The anthropologist Victor Turner’s work turns up a theme of cultural polarity that seems to recur throughout the ages from the yin and yang of the ancient Chinese Daoists; Heraclitus’s flux and Logos; Jordan Peterson’s Chaos and Order and Iain McGilchrist’s work of the left- and right-hemispheres.
Turner’s duality offers a powerful insight into our Nihilistic-Culture Wars-world and offers a unique and fertile take on what it is that ails our society.
For Turner the complementary duality that emerges is between Structure and Antistructure (or, as Turner more often refers to it — Communitas). From an anthropologist’s perspective looking at all types of human society, Turner sees Structure and Communitas as being the two major models of human interrelatedness. These two terms capture all the trends of progress, doom and gloom that mark the history of humanity.
Structure is the world of status, roles, offices and power while Communitas is the domain of love, myth and of mystical unity with everyone and everything. If we were to put a couple of political stereotypes on them we could call Structure bureaucracy and Communitas utopian Anarchism.
In this article we are going to examine in detail what Turner means by Structure and by Communitas and then over the next few months there’ll be more instalments where we explore what this lens reveals about our current world.
Firstly then let’s look at what Victor Turner means by Structure. It’s important to note that Turner is coming out of the British Anthropological tradition and so he’s not using Structure in the sense that the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss does which we explored in the earlier instalment on the French Structuralism of Lévi-Strauss which was the driving force behind the Post-Structuralists like Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and Deleuze.
Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term refers to an underlying cultural Structure — a sort of grammar of how society is organised. This French Structure is more about logical categories and the relationships between them and it is likely to be something that the individuals in the society are completely oblivious to.
But in the British Social Anthropological tradition that Victor Turner is coming out of, Structure is something every individual is acutely aware of. As we mentioned already Structure and Communitas are two modes of human interrelatedness.
The Structural way of relating to others is through our roles and status in society. If you’re a shopkeeper, a waiter, a banker or a mechanic there’s a certain way that this Structural role invites you to interact with others and that interaction depends on whether they are customer, boss, employee or investor.
In each case there is a Structured way of interacting with them. With the customer we might expect politeness and joviality; with the boss a sense of deference and with the employee a sense of supportiveness or sternness. That’s not to say there’s only one way of interacting but that the Structural role determines the range of possible interactions. If a boss interacts with an employee the way they interact with a lover then they are supposed to lose this role.
But of course these are just the linguistic ways of interacting. But wearing a Rolex, driving a Bentley and having a corner office are just as much Structural communication as any words. We could swap these out for taking Ayahuasca in the Amazon, being vegan and being one of those people who went to Burning Man before it was cool or whatever set of status indicators work in your corner of the culture.
The point is that Structure is about our place in the institutionalised hierarchical superorganism that is society. You can think of Structure as the skeleton of human society. It’s the realm of the political, the legal and the economic. It’s the realm of property — whether that’s owned privately or communally. These mutually dependant parts of the superorganism organise the society with only gradual changes through time.
This skeleton of Structure differs across time and space. The skeleton of an Australian Aboriginal tribe a thousand years ago gave its society a different shape than the Ancient Roman Structure did for its society. What remains the same wherever we look at humans living in community is that, aside from a few exceptional moments in time, there is always a Structure — always a skeleton which organises individuals according to their status and role in the society. As Foucault would note the power of this Structure isn’t just restrictive in telling us what we can’t do but it is constitutive; that is to say it’s creative — its abstract hidden nature shapes us and limits the ways we can be shaped.
On a final note this idea of social Structure has come to be connected with the idea of conflict since the separating out of parts into a hierarchical ladder of higher and lower inevitably creates scarcity and leads to competition and conflict for the scarcer higher status.
To summarise then Structure is the status-oriented institutionalised skeleton common to every human society. While the status markers and the exact institutions may differ from society to society what is shared is the abstract Structure that organises its members.
Communitas isn’t nearly so easy to define. It’s worth remembering that Turner’s synonym for Communitas is Antistructure. This fits neatly with the simplest definition he gives of this second mode of human relatedness; he writes:
“For me, communitas emerges where social structure is not.”
Turner illustrates this complex relationship between Communitas and Structure wonderfully by drawing on the eleventh chapter of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching where the Daoist sage writes:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
This illustrates beautifully the relationship of complementary opposites between Structure and Communitas. The pot is the solid Structure and Communitas is the emptiness inside where all the magic happens. Without the emptiness there’s only a block of matter and without the solid Structure there’s nothing to speak of.
The Communitas mode of being
While it is possible to speak about Structure without speaking about Communitas, it is more difficult to do the opposite. This is only natural given the Lao-tzu-esque emptiness of it. But accepting this hiccup there is a lot we can say about Communitas — about how it shows up in society and what its products are.
With Structure, the way of relating to our fellow humans is regulated by our positions in the Society’s superstructure. The Communitas way of relating on the other hand is more existential. As Turner put it
“it involves the whole man in his relation to other whole men”.
In contrast to the norm-governed, institutionalized, abstract nature of Structure’s interrelatedness, Communitas is a spontaneous, immediate, concrete way of relating to others. It is what many would call authentic.
This distinction was key in the works of Existentialism philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who called the Structural way of relating to others Bad Faith. His Existentialism was about being authentic and breaking through to the genuine person underneath what he saw as the mask of Structure.
In Communitas you are not a waiter, a boss or a great artist; you are a unique human who I am meeting in this moment and doing a dance with — we are figuring out how to relate to each other and who each other are in an intoxicating back and forth that is immediate and spontaneous.
In Structure our behaviour is guided by the rules and laws; in Communitas our behaviour is guided by conscience and compassion. This spirit of Communitas isn’t a rational cognitive process. As Turner puts it Communitas has an existential quality over against Structure’s cognitive quality. Communitas comes from a space of feeling; it’s spontaneous, immediate and concrete. It’s not like the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill or the Effective Altruists sitting down working out what’s best for everyone with an abstract calculus. It’s the person out raising money for a cancer charity because they’ve lost their partner, friend or child to the disease — what they lack in statistical rigour they make up for in commitment.
With this heart-centred way of interrelating, the values of those in Communitas emphasise peace over war; there’s a mystical feeling of oneness — a sense of universal brotherhood and sisterhood which makes national and racial boundaries seem like toys that children fight over. Communitas is cosmopolitan in Diogenes’s sense of the word — we are citizens of the Cosmos — not just my tribe, my city, my nation, but the entire planet and the entire universe.
In contrast to Structure then Communitas is expansive unstructured and pregnant with infinite potentiality. No piece of art or media captures this cosmopolitan egalitarian spirit of infinite potential that is Communitas better than John Lennon’s Imagine where he sings:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
The beautiful naïve dreamer quality captures the pure mystical feeling that is Communitas.
Pure Communitas is such a wonderful part of human nature to be in that many have sought to make this the permanent state of humanity. This is the ultimate goal of Anarchism and also of Marxism insofar as Marx talks about the withering away of the State. It’s also the dream of hippie communes and the promise of many cults.
But the idea of a Communitas society is inherently paradoxical. The Communitas mode of interrelatedness is inherently unstructured. Structure seems like domination and inauthenticity to those in the Communitas mode. Communitas is by definition spontaneous, immediate and concrete. Attempts to make this state more permanent inevitably take us into the realm of Structure and here hierarchy and status begin to emerge again. In the Marxist system the bourgeoisie is lower than the peasant who is lower than the Proletariat.
In the Social Justice movement black is better than white; feminine is better than masculine; and non-hierarchy is better than hierarchy. The Communitas sentiment of equality and universal sisterhood and brotherhood collides with the world of Structure and it crystallises into a polarised complementary Structure.
In order to bring about any Communitas-oriented revolution there must be an organisation and a mobilisation — after all the System that these revolutionaries are up against are incredibly organised and Structured by definition. In order to besiege this System the revolutionaries must become organised and thus institutionalised. At this point hierarchy, whether it is explicit or implicit, begins to seep in.
Communitas is like a snowflake that is equal parts perfect and ephemeral. It’s here and a moment later it is gone but the memory is forever touched by this beauty. Communitas movements like Anarchism, Marxism and Social Justice are Communitas-inspired but to the extent that they are movements they partake not of Communitas but Structure.
Communitas is a spontaneous and immediate way of interrelating. It is an incredibly fragile state. It’s like the Flow state; we are only in flow when we are unconscious of being in flow. Once the consciousness of difference and a preference between equality and inequality has emerged we have already left the realm of Communitas behind us.
Communitas is the ocean of chaos that renews the Order of Structure. As Jordan Peterson explores in his book Maps of Meaning an order that goes too long without being resubmerged in the waters of Communitas becomes ossified, rigid and corrupt. Looking at the state of our political, legal and economic systems today it is safe to say that this has come to pass.
There are radical voices on the Left and Right working to bring about this desperately needed resubmerging. The left envisions this resubmerging progressively — as something we must move towards — as a new world we must build. Those on the right on the other hand are more reactionary and look backwards to institutionalised religion.
Religions and Communitas
This reactionary movement has a point. The only place where Communitas has been permanently Structured in large-scale societies is within institutionalised religion. Across traditions there are monasteries and ashrams where seekers of Communitas can go.
Every monastery has its abbot or its Zen master or its guru. This guru is top dog and there are strict rules in place that the adherents must follow. This strong dose of Structure creates a powerful container within which the fragile ephemeral state of Communitas can be nurtured and sustained over a longer period.
So institutionalised religions created a container within which Communitas could be sustained. They created a container that could hold the fragile state of Communitas. And we should note that this was only possible because of the monastic Structure not just with its material support of food and shelter but with its strict rules and traditions.
Outside of the monasteries institutionalised religion preached the values of Communitas to the culture. For centuries the greatest kings of Europe bowed before the Pope and other religious leaders. It was only with the French Revolution that the first violent separation between church and state happened. And this division of the moral domain of Communitas from the political legal economic domain of Structure seems to have been the uncoupling of society’s head and its heart.
The political economic legal Structure was renewed by the constant presence of this institutionalised Communitas. Of course it’s also worth noting that this institutionalised Communitas of religion also needs renewal. The Structure of the Catholic church is more rotted Structure than living Communitas at this point — much as the religion of the Pharisees were in Christ’s time.
The Ancient Jewish religion had a wonderful capacity to integrate new Communitas from outside the institutionalised religion through its Prophetic tradition. These prophets would emerge from their inferior liminal marginality and declaim the corruptions of the institution thus forcing a renewal of the tradition — a re-baptism in Communitas. Mahayana Buddhism had and in many places still has similar mechanisms. The Western religions are now so literal and set in stone that there is no possibility of renewal. There is only the inevitable slow death of any Structure lacking renewing contact with Communitas.
As such our institutionalised religions are not our salvation but merely one more aspect of Structure in dire need of renewal.
Our current Structure is in dire need of renewal. This is a fact that is gaining increasing agreement. And we can see this Structure being assailed by the acolytes of Communitas — all calling for a big icy bucket of Communitas to be thrown over the rotting skeleton of the Structure.
But these forces of Communitas are, as one would expect given the nature of Communitas, poorly structured. The right-wing radicals want to go back to the Communitas of institutionalised religion; the Progressive Social Justice want to go forward with their newer vision of Communitas; meanwhile the hippies are retreating to the edges and forging their own path, the Integralists are waiting on a higher stage of cultural development and the techno-optimists are projecting their Rapture of the Nerds into the multi-planetary post-Singularity future. The jury is still out on which path if any can rebirth the culture.