REVIEW COORDINATOR: Shoshana McClarence
I'm a Part of You and You're a Part of Me
Redefining Community through the Liminality and Communitas of the Phish Experience
Using Victor Turner’s concepts of liminality and communitas, the state of ambiguity that exists during distinct phases of transition and the human connections that form during liminal moments, the author argues that a community exists among Phish fans and stresses the importance of a broader definition of community. The author includes a personal introduction to Phish as a framework/setting for the exploration, a brief examination of the terms community, liminality, and communitas, and outlines how an updated view of community is necessary for understanding the realities of living in a digital age.
I'm a Part of You and You're a Part of Me:(1) Redefining Community through the Liminality and Communitas of the Phish Experience
by Crystal R. Van Dee
Abstract: Using Victor Turner’s concepts of liminality and communitas, the state of ambiguity that exists during distinct phases of transition and the human connections that form during liminal moments, the author argues that a community exists among Phish fans and stresses the importance of a broader definition of community. The author includes a personal introduction to Phish as a framework/setting for the exploration, a brief examination of the terms community, liminality, and communitas, and outlines how an updated view of community is necessary for understanding the realities of living in a digital age.
1. It’s Not an Experience If They Can’t Bring Someone Along:(2) My Introduction to Phish
To lay the framework for this article, I must indulge in the tradition of sharing how I discovered Phish. The reasons for sharing my story are twofold. First, it is important that I declare my biases. I am a participant of the community discussed in this article. Second, the theme of this article is inspired by my own experiences at Phish shows and within the wider community of Phish fans. As described below, the nature of liminality and the development of communitas invites personal exploration and the crossing of mental borders.
I attended my first Phish show on October 30, 2008 in Indio, California. It was Festival 8, the band’s first festival after the infamous and emotional Coventry Festival of 2004, the festival that was meant to be the band’s final performance of its career.(3) At the time, this had no meaning for me. I was at Festival 8 not for myself, but for my partner because it was important to him that I had at least a passing familiarity with the band. In a valiant attempt to match my taste in 1990s grunge to Phish, my partner made some specific recommendations before we attended the festival. Overall, I failed to understand all the fuss, yet I did not dislike the band.
The crowd on the first night was smaller than I expected, yet the excitement was contagious. I recognized some of the songs, but I marveled at how everyone in the audience seemed to know when to cheer and flail during specific moments of what were clearly improvised jams. It was a fun night, but I still felt separate from the true phans. I was a spectator. The second night included the “musical costume,” in which Phish covered Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones. I had brief moments of understanding of why everyone was so excited, but I remained removed from the experience. These were not yet my people or my band.
By day 3, November 1, I was exhausted. How could everyone still have the energy to spend even more time listening and dancing to the same band yet again? I was sick of Phish. I felt as if I had been at the festival for weeks rather than days. Nonetheless, this is the day that I fell in love with the band. The third set of the day began with the song “Tweezer.” In hindsight, it was a solid yet lackluster rendition. But I had never heard anything like it. By the time the band began the now familiar strums of “Free,” I had become part of the experience. I had a glimpse of the feeling of “surrendering to the flow,”(4) the attitude required to “get” Phish. Although an introvert, I found myself hugging and dancing with people who were strangers yet somehow family, which is the starting point of this article.
2. Surrender to the Flow:(5) The Liminal Experience of Phish
Community is a vague word with meanings that vary based on the field of study. In broad strokes, the traditional view of community is a geographically-based social system with defined roles based on maintaining specific values and beliefs. Later definitions of community consider competition for economic resources and access to power, while still others point to community as an active process. The one common idea shared between these different views of community is the notion that whatever it is, it involves a feeling of belonging. By extension, it creates a sense of exclusion for those who are not part of the community.(6)
The lack of consensus over the term has led many scholars, including those writing about Phish, to reject the term for something more specific.(7) However, as a librarian it is part of my job to discover and understand community information needs. To do this for a diverse public requires a loose definition of community that covers all versions of the word. For instance, Peter Block defines communities as “human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness.”(8) This succinct and inclusive definition is how I use the term in this article. It leaves room for groups to self-identify as communities which, in my view, is the most important consideration in defining the term.
In the mid-20th century, anthropologist Victor Turner introduced his theory of liminality, which was based on Arnold Van Gennep’s research on rites of passage. Familiar examples of rites of passage include puberty ceremonies such as bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, military boot camp, and the white coat ceremony for new medical doctors. Van Gennep argued that people experiencing rites of passage undergo three phases (separation, the liminal, and reincorporation). During the middle phase, the individual exists within a conceptual threshold of ambiguity. The liminality of the middle stage symbolically transforms the individual before reincorporation into the normal structures of society. Turner famously described liminality, and those experiencing liminal moments, as existing “betwixt and between.”(9)
Phish fans (“phans”) are familiar with this feeling of betwixt and between. By employing a musical structure that relies on both improvisation and composition, jam bands such as Phish stretch their own expectations and embrace opportunities for change. Jnan A. Blau, a phan and professor of communication studies, noted that Phish has developed a deliberate musical approach built around commitments to reflexivity and flexibility.(10) Phans must embrace a similar attitude as we navigate the spaces between improvisational jams and the familiarity of composed songs:
The “regular,” composed part of the song is now over. This is where it can get good. And we know it. The arena is pregnant with promise. The familiarity and safety of the previously composed section is abandoned for the excitement and risk of an improvised unknown. This is precisely the stuff that aids and abets our addictions—the need we have for periodic phixes of Phish. The band has set out to sea, to navigate the uncharted waters of heretofore unknown melodies, unplayed rhythms, ungrooved grooves. They are quite literally going where no musical ensemble has gone before, where not even they have gone before—that is, until right here, right now. It is a moment fed by the thrill of knowing, of thinking to one’s self, “They’ve never played this before and never will again.” And that’s just it: the primacy of the present propels us all along as we participate, together, in this moment’s unfolding.(11)
Embracing the feeling of being propelled by the “primacy of the present,” demands that phans and the band “surrender to the flow.” This latter quote is from the Phish song “The Lizards,” which contains a good deal of the symbol-laden narrative related to the band’s overarching “Gamehenge” mythology.(12) The song begins with the phrase “passing through a corridor,” a common metaphor for liminality. The band is inviting listeners to a liminal phase where they will eventually gain knowledge of the “ancient secrets of eternal joy and never-ending splendor / the trick was to surrender to the flow.”(13)
The emotional experience of liminality within music opens us to discovery. According to music educator June Boyce-Tillman, liminality as experienced via music creates a space of possibility for the participants and the performers. Or as in the above quote from Blau, it provides moments that are “pregnant with promise.” Whether the experience results in a shared moment of unity, individual insight into personal existence, or both, music experienced in this way creates a space of reflection and imagination, leading to the opportunity for personal and group transformation.(14)
For many phans, and even the band, these moments of liminality are spiritual in nature. Commenting on the connection between music and religion, and hinting at liminality, Phish bassist Mike Gordon offered:
[Music] fills many of the holes that religion leaves open. The philosophical feeling behind religion, a religious upbringing, and even the notion of praying to God is very abstract. This transfers directly to my relationship with music. While you cannot necessarily touch music, you can feel it and it is something to believe in…I've always compared my movements on stage to davening...To me, music has always served as that type of religious release.(15)
Of the Grateful Dead, the most well-known jam band, historian Peter Richardson wrote, “the band was the high priest, the songs the liturgy, the dancing the prayer, the audience the congregation.”(16) Taking this further, moments of liminality can be considered the communion. One example of this is a specific moment within the Phish song “Divided Sky.” During the height of a soaring guitar solo, Anastasio pauses and turns his gaze both inward and upward. While the band remains silent, the audience takes over with increasingly loud cheers. Anastasio’s hand hovers over his guitar without sound as he seems to absorb the emotions of the audience.
In an interview, Anastasio explained that during this moment he is silently continuing the music and inviting the audience members to continue the song in their heads. The band and the audience are existing in an unstructured space within one of the band’s most structured songs.This now scripted moment emerged from Anastasio’s “general desire to merge with the audience as much as possible.”(17)
4. Without a Map the Lines All Disappear:(18) Using Phish to Redraw the Borders of Community
The shared energy of liminal moments where the band and audience identify with one another in a musical communion creates a spirit of communitas. Communitas, as described by Victor Turner, is the sense of interrelatedness and human connection that exists within liminal moments, outside the defined structure of normal society. Separate from the mundane, it is a symbolic and sacred connection that forms and solidifies the values of a community.(19)
In her thorough examination of the intersection of communitas, class, and identity among Phish fans, Elizabeth Yeager argued that communitas is essential to understanding the Phish experience. Yeager explained that many phans view themselves as at odds with dominant societal norms and their Phish experiences are a form of resistance. That is, phans seek out the Phish experience in an attempt to temporarily withdraw from and reject the structure of normal society. Scene participants understand and accept that part of the experience involves the recognition that these moments are ephemeral. During shows, phans can then experience the liminal and spontaneous connection of becoming an ephemeral group, a temporary sense of “we/us,” in a moment outside of time (that is, communitas within the liminal phase). Finally, in an attempt to carry this feeling back to dominant society, phans develop structure through language, attitudes, and ritualistic behavior.(20)
In Yeager’s view, the communitas of shows does not translate to the formation of community. Because communitas exists as an anti-structure, it is by definition ephemeral. By its nature, it cannot be contained. By creating structure to preserve the communitas experienced during shows, phans change what they are trying to preserve. For Yeager, the attempt to capture communitas through normative behavior results in the creation of a scene, an identity that can be performed in music environments and later removed, as opposed to a community that can exist outside of music events. Instead, the spirit of communitas fuels a scene that may ultimately reinforce the dominant society that phans are trying to reject. Further, Yeager views community as generally homogenous people linked together geographically with shifting requirements for membership to maintain the homogeneity. In contrast, Phish phans and the scene are fluid and often disparate.(21)
While the Phish scene as experienced during the immediacy of a show is not a community, I argue that a phan community does exist. It has history, values, behavioral norms, and it is “given form by conversations that build relatedness.”(22) However, this community does not fit traditional definitions because it does not exist within the constraints of geographic borders. Instead, the structure of this community exists almost entirely on the Internet.
Phans have managed to build a community around the “we” inspired by the communitas experienced during shows. From the sometimes vitriolic political discussions on Phish.net to various social media groups/pages for women, queer phans, and phans of color, there is a community bound by a shared interest in not only the music of Phish, but also in intersecting identities and values. What may have began as a way to share information about the band grew to include group specific language, traditions, ritualistic behavior, beliefs, and norms.
In 1915 sociologist Robert Park described unique communities within cities created not because of geographic proximity but because of shared vocational needs. By communicating information, these shared communities remove the barriers that cause isolation.(23) Although originally focused on vocation, these communities can develop into social networks. Almost eighty years later in the early days of the Internet, Howard Rheingold ventured to describe virtual (i.e., online) communities and urged us to consider the possibilities of connecting with one another out of choice rather than geographic necessity:
Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace… Although spatial imagery and a sense of place help convey the experience of dwelling in a virtual community, biological imagery is often more appropriate to describe the way cyberculture changes. In terms of the way the whole system is propagating and evolving, think of cyberspace as a social petri dish, the Net as the agar medium, and virtual communities, in all their diversity, as the colonies of microorganisms that grow in petri dishes. Each of the small colonies of microorganisms--the communities on the Net--is a social experiment that nobody planned but that is happening nevertheless.(24)
Rheingold’s vision of virtual communities is akin to Park’s much earlier theory of human ecology and urban life. Nessim Watson, a phan, also challenged static views of community and pushed scholars to adopt a more inclusive definition. He argued that instead of relying on spatial relationships to define community, we should focus on relationships between people. He also contemplated if adhering to a strict definition of community gives power to those doing the defining and negates the authenticity of a self-described community.(25)
The Light Between Me and My Mind:(26) Conclusion
The word liminal comes from the Latin līmen, meaning threshold. In turn, līmen is related to līmĕs, boundary.(27) Liminal spaces therefore can be viewed as boundaries or frontiers within ourselves. Navigating these boundaries leads us to make the essential human connections that build society. Writing in the context of information science, James Elmborg argued that culture is dynamic and without a center. All interactions, especially for people who exist in the margins of society, involve navigating internal borders where they intersect with the borders of the dominant society. Like the liminal in music, these personal zones of navigation are transformative in that we emerge from them with new knowledge of ourselves and each other.(28)
Twenty years ago, half of the adult population in the United States used the Internet. Now, that number is 90%.(29) Meanwhile, just over 70% of American adults use some form of social media.(30) The line between “real life” and online life is diminishing. Today someone can use the Internet to meet and fall in love with someone from another country and to earn an accredited degree from an Ivy League school.(31) Online communities and the connections forged in these digital spaces are real. While communities like Phish.net have different needs from the more easily defined traditional communities, the basic formula of humans connecting to find a better way to navigate the world is the same.
Ubiquitous access to the Internet gives us power to soften our borders and to transform ourselves through interactions with whom we choose to make connections. As modern humans, we live in the liminal. We are flooded with information and our only mooring comes from our communities. For some, community exists solely “in real life” via family, neighborhoods, church, school, etc. Yet for others, communities created online can be just as valid, and sometimes more fulfilling, than those based on chances of geography.
In a sea of uncurated and disparate information, online communities are becoming a part of our human ecology. However, these communities are not always consciously created as is the case of the phan community. From the spread of disinformation to online bullying, failing to reshape our definition of community can have serious repercussions. By studying the creation of community among Phish fans, and the spirit that has inspired that community, we can better understand how to transform and strengthen all communities shaped by this age of information.
Blau, Jnan A. "A Phan on Phish: Live Improvised Music in Five Performative Commitments." Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies10, no. 4 (2010): 307-319. doi:10.1177/1532708610365320.
Block, Peter. Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.
Boyce-Tillman, June. “The Transformative Qualities of a Liminal Space Created by Musicking.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 17, no. 2 (2009): 184–202.
Elmborg, James K. "Libraries as the Spaces Between Us." Reference & User Services Quarterly50, no. 4 (2011): 338-350. doi:10.5860/rusq.50n4.338.
Horowitz, Jacob. “Roots of the ‘Cactus’: Mike Gordon and His Band, Phish, Bring Judaism and Rock and Roll Together.” Jewish Advocate; Boston. September 7, 2000.
Latin Word Study Tool, s.v. “limen,” accessed June 3, 2019, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=limen&la=la&can=limen0#lexicon
Nieckarz, Peter P. "Community in Cyber Space?: The Role of the Internet in Facilitating and Maintaining a Community of Live Music Collecting and Trading." City and Community4, no. 4 (2005): 403-23. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6040.2005.00145.x.
Park, Robert E. “The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the City Environment.” American Journal of Sociology 20, no. 5 (1915): 577–612. https://doi.org/10.1086/212433.
Pew Research Center. “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet.” June 12, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/ .
Pew Research Center. “Social Media Fact Sheet.” June 12, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/ .
Phish.net. “Birds of a Feather - Lyrics. Accessed June 4, 2019, https://phish.net/song/birds-of-a-feather/lyrics .
Phish.net. “Light Lyrics.” Accessed January 10, 2020, https://phish.net/song/light/lyrics .
Phish.net. “The Lizards - History.” Accessed January 05, 2020. http://phish.net/song/the-lizards/history .
Phish.net "The Lizards - Lyrics." Accessed June 04, 2019. http://phish.net/song/the-lizards/lyrics
Phish.net. "Rise/Come Together - Lyrics." Accessed June 04, 2019 http://phish.net/song/risecome-together/lyrics .
Rheingold, Howard. "Introduction." Electronic Edition of the Virtual Community. Published Online, 1993. Accessed June 04, 2019. https://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/intro.html .
Richardson, Peter. “Community.” In No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. New York: St. Martins Press, 2015.
Silberman, Steve. "Happy Birthday Trey Anastasio: Fall 1994 Interview With Steve Silberman." JamBase. September 30, 2018. Accessed June 04, 2019. https://www.jambase.com/article/phish-trey-anastasio-interview-fall-1994-steve-silberman .
Spencer, Kate. "Remembering Coventry: 5 Unforgettable Moments From Phish's 2004 Break-Up Show." VH1 News. August 14, 2014. Accessed June 02, 2019. http://www.vh1.com/news/53573/phish-coventry-10th-anniversary/ .
Turner, Victor. “Liminality & Communitas.” In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge, 2017.
University of Pennsylvania. “Bachelor's Degree.” Accessed January 16, 2020. https://lpsonline.sas.upenn.edu/academics/bachelors-degree .
Veinot, Tiffany C., and Kate Williams. “Following the ‘Community’ Thread from Sociology to Information Behavior and Informatics: Uncovering Theoretical Continuities and Research Opportunities.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63, no. 5 (October 31, 2011): 847–64. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.21653.
Watson, Nessim. “Why We Argue About Virtual Community: A Case Study of the Phish.Net Fan Community.” In Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety, edited by Steven Jones, 97–122. London: SAGE Publications, 1997.
Wels, Harry, Kees Van Der Waal, Andrew Spiegel, and Frans Kamsteeg. "Victor Turner and Liminality: An Introduction." Anthropology Southern Africa, 34, no. 1-2 (2011): 1-4. doi:10.1080/23323256.2011.11500002.
Yeager, Elizabeth Anne. “Understanding ‘It’: Affective Authenticity, Space, and the Phish Scene.” Ph.D., University of Kansas, 2011. https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/handle/1808/7842 .
- "Rise/Come Together - Lyrics,” Phish.net, https://phish.net/song/risecome-together/lyrics.
- “Birds of a Feather - Lyrics,” Phish.net, https://phish.net/song/birds-of-a-feather/lyrics.
- Kate Spencer, “Remembering Coventry: 5 Unforgettable Moments from Phish’s 2004 Break-Up Show,” VH1 News, August 14, 2014, http://www.vh1.com/news/53573/phish-coventry-10th-anniversary/.
- "The Lizards - Lyrics," Phish.net, http://phish.net/song/the-lizards/lyrics.
- "The Lizards - Lyrics," Phish.net, http://phish.net/song/the-lizards/lyrics.
- Tiffany C. Veinot and Kate Williams, “Following the ‘Community’ Thread from Sociology to Information Behavior and Informatics: Uncovering Theoretical Continuities and Research Opportunities,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63, no. 5 (October 31, 2011): 848-856, https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.21653
- Elizabeth Anne Yaeger, “Understanding ‘It’: Affective Authenticity, Space, and the Phish Scene.” Ph.D., University of Kansas, 2011, 19-22.
- Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), 178.
- Turner, Victor. “Liminality & Communitas,” In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge, 2017, 94 - 95.
- Jnan A. Blau, "A Phan on Phish: Live Improvised Music in Five Performative Commitments," Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 10, no. 4 (2010): 309-316.
- Jnan A. Blau, “A Phan on Phish,” 307.
- “The Lizards - History,” Phish.net, http://phish.net/song/the-lizards/history
- "The Lizards - Lyrics," Phish.net, http://phish.net/song/the-lizards/lyrics.
- June Boyce-Tillman, “The Transformative Qualities of a Liminal Space Created by Musicking,” Philosophy of Music Education Review 17, no. 2 (2009): 191-197, 188-189.
- Jacob Horowitz, “Roots of the ‘Cactus’: Mike Gordon and His Band, Phish, Bring Judaism and Rock and Roll Together,” Jewish Advocate; Boston. September 7, 2000: 2.
- Peter Richardson, “Community,” In No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (New York: St. Martins Press, 2015), 255.
- Steve Silberman, "Happy Birthday Trey Anastasio: Fall 1994 Interview With Steve Silberman," JamBase, September 30, 2018, https://www.jambase.com/article/phish-trey-anastasio-interview-fall-1994-steve-silberman.
- "Rise/Come Together - Lyrics,” Phish.net, https://phish.net/song/risecome-together/lyrics.
- Turner, “Liminality and Communitas,” 96-97.
- Yeager, “Understanding ‘It,’” 25-27, 190-191.
- Ibid., 19-22, 26.
- Block, 178.
- Robert E. Park, “The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the City Environment,” American Journal of Sociology 20, no. 5 (1915): pp. 577-612, https://doi.org/10.1086/212433.
- Howard Rheingold, "Introduction," In Electronic Edition of Virtual Community, 1993.
- Nessim Watson, “Why We Argue About Virtual Community: A Case Study of the Phish.Net Fan Community,” In In Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety, edited by Steven Jones, London: SAGE Publications, 1997, 98-100.
- "Light - Lyrics,” Phish.net, https://phish.net/song/light/lyrics.
- Latin Word Study Tool, s.v. “limen,” http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=limen&la=la&can=limen0#lexicon.
- James K. Elmborg, "Libraries as the Spaces Between Us," Reference & User Services Quarterly 50, no. 4 (2011): 344, https://doi:10.5860/rusq.50n4.338
- “Internet/Broadband Factsheet,” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/
- “Social Media Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/
- “Bachelor's Degree,” University of Pennsylvania, accessed January 12, 2020, https://lpsonline.sas.upenn.edu/academics/bachelors-degree