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Liminal phase of a rite of passage: Albert Anker's Die Ziviltrauung, "the Civil Marriage," 1887
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In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual's liminal stage, participants "stand at the threshold" between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.
The concept of liminality was first developed in the early 20th century by folklorist Arnold van Gennep and later taken up by Victor Turner. More recently, usage of the term has broadened to describe political and cultural change as well as rituals. During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established. The term has also passed into popular usage, where it is applied much more broadly, undermining its significance to some extent.
Rites of passage
Arnold van Gennep
Van Gennep, who coined the term liminality, published in 1906 his 'Rites de Passage', a work that explores and develops the concept of liminality in the context of rituals in small-scale societies. Van Gennep began his book by identifying the various categories of rites. He distinguished between those that result in a change of status for an individual or social group, and those that signify transitions in the passage of time. In doing so, he placed a particular emphasis on rites of passage, and claimed that “such rituals marking, helping, or celebrating individual or collective passages through the cycle of life or of nature exist in every culture, and share a specific three-fold sequential structure”.
This three-fold structure, as established by van Gennep, is made up of the following components:
- preliminal rites (or rites of separation): This stage involves a metaphorical “death”, as the initiate is forced to leave something behind by breaking with previous practices and routines.
- liminal rites (or transition rites): Two characteristics are essential to these rites. First, the rite “must follow a strictly prescribed sequence, where everybody knows what to do and how”. Second, everything must be done “under the authority of a master of ceremonies”. The destructive nature of this rite allows for considerable changes to be made to the identity of the initiand. This middle stage (when the transition takes place) “implies an actual passing through the threshold that marks the boundary between two phases, and the term ‘liminality’ was introduced in order to characterize this passage.”
- postliminal rites (or rites of incorporation): During this stage, the initiand is re-incorporated into society with a new identity, as a “new” being.
Turner confirmed his nomenclature for 'the three phases of passage from one culturally defined state or status to another...preliminal, liminal, and postliminal'.
Van Gennep considered rites of initiation to be the most typical rite. To gain a better understanding of “tripartite structure” of liminal situations, one can look at a specific rite of initiation: the initiation of youngsters into adulthood, which Turner considered the most typical rite. In such rites of passage, the experience is highly structured. The first phase (the rite of separation) requires the child to go through a separation from his family; this involves his/her “death” as a child, as childhood is effectively left behind. In the second stage, initiands (between childhood and adulthood) must pass a “test” to prove they are ready for adulthood. If they succeed, the third stage (incorporation) involves a celebration of the “new birth” of the adult and a welcoming of that being back into society.
By constructing this three-part sequence, van Gennep identified a pattern he believed was inherent in all ritual passages. By suggesting that such a sequence is universal (meaning that all societies use rites to demarcate transitions), van Gennep made an important claim (one that not many anthropologists make, as they generally tend to demonstrate cultural diversity while shying away from universality).
An anthropological ritual, especially a rite of passage, involves some change to the participants, especially their social status.; and in 'the first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of the individual...from an earlier fixed point in the social structure. Their status thus becomes liminal. In such a liminal situation, “the initiands live outside their normal environment and are brought to question their self and the existing social order through a series of rituals that often involve acts of pain: the initiands come to feel nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured”. In this sense, liminal periods are “destructive” as well as “constructive”, meaning that “the formative experiences during liminality will prepare the initiand (and his/her cohort) to occupy a new social role or status, made public during the reintegration rituals”.
Turner, who is considered to have “re-discovered the importance of liminality”, first came across van Gennep’s work in 1963. In 1967 he published his book The Forest of Symbols, which included an essay entitled Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage. Within the works of Turner, liminality began to wander away from its narrow application to ritual passages in small-scale societies. In the various works he completed while conducting his fieldwork amongst the Ndembu in Zambia, he made numerous connections between tribal and non-tribal societies, “sensing that what he argued for the Ndembu had relevance far beyond the specific ethnographic context”. He became aware that liminality “...served not only to identify the importance of in-between periods, but also to understand the human reactions to liminal experiences: the way liminality shaped personality, the sudden foregrounding of agency, and the sometimes dramatic tying together of thought and experience”.
'The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous'. One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation, but also the possibility of new perspectives. Turner posits that, if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it potentially can be seen as a period of scrutiny for central values and axioms of the culture where it occurs. - one where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are undone. In such situations, “the very structure of society [is] temporarily suspended”
'According to Turner, all liminality must eventually dissolve, for it is a state of great intensity that cannot exist very long without some sort of structure to stabilize it...either the individual returns to the surrounding social structure...or else liminal communities develop their own internal social structure, a condition Turner calls "normative communitas"'.
The work of Victor Turner has vital significance in turning attention to this concept, introduced by Arnold van Gennep, a main intellectual opponent of Durkheim, who subsequently was diverted out of anthropological and sociological thinking. However, Turner’s approach to liminality has two major shortcomings. First, partly due to criticism, Turner was keen to limit the meaning of the concept to the concrete settings of small-scale tribal societies, preferring the neologism coined by him, ‘liminoid’, to analyse certain features of the modern world, like theatre (Turner 1982). However, Agnes Horvath (2013) argues that the term can be applied to concrete historical events, and should be applied, as offering a vital means for historical and sociological understanding. Second, again staying too close to his own experiences, Turner attributed a rather univocally positive connotation to liminal situations, as ways of renewal. However, liminal situations can be, and in actual fact in modern era, rather quite different: periods of uncertainly, anguish, even existential fear: a facing of the abyss in void.
Liminality has both spatial and temporal dimensions, and can be applied to a variety of subjects: individuals, larger groups (cohorts or villages), whole societies, and possibly even entire civilizations. The following chart summarizes the different dimensions and subjects of liminal experiences, and also provides the main characteristics and key examples of each category.
|Epoch (or life-span duration)||
Another significant variable is “scale,” or the “degree” to which an individual or group experiences liminality. In other words, “there are degrees of liminality, and…the degree depends on the extent to which the liminal experience can be weighed against persisting structures.". When the spatial and temporal are both affected, the intensity of the liminal experience increases and so-called “pure liminality” is approached
Liminal experiences in large-scale societies
The concept of a liminal situation can also be applied to entire societies that are going through a crisis or a “collapse of order”. Philosopher Karl Jaspers made a significant contribution to this idea through his concept of the “axial age,” which was “an in-between period between two structured world-views and between two rounds of empire building; it was an age of creativity where ‘man asked radical questions’, and where the ‘unquestioned grasp on life is loosened’”. It was essentially a time of uncertainty which, most importantly, involved entire civilizations. Seeing as liminal periods are both destructive and constructive, the ideas and practices that emerge from these liminal historical periods are of extreme importance, as they will “tend to take on the quality of structure”. Events such as political or social revolutions (along with other periods of crisis) can thus be considered liminal, as they result in the complete collapse of order and can lead to significant social change.
Liminality in large-scale societies differs significantly from liminality found in ritual passages in small-scale societies. One primary characteristic of liminality (as defined van Gennep and Turner) is that there is a way in as well as a way out. In ritual passages, “members of the society are themselves aware of the liminal state: they know that they will leave it sooner or later, and have ‘ceremony masters’ to guide them through the rituals”. However, in those liminal periods that affect society as a whole, the future (what comes after the liminal period) is completely unknown, and there is no "ceremony master" who has gone through the process before and that can lead people out of it.
In such cases, liminal situations can become dangerous. They allow for the emergence of “self-proclaimed ceremony masters”, that assume leadership positions and attempt to “[perpetuate] liminality and by emptying the liminal moment of real creativity, [turn] it into a scene of mimetic rivalry”.
Jungians have often seen the individuation process of self-realization as taking place within a liminal space. 'Individuation begins with a withdrawal from normal modes of socialisation, epitomized by the breakdown of the persona...liminality'. Thus "what Turner's concept of social liminality does for status in society, Jung...does for the movement of the person through the life process of individuation". Individuation can be seen as a "movement through liminal space and time, from disorientation to integration....What takes place in the dark phase of liminality is a process of breaking down...in the interest of "making whole" one's meaning, purpose and sense of relatedness once more'" As an archetypal figure, "the trickster is a symbol of the liminal state itself, and of its permanent accessibility as a source of recreative power".
But other depth psychologies speak of a similar process. Carl Rogers describes "the 'out-of-this-world' quality that many therapists have remarked upon, a sort of trance-like feeling in the relationship that client and therapist emerge from at the end of the hour, as if from a deep well or tunnel. The French talk of how the analytic setting 'opens/forges the "intermediate space," "excluded middle," or "between" that figures so importantly in Irigaray's writing". Marion Milner claimed that "a temporal spatial frame also marks off the special kind of reality of a psycho-analytic session...the different kind of reality that is within it".
Jungians however have perhaps been most explicit about the 'need to accord space, time and place for liminal feeling' - as well about the associated dangers, 'two mistakes: we provide no ritual space at all in our lives...or we stay in it too long'. Indeed, Jung's psychology has itself been described as 'a form of "permanent liminality" in which there is no need to return to social structure'.
Examples of general usage
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In the context of rituals, liminality is being artificially produced, as opposed to those situations (such as natural disasters) in which it can occur spontaneously. In the simple example of a college graduation ceremony, the liminal phase can actually be extended to include the period of time between when the last assignment was finished (and graduation was assured) all the way through reception of the diploma. That no man's land represents the limbo associated with liminality. The stress of accomplishing tasks for college has been lifted, yet the individual has not moved on to a new stage in life (psychologically or physically). The result is a unique perspective on what has come before, and what may come next.
It can include the period between when a couple get engaged and their marriage or between death and burial, for which cultures may have set ritual observances. Even sexually liberal cultures may strongly disapprove of an engaged spouse having sex with another person during this time.
When a marriage proposal is initiated there is a liminal stage between the question and the answer during which the social arrangements of both parties involved are subject to transformation and inversion; a sort of "life stage limbo" so to speak in that the affirmation or denial can result in multiple and diverse outcomes.
Getz provides commentary on the liminal/liminoid zone when discussing the planned event experience. He refers to a liminal zone at an event as the creation of "time out of time: a special place". He notes that this liminal zone is both spatial and temporal and integral when planning a successful event (e.g. ceremony, concert, conference etc.).
The temporal dimension of liminality can relate to moments (sudden events), periods (weeks, months, or possibly years), and epochs (decades, generations, maybe even centuries).
Twilight serves as a liminal time, between day and night - where one is 'in the twilight zone, in a liminal nether region of the night'. The title of the television fiction series The Twilight Zone makes reference to this, describing it as "the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition" in one variant of the original series' opening. The name is from an actual zone observable from space in the place where daylight or shadow advances or retreats about the Earth. Noon and, more often, midnight can be considered liminal, the first transitioning between morning and afternoon, the latter between days.
Within the years, liminal times include equinoxes when day and night have equal length, and solstices, when the increase of day or night shifts over to its decrease. Where the Quarter days are held to mark the change in seasons, they also are liminal times.
New Year's Day, whatever its connection or lack of one to the astrological sky, is a liminal time. Customs such as fortune-telling take advantage of this liminal state. In a number of cultures, actions and events on the first day of the year can determine the year, leading to such beliefs as First-Foot. Many cultures regard it as a time especially prone to hauntings by ghosts -- liminal beings, neither alive nor dead.
Liminal existence can be located in a separated sacred space, which occupies a sacred time. Examples in the Bible include the dream of Jacob (Genesis 28:12-19) where he encounters God between heaven and earth and the instance when Isaiah meets the Lord in the temple of holiness (Isaiah 6:1-6). In such a liminal space, the individual experiences the revelation of sacred knowledge where God imparts his knowledge on the person.
Worship can be understood in this context as the church community (or communitas or koinonia) enter into liminal space corporately. Religious symbols and music may aid in this process described as a pilgrimage by way of prayer, song, or liturgical acts. The congregation is transformed in the liminal space and as they exit, are sent out back into the world to serve.
Various minority groups can be considered liminal. In reality illegal immigrants (present but not "official"), and stateless people, for example, are regarded as liminal because they are "betwixt and between home and host, part of society, but sometimes never fully integrated". Intersex or transgender people, bisexual people in most contemporary societies, people of mixed ethnicity, and those accused but not yet judged guilty or not guilty, are liminal. Teenagers, being neither children nor adults, are liminal people: indeed, "for young people, liminality of this kind has become a permanent phenomenon...Postmodern liminality". The "trickster as the mythic projection of the magician - standing in the limen between the sacred realm and the profane" and related archetypes embody many such contradictions as do many popular culture celebrities. The category could also hypothetically and in fiction include cyborgs, hybrids between two species, shapeshifters. One could also consider seals, crabs, shorebirds, frogs, bats, dolphins/whales and other "border animals" to be liminal: "the wild duck and swan are cases in point...intermediate creatures that combine underwater activity and the bird flight with an intermediate, terrestrial life". It should come as no surprise that these liminal creatures figure prominently in mythology as shapeshifters and spirit guides.
The spatial dimension of liminality can include specific places, larger zones or areas, or entire countries and larger regions. Liminal places can range from borders and frontiers to no man's lands and disputed territories, to crossroads to perhaps airports or hotels, which people pass through but do not live in: arguably indeed all 'romantic travel enacts the three stages that characterize liminality: separation, marginalization, and reaggregation'. In mythology and religion or esoteric lore liminality can include such realms as Purgatory or Da'at, which, as well as signifying liminality, some theologians deny actually existing, making them, in some cases, doubly liminal. "Between-ness" defines these spaces. For a hotel worker (an insider) or a person passing by with disinterest (a total outsider), the hotel would have a very different connotation. To a traveller staying there, the hotel would function as a liminal zone, just as 'doors and windows and hallways and gates frame...the definitively liminal condition'.
More conventionally, springs, caves, shores, rivers, volcanic calderas - 'a huge crater of an extinct volcano...[as] another symbol of transcendence' - fords, passes, crossroads, bridges, and marshes are all liminal: '"edges", borders or faultlines between the legitimate and the illegitimate'. Oedipus (an adoptee and therefore liminal) met his father at the crossroads and killed him; the bluesman Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads, where he is said to have sold his soul. Major transformations occur at crossroads and other liminal places, at least partly because liminality—being so unstable—can pave the way for access to esoteric knowledge or understanding of both sides. Liminality is sacred, alluring, and dangerous.
There are a number of stories in folklore of those who could only be killed in a liminal space: Lleu could not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, nor riding or walking, nor clothed or naked (and is attacked at dusk, while wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat). Likewise, in Hindu text Bhagavat Purana, God Vishnu appears in a half-man half-lion form named Narasimha to destroy the demon Hiranyakashipu who has obtained the power never to be killed in day nor night, in the ground nor in the air, with weapon nor by bare hands, in a building nor outside it, by man nor beast. Narasimha kills Hiranyakashipu at dusk, across his lap, with his sharp claws, on the threshold of the palace, and as Narasimha is God himself, the demon is killed by neither man nor beast. In the Mahabharata, Indra promises not to slay Namuci and Vritra with anything wet or dry, nor in the day or in the night, but instead kills them at dusk with foam. Yet another example comes from Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke" in which the Forest Spirit can only be killed while switching between its two forms.
In ethnographic research
In ethnographic research, 'the researcher is...in a liminal state, separated from his own culture yet not incorporated into the host culture' - when he or she is both participating in the culture and observing the culture. The researcher must consider the self in relation to others and his or her positioning in the culture being studied.
In many cases, greater participation in the group being studied can lead to increased access of cultural information and greater in-group understanding of experiences within the culture. However increased participation also blurs the role of the researcher in data collection and analysis. Often a researcher that engages in fieldwork as a "participant" or "participant-observer" occupies a liminal state where he/she is a part of the culture, but also separated from the culture as a researcher. This liminal state of being betwixt and between is emotional and uncomfortable as the researcher uses self-reflexivity to interpret field observations and interviews.
Some scholars argue that ethnographers are present in their research, occupying a liminal state, regardless of their participant status. Justification for this position is that the researcher as a "human instrument" engages with his/her observations in the process of recording and analyzing the data. A researcher, often unconsciously, selects what to observe, how to record observations and how to interpret observations based on personal reference points and experiences. For example, even in selecting what observations are interesting to record, the researcher must interpret and value the data available. To explore the liminal state of the researcher in relation to the culture, self-reflexivity and awareness are important tools to reveal researcher bias and interpretation.
In popular culture
- The Twilight Zone (1959–2003) is a U.S. television anthology series.
- Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (2007), a U.S. novel by Chuck Palahniuk, makes use of liminality in explaining time travel.
- Possession, a romance by A. S. Byatt, describes how postmodern 'Literary theory. Feminism...write about liminality. Thresholds. Bastions. Fortresses'.
- The Terminal (2004), is a U.S. film in which the main character (Viktor Navorski) is trapped in a liminal space; since he can neither legally return to his home country Krakozhia nor enter the United States, he must remain in the airport terminal indefinitely until he finds a way out at the end of the film.
- Offshore, a British novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, whose characters live between sea and land (docked boats), becoming liminal people. Liminality is a major theme in the novel.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play by dramatist Tom Stoppard, which takes place both in a kind of no-man's-land and the actual setting of Hamlet.
- '"Hamlet" is in several ways an essay in sustained liminality...only via a condition of complete liminality can Hamlet finally see the way forward'.
- 'Bellow's wonderfully varied uses of liminality...include his Dangling Man, suspended between civilian life and the armed forces' at 'the onset of the dangling days'.
- .hack//Liminality where Harald Hoerwick, the creator of the MMORPG "The World", attempted to bring the real world into the online world, creating a hazy barrier between the two worlds; a concept called "Liminality".
- "Liminal Space" is an album by American Breakcore artist Xanopticon.
- The Twilight Saga is a book series by Stephanie Meyer that was turned into film series. Each book title speaks of a liminal period (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn).
- In The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), Milo enters "The Lands Beyond", a liminal place (which explains its topsy-turvy nature), through the tollbooth. When he finishes his quest, he returns, but changed, seeing the world differently. The giver of the tollbooth is never seen and name never known, and hence, also remains liminal.
- Coil mention liminality throughout their works, most explicitly with the title of their song "Batwings (A Limnal Hymn)" (sic) from their album Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 2.
- In the film Waking Life Aklilu Gebrewold talks about liminality (among other things).
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' - liminoid experiences.
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