Nov 262006

I’ve finished Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (next is his Dramas, Fields and Metaphors). As I stated before, Turner defines ritual as a three-part process: separation, liminality and aggregation. The neophyte is separated from his prior social status, enters a threshold or ambiguous state and is then re-integrated into society in a new social status.

In Turner’s theory, the primary purpose of the liminal state is to experience communitas, a kind of empathetic sense of common humanity. However, people can experience liminality without reaching communitas, and may not want to. Liminality may be its own reward, as in liminoid rituals, in which the participants don’t experience lasting changes in social status. “…for the hippies – as indeed for many millenarian and “enthusiastic” movements – the ecstacy of spontaneous communitas is seen as the end of human endeavor.” (Pg.138-9)

There’s also the element of threat to achieve liminality.

…we very often do find that the concept of threat or danger to the group – and, indeed, there is usually real danger in the form of a circumciser’s or cicatrizer‘s knife, many ordeals, and severe discipline – is importantly present. And this danger is one of the chief ingredients in the production of existential communitas, like the possibility of a ‘bad trip’ for the narcotic communitas…. (Pg. 154)

A big part of BDSM is the use of symbolic threats: weapons, weapon-like objects and clothing, punishment, violation of sexual taboos, etc.

So, a BDSM scene can be viewed as a ritual.

* Separation: the participants are removed from their usual social roles. They dress in a particular fashion (fetishwear or nudity), travel to a particular place of seclusion (a dungeon or playspace), adopt different names or titles (scene names, “Master”, “Mistress”) undergo deprivation and experience threats.

* Liminality: the participants enter a social space with new social rules that are either inversions of society (e.g. women dominate men, blacks dominate whites) or exaggerations (e.g. wives become slaves). People experience a heightened awareness, a sense of expressing their true selves. Sexual arousal may be a part of this, but the release from the usual social roles is the bigger appeal. States that are negative in the regular world are encouraged: dirtiness, sexual aggression, captivity, dependency, etc.

* Aggregation: the scene is over, and the participants go through aftercare and debriefing to smooth the transition back into everyday life.

It may be that the defining element of BDSM is the striving for liminality. Or rather, BDSM is one of many countercultures which are about liminality for its own sake, not as a means to experiencing communitas, though there is definitely communitas in the BDSM culture. Communitas is never a stable thing, and institutions that are intended to bring it about generally bog down into precisely the kind of structure and hierarchy that liminality is supposed to relieve.

This provides a sociological theory for what BDSM is, but it doesn’t distinguish the BDSM culture from other liminal subcultures e.g. science fiction fandom, the SCA.

Turner also distinguishes two different types of liminality (Pg. 167):

* Rituals of Status Elevation: “…in which the ritual subject or novice is being conveyed irreversibly from a lower to a higher position in an institutionalized system of such positions.” Fraternity hazing is an example.
* Rituals of Status Reversal: “…at certain culturally defined points in the seasonal cycle, groups or categories of persons who habitually occupy low status positions in the social structure are positively enjoined to exercise ritual authority over their superiors; and they, in their turn, must accept with good will their ritual degradation.” Hallowe’en or Pride Day are examples.

BDSM seems to fit the latter category. Even in maledom-femsub, an exaggeration of regular society, you can see it as when middle-class or working-class people “affect the rank and style of superiors, sometimes even to the extent of arraying themselves in a hierarchy mimicking the secular hierarchy of their so-called betters…. The liminality of the strong is socially unstructured or simply structured; that of the weak represents a fantasy of structural superiority.” (Pg. 167-8) It’s a parody of feudal, aristocratic style and behaviour.

Cognitively, nothing underlines regularity so well as absurdity or paradox. Emotionally, nothing satisfies as much as extravagant or temporarilty permitted illicit behavior. Rituals of status reversal accommodate both aspects. By making the low high, and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle. By making the low mimic (often to the point of caricature) the behavior of the high, and by restraining the initiatives of the proud, they underline the reasonableness of everyday culturally predictable behavior between the various estates of society. (Pg.176)

BDSM provides a way that the two can fit together.

If the liminality of life-crisis rites may be, perhaps audaciously, compared to tragedy – for both imply humbling, stripping, and pain – the liminality of status reversal may be compared to comedy, for both involve mockery and inversion, but not destruction, of structural rules and overzealous adherents to them. Again, we might regard the psychopathology of these ritual types as involving the first case a masochistic set of attitudes for the neophytes, and, in the second, a sadistic component. (Pg. 201)

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