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Editorial. Rites of Passage

Jörg H. Gleiter
p. 17-20
Editoriale. Riti di passaggio [it]

Editor's notes

DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH07.02

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1“Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it”, argued the futurist Alvin Toffler in his famous book Future Shock. Toffler wrote this in 1970, half a century ago. But how much more true today, when a political (Brexit), an ecological (climate change) and a psychological crisis – which is what the pandemic is – confront old Europe with a seemingly insurmountable mountain of problems. The question, however, is what exactly it means when Toffler talks about preparation. How can one prepare for things that change abruptly, that are then simply there, where there is no transition, perhaps only because one did not want to acknowledge the signs.

2The first thoughts about the topic of “Ardeth #07” were still titled with the working title Utopia Europe. Together with the editors, the decision was made to dispense with the term utopia. For utopian thinking seems to be too one-dimensionally oriented towards the future only. In their totalizing claim, utopias do not take the present seriously, much less the past, insofar as for utopias the past is only the negative foil for their own promises.

3But it is also true that when utopias do come, they usually come as dystopias, as negative utopias, and they come unexpectedly and suddenly. Like now. The dystopia is perfect, borders are closed, new walls are raised and border fences are erected, freedom of movement and with it fundamental rights are restricted. Much more could be listed like the red zones or the lock downs. Everything is in a state of shock, standstill everywhere, life shrinks to the immediate present, no forward nor backward. The future is suspended, as is the past. And on top of this, there is the narcissistic injury that the virus does to man.

4And yet the virus provides us with an experience we no longer hoped for: Les rites de passage. We are part of a huge rite of passage into a new time. One can also speak of an initiation ritual for something that no one knows how to name at the moment, but which announces itself with strong signs. Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) used the term ‘rites de passage’ to describe the rituals, celebrations and festivals that give structure and rhythm to life and form community and identity. The lockdown, the race for the vaccine, and the mass vaccinations must be understood as a giant rite of passage. With rites of passage, we make an experience that modernity, with its secularization of life, and later postmodernity, with its dissolution of all differences and total simultaneity, deprived us of for so long. And no one can wish for a repetition of the rites of passage of the dark 20th century with its world wars and all that went with them.


5The 21st century has its century event. It is about to break the innovation logjam and become the catalyst for many small and big changes. This is where “Ardeth #07” comes in and poses the question of Europe, of its unity, multiplicity and multiplicity within unity. Given the plurality of its structures, its history and its multiple mentalities, is it not necessary to understand Europe as a great project of rites of passage, that is, as a project of thresholds and their rites of passage? Rituals structure the territory, they transform borders into thresholds and enable the passage from one side to the other. Thus, Europe could be described as a territory crossed by multiple thresholds. Like a tailor’s pattern that defines the cutting lines, but where the cutting lines equally mark the future seams that hold the individual parts together according to a new superordinate idea.

6When we speak of the European territory, we are dealing with kaleidoscope-like situations, where the individual elements combine again and again to form new, exciting constellations, but where the whole remains the same. Palimpsest-like, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, Europe is crossed by many borderlines and thresholds. It is not only the geological formations such as rivers, mountains, lowlands or deserts that form the borders, but also the legal and economic systems as well as the educational and university systems. In the background is the history of mentality and the history of domination and the traumas of the past.

7The question then is whether it is not precisely the phenomenon of the territorial threshold that sharpens the identity of modern Europe. Here the psychological level comes to the fore, namely that crossing the threshold is always a stepping out of oneself. Thresholds and borders hold up a mirror to one’s own self. Can Europe in its unifying power then be described as a great hall of mirrors?

8Michel Foucault has pointed out the fantastic nature of rites of passage, where rituals always include “mask, tattoo, and makeup” (1966) that transpose the body into another space. Foucault also named this as heterotopias, or places of the mirroring Other, which are also places of the fantastic. Beyond this, however, heterotopia is always associated with heterochrony. Thus, in many layers and constantly new constellations, the stories to which the founding myth of Europe owes its existence overlap. These are spatial and temporal processes that the territory of rites of passage requires and that differ precisely in this from the vastness of America or Russia. Mirrors and thresholds are then places in which one’s own self manifoldly overlaps with the other, amalgamates, and produces its very own mixture of the fantastic and the real. Can we understand Europe better, and what do we understand better, if we describe Europe as such a heterotopia, where the seemingly incompatible interpenetrates and identity emerges precisely from there.


9In this sense, “Ardeth #07” asks about the Europe of rites of passage, concrete and fantastic, material or psychological, where, in an extension of architecture, infrastructure necessarily complements thresholds, where one cannot exist without the other. For by infrastructure should be understood that which runs across the thresholds, and which enables the thresholds to be experienced as such in the first place. This includes the flow of goods, of ideas, of tourists, of migrants and their traffickers, the pipelines and the power grids, but also the bicycle paths and long-distance hiking trails, the old towpaths, the pass roads, and the supply routes of the world wars. Today they include highways, canals, railroads, the great power lines and data highways. Isn’t this where the real rites of passage take place, in the rest areas and gas stations or in the bistros of airports. Or do the rites of passage today take place only in the architecture of computers, in the typing of pins and passwords, in Google searches, and in the posting of messages on social media.


10Insofar as architecture serves everyday rituals, very basic architectural experiences are connected to rites of passage. Often neglected today, architecture is associated with rites of passage on a small scale, the constant crossing of thresholds. Architecture is first and foremost a technique of the threshold that creates potential for rituals. Among the Northwest American Indians, it is the large totem poles that mark a place and thus introduce a difference for rituals. In architecture, this includes the walls that create a front and back in the first place. Or four walls that separate an inside from an outside and then elevate the transition from one side to the other to a ritual by means of the door.

11Connected to this, however, is a strong temporal component, but not only in the sense of physical movement, but in the sense of progressive time, of history. “Today we have basically lost the ability to think of a future. Most people do not want to go beyond their present - they do not like to see themselves as a link in the chain of generations”, wrote the sociologist Norbert Elias (1987). He spoke of withdrawal into the present. One must interpret this as a sign of withdrawal from rituals. For rituals are those cultural practices in which, in the active ritual action, past and future are put into a relationship via the immediate present.

12With the chain of generations, generational justice is thus addressed above all, that is, the self-understanding with which a time defines itself as a link between future and past generations. In view of the environmental problems, and the state of democracy, inter-generational justice must be at the very heart of the attention. It exists, however, only insofar as the present understands itself as a rite of passage, in which intergenerational justice includes past generations as much as future generations. That is what the European project means.


13Elias, N. (1987), The Retreat of Sociologists into the Present, “Theory, Culture, & Society”, vol. 4, nn. 2-3, pp. 223-249.

14Foucault, M. (2009 [1966]) Le corps utopique: suivi de les hétérotopies, Paris, Lignes.

15Toffler, A. (1970), Future Shock, New York, Bantam.

16van Gennep, A. (2011 [1909]), Les rites de passage : étude systématique des rites de la porte et du seuil, de l’hospitalité, de l’adoption, de la grossesse et de l’accouchement, de la naissance, de l’enfance de la puberté, de l’initiation, de l’ordination, du couronnement, des fiançailles et du mariage, des funérailles, des saisons, etc., Paris, Picard.

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Bibliographical reference

Jörg H. Gleiter, “Editorial. Rites of Passage”Ardeth, 7 | 2020, 17-20.

Electronic reference

Jörg H. Gleiter, “Editorial. Rites of Passage”Ardeth [Online], 7 | 2020, Online since 01 June 2021, connection on 29 September 2023. URL:

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About the author

Jörg H. Gleiter

Technische Universität Berlin –

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The text only may be used under licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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