Virus ante portas: the Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot

Introduction: What will become of us?

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeedand that success will belong to every one of us… We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.

Queen Elizabeth II here shows that it requires no special expertise, social psychological or philosophical, to conceptualise this phase of global pandemic and ‘lockdown’ as a period of suspended normality. Surely, an essential characteristic of such a state of suspension is that it will end; that we will overcome? Following the lockdown, ‘we will meet again’. But how do we think about this period of suspended life? Here the event is simply positioned in-between a stable past (A) and a stable future (B). This suspension may be global in scope, and longer than hoped, but neverthelessto use a metaphor that has recently proliferatedwe are invited to think of it as a matter of having pressed pause. It will pass and a ‘new normal’ will return. The suspension is thus figured merely as an element in an ordinary narrative sequence (or in the narrative sequence of the ordinary).

The Queen’s Covid-19 speech delicately observes three valuable features of leadership during a crisis. She shows empathy (note her global ‘we’), she is deliberately calm, and she offers an optimism that is carefully bounded: the return of ‘better days’ thus registers the tragic dimension whilst calmly offering light at the end of the tunnel without foreclosing on other challenges in store. She is managing something quite subtle: the communicative paradox of how to give hope whilst not giving too much of it, of acknowledging dangers ahead but without drawing attention to them. She manages the paradox by drawing attention to two stabilities: a solid past (A) (evoking Dame Vera Lynn’s war-time lyric ‘we’ll meet again’ and with it a wartime past in which ‘we’ showed the necessary resolve) and a solid future (B).

Yet, in reassuring us by assimilating the current period in a larger narrative sequence in which ‘we’ll meet again’, the Queen’s speech cannot help ‘raising’ the more disturbing spectre of what it is reassuring us againstthe possibility ‘us not meeting again’. Either because ‘we’ are dead, or because ‘we’ are not we anymore: the current events actually have the power to transform us beyond recognition. Together, the two seeming solidities explicitly invoked by the Queen serve as the frame for this unstable chasm that threatens the now. They draw attention away from the chasm as if ‘we’ must not look down into it.

The argument of this paper, the Queen’s wisdom notwithstanding, is that we do need to look down into it. It is important to grant the phase of transition the dignity of its own reality, for to create our future it is essential to engage with what happens in the transitional chasm itself: the unsettling force of this in-between, the suspension of norms that hitherto had constituted us. To this end we propose to recognise the worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdown as liminal events. Thus understood, the pause cannot be assimilated to something familiar like the pausing of a song we are listening to. Indeed, we need to understand how it can be that the song playing after the pause may be different from that which was playing before. And further, how the song we thought was playing before the pause can turn out to have been a different song all along. We need to understand how a liminal event inaugurates a period of radical uncertainty which can disrupt and re-order expectations of the future, re-configure memories of the past, and thereby transform the very seat of reality: the present.


Theorising liminality

In the dominant imagination, the in-between period is not supposed to last because it is not supposed to exist. It is either supposed to be ultimately insignificant (a mere ‘pause’ before unchanged continuation) or swiftly assimilate to a radically different futurewhether in an optimistic variant (an end to austerity? an advance against global warming?) or a pessimistic variant (the permanent suspension of human rights? a new authoritarian state of surveillance?).

Both versions entail a neglect of the liminal phase and its role in human psychosocial transformations. They view change from the outside, as if those going through it from the inside did not have to grapple with the radical uncertainty and extract from it some new sense and new way of going on. In effect they neglect the fact that the future is necessarily something that has not yet happened and that we have a stake in determining both what we are aiming for and what we can practically do to actualise those aims.

Asking the question ‘what will become of us?’ draws attention to the future and gives time a new significance. Within social psychology, it was G.H. Mead who first systematically theorised the relations between self, society and time. Mead is best known for his account of the human self as an emergent effect of the capacity to take the perspective of the other towards oneself. This makes selfhood and society tightly interconnected, a premise that is axiomatic to any serious social psychology.

What should be better known is Mead’s quite specific definition of sociality which requires the concepts of the present and the emergent event (Mead, 1932/1980, p. 23). The emergent, such as the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, is a novel becoming that was not there in advance and that adds something new to what subsequently passes. It is a ‘newcomer’ whose advent interrupts and transforms the sense of the present, where the present is the very seat of lived reality: the vantage point from which the past and the future acquire salience. The sociality of the present is something quite precise: it is ‘the stage betwixt and between the old system and the new’ (Mead, 1932/1980, p.47). It is the phase of adjustment and transition that must necessarily occur when a present (the ‘world’ of a given system) is disrupted, but new coherence has yet to be established. Such adjustment includes the emergence of a new present, which also means a certain revision of the prevised past and future that had constituted what is in process of becoming the old (past) present. Mead insists upon the reality of these phases of passage between worlds and gives them primary theoretical importance: they are the principal source of psychosocial transformations.

Although Mead does not use the word liminal, this emphasis on passage corresponds remarkably with the concept that was first introduced by Arnold van Gennep in his classic anthropological account Rites de passage (1909). Gennep and Mead saw that human selves are shaped and formed within social practices, so any notable change in praxis, status or position demands a correlative change of self-construct (which must in turn be recognised by others). This explains why, in the anthropological literature addressed by Gennep, significant psychosocial changes (death, marriage, initiation, etc.) tend to be carefully managed with ‘rites of passage’. ‘Liminal’ was the word Gennep used to discriminate distinctive types of ceremonies enacted during the middle phase of these: liminal rites come after rites of separation and before rites of incorporation (where participants re-join the community with a new role). His point was that this three-fold pattern serves a logic of transition, and it is notable that this pattern corresponds to the tendency we identified above to frame transitions in terms of two relative stabilities.

Although he also dealt with comparable rituals, British anthropologist Victor Turner later used the word ‘liminality’ to refer to the experiences distinctive to any ‘betwixt and between’ phase in which those in transition are no longer what they were, but not yet what they will become. When familiar social norms are either suspended or collapse, this can provide the occasion for unusual experiences beyond the limits of ordinary socially coordinated existence. Liminal experiences are ambivalent: they can be scary and unsettling, but they can also expose people to unexpected possibilities, of ‘humanity’ beyond mundane personhood, of ‘communitas’ beyond the usual hierarchical bonds of the social order, and of imaginings beyond their normal daily horizons.

As a ‘newcomer’ precipitating an emergent event, Covid-19 is highly complex and unfolds on multiple levels. At the microscopic level it is a novel mutation of the Covid viral form. The current crisis, however, is not just about the virus itself, nor its impact on a given human organism, but also about the transformations it provokes within human society. From the local to the global, lives and livelihoods are threatened. ‘Lockdown’ as a chosen measure can be construed as an immune response on the societal level (Andersen and Stenner, 2020). This strategy of minimising the likelihood of infection by maximising ‘social’ distance between infectable bodies is designed to protect the continued functioning of the social system by preventing health systems from being overwhelmed. This immune response requires schools to close, employees in all but essential jobs to stay at home, travel to be minimised, and so on. To protect its continued operations, society either suspends them and finds safer new ways of carrying on (e.g., university teaching moves online), or modifies its activity (e.g., perfume companies start producing hand-gel). This impacts all of society’s sub-systems, blurring the difference between education and health practices, forcing governments to rapid and massive actions, suspending basic legal rights, and so forth.


Stuck in a liminal hotspot?

What happens to us ‘psychologically’ in this zone of liminality where the future we had expected disappears? To begin with, the psychological and the social simply cannot be separated, since a liminal experience is the experience of a transformed social process. The liminal experiences that people across the globe have been going through are inseparable from these interruptions to business-as-usual: to schools closing (the exams they had been aiming at, cancelled), to jobs being lost, ‘furloughed’ or moved online, to companies closing (will I have a job tomorrow?), to flights being cancelled, to loved ones getting ill, to there being insufficient protective clothing for medical staff. In each case, what we expected of our future just moments before, suddenly becomes the past (a past future) and yet the new present (the present present) is characterised by the fact that there is no new future to replace it (no present future). Essentially, what was our immediate future is replaced with a new future that is rather hard for anybody to imagine and hence expect. Of course, the present still exists, but it has the particular quality of lacking a clear future and indeed of having its old past called into question (i.e., the past past). Whilst dealing with the curious now of this liminal present, we are simultaneously in the process of imagining and articulating a new past and a new future for the present yet to come.

The notion of the ‘liminal hotspot’ has recently been proposed to theorise the social psychological dynamics of liminal experiences (Greco and Stenner, 2017; Stenner, 2017; Motzkau and Clinch, 2017). If occasions during which familiar ordered forms of process undergo unfamiliar transformations are construed as liminal, attention is drawn to the process of becoming through which a new ‘world of coherence’ can emerge following a rupture. But the ‘old’ does not seamlessly become something ‘new’. Before that a tumultuous phase must be negotiated—a ‘liminal hotspot’ which includes a new salience to paradox and panic-ridden paralysis or polarisation, but also the possibility of a pattern shift towards a new coherent present.

Paradox results from the blurring proper to the transitional phase ‘between’ worlds: the orthodox logic of ‘either / or’ gives way to ‘both / and’ (but also to ‘neither / nor’). When the child at home receives occasional online input from their ‘old’ teacher and occasional at-home tuition from a parent (who is themselves using the kitchen as an impromptu work-office), the home suddenly becomes both a home and a school / office, and that also means neither a home nor a school/office. Meanwhile the school building is transformed from its prior educational function and serves as a base for the children of ‘frontline’ keyworkers, giving in turn a quasi-medical role to the keyworker teachers.

Paradox is thus associated with uncertainty because mutually incompatible propositions become equally true and, at the level of conduct, equally pressing. This is, furthermore, a radical uncertainty of not-knowing, in that it results from a past having disappeared and discontinued without smoothly transitioning into its pre-vised future. Radical uncertainty precipitates ‘liminal affectivity’. Whilst the possibility of something new excites, the destruction of past certainties without reassurance of future continuity, and hence the distinct possibility of getting stuck, precipitates panic. This indeterminate mix of excitement and anxiety can manifest now as paralysis (i.e., melancholia where action feels impossible), and now as polarisation (i.e., mania where we feel compelled to act). We therefore have the burgeoning genre of ‘how to survive the lockdown’ guides, featuring in any respectable news outlet. Although there is clearly the possibility of imaginative action in such guides as they are addressing an acute and authentic need of the population, the norms of the genre are often based on the denial both of the radical novelty of the current situation (and thus the state of radical not-knowing we find ourselves in), and of the loss of the past which was interrupted and never became a future.

Reckoning with the denial of not-knowing and of loss (and in turn with the denial of the first reaction to the lockdown, that despite it being under our nose we didn’t see it coming), presents a two-fold task of ‘de-paradoxification’. Looking back: the working through of mourning and hence the letting go of the past that never became a future (Freud, 1917; Klein, 1937). Looking forward: the imagining of a new future and hence a re-acquaintance with the past in a form we have not seen before (Winnicott, 1971). Both must draw from, and be integrated within, the actualities of the present (Kaposi, 2020; Salvatore & Venuleo, 2017).

No new future can be imagined unless the circular rumination of paralysis or the thoughtless action of polarisation are replaced by the understanding that our present liminal state is predicated on the past never becoming the future it was meant to be. There are no guarantees that the ‘emergence of the new’ will necessarily prepare the ground for its own recognition: it may, on the contrary, destroy that ground, leaving us stuck in the paradoxes of a liminal hotspot. What is new may not be experienced as such. To experience it is to live through and negotiate anxieties precipitated by the radical disruption (about the loss of the self and the loss of the other), but also to be open to imaginative acts beyond mere reception of the given.

The lockdown, to point to just one obvious aspect, will not simply go away now that it has entered our lives. The idea, which naturally dominated its early weeks, that it will one day be lifted strikes us as already coming from a different world. On one level, this means that distancing measures will be revoked, then re-introduced, maybe here and maybe there. A new rhythm and precision may replace the blanket ‘of all or nothing’ approach. Yet this will not simply be a matter of political measures. A previously more or less unknown entity (note that the widely term used in the UK is neither quarantine nor curfew) has now entered our political, social and personal realities and is interacting with them in ways we have even not begun to understand. What it makes of us will depend upon what we will make of it, and this will require the blend of ideals and practicality that underpin creative thought and imaginative action.


Conclusion: Imaginative action  

In this paper, we urge a conceptualisation of the series of events precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal event creating a liminal hotspot. This means, first, the recognition of the radically disruptive and potentially transformative force of a liminal phase where the paradoxes of in-betweenness become highly salient: a phase which comes between past and future yet belongs neither to the past as we knew it, nor to the future as we imagined it. Second, it demands the recognition of the sense of this liminal event as an ambivalent hotspot, where the radical uncertainty of living this time of paradox (with its heightened potentials for paralysis, polarisation and even panic) also opens the possibility of novel constellations which may cohere into lasting features of our coming psycho-socio-political landscape.

In drawing attention to the liminal phase as the seat of becoming we risk accusations of idealism, and yet what is required for any pattern shift is the synthesis of visionary ideal and wily know-how that is ‘imaginative action’. Indeed, a polarisation between immediate action (which risks being a thoughtless repetition of now redundant solutions) and visionary dreaming (which risks being impotent) is a typical response to the paradoxes of liminal hotpots. Avoiding such polarisation is essential precisely when the automatism of past routines could prove deadly, and when a new future must not just be imagined but built.

As Mead predicted, we are living through a situation which has forced us to a new self-consciousness of our dependency upon a collective under real threat; a situation in which—paradoxically of course—we feel the value of our social nature just when we are threatened with its loss. Even the Royal ‘we’ now evokes the spectacular ideal of a global sense of citizenship. We social psychologists cannot resort to the pretence of offering only instrumental advice for the solution of problems decided in advance and on high. If indeed a different song starts to play after the ‘pause’, then an important difference will be that we must not simply be passive listeners to something pre-recorded, but must join in the singing and indeed the composition. Social psychology can lend its voice in orchestrating the practicalities and the ideals expressed in this shared creative/destructive process.  The ‘how’ must be the subject of a more extensive article.



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