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Problematic: Liminality and Narrativity


In rites of passage, an individual often enters a liminal space where s/he has lost or surrendered one status position but has not yet transitioned into another “higher” one. Spatially and temporally, the initiand hovers on the threshold, “between” two fixed identities, two power structures, that the community narrativizes in order to normalize the experience (likely to reinforce a cultural master plot). If, however, during the liminal stage, these power structures are de-emphasized or ignored, a new social structure of “communitas” may form — arguably emerging as anti-structure, hyperstructure, or both. Such liminality (applied to individuals, groups, or societies) seems to share certain traits with Bahktin’s notion of the carnivalesque, wherein, for a set time, social norms are upturned and existants are temporarily released from monologic culture. Closely associated with the carnivalesque is Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque body, which relates the cyclicality of human life to the potential for social and political renewal. If grotesque realism is “always conceiving,” then the pregnant body is an especially intriguing liminal space that challenges power structures around gender and sexuality, furthering the potential for social regeneration (Bakhtin 21).

Just as liminality interrogates social structures, so it interrogates language and narrative/genre structures that exist on a threshold and are, I would argue, implicitly transgressive. I am especially interested in those acts of transgression inherent in “cross- genre” literature. Are borders liminal zones? Does “cross-genre” literature approach abjection, which Kristeva says is created by “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4)? Does the act of crossing result in a transition, like a rite of passage, from one genre into another (producing a text that retains the “integrity” of those two genres), or something else, and, if so, what? Who or what establishes the boundaries at play? By what rhetorical gestures are we to recognize these boundaries? Alternatively, how do such innovative texts as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759), Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Woolf’s Orlando (1928), Borges’s Ficciones (1942), Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), Cha’s Dictee (1982), Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1988), Maso’ Ava (2001), Boully’s The Body (2003), and Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) destabilize generic borders and, consequently, the very genres themselves? To what purpose? Is such innovation actually transgressive, and, if so, in what sense? Violent or ludic? Both at once? In the bigger picture, what does generic experimentation unconceal about categorization in general? If, according to Wittgenstein, the instability of language itself exposes it as potential nonsense, what is the value of any generic experiment, which is no more or less senseless? Is it an always evolving, endlessly self- referential mutation? Does the implicit monstrosity of “hybridity” suggest that “hybrid genres” is an apt term for language in general?

After a year reading texts that occupy liminal spaces, I wish to come away with a clearer understanding of what we mean when we use such labels as “cross-genre,” “multi- genre,” “anti-genre,” “trans-genre.” Do the texts to which these labels are applied look any different from texts claiming to “blur” genres? Is the only common thread uniting all of these their liminality? When, if ever, do these generic initiands become ritualized into the status of “non-genre” literature — “our most crucial and tantalizing experiences of literature” — which Jonathan Culler locates “at the interstices of genres” (53)? If such initiation occurs, why might this be a generic rite of passage and how is it ceremonialized by our culture and to what ends?


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Print.

Culler, Jonathan. “Toward a Theory of Non-Genre Literature.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 51-56. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.

Frankenstein (1818): "What was I?"

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