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Monday, November 14, 2011

Metaphor’s Do Exist in Victor Turner’s Work

I've spoken about Victor Turner before in my articles Comradeship As A Factor In The Liminal Period and Characteristics that Distinguish Priests, Prophets, Shamans, and Mediums. Turner's work is insightful and educational and he remains one of the world's most celebrated ritual specialists. However, there are some aspects of Turner's work, especially his argument that he never succumbs to metaphors, that perplex me.

Victor Turner is typically associated with rites of passages and was regarded as a ritual specialist. I personally don’t have an objection to many of Turner’s practices, but many of the terms and phrases used to explain such simple ideas puzzled me, as I assumed the words were used in the context reflective of his religion. In fact, most of Turner's work focused on 'Christian culture' and how it might be shown to transcend historical, geographical and social boundaries (Turner 1978).

The use of the word communitas, a term Turner and his wife had coined to explain an experience of “losing one's old identity and freely and spontaneously encountering others on pilgrimage” (1978) was compared to a timeless condition enacted by performers. It was an eternal now he explained, as a “moment in and out of time”, or as a state to which the structural view of time is not applicable (Moore 2009; pg 247). I reverted back to my days in language class and recollected my professor’s definition of the word communitas.

Communitas, as far as what I’ve been taught, is a coming together of like minds for the greater good of the people. There is no set structure of this voluntary coming together. Can community really exist outside of a moment? The key ingredient is a common goal, so eventually there will be a coming together, but the time of the union is undefined, and sometimes renders no title or distinction.

Consequently, another term or phrase that caught my eye was “betwixt and between”. Ironically the last time I heard the phrase used was in a journal article written by Rebecca Bishop describing the Great ape. An animal who has always assumed a role of the betwixt and between status of Euro Western imaginary (Bishop 2010). The reason a reference the Great Ape is because it is often regarded as moving through somewhat similar stages or passages. Is there a set model of relationships within an ape community? That’s hard to say.

Although animal relationships can be observed using a comparative psychological or even sociological approach, there’s no way to get inside an animal’s brain and ask them why they have the relationships they have. Nor is it possible to define the amount of relationships humans might have with each other. It’s like constructing gender. There’s an infinite amount of variables, which could give rise to new relationships, which have no defined status. In contrast to Turner’s use of the phrase, he wrote about a “structure of positions”, a defined set of stages that many societies use to ritualize social and cultural transitions (Moore 2009: pg 255).

I object to the idea that a type of model defines human relationships and that the word communitas refers to an “in and out of social structure”. I’m aware that Turner is not caught up in metaphors, but by definition, his explanation of two models of human relationships and their commonalities, is a metaphor.


  1. Some Other Kind of Being By Rebecca Bishop
  2. Visions of Culture By Jerry D Moore.


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