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Liminality and «Communitas» in the Beat Generation

Aaron Christopher Mitchell

The Beat Generation questioned mid-twentieth century America and sought the margins of society. This book analyzes the literature and lifestyles of the Beat authors Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg in regard to Victor Turner’s anthropological studies. The Beats separated from society by willingly entering the rites of passage. Liminal symbolism is apparent in their literature such as in movement, time, space, pilgrimages, and monstrosities. In their liminal stage, they established «communitas» and developed anti-structure. They questioned society and made proposals to change it in their liminoid literature. The Beats shared similarities with previous countercultures, and they influenced the following Hippie Generation.

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Chapter 4. Communitas and the Beat Generation


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Chapter 4. Communitas and the Beat Generation

Abstract: The Beats distance themselves from mid-twentieth century America and establish communitas with anti-structure. They create liminoid literature and influence society. Ginsberg’s works show his liminality and communitas, and he later takes on the role of elder for the Hippies.

4.1  Beat Communitas and Anti-Structure

In their liminal state, the Beats experienced communitas and, as a result, developed anti-structure. They created this alternative structure parallel to the conventional expectations, norms, and values of America in the 1940s and 1950s. It is pertinent to recall that they willingly separated themselves from society as opposed to liminal people in cultures which traditionally practice the rites of passage as expressed by Victor Turner. They disagreed with their present social structure in which they lived and chose to marginalize themselves from it. While at a distance, they lived according to their own desires and thus broke with the status quo of structured society.

Turner distinguishes between three types of communitas. They are not to be mistaken with stages that one goes through as in a rite of passage; they are different types of communitas:

(1) existential or spontaneous communitas – approximately what the hippies today would call ‘a happening,’ […] (2) normative communitas, where, under the influence of time, the need to mobilize and organize resources, and the necessity for social control among the members of the group in pursuance of these goals, the...

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