Unreal Nature

April 23, 2014

The Danger

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… and wherever they found it or expected to find it, there they lingered.

This is from the essay ‘Organization and Ecstasy: Deliberate and Accidental Communitas among Huichol Indians and American Youth’ by Barbara Myerhoff, found in Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology: Cases and Questions edited by Sally Falk Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff. My selections focus only on the ‘American Youth’ parts of her essay:

The term “communitas,” as used by Victor Turner, refers to a type of interpersonal relationship that may and does occur almost anywhere and in all kinds of societies — complex and simple, archaic and modern, unplanned and planned. This usage of communitas differs from the historical, temporal, and spatial limmits usually implied by “community,” and emphasizes that communitas is not limited to communities and is not necessarily more intense or common in that or any other given social type of relationship.

Communitas is only comprehensible in terms of “structure,” which is its opposite; indeed communitas is “antistructure.”

… It is only when the whole man is permitted to act spontaneously, without social responsibility and accountability, that communitas can develop. By definition, communitas cannot take place within structure, for it is ecstatic, literally an escape from the self. The spirit, in soaring flight, is liberated from the body and, correspondingly, from the social and historical rootedness that provides the daily mortal context. Of course, no one remains in a state of ecstasy indefinitely, so there must be ways of entering and leaving this condition, paths, as it were, between communitas and structure. Some societies provide such paths and chart the passages, and others leave them to chance, a risky business as will be seen.

In communitas, men involve their most private selves totally with one another and without the slightest suggestion of purpose or instrumentality. This is what Buber called Zwischenmenschlichkeit, and it is a transformative, often mystical experience. Without communitas, man and society are incomplete; yet without structure, existence is impossible. Dazzled by the power and joy of communitas, men often come together and attempt to institutionalize this condition by establishing utopian societies, but these efforts flounder when, as Turner puts it, “men find that they have to produce life’s necessities through work … to mobilize resources.”

… The example of accidental communitas used here [as opposed to the deliberate communitas of the Huichol Indians] is “Woodstock,” a reference to the florescence of American youth culture during the middle and late 1960s, known variously as “the counterculture,” “hippie culture,” “flower power,” the “Woodstock Nation,” and so forth. The high point of the movement was thought by many to have occurred in the summer of 1968 at an outdoor rock-music festival in Woodstock, New York. It lasted four days, was attended by approximately 500,000 young people, and was widely seen as constituting the fullest realization of the group’s most cherished values. In this case, Woodstock provides an excellent example of ad hoc communitas. It never recurred, at least not with the same intensity or in the same proportions, and the memory of it, the confusion and grief over its loss, made a considerable contribution to the ultimate dissolution of the Nation. In this interpretation, Woodstock became a kind of lost paradise, haunting and elusive to its devotees, both for those who had actually been there and for those who knew it vicariously and mythically.

[ … ]

… [After Woodstock] Life in the counterculture continued, and various styles of accommodation to an ideology based on ecstasy and accident were developed. Individual enterprises were carried on, enterprises that were tedious, and hardly at all in accord with spontaneous desires. Dishes were washed, dogs and babies were fed, planes and buses were caught, term papers were written. These feats were accomplished in various ways, four of which are by way of: tripping out, flip-flopping, the circuit, and the commune.

Skipping over ‘tripping out’ and ‘flip-flopping’:

… A third form of accommodation to the collapse of the Woodstock Nation was a kind of regular circuit made periodically by a number of the students when pressures built up in their ordinary lives. They would take off suddenly, alone or in groups of two and three, departing with a minimum of funds, clothes, and provisions, and cluster at freeway onramps holding hand-lettered signs indicating their destination. In actuality, their destination was not a place but a condition, that of communitas, and wherever they found it or expected to find it, there they lingered. It could occur anywhere, with anyone, and it was necessary to remain open and alert to this possibility at all times. Some events, place, and people were more promising than others, but communitas, they had learned, could not be scheduled, no matter how good the drugs, the music, the setting.

Yet the diminishing likelihood of finding communitas did not deter them from seeking it and, when they found it, seizing upon it as if it would never return. [ … ] And though the freeway onramp was infinitely less satisfactory and shorter-lived than Woodstock, it was better than relinquishing the vision entirely. The young people who had chosen this mode of adapting to the loss of the Woodstock communitas still spent most of their time in the life of structure — working, going to school, enacting everyday routines (often aimlessly), until, overwhelmed by the old memories, they bolted.

[ … ]

… the ultimate danger of communitas is not its capacity to disturb the social order within which it occurs. (I refer here to the danger which is alive and ecstatic, and finally unknowable.) The source of its danger is men clinging together in the state of roleless wonder that prevailed in the First Times. Rolelessness is formlessness and nakedness, where people abandon themselves to each other without any boundaries, to be at each other’s mercy in acute uncertainty. This venture into chaos, outside of society and self, can never be made safe. Man in the realm of the gods, the animals, the dead, and the spirits dares not ask for maps and procedures. This is the perilous passage back to Beginnings where one can hope to overcome human loneliness and separateness, but may also risk losing his soul and never returning at all. The danger, then, is not that of being alone, but of not being at all.

… The trick is always in the balance. Communitas may become bounded and rigid, a kind of totalitarianism of the sacred, as Turner points out, and this happens in monastic orders, nudist camps, communes, and religious sects, where the chosen way is guarded too diligently from the philistine at the gate. Structure is then instituted from within, growing more strident in its demands for conformity to the supremacy of the group life. Thus communitas “becomes what it beholds” and is engulfed by internally originating structure. The “group mind” absorbs the individual, and once more duty replaces freedom.

… The problem, evidently, is one of equilibrium. But it is a paradox to speak of balance in ecstasy.

My previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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