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The Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot

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A new paper by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic and the special difficulties that it poses for thinking about the future. Here, David Kaposi presents an abridged version of the paper. He begins by considering the Queen's recent address to the nation:

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 succeed - and 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. (5th April, 2020)

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 last longer than hoped, but nevertheless – to use a metaphor that has recently proliferated – we are invited to think of the suspension as an instance in which life has pressedpause. The suspension 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). 

Yet, in attempting to reassure us by assimilating the current period into 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 against – the possibility of ‘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 notlook down into it.

In our paper, we argue, the words of the Monarch notwithstanding, that we do need to look down into the chasm. It is important to grant the phase of transition the dignity of its own reality, because to create our future it is essential that we engage with what happens in the transitional chasm itself: the unsettling force of this in-between, the suspension of the norms that hitherto had constituted us. To this end, our paper proposes that we should recognise the worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdown as liminal events. 

Understood in this way, the pause cannot be equated with something familiar like the pausing of a song we have been listening to. Instead, we need to understand how it can be that the song that plays after the pause may be different from what was playing before. And furthermore, we may find that the song we thought was playing before the pause may turn out to have been an entirely different one.  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.

And what are the human capacities required to deal with such radical uncertainty? Uncertainty and paradox (where our lives no longer conform to the past nor yet to the future) engender a phase of anxiety: we shift from rumination and no engagement with action, to attempts to escape into unthought solutions. Our paper argues that, on the contrary, what is required to shift from paradox to pattern change is a zone where thought meets reality, and where action is imaginative and thought is creative.

What was unsayable at the time the Queen spoke (and our paper was originally written) was that the lockdown, to point to just one obvious aspect, will not simply go away now that it has entered our lives. Naturally, the first weeks were dominated by the idea that the lockdownwill one day be lifted – yet this expectation already strikes us today as coming from a different world. On one level, we now know that distancing measures will be revoked, then re-introduced, maybe here and maybe there. The blanket ‘all or nothing’ approach will be replaced by a new rhythm and precision. Yet this will not simply be a matter of political measures. A previously more or less unknown entity 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. 

The original paper Virus ante portas:  the Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot' by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi will be published here(https://diecisiete.org/ Full publication details will be available on ORO, the Open University research depository

You can read about David Kaposi's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dk3936

You can read about Paul Stenner's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ps7476

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Professors in the School of Psychology and Counselling

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In a series on the research of senior academics in the School of Psychology and Counselling, this week's blog presents some recent publications and other activities of Paul Stenner, Professor of Social Psychology.

This August, Paul Stenner (Professor of Social Psychology, OU) gave the ‘Innovations in Psychology Lecture’ at Aalborg University, Denmark. The ‘Innovations’ lecture series takes over from the former Niels Bohr Lectures in which leading researchers in the field of Cultural Psychology are invited to present their research. The lecture is subsequently published in an edited volume along with a number of commentaries from invited experts. The theme of this year’s event was ‘theorizing liminality: between art and life’, and Paul Stenner talked about the liminal sources of cultural experience. Liminal experience, Paul Stenner argues, is essentially about becoming. It is experience of a significant transformation, from the perspective of those going through that experience, as it is happening. The innovative idea proposed in the lecture is that various forms of cultural experience, including reading novels, watching movies, enjoying sports and participating in religious events, share a common liminal source. Put differently, they are a means for guiding people through a passage from one world to another: a passage in which they may undergo a transformation. From this perspective, cultural artefacts show up as fundamental to human psychology and society, and liminal experience shows up as a crucial factor in human evolution, in personal development through the lifespan, and in social change over historical time. Further details about the event, including access to the lecture itself, are available here:


For psychologists who are readers of German, Paul Stenner has also just published a book chapter on liminality and emotional experience in a German volume on cultural psychology entitled Kulturpsychologie in interdisziplinärer Perspektive: Hans-Kilian-Vorlesungen zur sozial-und kulturwissenschaftlichen Psychologie und integrativen Anthropologie (Psychosozial Verlag, 2019). This book gathers together all the recent invited lectures given as part of the Hans Kilian Lecture Series in Cultural Psychology organised at Bocchum University in Germany. The volume also contains chapters by Mary and Ken Gergen, Jaan Valsiner, David Bloor and others, who also gave Hans Kilian lectures. Details can be found here: https://www.psychosozial-verlag.de/2275

Also newly published is an article by Paul Stenner and the Danish social scientist Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen from the Copenhagen Business School. The paper starts with the observation that managers across many contemporary organisations are nowadays talking more and more about the importance of ‘expecting the unexpected’ and of ‘thinking the impossible’. Alongside this talk we also find a range of techniques and devices which are supposed to encourage and help the workforce to ‘think outside the box’ and to ‘imagine a different future’. Empirically, the paper is based on a study of a range of these management techniques and organisational innovations like ‘future games’ and ‘drama interventions’, which the authors group together as technologies of potentialization. After a detailed analysis of three such potentialization technologies, they propose that these function as immune mechanisms within contemporary welfare states. This involves a careful discussion of the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann, who proposes that society has something equivalent to an ‘immune system’, and that law is a good example of a social immune mechanism. Potentialization, it is suggested, is taking shape as a new way of immunizing society against its own social structures. Intrigued? An early access version of the article appears in the journal Theory, Culture and Society, as referenced below:

Andersen, Niels, Å and Stenner, Paul (2019). Social immune mechanisms: Luhmann and potentialisation technologies. Theory, Culture & Society (Early Access).

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