Liminality Revisited

In 1909, anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep published Les rites de passage, in which he proposed we “call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world post-liminal rites” (21).

In the late 1960s, half a century after Van Gennep’s coinage of the terms preliminal, liminal, and post-liminal, anthropologist Victor Turner began investigating, specifically, the transitional phase between an individual’s ritualized separation from and reincorporation back into society. His investigation led to the publication of “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage” in 1967 and, in 1969, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, which included the essay “Liminality and Communitas.”

Today, we can actually locate liminality itself in the liminal stage of its own transition from anthropological disciplinarity into transdisciplinarity (as defined by Besselaar, 2). Between these poles, liminality has slowly gained attention from a broadening range of scholars as a cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary concern, but it has yet to be fully appreciated beyond — or even within — academic scholarship. As more scholarship about liminality emerges across the disciplines (yet, always only refers back to its anthropological origins), it seems obvious the time is now to collectively merge research, findings, and applications to develop a transdisciplinary approach that can help us navigate our present moment of transition. . . .  

In 1975, the concept became a cross-disciplinary concern when Winston Davis and Wayne Elzey published exploratory essays about liminality in religious studies journals, later joined by Charles Hambrick and Robert G. Fishman in 1979 and 1980 respectively. (The timeline presented here is compiled from the results of a JSTOR search for essays with "Liminality" in their titles. My working assumption is that, if it appears in the title it is of particular concern to the author and thus a major theme of the essay.)

In 1982, literary studies took note, when Caroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “Davey Crockett as Trickster: Pornography, Liminality and Symbolic Inversion in Victorian America” brought liminality into conversation with Victorian literature; and, in 1985, Randolph Parker confirmed the connection between liminality and Victorian literature with “Gaming in the Gap: Language and Liminality in Playboy of the Western World.” His introductory paragraph contextualizes why the field of literature would be interested in liminality, and it is worth quoting in full:

One of the many effects of recent critical theory has been to focus attention on the aporias in our cultural paradigms and to foreground the concept of the gap as a constituent in the construction of meaning. Out of another context, the study of ritual, has come an appreciation of the experience of gaps — in particular, the potentially transformative experience of being on the threshold between two recognized cultural loci or in a break in the continuity of life, the phenomenon known to anthropologists as liminality. While liminal situations occur most notably in the rites and festivals of traditional societies, many of their significant features characterize phenomena in modern societies as well, events that interrupt the normal course of life or activities in the margins between accepted contexts of meaning. (Parker 65)

After Smith-Rosenberg’s and Parker’s initial forays, two more literary analyses of liminality appeared in 1986: Sarah Lynn Higley applied liminality for the first time to a non-Victorian text in “‘Aldor on Ofre,’ or the Reluctant Hart: A Study of Liminality in Beowulf”; and Sarah Gilead’s “Liminality, Anti-Liminality, and the Victorian Novel” set the stage for her larger project of deconstructing liminality by reading anti-liminality in Victorian novels (to date, she remains the only scholar to identify narrative constructions that resist the structurality of liminal structure as such).

Since then, liminality has been applied to readings of works by Pessoa (1989), HD (1990), Rushdie (1998), Dickens (2002), Chaucer (2006), and others. While scholars in literary studies continue to read liminality in texts ranging from ancient epics like Beowulf to contemporary works, it should be noted that the discipline (after religious and literary studies) to concern itself with liminality was dance (1991); next was education (1996); followed by Hispanic studies, philology, and, in an analysis of country and gospel music, pop culture studies (1997); American Indian studies, visual art, African American studies (1998); urban anthropology (1999); Latin American studies (2001); cinema and media studies (2002); history (2004); gender studies, architecture, geography, medicine (2005); African studies (2006); philosophy (2008); sociology (2009); economic policy (2010).

Yes, liminality as a theoretical lens through which we have attempted to better understand the world around us has gained traction over the past few decades, across the disciplines, but not so much so that any scholar has yet to assume his audience’s familiarity with it. Even the most recently published literary analysis, an ecocritical reading of DeLillo’s Underworld in 2010, includes a prefatory definition that begins with Van Gennep and, of course, Turner, quoted as follows: “the liminal [is] ‘an interval, however brief, of margin or limen, when the past is momentarily negated, suspended, or abrogated, and the future has not yet begun, an instant of pure potentiality when everything, as it were, trembles in the balance’” (Rozelle 444).

It makes perfect sense that ecocritical literary scholarship would be interested in liminality, as the great and vast, terrifying future before us is — environmentally speaking — the end of the world. (Suddenly, the fact that religious scholars were the first to consider liminality makes even more sense.) In any case, while it is tempting and commonplace for so many Americans to dismiss the validity of academic research, maintaining that what academics do in their ivory tower is pointless gibberish that contributes nothing to “the real world,” I think it is necessary to point out in layman’s terms why liminality, in addition to so many other narrative constructs, also matters and especially now in our present moment.

As many readers already know, Kurt Vonnegut’s ability to cut the crap and state things plainly outshines us all — and, in this instance, with a helpful illustration, too: “You will see this story over and over again,” he says (the video in which he says this, “Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories,” is even on YouTube!); “People love it,” he continues, “and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: ‘Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again’” (25).

He adds, “It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers” (Vonnegut 25).

To which I add — when it comes to liminality, it is the hole, the gap, that we are most interested in as a space of pure potentiality (even though, or perhaps because, it signifies trouble!), and what we are most concerned about is why readers — why human beings, in general — are so encouraged when someone crawls out of his hole and ends up higher than where he began.


Works Cited

Besselaar, Peter van den and Gaston Heimeriks. “Disciplinary, Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary: Concepts and Indicators.” ISSI. 2001. Web. 7 May 2016.

Parker, Randolph. “Gaming in the Gap: Language and Liminality in Playboy of the Western World.” Theatre Journal 37.1 (1985): 65-85. Print.

Rozelle, Lee. “Resurveying DeLillo’s ‘White Space On Map’: Liminality and Communitas in Underworld.” Studies in the Novel 42.4 (2010): 433-452. Print.

Van Gennep, Arnold. Rites of Passage. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Man Without A Country. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.