Liminality: An interrogation
Liminal is a lovely word for what I find a very moving and rewarding set of ideas. Much as I like it, though, I find its use, including even my own use of it, may have got out of hand. This piece explores some of all that. I want to show some developments of the idea which seem to cohere with its original expression, and point to some others which may stray too far to be worth the label.
Liminality, from the Latin limen (threshold), is a word
Original Liminality: its liminars and limens
Liminality, or Original Liminality as I will dub this early iteration, was invented to capture and explain the transitional rituals – the rites of passage – which were observed to be happening in primitive societies. I use Original Liminality as an anchor: it anchors liminality to its original anthropological use. Amongst many rites of passage, take the transition of an ordinary member of a tribe to that of an elite member. The “ordinary” man was separated for a period from the rest of the tribe in a temporary symbolic structure. He was put through a period of humiliation and upset before emerging as a more admirable and authoritative figure. In particular, he was reminded that his life was henceforth to be devoted to everyone, regardless of status. Gennep was, I gather, the first to codify similar quite similar rites surrounded the coming of age of adolescents of both sexes, not least as they grow in both autonomy and obligation.
The idea of rites of passage live on, of course. The “coming of age” trope is a staple of books, songs and movies, as in, for instance, the Hollywood movie, Life As a House (2001). As conceived by Gennep, liminality was a transitional period, and thus, I assume, temporary by its very nature. It was about a movement from one state to another, and it involved sequestration in a special, designated, temporary place. Move away from those tenets, and one is wandering away from the original.
Note that liminality was partly a matter of the events, the experiences, persons were subjected to and it was partly a matter of the readiness or responses within the person. I think it was Turner who suggested that the person who was rendered or was ready to be liminal – who experienced liminality – could be called the
Just to be clear: in the classic cases, candidates for advancement in society – liminars – were knocked about emotionally in a particular way. They were stripped of ordinary dignity in order to be made more ready for greater dignity. They were put through various rituals in special places the better that their interiorities should be adjusted to their new social role.
I think it is essential to Original Liminality that the whole process was ordained within the authority of the mainstream and for the mainstream’s interests. Indeed, one might say the liminal actually served what we may think were rather authoritarian societies. I say that because liminality is seldom invoked in that way now.
Modern liminality and the liminoid
I have not done the reading which would tell me the degree to which Gennep was in the business of extending the idea of liminality from primitive to advanced societies. I know from limyed reading that Turner did undertake that development and that he invented the word “liminoid” to capture the “modern” version of liminality which he discussed. One might call it “liminal-ish”.
I should say that Victor Turner is at times very much the structuralist cultural or social anthropologist of the 1960s and thus sometimes is what I would call classically obscure.1 At other time he seems very clear.2
Turner is firmly associated with several developments in the idea of liminality. Firstly, it was as a matter of being “betwixt and between”. The
Victor Turner was writing on liminality in the 1960s and 1970s. He seems to have been caught up in the cultural and social anthropology of his day in the sense that he was interested in – I think, taken with – the anti-Establishment thinking of the day. This had it that authroritarian structures held society in a gridlock and perhaps what the Marxists called false consciousness. The student rebellions in the universities of some cities and on the streets of others were celebrated as a necessary defiance of these norms. The point for liminality is that Turner believed, I am pretty sure, that Original Liminality accepted the norms of society and saw the liminar as being only temporarily removed from them, the better to fit in with them later. Turner posited, I think, that liminars were actually necessary for the reform of society. Moreover, he thought that socieites themselves might enter liminal states of productive disruption. You will readily see that this sort of analysis is transferable to our own time. It happens that I strongly resist much academic, journalistic and artistic thought which sees only the failings of 19th, 20th and 21st society. Even so, I am drawn to the idea of liminality, even in the modern form of the liminoid, as a period of temporary dislocation and even dissidence during which the liminar is prepared, or is preparing him- or herself for a different role in society, and perhaps is changing society. It is a bit of a stretch to say whole societies can become liminal, though it is probably true that societies undergo periods of greart flux, and even self-examintion. (Thoughts along these lines will be discussed in a moment, in the context of religious liminality.)
Third amongst Turner’s developments was the idea of a degree of permanency in some liminal experiences. I am not sure how this works. I half deduce that he thought that modern societies were so structured that they produced permanent spots of dissidence and tension (whether cultural or geographic) which would invite a permanent occurrence of liminal fight-back. Your own reading may clarify this.
After Turner’s developments the liminal often sort of transmutes to any state of mind or place or person or period which is indeterminate and in flux. The marginal, the neglected, the equipoised, the undecided: these are all obvious candidates as
Duncan Fisher and liminality
I first came across liminality in the work of Duncan Fisher. I think he is an example, amongst very few, of cases where one can develop Original Liminality in a fruitful way which is faithful to an important quota of the idea’s founding characteristics. In the late
Fisher discussed how the early church and monasteries were tightly-knits self-aware communities which set themselves apart from mainstream society in order to become more spiritual and with some hope of making the wider world share their view. They cherished ideas of communitas in the sense that the Christian was enjoined to agape, the generalised love of all mankind without distiction.
I should add that Fisher notes that the idea of liminality in Christian religious life had in the 1980s begun to be applied to the modern church. This is worth a detour because it touches on the problem of possibility that liminality is a reforming movement. Fisher has a footnote which refers to Fr Diarmuid O’Murchu’s work, “Sharing the Vision” (1987) which argued that the church had lost its liminality and that it needed revolutionary refreshment. The idea became a book in 1991 and provoked a fierce review by Fr John A Hardin.4 Somewhat before Fisher or O’Murchu, Richard Endress had in 1975 mined Turner’s thinking to discuss monasteries as social organisms which stood in a particular relationship to the structures of the church and society around them. I do not altogether follow Endress’s quite attractive argument, and it strikes me as incoherent at places. Rather handily, it provoked a critique from Michael Blecker, a Benedictine monk, who seems to have done much of my complaining for me. Your own reading of O’Murchu, Endress and Blecker will let you come to your own conclusions.5 The point is: one has to decide whether social structures can, do or should become liminal; whether liminars do or should see themselves as useful to society; whether their usefulness is in reforming society or rienforcing it; whether liminars are and should be in it for themselves. .
Fisher was true to the idea of the liminal being separate from the mainstream. The idea of a fruitful sequestration is key and true to the original conceit. But Fisher also supposes that a person (or group) could be or could want to be in a permanent state of liminality. This is quite different from Original Liminality in which a passage from one sort of ordinary state to a different, more advanced or superior state is achieved via a temporary liminal state, which is very
Rather typically of purist movements, the church had become attractive to the mainstream, which more or less absorbed it. The church was enshrined as part of the state by Constantine in the 4th Century. That rather vitiated its claim to separateness. Fisher notes that monks had sequestrated themselves from the too-
Fisher is especially useful in his discussion of the role of the desert as a liminal space. It was separated from society, obviously. It was a place where men and women could grow spiritually. It was moot, says Fisher, as to whether commentators of the day thought the desert fruitful by being frightful, or merely as a place where spiritual purity could create a virtual paradise. It is very important and interesting that, as Fisher discusses, several Christian writers enjoined individual Christians to develop a “desert within” where they could retire or retreat and grow spiritually. If it isn’t too odd to say so, one might say that a liminar could zone a part of his ir her soul as a limen.
Fisher’s discussion is very fruitful. It helps us understand many developments in the history but also the spirituality of
Because of Fisher’s work we can see very tantalising possibilities. Can liminars pursue imaginative or spiritual or emotional goals more or less permanently? Can certain places or people or works of art be permanently fruitful of liminality, standing ready to be useful to whatever liminars pass into their maw like lavender bushes waiting for bees?
Fisher’s work seems squarely to say that ideas of liminality can abandon much of the notion of the transitional and the temporary which we though essential to Original liminality. Equally, he does not seem very interested in the ideas of indeterminacy, transitoriness and marginality which are often deployed nowadays, sometimes in a way which remains true to Original Liminality and. True, much very recent discussion of liminality loves the idea of twixt and between persons or environments, which again is very Original Liminality and not very Fisher.
The Modern liminoid?
Arguably, modern military training is a bit like the primitive or tribal formation of young warriors. Both involve turning stroppy or amiable youths into disciplined warriors. The cadet or candidate is often said to be stripped down in order for the military to reassemble him or her in its own image. The military boot camp is a rite of passage. To succeed in it, the candidates must usually toughen up, physically and mentally. They are taken somewhere special and separate where they must willingly immerse themselves in a transition: they must be willing to let go one self-image and develop another. In passing, I draw attention to recruitment ads designed to appeal to young people: they borrow these themes. (“Born in Sunderland, made in the Royal Navy”. I may have misremembered the town, but the sentiment’s right) The oddity is that as much as they must abandon themselves to the military’s dictates trainees may dimly realise that if they are successful they may well be required shortly to demonstrate their capacity for independent action and command. They are being stripped of dignity not just to make them obedient but so as to enable the more able to grow into something much more than automata.
Is the military process liminal, or merely liminoid (sort of
This may be a good moment to introduce the idea of adolescent liminality and neuroscience. It seems that MRI scans show that adolescents go through a particular set of experiences as a matter of what might be called their interior growing pains. It is posited that adolescent brains have
I like the idea that scientific evidence seems to back the soundness of tribal wisdom as noted in the anthropological origins of liminality. I am also struck that these two very different youthful experiences – the boot camp and the dance floor – have better roots in Original Liminality than many more fancy o
I want to make a plea, and might as well do it here, for neurological study of liminality. There has been
I felt what I imagine was adolescent liminality in a very powerful way. I was moved to my core by the riot of cherry blossom on the neat trees of my suburban street in Surbiton. I was Ronald Searle’s Fotherington-Thomas to the max. I felt that sense of unity with the whole universe but also with every molecule within it which I will talk about in a moment. It is of course a delusional or deluded feeling, but the idea of the spiritual attaches to it, and now MRI scanners may be able to see what was going on in my head. I quite like the idea that I can call my Fotherington-Thomas liminal if I want, not least because it fits rather well with what I imagine MRI scanners are spotting in adolescents. But I must admit, much else of my experience did not tick many of the boxes in the the rites of passage trope in Original Liminality.
One of the boxes it does sort of tick is Fisher’s idea that liminality can be a permanent state of transition. Since my 70s have produced similar collisions and shifts, I am conscious that these processes may be continuous, rather than transitional. As we’ll see in a moment, Alfred, Lord Tennyson seemed to think them to be. If so, one asks again whether one can be a permanent
Historically, and until the late 19th Century it was commonplace to discuss a sense of oneness with the universe as a mainly religious matter and one which thrilled and frightened people at all sorts of points in their life. The title and subtitle of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience: A study in human nature (1902) point at a sort of cusp between discussing these matters as mostly religious as opposed to also being psychological. James notes that Tennyson was asked about mystical experiences as they related to drug-use and replied, in a letter,
“I have never had any revelations through anæsthetics, but a kind of waking trance—this for lack of a better word—I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently, till all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state but the clearest, the surest of the surest, utterly beyond words—where death was an almost laughable impossibility—the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life. I am ashamed of my feeble description. Have I not said the state is utterly beyond words?”The Varieties of Religious Experience, footnote 226, pulled from Gutenberg Project
Virginia Woolf is amongst the clearest writers on human confusion we have (up there with my heroines Susan Sontag, Edith Stein and Charlotte Salomon). She is often writing of experiences which we would call mystical but not – so far as she was concerned – religious. Here she is on one sense of something akin to the oneness of things:
If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one two, and sending aVirginia Woolf, “A Sketch Of the Past” 1936, in Moments Of Being: Unpublished autobiographical writings, 1976 and later editions
splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blows the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.”
And here she is on another variety of oneness:
She felt, with her hand on the nursery door, that community of feeling with other people which emotion gives as if the walls of partition had become so thin that practically (the feeling was one of relief and happiness) it was all one stream.Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927
Tennyson and Woolf are both describing moments of clarity and uplift, and (in two of our examples) of experiences which can be remembered or relived or repeated. The point here is whether we would call them liminal. I think the answer is perhaps no: there is not enough of our rite of passage criteria in place. And yet, these are bumps and momentary trances which let us see and shift things without ourselves. I think Gennep, Turner and Fisher would allow us to use their word.
I feel this all the more strongly when I browse again in Ann Wroe’s book Six Facets of Light (2016
Particles adhered to my skin – thousands of years of years between finger and thumb, these atoms of quartz and sunlight, shining all the time.Richard Jefferies, “Sunny Brighton”, from The Open Air, 1913
I am glad of this quotation because it seems true to an experience I imagine many people have had.
Elsewhere, I discuss various uses to which the concept of liminality has been strictly and loosely put. Here, I wanted to help organise my thoughts about what qualifies for the word. We see some strands already. Is liminality necessarily a temporary state of transition or can it be a permanent state of striving? Is it always a process organised for the benefit of society or can it be more simply personal and even dissident or disruptive? Are liminars necessarily persons who have been selected by the authorities for society’s purposes, or can liminars be self-selecting for their own? Is the limen temporarily arranged, or can institutions (monasteries, theatres, for instance) be more or less permanent centres of the liminal? Must a liminal process involve severe trials or self-abnegation, or can it be merely slightly disturbing? Do liminars get chosen by society, or by neuroscience? The second part of all these questions point us toward departures from Original Liminality. If these developments are allowed, that may be all to the good in the sense that we can usefully have the term in our armoury as we discuss all sorts of development people feel themselves prone to, or wish they were, or wish they weren’t. Alternatively, as we stretch the definition of liminality do we at some point lose its real point and instead simply sprinkle its stardust over all sorts of occasions in which we see people make emotional or imaginative or intellectual changes? Does the stardust lose its potency if it is deployed too liberally, as praise does?
As I pursue these issues online I see rather little commentary which resists the widening – perhaps the weakening – of liminality as a concept. At first, I fell with delight on a passage from the educationalist Richard F Elmore in which he said, “It is now more or less conventional wisdom to speak of all stages of human development, from infancy through senility, as liminal”. I also thought I detected a note of resistance when he later went on to say, “If all stages of development are liminal, adolescence is arguably the most liminal.” Here was a writer, I thought, who thought there was sloppiness in the over-deployment of liminality. Instead, he gave me a classic (and useful) example of the common widening and loosening of the definition of liminality when he wrote:
Liminality carries the central meaning of being in transition, of being neither here nor there; of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy in one’s personal understanding of the world, and one’s identity in that world; the possibility of living in more than one identity in that world; the possibility of living in more than one identity simultaneously, moving back and forth as circumstances dictate; the emerging idea of risk and consequences of one’s personal choices; and the deepening of the idea of human agency, or the capacity to act on the world as an individual and accept the consequences of one’s actions.Richard F Elmore, in “Schooling Adolescents”, his Chapter Six in Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, edited by Richard M. Lerner and Laurence Steinberg, 2009
Much of that is true of the development of young people but I can’t see that all of those characteristics are part of the “central meaning” of Original Liminality, though Loose Liminality may well accommodate them.
Liminality and the twixt and between
My problem is in defining where the boundaries of the liminal lie. I am drawn to the idea of transition. I like
My favourite art museum is in an old seminary in Valencia: it is not famous, not easy to find and is open at times which seem capricious to the visitor. I have visited it twice and never shared a room with a stanger. The pictures were on public display, for sure, and by famous artists. Still, the whole pace inhabited a zone which was neither neglect nor celebrity. I imagine that Elizabeth Gilbert felt the same when she visited Rome’s Augusteum of which, she wrote, in her Eat, Pray and Love (book 2006, movie 2010).
I have only seen the
A friend took me to the most amazing place the other day. It’s called the Augusteum. Octavian Augustus built it to house his remains. When the barbarians came they trashed it a long with everything else. The great Augustus, Rome’s first true great emperor. How could he have imagined that Rome, the whole world as far as he was concerned, would be in ruins. It’s one of the quietest, loneliest places in Rome. The city has grown up around it over the centuries. It feels like a precious wound, a heartbreak you won’t let go of because it hurts too good. We all want things to stay the same. Settle for living in misery because we’re afraid of change, of things crumbling to ruins. Then I looked at around to this place, at the chaos it has endured – the way it has been adapted, burned, pillaged and found a way to build itself back up again. And I was reassured, maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic, it’s just the world that is, and the real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.”Elizabeth Gilbert, quote culled online, but close to my recollection of the passage in the movie
Now that does have a nice collection of liminal characteristics. Gilbert seems like a good modern liminar: she is in a temporary, voluntary exile; she in a muddle and on a quest; she comes to an ideal limen, a neglected place; it contributes to her achieiving clarity about the transformation she seeks.
We have been looking at twixt and between places. Are these proper locations for the liminal? I also like, or at least find interesting, people who won’t or can’t fit in. I am moved by people who sequestrate themselves from the mainstream. Is it proper to think of them as liminars? Some of them
Come to that, is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog a
So here is the danger. All sorts of crisis, all sorts of interior disturbances, may be the rocky road to progress, or just be interesting, but shouldn’t we be quite strict about bestowing on them the liminal label? Likewise all sorts of places may seem evocative, but shouldn’t we be very careful about calling them liminal?
I have one and a half quite particular and possibly petty reasons for keeping the word liminal as limited as possible. It is that those professional obfuscators, the structuralist variety of post-modern cultural academics, are spraying the word around with what we might call abandon. It suits them to professionalise the critical faculty. After all, they see “the text” as something in which the author has little active part since he is merely the creature of a hegemonic elite who own the narratives which all writers must deploy. Paradoxically, the academics are now the hegemonic elite themselves. They are paid to erect teachable interpretative structures which students must accept or fail at the first serious hurdle of professional acceptance. So we should be alert to signs that academia is muscling-in on any area we are fond of, and whose freedom matters to us.
It happens that I am reading a good deal about Joseph Conrad just now. I note that in modern academic commentary he is often seen, along with Robert Louis Stevenson, as being a
I have been reading Howards End, which is of course rich in material about rural and urban transitions. Indeed, Forster has Leonard Bast have the perfect liminal experience as a perfect potential liminar. He walks through the night from city to country, crossing the suburbs as he goes. He is a man who always lives a transitional life, neither labourer nor idle rich, neither ignorant nor sophisticated, and now he walks into the transition of a city’s edgelands, through transitional dawn, and he does so because he wants to have the experiences which literature had advertised to him. But nothing happens. He is footsore, hungry, and bored. Like the youngster at his first communion who gets no buzz or uplift, he wonders who has failed him? He himself? Or the romantic authors who eulogise this sort of experience? Was he receptive, but not really a liminar? Or neither? Or was the liminal experience – the walk – just not the right liminal thing for him? And so on.
I have not settled in my own mind whether I can put Conrad and Forster in their different ways into the liminal box, as writers who are liminal or at any rate explore liminality. My lack of certainty doesn’t matter much even to me, though I will work on it. Meantime, my hope is that this run-round of some ideas associated with liminality will prove useful to others. Of
- Here is what I would call Turner in a mode which is close to unreadable except by post-modern structural professionals: Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” Rice Institute Pamphlet, Rice University Studies, 60, no. 3 (1974) Rice University, https://hdl.handle.net/1911/63159.
- I haven’t yet felt like buying his books, which are costly. Much of what he thought is nicely clear here, in an abridged excerpt from The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago, Aldine Publishing, 1969), pp. 94-113, 125-30, in which it appears as “Victor Turner, Liminality and communitas, Chapter 25”, found, September 2019, at http://faculty.trinity.edu/mbrown/whatisreligion/PDF%20readings/TurnerVictor-%20Liminality%20and%20Communitas.pdf.
- The quotation is apparently from The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969), in Aldine Transaction 1995 paperback, as cited in “Boundary-dwellers”, by Hannah Ward, online at the Jesuit journal, The Way, accessed September 2019.
- Retrieved from http://therealpresence.org/archives/Religious_Life/Religious_Life_034.htm.
- By the way, modern archeological and historical research has a good deal to say about one famously “liminal” monk, Colombanus, and his followers. It turns out that they weren’t all that Irish in their approches to spiritual life and monastic building, and not all that removed from the outside world and its social structures either. They were, so to speak, good Europeans and rather well integrated. This fits well with Blecker’s view that the Benedictines have had all sorts of relationships with wider society, and that spotting their moments of liminal virtue does not fit particularly well with periods either of symbiosis or dissidence. Check out the writing on Columbanus and his followers, available online, of Alexander O’Hare, and Emmet Marron.
- Kathryn Hughes wrote a useful review of Wroe’s book in the Guardian