A Liminality Primer

by

Timothy Carson

At the entre´ of the Twentieth Century anthropologist Arnold van Gennep was drawn to the broad patterns of regeneration he observed within communal systems, an array of cultural transitions mediated by rites and rituals. From those he came to understand a particular genre of social transition he named the Rites of Passage. This descriptive phrase became the title of his landmark book first published in 1909.[i]

Van Gennep concluded that the energy in any system eventually dissipates and must be renewed at crucial intervals. This renewal is accomplished in the social milieu by various rites of passage. These rites not only foster transition but protect the social structure from undue disturbance. Developmental transitions include such rites of passage as pregnancy, childbirth, childhood, departure from childhood, puberty, marriage and death. Territorial transitions also require certain rituals as one moves from one geographic area to another, moving between actual and symbolic worlds. Rites of passage mediate the movement between tribes and castes. They are especially important in providing passage in times of crisis such as illness, war and death. The rites of passage act to mediate virtually all of the most important occasions of life.

The term liminal derives from the Latin, limins, and refers to the threshold passageway between two separate places. The liminal state is therefore a transitional one, the result of crossing a threshold between location, status, position, mental state, social condition, war and peace, or illness and death.

                                            The structure of the Rites of Passage falls into a tripartite form:

                                            Pre-liminal – the known and assumed structure of life

                                            Liminal – the ambiguous transitional period

                                            Post-liminal – the new adjusted and transformed state of being

Whereas much liminality is related to predictable passages of developmental and maturation, other forms are more directly tied to reoccurring seasons, while an entirely different class of liminality is the result of involuntary crisis. Some rites of passage involve the individual over and against the structure of society while other liminality is social and includes entire groups, even nations.

Each transition requires rituals, ceremonies and leadership to assist in the passage. When a person or group crosses a new threshold or boundary they are separated from the previous world and ushered into the unknown. As they pass out of the liminal time and space they cross into a new time and space and are incorporated into a new world. Van Gennep came to believe that regardless of form or content rites of passage are most often universal, varying only in regard to detail.

For groups as well as for individuals, life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and be reborn It is to act and to cease, to wait and rest, and to begin acting again, but in a different way … and there are always new thresholds to cross: the thresholds of summer and winter, of a season or a year, of a month or a night; the thresholds of birth, adolescence, maturity, and old age; the threshold of death and that of the afterlife – for those who believe in it.[ii]

At the annual meeting of the American Ethnological Society in Pittsburgh, March 1964, anthropologist Victor Turner presented a paper which built on and extended beyond the work of van Gennep. Since society is a “structure of positions,” reasoned Turner, liminality is an “interstructural situation.”[iii]

The person who moves through the rites of passage is a transitional being, a liminal person, and as such takes on a new identity and is defined by a whole set of symbols. The condition is one of ambiguity, paradox and confusion of all the customary categories. Citing the work of Mary Douglas, Turner described one of the central characteristics of the liminal person as being ritual uncleanliness. Liminal persons are dangerous by virtue of their undefined transitional status. They are considered to be polluting to those who have not been initiated into the same state of being. Rites and rituals of passage create and mediate transition and order for those passing through or near the perceived danger and impurity.[iv]

In Turner’s well-known and often cited work, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, he continued to develop his analysis of the liminal person.[v]  Life within community is to be understood as a dialectical process moving between structure and anti-structure with individuals transitioning between those poles. The attributes of the liminal person stand in binary opposition to the established structure. The liminal person takes up symbolic and transitional status that includes a kind of stripping away of the self, gender neutrality, anonymity, and submission to the process itself. 

To describe the special bond between those who share the same liminal passage Turner coined the word communitas. Those who share the liminal passage develop a community of the inbetween, a connection that transcends any former distinctions between status and station created by social structure. This unique community formed within anti-structure continues even after the liminal period has concluded. Communitas is found among numerous people and groups who have passed through the same intense shared experience.

Turner also coined another term within the liminal lexicon, that being liminoid. This shade of liminality reflects an experience of separation from structure without rootedness in community, rituals of transformation, or adequate ritual leadership. In many cases liminoid experience is contrived, artificial and does not necessarily include the critical aspect of transition from one state of being to another. It also may be more characteristic of complex, industrial, technological, rapid communication and virtually driven societies.[vi]

All of these phenomena, though not named in the same way, existed before anthropologists studied them with their cross-cultural analysis. The ideas, rituals and narratives were present in world literature, mythology, religions, and philosophy. They were practiced by small cohesive agrarian tribes as well as large and sophisticated pre-industrial societies. Their stories and rites varied according to context but held remarkable and universal parallels.

From the mythic-symbolic perspective, the rites of passage are passages of death and rebirth leading to another form of existence. Time and space yield to great discontinuities and the liminal domain becomes the container of transformation. As such, liminal persons may discover revelatory knowledge and new awareness in that liminal time and space. Sacred time and space are characterized by the experience of darkness, death, awe, and descent to the womb of initiation and transformation. Forms of ecstasy are commonly experienced through the passages.[vii]

The experience of liminality is feeling a loss of steady and familiar landmarks, the kind of security that accompanied past structure, even as the future has not yet materialized. With everything in flux angst becomes the predominant mood. Very often action seems fruitless because some transitions cannot be hurried. One has entered an incubation period in which time shifts. The liminal person does not necessarily know that transformation is occurring at the time it is happening. Does a caterpillar have any idea that a metamorphosis is about to take place as it enters the cocoon?

The narratives of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures often present divine activity and revelation as unfolding within the womb of liminal transformation. Noah huddled in his ark surrounded by pairs of opposites and passed through forty days of transition between the old and new worlds (Gen 6-8), Jacob’s dream floated somewhere between earth and heaven (Gen 28.12-19), Moses tread on holy separated ground on the way to divine encounter (Ex 3.5), Isaiah was filled with awe in the temple of holiness (Is 6.1-6), Jesus was tested in the wilderness (Mt 4.1-11), and the tomb of death was transformed into a path of light (Mt 28.1-10).

According to Dante he was thirty-five in the year 1300, the date the great journey of his Commedia began. It was then that he crossed the threshold to the larger journey, the famed dark wood. Generations of readers have been captivated by such an entrance into the shadows of life, stumbling in the dark, suffering the necessary losses and discovering the next hope.

                      Midway through life’s journey

                     I woke to find myself in a darkened wood,

                     Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.[viii]

That, of course, was only the first of the thresholds he would cross. Within the liminal passage there were multiple thresholds of consciousness to traverse, truths to face, and sublime beauty to receive. The dark wood was a threshold beyond which the process continued and concluded.

In most cases the liminality that is embodied by rites of passage are temporary in nature, even if that means for an extended period of time. There are, however, more permanent forms of liminality and they come in both voluntary and involuntary varieties, by choice or condition.

A familiar voluntary form of permanent liminality is found in the highly developed monastic traditions of separation and communal life. In these communities certain aspects of liminality are maintained for indefinite periods. An accompanying communitas is created through the practice of self-discipline, humility and obedience to authority, sexual abstinence, homogeneity, equality, holding all possessions in common, elimination of status levels, and the minimizing of gender distinctions.[ix] This communal form of permanent liminality is often expressed in a form of social anti-structure; it positions itself over-and-against social norms and prevailing culture, often removing itself from the mainstream into a separate location and lifestyle.

Other forms of voluntary permanent liminality include communities of intentional isolation. The most obvious American example is that of the Amish. Communities of Amish heritage choose to separate from the world for the sake of ritual purity, clear identity and a chosen way of life. The various forms of Amish communities express that separation by degree, but their practices of communal farming, shared religious experience, common dress, prescribed mores and clear rules of belonging mark them as a community of voluntary permanent liminality.

Many of these external liminal passages are also accompanied by interior parallels; the subjective perception of the event or experience by those who pass through them makes liminality what it is.

Whether communal tragedies are caused by random circumstance or human malevolence, they still disorient all those who are touched by them. When people escape a stadium concert bombing or an apartment building fire they are thrust beyond a world of safety and structure into an unknown and unsafe world. As the moorings are stripped away, something internal in the psyche shifts. This is the inner reflection of the outer experience. Trauma is the combined reaction and response to outer crisis.

The immediate survivors of a large communal chaos event, however, are not the only ones thrust into the liminal domain. Instantaneous media coverage allows for millions of eyes and brains to share in events transpiring in great, repeating detail. When a shooter recently opened up with automatic rifle fire from a Las Vegas hotel room, spraying the crowds attending a concert below, those images and sounds were broadcast immediately around the world, over and over. Citizen journalists recorded and broadcasted the moment on their smart phones. This phenomenon explains why social liminality may rapidly unfold beyond geography around any event; the dire situation of one locale is shared by another.

But internal passages are not only precipitated by external events. Great transformations also occur inside the house of consciousness, often quite independent of outer circumstance. That is confirmed by all manner of spiritual, emotional, and perceptual transitions fostered by unfolding religious life, psychotherapeutic shifts, and social reorientation. In all of these transformations, whether deeply personal or socially shared, rites of passage and liminal sojourns are ubiquitous.

The inward apprehension of outer experience and outer expression of inward transformation are integrally connected. When you enter into liminal experience you discover both dimensions in play, often in equal measureThis is the story of the liminal domain and the liminal persons who traverse it. We may travel voluntarily or have that nether-nether world thrust upon us. The passage may be solitary or taken up in the company of a great number of souls. We may experience passage to the next stage of life, another place, or a new status among our own, but the crossing of that threshold always holds a great challenge and opportunity for transformation, one built into the fabric of existence itself.

[i] Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960)

[ii] Ibid, 189-90.

[iii] Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage,” in The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 93-111.

[iv] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966)

[v] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969), 96-104.

[vi] Victor Turner, “Liminality, Kabbalah, and the Media,” in Religion 15 (1985), 205-217.

[vii] Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 62.

[viii] Dorothy Sayers, The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Cantica 1, Hell (London/Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949), 121.

[ix] Turner, The Ritual Process, 107

2 Comments

  1. Cynthia Lauer

    This information made me think of my parents, both with dementia. They experience “lost” moments where silence awaits them to find their thought or I break the deafening moment in my quest to help. I usually see this as just how things are now & move on trying to assist them however, occasionally it causes them distress which is heartbreaking for me too.

    Reply
    • 4Tcarson

      Dementia brings about an involuntary state of permanent liminality – one separated off from the cognitive functioning of our previous life. And it is a new in-between state for family members who also enter the zone with them. What terrible loss of memory, and with it identity and a sense of grounding in the world! Love is the only tie that often binds together those who feel lost in the new terraine.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *