Sunday, December 14, 2008

What is Liminality? Charles La Shure, 2005

Liminality is obviously a very important concept to me, and I did not choose it as the name of this site without serious consideration. That being the case, I thought it only proper that I should offer an in-depth discussion of the concept—something that I have had a hard time finding on the internet. The following essay is divided into two parts: the first part, Turner and Liminality, is an academic discussion of the early work of Victor Turner and his conception of liminality, while the second part, Liminality Applied, is a more informal treatment of my own personal theory of liminality and how it applies to my own life and experiences (I also discuss the trickster figure, the study of which first introduced me to the concept of liminality). You could skip straight to the second part if you are only interested in hearing my thoughts on the subject, but the second part does build on the first. For best results, I would recommend reading the whole essay.

I should also note that this is a work in progress, as my conception of liminality continues to evolve the more I study and experience in life. Any changes will be noted at the end of the essay.

Turner and Liminality

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. In fact, it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.
The OED notes that “liminal” first appears in publication in the field of psychology in 1884, but the idea was introduced to the field of anthropology in 1909 by Arnold Van Gennep in his seminal work, Les rites de passage. Van Gennep described rites of passage such as coming-of-age rituals and marriage as having the following three-part structure:


liminal period


The initiate (that is, the person undergoing the ritual) is first stripped of the social status that he or she possessed before the ritual, inducted into the liminal period of transition, and finally given his or her new status and reassimilated into society.
It was not until the second half of the 20th century, though, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept not only in anthropology but other fields as well. Various authors in a number of fields have written about liminality, but not only would it be impossible to cover everything here, it would also probably only confuse the issue. In addition, all proceeding studies of liminality are based at least in part on Turner’s theories, so I will focus on Turner’s early work for the remainder of this article.

Turner first formulated his theory of liminality in the late 1960s, and it continued to be a central theme in his work until his death in 1983. Here I will deal primarily with his first three studies on liminality: “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” from The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (1967), “Liminality and Communitas,” from The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969), and “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas,” from Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (1974). Citations from these texts will be referenced by year and page number.
Turner first introduced his interpretation of liminality in 1967, drawing heavily on Van Gennep’s three-part structure for rites of passage mentioned above. He focuses entirely on the middle stage of rites of passage—the transitional or liminal stage. He notes that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. He develops this idea further in a concise definition of liminality that will inform his future writings: “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Turner also points out, with reference to Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, that liminal individuals are polluting, and thus dangerous, to those who have not gone through the liminal period. In addition, liminal individuals have nothing: “no status, insignia, secular clothing, rank, kinship position, nothing to demarcate them structurally from their fellows” (1967: 98). The group of liminal individuals is not a typical social hierarchy but a communal group in which all are equal.

In “Liminality and Communitas,” Turner begins by defining liminal individuals or entities as “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony” (1969: 95). He then goes on to name the non-structure or anti-structure that he continuously refers to in “Betwixt and Between” through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as “two major ‘models’ for human interrelatedness.” These models are defined as follows:

The first is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders. (1969: 96)
This second model of human interrelatedness, communitas, has a number of cultural manifestations, of which liminality is only one. The two other manifestations that Turner mentions are marginality and inferiority. To express the relationship of these manifestations to social structure in spatial terms, they are in between (liminality), on the edges (marginality), and beneath (inferiority). As an example of communitas in modern Western society, he cites the “beat generation,” the “hippies,” and the “teeny-boppers.” According to Turner, these have opted out of the social structure and chosen to manifest communitas through inferiority. For example, the hippy attitude toward sex is that it is an instrument of communitas rather than a means of forming structural bonds (that is, through marriage).

“Passages, Margins, and Poverty” is mainly concerned with providing a clearer definition of communitas and showing its dialectical relationship with social structure, but since liminality is a cultural manifestation of communitas, what Turner says here bears directly on the subject at hand. He first rewords his three-fold division of the manifestations of communitas; these manifestations are now liminality, outsiderhood, and structural inferiority. Liminality and inferiority have remained more or less untouched, but an important development has been made in his perception of “the edges” of social structure. Turner now uses the term marginality to define the state of simultaneously belonging to two or more social or cultural groups (expatriates would be one example of a marginal group) and insists that marginality should not be confused with true outsiderhood (that is, being outside of the social structure). Examples of outsiders are: “shamans, diviners, medium, priests, those in monastic seclusion, hippies, hoboes, and gypsies” (1974: 233).

Marginals, in turn, are also to be distinguished from liminal entities (or what he calls here “liminars”): “Marginals like liminars are also betwixt and between, but unlike ritual liminars they have no cultural assurance of a final stable resolution of their ambiguity” (1974: 233). Turner makes it clear that marginality can and should not be conflated with any of the other cultural manifestations of communitas, but he does not make it clear whether marginality is a manifestation of communitas or not. If it is, it is not clear where it fits into his formulation, and if it is not, it is not clear why it is excluded. He does clearly define his three manifestations in relation to social structure, though:

...liminality represents the midpoint of transition in a status-sequence between two positions, outsiderhood refers to actions and relationships which do not flow from a recognized social status but originate outside it, while lowermost status refers to the lowest rung in a system of social stratification in which unequal rewards are accorded to functionality differentiated positions. (1974:237)

In the remainder of the paper, Turner continues his discussion of the relationship between communitas and social structure, but he does specifically discuss liminality at various points, and these comments will allow us to broaden our understanding of what Turner meant by the concept. He notes that liminality in ritual societies is “institutionalized and preordained,” while modern communitas movements such as the hippies are “spontaneously generated in a situation of radical structural change” (1974: 248). He also says, “it is the analysis of culture into factors and their free recombination in any and every possible pattern, however weird, that is most characteristic of liminality” (1974: 255). Using Sartre’s terminology, he states: “I see liminality as a phase in social life in which this confrontation between ‘activity which has no structure’ and its ‘structured results’ produces in men their highest pitch of self-consciousness” (1974: 255).

Before proceeding, let us summarize Turner’s thoughts on liminality. For Turner, liminality is one of the three cultural manifestations of communitas—it is one of the most visible expressions of anti-structure in society. Yet even as it is the antithesis of structure, dissolving structure and being perceived as dangerous by those in charge of maintaining structure, it is also the source of structure. Just as chaos is the source of order, liminality represents the unlimited possibilities from which social structure emerges. While in the liminal state, human beings are stripped of anything that might differentiate them from their fellow human beings—they are in between the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and it is in these cracks, in the interstices of social structure, that they are most aware of themselves. Yet liminality is a midpoint between a starting point and an ending point, and as such it is a temporary state that ends when the initiate is reincorporated into the social structure.

This is, in a nutshell, Turner’s definition of liminality. Although he went on to apply this concept to modern society, it originated with his work on ritual society. He lived with the Ndembu tribe of Zambia for five years, studying their society, and much of his early work relies heavily on his experiences with and study of ritual society. This is why Turner perceives liminality as a “midpoint of transition... between two positions” and as a temporary phase rather than a permanent state. He does recognize this limitation, though, as noted above in his comparison of liminality in ritual societies and modern communitas movements. He notes that these movements “try to create a communitas and a style of life that is permanently contained within liminality. ... Instead of the liminal being a passage, it seemed to be coming to be regarded as a state...” (1974: 261). Yet for him, true liminality will always have its roots in ritual society, and in his later discussions of liminality in art he introduces the term “liminoid,” which is the “successor of the liminal in complex large-scale societies, where individuality and optation in art have in theory supplanted collective and obligatory ritual performances” (The Anthropology of Performance, 1987: 29).

Another point that must be raised is the ambiguity of Turner’s three-part division of the cultural manifestations of communitas. It is a human impulse to categorize and organize, and such categorization is especially helpful in studying all sorts of phenomena. As a rule, though, the stricter the individual categories become, the less useful they are in organizing the various elements of an entire system. That is, categories with strict definitions tend to cover less ground, and thus there are generally holes in their coverage. Conversely, looser categories cover more ground but are ultimately less useful in defining the specific elements. Thus, scholars are always trying to strike the right balance. In Turner’s case, it is possible that he has erred on the side of looser categories—there seems to be quite a bit of overlap and ambiguity between the three categories he defines. Liminality is the most solid of the three categories, but that is only because Turner ties it directly to the experience of initiates undergoing rites of passage in ritual societies. If we acknowledge, as Turner does, that liminality can exist outside of this scope, the boundaries of liminality as well become blurred.

Let us look at one example of blurred boundaries. Turner often refers to the hippies in his late 1960s-early 1970s work. In “Liminality and Communitas,” Turner states that the hippies (as well as their predecessors and successors) have chosen inferiority by identifying with those of inferior status, that is, the poor and lower classes (such as hoboes). Yet in a passage from “Passages, Margins, and Poverty” quoted above, he refers to both hippies and hoboes as outsiders. Perhaps the only difference between the two groups is that the outsiders have “opted out,” while the inferior have no choice in the matter. If that is the case, then the standard for division is not an imagined spatial relationship in terms of social structure, but whether or not the subject has any choice in his or her position.

For argument’s sake, let us accept this premise for the time being. What about liminality? How is liminality differentiated from outsiderhood and social inferiority? If we move beyond the strict ritual meaning of liminality, the difference is not readily apparent. Even Turner seems to become confused at times. In “Liminality and Communitas,” he refers to the liminal nature of the Christian existence, in that Christians believe they are merely passing through this world on the way to the next (indeed, this idea is not unique to Christianity). Yet in “Passages, Margins, and Poverty,” again from the passage quoted above, “those in monastic seclusion” are listed among the outsiders. Are they outsiders simply because they have opted out of the normal social order? What about their liminal nature as Christians? Are they then liminal outsiders? And if the ritual obligation of liminality is removed, is there even a difference anymore?

Removing the ritual obligation from liminality also causes the distinction between marginality and liminality to break down, as the only thing distinguishing the two is the fact that marginality does not promise resolution, whereas liminality does. If liminality is no longer a midpoint in a rite of passage, then there is no reason why it cannot describe the condition of marginality. This is not to say that all of these categories can be conflated—there are certainly differences between the various groups of people that Turner uses as examples for each of his categories. However, the differences are not always clear-cut, and there will inevitably be some overlap.

Liminality Applied

Ultimately, liminality proves to be a very slippery concept when it is taken out of the ritual context in which it was first conceived. Until now I have focused on Turner’s conception of liminality, adding my own thoughts and criticisms along the way, but now I would like to offer my definition of liminality, along with my explanation of how it differs from marginality and outsiderhood. For me, although I appreciate the ritual origin of the concept of liminality, liminality is not tied to the ritual context. I agree with Turner that liminality is a state of being “betwixt and between,” but I do not find the temporal aspect of liminality to be of much use. Take Turner’s claim that Christians are liminal figures because they believe they are temporary residents of the world. For Christians, this liminal state only ends with death, and thus the liminal state lasts for their entire lives on earth. This is, in my mind, stretching the idea of liminality as a temporary state a bit too far—if you are going to admit that someone can be in a temporary state for his or her entire life, why bother insisting that the state is temporary (religious conceptions of life as fleeting and evanescent aside, of course)?

For me, then, the temporal relationship is irrelevant and the spatial relationship is the only one that matters. Still, that is enough to clearly define liminality in relation to the other states and conditions Turner mentions. Marginality, for example, is just that: to be on the margins of something. The terms “marginal” and “marginalized” are too well established in social studies to be redefined at this point. Someone who has been marginalized has been pushed to the edges of society and out of position of power or influence. In social terms, there is not much difference between a marginal figure and an inferior figure. The only difference, really, is the standard by which they are excluded: the inferior figure is almost always economically inferior, whereas the marginal figure is generally pushed to the edges for social reasons (race, creed, etc.). In real life, these standards are not always mutually exclusive, and I personally do not find it that useful to draw a distinction between marginality and inferiority. Both refer to a position of powerlessness, and those in this position have no choice in the matter.

Outsiders, on the other hand, do have a choice. They may choose economic inferiority or social marginality, but the important point is that they choose their position. As Turner described it, they have opted out of the system (social structure), sometimes as a form of protest against the system in an attempt to change it, other times simply because they do not believe the system will ever change and thus refuse to function within it. Outsiders can also choose to rejoin the system at any time, and most, in fact, do. Take one of Turner’s favorite examples, the hippies: the hippie-turned-corporate-cog is such a common theme that it has become cliché. More often than not, it seems to be religious outsiders rather than political or social outsiders who remain outside the system.

So where does that leave liminality? Exactly where it started: betwixt and between. It is not outside of the social structure or on its edges, it is in the cracks within the social structure itself. In describing my own conception of liminality, it is impossible for me to remain objective, as it is my own life experience that has shaped this conception. The second part of this essay, then, will be less theoretical and objective and more empirical and subjective. In other words, I will be talking more about my own experience with and conception of liminality.

On the About page of this site, I list in brief three ways that I feel liminality applies to my own life. The first of those is the fact that I am a Westerner living in Asia, suspended betwixt and between two cultures. Turner would have defined me as a marginal rather than a liminal, because my situation promises no resolution. Although I rebel against that thought, I know in my heart that he was right, and there can be no resolution for me. No matter what I may do with the rest of my life, there is too much of both cultures in me now for me to ever just walk away from one of them. Even if I should return to my native land, I will still be suspended between two cultures. Intellectual acceptance of this fact was a big step in my development as a human being; emotional acceptance is going to take a bit longer, I think.

Still, this does not mean that I agree with Turner’s distinction between marginality and liminality. As I said above, the temporal aspect is irrelevant; only the spatial aspect matters. In concrete terms, the spatial aspect can be described in terms of my relationship to Korean society. When I first came to Korea, I was indeed a marginal. I was marginalized by my ignorance of the Korean culture and language; in other words, I could not communicate with Koreans either culturally (that is, cultural differences prevented mutual understanding) or linguistically. As I became more familiar with both the culture and language, though, I moved into a liminal position. I am now part of Korean society to some extent, no longer fully liminal, but I will never be fully assimilated. I could return to my native land and be readily accepted there, but I doubt if I could ever fully accept my native land like I did before I left. I am betwixt and between.

There is another important point I want to make about liminality, and that is the mobility, or freedom of movement, that comes with liminality. By freedom of movement I mean the freedom to move back and forth between states and areas. Going back to Van Gennep’s original formulation, liminality is the ambiguous phase where the initiate is outside of society but preparing to reenter society. There is very little freedom of movement due to the strict nature of the ritual process. When we apply the idea of liminality to other realms—such as the realm of art and literature—though, liminal characters possess a freedom of movement that non-liminal characters do not. This is especially true of mythical characters, as these characters have consistent personalities. Their personalities do not change or develop over the course of a tale, and the focus of the tale is not on how outside forces influence that character to change, as is often the case in modern literature, but on how the character’s consistent personality allows them to deal with the world. In other words, mythic characters impose their will on the mythic world, while non-mythic characters are imposed upon by their non-mythic world.

For liminal mythic characters, like the trickster, liminality is their original state. Since liminality is betwixt and between the social structure, their existence in liminality allows them access to the social structure at any number of points, much like a sewer dweller would have access to a city at any number of points. The trickster may flit across the borders at any time, penetrating the social structure at will, but he cannot stay there. He must return to that state of betwixt and between in order to manifest his powers. One good example is the Winnebago Trickster Cycle, as recorded by Paul Radin. The cycle begins with the story of a chief preparing to go on the warpath, yet Radin informs us in a note that Winnebago tribal chiefs are not allowed to go on the warpath. The chief prepares a feast and breaks taboo after taboo. When he finally leaves on the warpath, he destroys his boat, his warbundle (a leather bundle containing sacred items intended to give a warrior power in battle), and his quiver—all vital items to any warrior. With the destruction of each object, more of his warriors abandon him, until he is finally left alone. It is only then that the narrator refers to him as Trickster.

Trickster’s original status as the chief of the tribe shows that he is able to not only penetrate the social structure but to dominate it as well. Yet he cannot stay in this exalted position, and only by breaking every taboo imaginable and becoming an outcast can he return to his element—that is, liminality. As a liminal character, it is not possible for him to remain static within the social structure.

This liminal nature of the trickster is something that is only possible in literature, and mythic literature at that. The trickster in mythic literature represents an inversion of reality. In reality, liminality of this magnitude is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between. In my own experience in Korea, there was probably a brief time where I was in a liminal state. But most human beings adapt to their environments, and thus it becomes impossible to maintain that childlike naiveté of the social structure. I still feel like I am between two worlds, but I am no longer in a liminal state.

It is not only the trickster’s nature as a mythic character that allows him to remain in liminality; it is also the mythic world that he inhabits that makes this possible. As I mentioned above, mythic characters like the trickster impose their will on the world around them. In the modern era, though, the individual struggles against a much more powerful world, one that will not tolerate the imposition of will, at least not to the same extent. Thus it is interesting to see what happens to this mythic archetype when it is transplanted into a modern world.

A good example of the modern trickster figure is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the movie Catch Me If You Can, a young man by the name of Frank Abegnale. He is a con artist who poses as a schoolteacher, an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and he supports himself in rather luxurious fashion through check fraud. He is pursued by a tenacious FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, and his adventures lead him around the United States and eventually to Europe. The fact that it is based on a true story is interesting but ultimately irrelevant, as the whole point of modern Realist narratives is that they could ostensibly be taken from real life. For our purposes, it is just like any other work of modern Realist fiction. (Note: the following discussion contains plot spoilers for the movie.)

Much of the film, of course, focuses on Frank’s exploits as he deceives and outwits people for his own benefit. Unlike the mythic trickster, though, he falls in love, and this attachment almost leads to his capture. Fortunately for him (and for the story), his cleverness prevails. He abandons his love and chooses to remain outside the social structure. Throughout the movie he is the quintessential liminal character, flitting in and out of the social structure and refusing to be pinned down. In the modern world, though, such a lifestyle comes with a price. Refusing to be pinned down means that he cannot stay in any one place for any length of time, and part of the enjoyment of the movie comes from the sense that the law (that is, the social structure) is always just one step behind. One false move and the whole house of cards will come crashing down.
The house of cards does ultimately collapse—as it must in a modern world—when Hanratty catches up with Frank in France. He is imprisoned by the police there, but Hanratty eventually secures his release and arranges for his extradition to the United States. While he is in prison there, Hanratty approaches him with an offer: stay behind bars or help the FBI catch a check forger. Not surprisingly, Frank chooses to help the FBI, and he ends up working to maintain the social structure he had once tried so hard to escape. He does consider running away again, and he puts on his pilot’s uniform and heads to the airport. Hanratty catches up with him there, but instead of apprehending him or trying to convince him to stay, he simply says, “No one’s chasing you anymore”—implying that there is no need for him to run if no one is chasing him. The message is that he has already been absorbed by the social structure and has thus lost his liminal nature, and he predictably returns to the fold.

Some reviews I have read criticize the moral ambiguity of the film. Frank apparently feels no remorse for his crimes or the people he hurt or put in danger. Perhaps the real Frank Abagnale felt no remorse for his actions either. He is a sociopathic character, and that is precisely what a trickster is—a sociopath. The trickster cares only for himself and abuses the social structure for his own good. As discussed above, though, the mythic trickster’s world is tolerant of this imposition of will, while the modern world is intolerant. In the mythic world, the trickster’s liminal nature gives him an incredible freedom of movement. In the modern world, though (as we can see in Catch Me If You Can), this same freedom can become a liability. In the trickster’s case, his mockery of and attacks on the social structure cannot be tolerated, so the very thing that allows him to make these attacks—his liminality—is taken away.

Even if one does not pose a threat to the establishment, liminality can still be a liability on an individual level. Viewed in a positive light, liminality provides freedom of movement, but the flip side of that coin is a lack of stability. Being betwixt and between means that you don’t belong anywhere. As social animals, few humans can survive for long without belonging somewhere, at least to some extent. When I first arrived in Korea, I was still on the move. In my first few years here I traveled to Japan briefly and to Mongolia for a longer period of time. The more stationary I became, though, the more I was integrated into the social structure, and the more I lost my liminality. In return, though, I gained stability. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective, but even though I do look back fondly on my days of freedom, I would never trade the stability I have now to go back to those days.

Ultimately, liminality (like liminal figures) is hard to pin down. It is evanescent, like a wisp of smoke in the wind. Only in literature and the arts is it a permanent trait of certain figures. In the real world, even though it can theoretically be a permanent state, it is generally a temporary state and thus can be very hard to grasp at times.

This has by no means been an exhaustive discussion of the concept of liminality, but hopefully it has been a good start at answering the question, what is liminality? If you have any comments or questions on this subject, please feel free to contact me.

The following information may be used for citation purposes.

Title: “What is Liminality?”
Author: Charles La Shure
Date: 18 October, 2005 (first version)

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