As weeks become months, the coronavirus lockdown continues to say a big old “nope” to the world. Something that’s particularly crap for many of us is the total eradication of live events. Livestreams are a great workaround, but we’re all quietly counting down the days until we can get back in a club or a field and do it all in person again. I sent a survey out and asked you to describe the feeling of being at a festival in one word. Freedom, community, escape, shared experience and togetherness cropped up more often than not (in addition to making me nostalgically weep). Clearly, festivals mean a lot to us…
There’s something special that happens when we’re actually at a festival that is difficult to translate online. In these physical spaces, everything boils down to a bubble and all that matters is what’s happening at that moment. You know the feeling: real life is put on hold, everyone is on the same level and you interact with others in a way that you normally wouldn’t. The girl you just met is an accountant in the real world (boooorrriiiiiinggg) but in here, she’s wearing sparkly leggings and handing out vodka jellies! That random guy over there in a bra and pantyhose is actually a history teacher in real life. You’d never run up to him and give him a fist-bump during his history class, but in here that’s exactly what you’re doing. What a legend! Everyone’s so nice in here! Why can’t normal life be like this?!
What if I told you that there’s a word to describe this feeling? That impalpable air of ‘togetherness’ we experience but struggle to properly verbalise? Pucker up, honey, because we’re going on a journey through anthropological theory (wow, I promise it won’t be as boring as that sounded).
This feeling of undifferentiated community was conceptualised in 1969 by Victor Turner and called ‘communitas’. Before we go any further, another concept that is crucial to this idea is that of ‘liminality’. Liminal spaces can be imagined as ‘in-between’ spaces where a cultural transformation takes place. A graduation ceremony is a liminal space, for example. You begin as a student and are ‘transformed’ into a graduate. Coming of age ceremonies are the same: you begin as a child and leave as an adult, and so on. But what are you during the process? What social status do you hold as you make the transition? The answer is none, really. Within liminal space, social status melts away and ‘communitas’ emerges to facilitate the transformation, uniting all within the space as equals.
Indeed, festivals could also be imagined as liminal zones where communitas erases our differences to give us that fuzzy feeling of unity and freedom. Communitas is why those people you wouldn’t usually interact with suddenly become your best mates in a festival environment. It’s why you feel like nothing matters outside the perimeter fence, how all the things that stratify us in everyday life dissolve into irrelevance. Although originally imagined in a religious and ritualistic context, it adequately describes this social phenomenon that many of us feel but rarely try to pin down. And it really is a lovely feeling, forming part of the reason that we relinquish our hard earned cash and return to a muddy field year after year.
We can imagine communitas as the opposite of structure and hierarchy, which leads some societal malcontents (over 60% of you rebellious survey respondents) to wish people interacted in the real world like they do at festivals. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to implement communitas permanently, with Turner the communitas-daddy himself noting that it must exist in duality with ‘structure’. This is not a bad thing, as the relationship between them is symbiotic and helps us to socially develop. When we experience communitas, we are removed from the constraints of structure (a.k.a. ‘real life’) and given an opportunity to consider where we stand in structured society from outside of it. In a space where no one is defined by their ‘real life’ identities, it is easier to think beyond them and experiment with alternatives. In my survey, over half of you agreed that your festival experiences have influenced how you act in everyday life. While many of us don’t see festivals as an arena for social transformation, the conditions created by them totally allow for it and lots of people seem to be taking that opportunity.
“What the hell does this have to do with lockdown?” I hear you ask, “so far you’ve just made me feel shitty about not being able to go to festivals”. Yeah, sorry about that, I’ll get to the point. Like the aforementioned coming of age and graduation ceremonies, we’ve seen that festivals, too, are capable of facilitating personal transformation. Getting chummy at a festival is obviously off the cards for the foreseeable future (cheers coronavirus), so what can we do to reach that delicious communitas? What else can remove us from ‘structure’? How else can we escape society and reimagine how we fit into it?? Here’s a clue…we’re all in it right now, and although it isn’t nearly as fun as a festival, it’s completely capable of liminal transformation. Plus the toilets are way nicer.
If you think about it, this lockdown is one gigantic liminal bastard. Liminality is the transformative stage in the middle of a ‘rite of passage’ which, I hasten to add, is not always a bed of roses (I bet those guys that have to wear gloves made of fire ants would love a bit of lockdown). Like the 41% of you that weren’t influenced by your time at festivals, not all of us will approach lockdown with a transformation in mind. However, like festivals, the conditions for such a transition are there. If you hadn’t noticed, we are currently in the middle part of the process, the part where the transformation usually takes place. I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly had some ideas for changes I’d like to make for when ‘normality’ kicks up again.
In terms of communitas, the equalised ‘togetherness’ it creates in festival space is still somewhat present in this liminal lockdown. There are fantastic examples of communities coming together through this, even if not physically, and the social fabric becoming more equalised. ‘We’re all in the same boat’, said everyone at some point, and we’re right, we are all in the same boat. We’ve been totally separated from the structure of real life together and can view it from afar with the clarity of an outsider’s perspective. Communitas all round! This is a remarkably unique position to be in. We can (and in many cases have no choice but to) redesign how we engage with our social and professional lives and, while it does suck, the space for reflection we’ve been given is (forgive me) unprecedented. Never before have we had such room for social reinvention. If I hear one more lockdown preacher telling me how to use my time I’ll cry, so I’m not going to do that. All I’m trying to say is if that’s what we want to use it for, we can.
Turner, V. (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.
Header photo: Zsolt Furesz