In this third post of the ‘What is History for?’ series, Dr Lucie Ryzova explores how the Covid pandemic has shaped our understanding of crisis, how it relates to crises of the past, and how these events mark significant transitory moments in history.
What does historical understanding reveal about the structure and development of crises such as revolution or pandemic? How original are our own ‘unprecedented times’?
A version of this post was first presented at the What is History For? conference at the University of Birmingham, held on 12 May 2022. Click here for more articles in the series.
The Covid Pandemic as a Liminal Crisis:
Reflections of ‘Unprecedented Times’
I know nothing about public health or the history of medicine, but I am interested in the concept of crisis as a historical phenomenon and a historical experience. This is because the times we have been through during the Covid pandemics are not as unprecedented as they may seem, though they did feel as if they were. Most of us here in Britain have never experienced any serious cataclysmic crisis. I do not count here political crises which are, to a large degree, part of the normative political process and do not habitually turn our world upside down—though Brexit may still come close—nor crises that come to us mediated as spectacles on an almost daily basis on our newsfeeds.
While ‘crisis’ may be a common term in the media, we are not normally afraid to leave our houses because of it, nor do we feel that our world is crumbling. Rather, I mean existential, eminently palpable crises of the magnitude of a war, a revolution, or a natural disaster. As historians, we may study them as phenomena distanced in time and/or place. But as humans, we are used to our lives being orderly, structured, and—perhaps most of all—predictable. But with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemics, most of us found ourselves in the middle of structural uncertainty of a magnitude familiar only to those few who may still remember World War II. Such structural uncertainty used to be a fairly recurring historical experience to past generations. Seen from a broader historical perspective, a pandemic can be considered as that category of events best understood as liminal crises, or liminal conditions. 
A Liminal Condition
Liminality is primarily a category of experience, a state of being. It broadly means being in between stable categories, or outside of stable structures. Many of us have encountered the concept (or the adjective) of ‘liminal’ as referring to certain people in history, or certain times, usually outside of normative categories of personhood, time, or space.  The early modernists can think of carnivals or charivaris, while the modernists can recall the excess of modern urban nightlife as some classic examples of liminality.
The concept of liminality is very scale-able, and can productively be applied to whole periods in history.
Given that liminality is a condition of release from normative social roles, such liminal conditions are always confined in time and space and often strongly ritualised, adhering to well-rehearsed procedures. But the concept of liminality is very scale-able, and can productively be applied to whole periods in history. These are periods of profound crises with often long-lasting structural consequences. They can be revolutions or uprisings, wars or civil wars, but also natural disasters such as earthquakes or, indeed, pandemics. It is important to realise that while we may think of these as transitions in retrospect, they are often experienced on the spot as crises with no clear outcome. (A transition is what a crisis leads to after the contingency has been resolved and a new normal has emerged.) Unlike the contained excess of carnivals, such liminal crises are not predictable; they have no script.
These are periods when existing structures are shattered, when the taken-for-granted order of the world crumbles, and when established ways of doing things no longer makes sense. In such a temporal limbo, established norms and hierarchies are turned upside down, and ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ A new ‘order’ will eventually crystalise; but its emergence is as yet uncertain.
The observation that cataclysmic crises are radically transformative—both destructive and potentially creative—has been noticed by many. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine may immediately come to mind, demonstrating that the destruction of a status quo (such as during a natural disaster or a war) often allows for the complete remaking of social, political, and economic structures.  Milton Friedman contended that only a crisis, whether actual or perceived, can produce real change.  Steve Bannon, the arch-theorist of the American Right and author of the Breitbart doctrine,  is said to believe that: ;If you want to fundamentally change society, you first have to break it. It is only when you break it that you can remould the pieces into your vision of a society’.
The Logic of Chaos
Closer to history, my perspective builds on the work by scholars coming mostly from political and symbolic anthropology, who have recently deployed liminality as an analytical framework to understand large historical processes, such as revolutions and other periods of social or political crises. The point is not to claim that they are all alike. Rather, the point is to enable us to think of them comparatively and transhistorically, and to shift the focus away from ’causes’ and ‘effects’ towards experience, process and internal dynamics. Cataclysmic events represent a form (or a genre) of experience and of social action that is broadly similar or comparable, while the actual content will always be locally and historically specific. Think of the novel: each and every novel may tell a radically different story, yet they will all be recognisable as precisely, novels.
A liminal crisis begins the moment when an existing order breaks: a great leap into the unknown and the unpredictable. This moment can be deeply subjective but affects a critical mass of people.
Seen from this perspective, any such liminal condition has a three-fold structure, which broadly corresponds to a beginning, the unfolding, and an end. The beginning and the end are important, as they set it apart from the fabric of normality. A liminal crisis begins the moment when an existing order breaks: a great leap into the unknown and the unpredictable. This moment can be deeply subjective but affects a critical mass of people. In revolutions or uprisings such a breakdown of order tends to happen with sudden violence that overpowers the regime: for example, the storming of the Bastille. Participants in the recent wave of democratic uprising in the Arab world speak of an undeniable moment of ‘breaking the fear barrier’, when horizons of expectation as well as the parameters of the possible radically changed within a few short moments.
While the Covid crisis had been building up gradually through the early months of 2020, it did have an identifiable peak that signalled the kind of crisis dimension that is my point here: suddenly travel was suspended, all movement came to a halt, businesses were shut, and we were told to stay indoors. Just remember how this felt. This is when we stepped into the great unknown as the world ceased to look familiar and nothing was business as usual. We had plunged into structural uncertainty, or a liminal crisis.
With such a rupture, liminality begins—a state of contingent possibility. In the absence of agreed upon protocols for containing this state of contingency and emerging from it, the duration of liminality is unknown. It could last a while: weeks, months, or even a few years. On the surface this often looks like utter chaos, characterised by unpredictability and structural instability. But this apparent chaos also has its own internal logics and dynamics. One is its distinct temporality. Time tends to flow differently; it may slow down, quicken or meander. I perhaps don’t have to remind you how we all experienced time differently in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis. That was precisely because of the absence of any clear sense of what happens next, and when may it end.
After the initial moment of exhilaration, a growing sense of unease and insecurity creeps in: a temporal limbo. There is no clear way ahead.
In this time-out-of-time, social boundaries may become porous, fluid or unstable. People may behave in different ways as they momentarily become other beings, ceasing to be bound by the categories of gender, class or ideology that may usually constrain them—consider of women bearing arms or even killing in times of war or revolution, or children becoming soldiers. The release from normalcy is often experienced initially as ‘effervescence’ or communitas, when people tend to come together as one body—for instance, the Paris Commune, Tahrir Square, the Occupy movement, or Ukraine. The early days of Covid were an encounter with death, especially before we knew how it spreads and what it does to our bodies; it was this closeness to death, its sudden reality, that was most transformative. People suddenly started caring for each other. Remember all the baking for one another? Checking on your neighbour you’ve never spoken to before? As boundaries of class melted, strangers became brothers and sisters. It is a well-established fact that this euphoria never lasts very long. After the initial moment of exhilaration, a growing sense of unease and insecurity creeps in: a temporal limbo. There is no clear way ahead. Nobody knows when, and how, it ends.
Deep political crises such as revolutions, uprisings or civil wars represent situations of multiple sovereignty, when different centres of power claim legitimacy. In the Covid case, the government was stable, but we saw the proliferation of multiple Truths, or multiple explanations of what (or who) is really behind Covid; and eventually, behind vaccinations. In fact, the pandemics provided the perfect opportunity for radical splits within our polity, which is in many ways already symptomatic of our time. As one observer put it, conspiracy theories are trickster tales that proliferate in liminal situations. 
Things that were deemed unthinkable become possible and even necessary.
Liminal crises are literally the time of extremes. All that was high may be lowered and vice-versa; what used to be on the margins moves to the centre, and the line between comedy and tragedy may become very thin.  Such temporal loops often include extreme danger as well as intense creativity. Remember all the lockdown singing and dancing in living rooms, circulating on social media, often literally next to reports of overburdened hospitals and the obligatory daily death count? Things that were deemed unthinkable become possible and even necessary. This is most marked in revolutionary situations, when radical utopian dreams may become a real possibility, at least for a while. In the early days of the Covid pandemics, some European countries seriously considered instituting universal basic income. There were various initiatives to rebuild a fairer society; some of us may have signed them. Such ‘radical’ talk, however, soon faded away. This was not, after all, a crisis of the magnitude of a revolutionary situation. The system was not broken enough to be remade from scratch.
Permantised crisis as the new normal
Liminal situations need endings, because a free-fall into contingency is ultimately unsettling. Wars end with a peace treaty that may remake the world (think the peace of Westphalia, the Paris Peace conference, or Yalta). Revolutions end with free democratic elections, or, conversely, with the arrival of a strongman. Sometimes there is bloodshed, as in Tien-an-men, or the massacre of supporters of a democratically elected president that ended the revolutionary process in Egypt known as the Arab Spring a decade ago. Such dramatised acts close the state of open-ended contingency and establish a ‘new normal.’
As ‘states of exception,’ crises lend themselves to being instrumentalised, generating pretexts for a variety of interventions that would not be acceptable in normal times.
How did the Covid crisis end? Did it actually end, or did it just dissipate into thin air? There was no dramatised closing act, and perhaps there cannot be one.  The rollout of vaccines was supposed to mark such an ending, but the virus made sure this did not work as intended. As I write, Covid infections across the UK are rising again. But there is no longer any widespread sense of a crisis; it is now ‘business as usual.’ There are to ways to think of the ending. One is its privatisation, or relegation of its effects into the private domain. Wars may end politically with a peace treaty, but they continue living on for the maimed, the shellshocked, or those pregnant from rape. People keep dying of the virus, while others live through their own personal ‘aftermath’ with a long Covid.
The other way to think of the ‘end’ is through the normalisation of crisis. Sometimes a state of crisis itself becomes normalised; the ‘war on terror’ would be a recent example. But as ‘states of exception’, crises also lend themselves to being instrumentalised, generating pretexts for a variety of interventions that would not be acceptable in normal times; these may include the onslaught on civil liberties or a giant leap into chimeric digital technosolutions.
Without a clear ending, the Covid pandemics fizzled into a much deeper, and much longer, sense of crisis that we’ve been going through for a while. Manifestations of the limbo we live in include deepening precarity for a broad spectrum of middle and working people, the erosion of a democratic consensus, and—of course—the environmental doom with unspeakable social consequences that is upon us. In this interregnum, morbid phenomena emerge as Gramsci famously observed.  Trump was one of them; rather than a politician, it made more sense to understand him as a trickster god; a creature that may always exist on the social margins, but who thrives when the margin becomes indistinguishable from what was once seen as normal.  This analogy may raise some scholarly eyebrows but we live in an age when rationality, the basis of liberal democracy, may no longer apply, as the proliferation of Covid-related conspiracy theories made abundantly clear. The point is: there is no end; and there is also no script. But crisis is the new normal of our times.
 Nothing in this text is my original idea. The ideas explored here are built on what may be called the ‘liminal turn’ in social theory, broadly revisiting some classic writing of Victor Turner. I am building on the work of Bjorn Thomassen, especially his Liminality and the Modern: Living Through the In-Between (2014), and Walter Armbrust, Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution (Princeton, 2019); I am also indebted to many hours of conversation with Walter Armbrust in the early days of the pandemic. I also thank Simon Yarrow and Philip Carter for their invaluable comments.
 Michel Foucault’s heterotopia is essentially a spatial articulation of liminality, see his ‘Of Other Spaces’ (1967).
 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007); David Harvey’s analysis of the US occupation of Iraq is another case in point, Harvey, A Short History of Neoliberalism (2005).
 Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1982), p.140.
 Citation from a whistleblower’s interview in The Great Hack (dir. Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, 2019).
 Walter Armbrust, talk at the MEC.
 These are instances of what Michael Bakhtin, describing early modern carnivals, called ‘grotesque realism;’ in the revolutionary case, a ‘working class [may be] in the saddle’ as George Orwell had put it in his Homage to Catalonia (1962 ), 3.
 Though the conference of which this paper was part was, in fact, such a symbolic ending, at least for many of us at the University of Birmingham. After two excruciating years, we finally came together as scholars not as crisis managers who must deliver teaching content at any cost, and mostly face-to-face, though the event was hybrid.
 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks Volume 2 (Columbia University Press, 2011), pp.32–3.
 Corey Pein, ‘Donald Trump, Trickster God’ The Baffler (March 2016); Rosario Forlenza, Bjorn Thomassen, ‘The Triumph of Trickster Politics’ Public Seminar (April 2016); W. Armbrust, ‘Trickster Defeats the Revolution: Egypt as the Vanguard of the New Authoritarianism’, Middle East Critique, 26: 3 (2017).
- Armburst, Walter, Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution, (Princeton, 2009)
- Armbrust, Walter, ‘Trickster Defeats the Revolution: Egypt as the Vanguard of the New Authoritarianism’, Middle East Critique, 26:3 (2017)
- Foucault, Michel, Of Other Spaces, (1967) in Dehane, Michiel and De Cauter, Lieven (eds.) Heterotopia and the City (Routledge, 2008)
- Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom, (University of Chicago Press, 1982)
- Gramsci, Antonio, Prison Notebooks Volume 2 (Columbia University Press, 2011)
- Klein, Naomi, The Shock Doctrine, (Penguin Books Ltd, 2007)
- Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005)
- Orwell, George, Homage to Catalonia, (Secker & Warburg, 1962 )
- Thomassen, Bjorn, Liminality and the Modern: Living Through the In-Between, (Routledge, 2018)
- The Great Hack. Directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, Netflix, 2019. https://www.thegreathack.com/#home
- Pein, Corey ‘Donald Trump, Trickster God’, The Baffler (March 2016): https://thebaffler.com/latest/donald-trump-trickster-god
- Forlenza, Rosario, Thomasssen, ‘The Triumph of Trickster Politics’, Public Seminar (April 2016): https://publicseminar.org/2016/04/decoding-donald-trump-the-triumph-of-trickster-politics/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Lucie Ryzova is a Senior Lecturer of Middle East History at the University of Birmingham, and the author of The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2014), awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone Prize in 2015.
Lucie presented a version of this article in the Pandemics and Crises panel at the What is History for? conference at the University of Birmingham, held on 12 May 2022.
For further contributions to this short series of posts, see What is History For?
- Post 1: Karen Harvey and Tom Cutterham, on introducing What is History For?
- Post 2: Tionne Parris, on radical lessons for the climate crisis
- Post 3: Lucie Ryzova, on revolutions and crises
- Post 4: Thomas Brodie, on afterlives (forthcoming)