Testimonials of transformation: The Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children

Stories of Self-Transformation

This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about how civically engaged people tell stories about their transformation from disengagement to connectedness. Some discernible patterns seem to recur in the way these narratives play out. For example, in my own life, when I tell the story of how I became politically conscious, I often start in the late 90s, a time in which — looking back— I see myself as a very different person. It’s important that the story starts here with a disaffected, but ultimately apathetic, teenager and young adult. Whether this description is fair to my former self is somewhat irrelevant, because it’s this “before” image that helps me articulate the transformation that happened next. At the fulcrum of my “before” and “after” shots lies the Florida election crisis in 2000, the events of 911 along with the aftermath and the lead up to war in Iraq. These events of the early 2000s triggered a sense of profound powerlessness for me as I watched the world reshaping itself, seemingly impervious to my own fears, desires, and expectations. Those feelings of impotence and frustration were channeled into a search for like-minded folks, whom I eventually “discovered” online. And it was from within this online community that, during the 2004 election, I started to participate in large scale coordinated actions.

This kind of collective engagement provided me with way of thinking about myself as a civic agent in contexts that had previously felt beyond my control. Testimonials of this kind are familiar. They trace a trajectory from isolation and impotence to connectedness and coordinated action and also provide a framework for articulating what would otherwise be a fairly abstract relationship to the “outside world.”

The Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children

This semester I’ve been working with a group of colleagues to understand the ways that these kinds of narratives operate within civically minded organizations. We’ve been studying two very different groups that — each in their own way — occupy the intersection between civics and pop culture. The two groups that we’re looking at are the Harry Potter Alliance (a group that casts itself as a kind of real world Dumbledore’s Army) and Invisible Children (a group that capitalizes on theatrical spectacle, high-production value, and youth participants to advocate for those displaced by war in Uganda). In particular, I’ve been working with a subgroup to focus on the individual experiences of participants. Over the past month, we’ve been reading through transcripts of interviews and trying to develop a language to describe the overarching narratives, personal trajectories, and content worlds that are representative of these two groups.

One motif that has emerged in several stories is the idea of recounting the past as a moment of loneliness, lack of connection, and powerlessness. As in my own story, these feelings serve as juxtaposition for what is to come: a “discovery” of some new community that facilitates the storyteller’s identity transformation. These stories often move, then, from isolation and skepticism, to “discovered” community, and finally to a more abstract sense of connection to the outside world — often articulated by our interviewees as a realization of their “wish to help.”

Testimony and Rites of Passage

What’s becoming increasingly interesting to me is the way that testimonials of the transition to civic engagement get taken up as spectacle. For example, stories of self-transformation play key roles in soliciting potential new recruits into membership. They get published, rehearsed, and remediated at critical junctions in the groups’ development and self-maintenance. They also provide a model for new recruits to imagine a trajectory that moves from potentially familiar feelings of self-doubt and skepticism to a renewed sense of belonging.

This is a model of testimonial that resonates with the discourse of religion for obvious reasons, but I’m guessing it also pops up in a broader range of initiation rituals and conversion experiences — everything from Amway meetings and weight loss commercials to love songs and college applications. But what these civic organizations seem to share with uniquely with religion is the way in which the movement from isolation to belonging figures a parallel transformation of the relationship between the individual and humanity — or at least towards some broader notion of community that transcends the local.

Testimony in Invisible Children

Invisible Children (IC), especially, seems to integrate this model of testimonial as a key feature of their recruitment events, both as a central subject of IC films and as part of a live performance by IC roadies. Importantly, testimonial also figures as a projection into the future (because it is the event of recruitment which will become the subject of future testimonial for the current batch of prospective participants).  For example, in describing the events, one IC “roadie” remarked:

It’s not just about a film but it’s about actually doing something and having the roadies there is like here are people who are actually doing something about it and they found out about it the same way you did. They saw the media and they decided to not just go home but to do something about it. These are actual people and you are giving a personal connection, which I think is lacking in a lot of organizations

This bringing together of past and future through testimony personalizes the new recruits’ transformative experience and provides real-world models for reimagining their relationship to the outside world.

The Liminal and The Liminoid

Thinking about this kind transformation from out-group to in-group status as a figuration for changing relationships to humanity, led me to Victor Turner’s article Liminal to Liminoid, In Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology. The notion of the ‘liminal’ popped up recently in Neta Kligler-Vilenchik’s post about liminal political spaces and the recent Obama visit to USC’s campus. She connected this idea to the liminal qualities of HPA and IC (i.e. they are neither explicitly political nor explicitly play).

I’m interested in what Turner calls the liminal features of Rites of Passage. He suggests that in pre-industrial societies these liminal moments (when the normative structures of society are inverted or abrogated) represent the seeds of what post-industrial societies experience as the liminoid phenomena. Wikipedia’s summary of the distinction is actually quite helpful:

Turner coined the term liminoid to refer to experiences that have characteristics of liminal experiences but are optional and don’t involve a resolution of a personal crisis. A graduation ceremony might be regarded as liminal while a rock concert might be understood to be liminoid. The liminal is part of society, an aspect of social or religious ritual, while the liminoid is a break from society, part of play. Turner stated that liminal rituals are rare and diminished in industrial societies, and ‘forged the concept of “liminoid” rituals for analogous but secular phenomena.’

I’m struggling with how to think about these distinctions in relation to HPA and IC. I’m not so sure that Turner’s preferred term to describe post-industrial experiences (liminoid) should really apply here, since what both HPA and IC promise is a kind of suturing of the fissures between “society” and “play.” To the degree that these organizations succeed in stitching the two back together, then perhaps liminal is a more effective concept. But regardless, I think it’s helpful to keep both of these twin concepts in mind.

Communitas

Importantly, Turner connects this notion of the liminoid to another concept, communitas — a notion that captures the spontaneity and ‘flow’ of emergent communities in their early stages when they are free from the rigidity of complex status distinctions.

It’s interesting to think about the possibility of something resembling Rites of Passage in the Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children. Turner’s argument would suggest that moments of transition — from out-groupness to in-groupness — are key for understanding the emergent structure of communitas.

Turner argues that communitas, can never really be experienced in the moment, but instead can only be pointed to as memory.

We thus encounter the paradox that the experience of communitas becomes the memory of communitas, with the result that communitas itself in striving to replicate itself historically develops a social structure, in which initially free and innovative relationships between individuals are converted into norm-governed relationships between social personae (78).

Likewise, IC members use the logic of testimonial (memory as story) to recreate an emergent sense of community (both among each other as well with the world at large).

By contrast, the top-down, highly organized structure of the IC organization suggests a social grouping that has graduated from communitas status and is heading towards something more institutionalized. It is telling, then, that the IC roadies draw so much value from this remediation and re-enactment of the moment of their own recruitment. Turner’s framework suggests that these testimonials of self-transformation figure prominently in these events partly because they renew a sense of “becoming” that is so critical for the story IC tells about itself to its members. Memory of self-transformation (through testimonial) fuses with desire for transformation (new recruits) to reconstruct an emergent sense of communitas and to mitigate the sense of staleness that can set in when a movement starts to become an institution.

HPA and Testimonials of Origin

The Harry Potter Alliance, by contrast, has less explicit organizational structure; it is organized into independent chapters that are loosely coordinated by a central organization but given much more free rein in deciding how to focus their energies. This greater degree of organizational flexibility, however, doesn’t mean that HPA doesn’t have its own rituals of initiation. For HPA, testimonials of self-transformation tend to trace a thread between the individual’s moment of initiation into the group and the group’s origin story. Many members are familiar with stories of Andrew Slack, the founder of HPA, bursting with energy as he tirelessly worked to share his vision of a community of Harry Potter fans mobilized to solve real world problems.

Here is Paul DeGeorge recounting his first encounter with Andrew Slack (as written up on the HPA website as part of the lead-up to HPA’s five year anniversary):

Joe and I were playing a late afternoon Harry and the Potters show at an elementary school in Cambridge. It was a bit weird for us because it was for really young kids, it was in a gymnasium and it wasn’t open to the public. Definitely not a normal Harry and the Potters show if such a thing exists. Anyway, just before we were about to start playing, this really sweaty guy shows up and starts talking – really fast – about this idea he has for getting Harry Potter fans involved in social justice issues. He’s going on and on about how Rowling used to work for Amnesty International, how the books offer obvious parallels to wrongful imprisonment and a wealth of other issues, and how he wants to start a real-world Dumbledore’s Army. Keep in mind that this dude is really sweaty, bug-eyed, and talking really fast and Joe and I are about to play songs for a bunch of 7-year olds. It was INTENSE! But it was also obvious that this dude had a pretty good and unique idea. He wanted to take Harry Potter fans on a new journey and really bring them together in a new way, for a new purpose. He wanted to make these books come to life in a way that wasn’t relegated to our own imaginations. It was bizarre and it was ambitious, but those always seem to be the best ideas.

This description of Slack emphasizes his inspirational qualities as a catalyst and leader during the seminal moments of HPA’s history, but it also underscores his willingness to push boundaries of normative behavior. It seems likely that part of what made Slack so intriguing was the way his passion bordered on intrusiveness. And it seems important that this duality gets taken up as a central piece of HPA’s own mythology. DeGeorge emphasizes details like sweatiness and bug-eyedness as a way of underscoring the thin line between intrusiveness and charisma. It is as if DeGeorge recognizes Slack’s willingness to be non-normative (socially transgressive even) may have actually been instrumental in getting the HPA organization off the ground. This embrace of non-normativity within moments of transformation parallels quite nicely with Turners discussion of inverted norms during rites of passage. Likewise, Turner talks about how Rites of Passage tend to defamiliarize or invert the dominant readings of a cultural system. While DeGeorge’s testimonial is not part of an explicit initiation ritual it does function as a model for HPA members to follow when explaining their group to outside Harry Potter fans. The notion of defamiliarization also seems to parallel Slack’s breathless re-reading of the Harry Potter content world in terms of a real world politics that J.K. Rawling has embedded in the series.

A key difference between HPA and IC, however, can be found in the ways that HPA members demonstrate a dual layering of communitas — they are by and large HP fans first and HPA members second. The first moment of transformation occurs when HP fans “discover” the HP fan community online after a long period of solitary fan enjoyment (through reading). Many of the key memories of communitas, then, emerge as testimonials of this “discovery” of a larger fan community. Membership in HPA is less weighted then in terms of this transformational trajectory. By contrast, IC seems to look at the world more in terms of members and non-members; one is either involved or not. For IC, there is a single moment of transformation (when you go home after seeing the films and decide to “do” something). Thus the rituals of recruitment hold an enormous amount of symbolic power through the testimonies of self-transformation (by roadies and by subjects within the films). Moreover, the recruitment events also promise to serve as the subject of future testimonial (for new recruits who will one day recount this moment to others).

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