods of flux and unstructured consciousness.
Indeed, to a large extent, the liminal experience Turner describes is to be understood as the antithesis of a sense of structure. As a result, within the liminal phase social norms are turned on their head. ‘The attributes of liminality or liminal personae (‘threshold people’) are necessarily ambiguous’, Turner writes, ‘since this condition and these persons elude or slip through networks of classification that normally locate states and positions in cultural space.’ Accordingly, liminal occasions are times when the self and society take cognisance of themselves. It constitutes a means of assessing and challenging our place in the emotional, spiritual and social world, and reinterprets the overarching pattern of social relations that define social structure. ‘ Liminal entities are neither here no there’, wrote Turner:
They are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols…..Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to the eclipse of the sun or moon.
In liminal spaces a person can stand outside their normal social roles and embrace alternative social arrangements and values. It is also a dangerous place where structure looses its grip. This is evidenced by the many taboos surrounding these periods.
But it isn’t simply that in the liminal state one is liberated temporarily from the normal constraints of society, but rather that as a result of being in that state we become aware of something profoundly at odds with the values of the society in which we live. For, Turner argued, within a liminal phase of consciousness we feel powerfully the ‘essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society.’ In other words, liminality grants us a deeper and potentially transformative sense of the fundamental unity of everybody and everything, and this is an experience that can only be achieved in a situation where socially-determined and status-bound structures are weak or non-existent.
Because it produces a formless and relatively undifferentiated state of being, liminal consciousness allows access to levels of being that normally must be suppressed. This new sense of oneness Turner calls ‘communitas’, and he distinguishes three phases. First, and most powerfully for the individual, is awareness of existential or spontaneous ‘communitas’ - or, as Turner writes, what ‘William Blake might have called ‘the winged moment as it flies’ or, later, ‘mutual forgiveness of each vice’. But inevitably spontaneous ‘communitas’ undergoes ‘what most people see as a ‘decline and fall’ into structure and law’, and during this process a sense of what Turner calls normative ‘communitas’ arises. Here, attempts are made to transmit the experience of existential ‘communitas’ into ‘a perduring social system’ which has a more permanent and transferable core. Finally, Turner argues, more abstract and utopian models inevitably come into existence which although based on the knowledge of an original experience of existential ‘communitas’ seek to contain this experience within enduring social forms. Historically, this has above all been sought within the frameworks established by religious doctrine. But more recently, at least in the West, it has also been the purpose of radical political ideologies. In such circumstances, there is, Turner writes, ‘an attempt to describe the external and visible effects – the outward form, it might be said – of an inward experience of existential communitas.’ . This he calls ideological ‘communitas’
It is no coincidence that Turner was developing his theory of liminality in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, for the radical challenges posed to conventional conceptions of social organisation and traditional cultural values launched during this period had alerted Turner to the forces of anti-structure within society. But as we have seen such forces had long been at work within Western culture. Marinetti’s writings on what he called ‘parole-in-liberta’ – words-in-freedom - like those of the Dadaist such as Tristan Tzara, for example, read almost like text-book accounts of the kinds of qualities and experiences Victor Turner associated with the liminal stage. But we can say that the vision of ‘existential communitas’ evoked by the flux-like ambiance of the pre-War and wartime avant-garde became transformed into a more structured vision of liminality - of ‘ideological communitas’ - which by the 1950’s had lapsed back into ‘law and order’, leading to another attempt to re-liminalise consciousness at a existential level. In this context psychedelic typography can be seen as an attempt to re-ignite the writing space with the kind of dynamic qualities celebrated by Marinetti and the Dadaists. In other words, the psychedelic designers of the counter-culture were hell-bent on restoring to writing a more unmediated and direct experience of liminality, one that had been lost by the more technologically inclined modernist. They were looking for forms that were commensurate with the new anti-disciplinary social revolution under way.