“Liminal Spaces” and “liminality” are powerful words, ones we often seem to appreciate intuitively rather than consider rationally. Despite, or perhaps because, of that, it can mean many different things to different people, especially depending on one’s primarily lens into liminality. With that in mind, here are some discipline-specific definitions:
Anthropology: The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete” – Victor Turner.
Psychology: A space in our lives where the old self-narrative does not fit any longer and the new narrative has not yet emerged. – Dr. Vincent Deary
Architecture: …the transitional threshold between two fixed states in cultural rites of passage or between two dissimilar spaces in architecture … from which principles can be drawn for the design of a transformative space. The characteristics that define liminal space include layering, dissolution, blurring, and ambiguity and have the ability to transform the occupant of that space as they move through it… – Patrick Troy Zimmerman
Western Magical Tradition: Witches walk between the worlds, with one foot in the world of force and the world of form — The Gardnerian Librarian
Literature: “The state of being on a threshold in space or time” – A Handbook to Literature
Popular Culture #1: On the surface, liminal spaces can be defined by their in between-ness. Places like airports, hotels, and train stations can be described as liminal, but it can also describe existential feelings of being neither here nor there. In the context of the pandemic, liminality takes on a metaphorical meaning, as we sit in our homes contemplating what life was like before and what it will become again in the future. – Günseli Yalcinkaya
Liminality: The history of an Idea
The term liminality (From the Latin, limen, a threshold) was first used in 1909 by ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his book Rites of Passage, focusing on liminal rituals in small-scale traditional societies. This strong focus on liminality in the context of Rites of Passage continues throughout its early anthropological use.
The concept was reinvigorated by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, who began exploring its role in other kinds of societies (for which Turner coined the term liminoid, a distinction which has not generally caught on) and examining its impact on those experiencing liminality in a way which prefigured its adoption by psychology. Anthropologist Agnes Horvath further refined the use of liminality in the discipline by pointing out problems with the concept as used by Gennep and Turning, including identifying liminal/liminoid as a false dichotomy and questioning their portrayal of liminality and liminal experience as universally positive phenomenon.
Jungian psychologists (and to a lesser extent, other schools of psychology) were quick to pick up on liminality’s applicability to individual, internal growth and development as well as external social relations. Once seeded in two academic disciplines, to concept of liminality rapidly spread to other academic disciplines including folklore, literature, and architecture.
While the ideas of liminal space and liminal experience had already been filtering through to popular culture, the internet drastically accelerated the process, to the point that in 2021 liminality is broadly understood concept even if its release into the wilds of popular culture has expanded or muddied (your preference) its meaning – including the idea of a liminality as aesthetic and a focus on mood and atmosphere. It has found an especially potent home in the realms of urban folklore and creepypasta, most notably the “Backrooms” and their purported (liminal) ability to be reached by no-clipping through regular reality.
Perhaps it’s only because the other panel I’m moderating at Fenon this year is on Alternate History but, I wonder in particular about a modern understanding of liminality might have impacted the world of two well known scholars.
For Jung, liminality was an individual phenomenon, the process in the psyche’s development when it could not return to what it had been…but did not yet know what it would become. Jung passed in 1961. I would be very curious what he would make of the word’s evolution over the following half-century, and why kind of conceptual leaps he might have made with the word’s greater flexibility.
The anthropologist Sir James Frazer died in 1941, and his most fertile period was around the turn of the century when “liminal space” wasn’t even a blip on the radar. I am very curious what he might have done with the concept of liminality if could have been part of his mental universe while compiling The Golden Bough.
Liminality as Storytelling
Liminality is inherent to most of the major models of storytelling.
In Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” liminal space begins when the threshold his crossed (notice that Campbell uses the term ‘threshold,’ from which its Latin equivalent WORD, liminal is derived) and arguably does not end until returning across the threshold. Though a case could certainly be made that the liminal period of the Hero’s Journey ends with the rebirth/renewal event.
In Victoria Lynn Scmidt’s “Heroine’s Journey,” liminality begins with the phase of descent/passing the gates of judgment and does not end until either rebirth or returning to the world with new eyes.
“Rules” of Liminality?
Unlike mundane space, in liminal space there are very few rules. Gennep posited that liminal experience or ritual had three distinct phases:
- Preliminal: A kind of metaphorical death, as old statuses and ways are broken and left behind.
- Transitional: The truly liminal moment of transition, when an individual undergoing liminal experience is neither one thing nor the other.
- Postliminal: When the individual is reincorporated into society reflecting their new status or experience gained through undergoing the liminal rite.
Note that the idea that liminality is simultaneously destructive and creative (like the dance of Shiva and Vishnu) is inherent to Gennap’s three phase model.
The model for liminal event or rite is easily portable to liminal space, with two boundary zones wrapped around a core area of pure liminality.
In formal Rites of Passage, rituals and order events are rigorously detailed and may occur under the supervision of an elder or master of ceremonies with almost dictatorial powers. In some ways, the role of therapist/psychologist in liminal psychology mirrors that role. In broader usage of liminality, however, the idea of a prescribed order of events or master of ceremonies may be irrelevant or even nonsensical.
That there are few rules to liminality only makes the ones that do exist even more important (notice that the punishments for violating the few rules of ancient liminal festivals such as Saturnalia were often incredibly harsh).
Varieties of Liminal Space and Experience
The Natural World: Caves (Think of “The Goonies,” where the characters’ quest takes them on descent into the underworld that is inexorably linked with a Rite of Passage toward adulthood. Natural Springs, Running water, shores.
“We’ve Got to Close the Beaches” If the shore is considered a liminal space, “Jaws” can be seen as quest to defend liminal space, and those who use it for their vacations (itself a modern kind of liminality), from an external threat that could otherwise create a hard border between the realm of land and sea.
Artifacts of Human Agency: Borders, Bridges, Crossroads, airports, bus terminals, hotels, theaters and performance spaces (more about that one later).
Borders do not get enough attention as liminal spaces. This includes between “civilization” and “the wild” (the frontier, etc) but also borders between political or socio-cultural groups. The treatment of these as liminal spaces in science fiction and fantasy is so ubiquitous that we often don’t even think of it as such. These borders between worlds of the mind are where new ideas and possibilities emerge, where danger and opportunity can be found, and where ADVENTURE! happens.
Seen from this perspective, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, almost the whole damn things, from the first footstep outside of the shire until the return, are liminal journeys. Which raises a curious question, if liminality persists long enough with no clear end in sight, does it cease to be liminal and, instead, become the new normal. Is that why, in Tolken, peaceful interludes like the visit to Rivendell or Beorn’s freehold feel like liminal spaces within liminal spaces?
Astronomical Phenomena: Solstices & Equinoxes, Dawn & Dusk (literal “twilight zones”). Comets and meteor showers (interruptions of the established order of the nighttime sky). Eclipses (the intrusion of darkness into daytime is extremely liminal…and possibly terrifying).
Holidays: In almost every calendrical system, the equivalent of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are seen as liminal (the period between the death of the old year and the birth of the new). Other holidays have strong liminal aspects. These include the great pre-Lenten festivals (Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fiesta de las Flores y de las Frutas, Fastelavn, etc.) where the border between the regular year and the restrictions of Lent are marked by a celebration of excess. It also includes days when the barrier between the living and the dead is thinned or removed (All Souls’ Day, Dia de Los Muertos, Midsummer Night/St. John’s Day, Twelfth Night, Walpurgisnacht). Some of those are also seen as periods of liminality between the mortal realm and the Lands of the Faerie (or equivalent).
Phases of Life: Adolescence is a prolonged period of liminality, trapped awkwardly between childhood and adulthood. Teenagers are trapped in prolonged liminality. I believe this is why “coming of age” stories are so popular. And I think may at least in part explain the popularity of YA beyond its titular demographic: coming of age stories are liminal stories.
In art as in life, the liminality of adolescence is often paired with liminal Rites of Passage. In The Hunger Games, the Games function as a Rite of Passage of the most absolute sort, with the only outcomes Adulthood or Oblivion. In Shadow & Bone, the Unsea (in the books) or Shadow Fold (in the TV series) is a tangible and very lethal liminal space separating the world’s nations from each other. Of course, this is YA, so as the young protagonists brave the perilous journey through the Unsea/Shadow Fold, it also become a (guess what?)… Rite of Passage into adulthood.
High School, a four year long Rite of Passage, is fertile ground for storytelling, and especially long-form storytelling (everything from Freaks & Geeks to Glee to Buffy).
I think there is another island of liminality in the human lifetime, middle age: that period between adulthood and old age. It does not received as much attention as adolescence in media, but it is still there. It is why we thrill at seeing Henry Jones Sr. acting as foil to his son Indiana, why we have a love-hate relationship with Walter White – who subverts the norms and expectations of his age, and why we are so fascinated by Hobbits (to say nothing of Dwarves and Elves) whose longevity is so different from our own brief spans.
Performance Spaces: Cinema, the stage and music venues are all extremely liminal. Places with no permanent residences, they are a place apart from daily life where a transient population comes and goes to interact with a diversity of stories (many of which are themselves liminal).
Liminal Technology? Looking at liminality in the context scifi, and specifically Star Trek, is the transporter liminal? What about the Holodeck?
Relationship Between the Liminal and the Supernatural in Folklore and Fiction
Because liminal spaces are places where the normal order is suspended, things can happen there that can’t happen anywhere else (summoning the Devil, or various trickster entities at the crossroads, for example). Conversely, liminal spaces can hinder or even bar the supernatural for exercising powers it would otherwise normally possess (vampires’ inability to cross running water).
Most of supernatural horror’s enduring archetypes are liminal. Vampires, ghosts, and other intelligent undead are neither truly living nor truly dead. Werewolves are neither fully human nor fully beast. Frankenstein’s Monster and its countless analogs inhabit the liminal uncanny valley occupied by the imperfect creation of an imperfect creation.
The only real exception I can think of are zombies, at least in their modern post-Night of the Living Dead incarnation. Traditional zombies are different matter. If you want a pre-NotLD zombie flick that oozes liminality, check out 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie.
Vampire fiction seems especially aware of its inherent liminality. Whether something to be sought or something to be avoided, “the embrace” is often portrayed as Rite of Passage, a moment when on is neither truly human nor truly vampire, the death of an old life and the beginning of a new. Anne Rice does a very good job of capturing this in The Vampire Chronicles. So, too, does True Blood/The Southern Vampire Mysteries (which is very good at capturing the liminality of the supernatural in general). Though, in my opinion, the TV series highlights the sense of the liminal better than the books.
In Cosmic Horror/The Mythos, it can be argued that space between the first hint that “all is not as it seems” and the final, horrible, madness-inducing revelation, represents a journey through the liminal. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow sometimes reads like one giant liminal space…and therein lies both its glory and its downfall. Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” uses liminality in multiple, sometimes interlocking ways.
Faith and the Liminal
Just starting with the Abrahamic Faiths, liminality and liminal space are central to their foundational accounts:
- Moses climbing Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and establish the covenant.
- Jesus spending 40 days in the desert before formally beginning his mission.
- Mohammed visiting a cave to hear the Quran dictated by the Archangel Gabriel.
Purgatory is a liminal space. So is the soul’s journey to the afterlife in Pharaonic mythology. In many cultures, the souls of the dead are believed to linger on earth for a period of time before transitioning to the afterlife. Persephone is more than a liminal character, she is the embodiment of liminality itself. Mystery Cults made use of physical liminal spaces like caves for Rites of Passage such as initiations.
Religious ritual is often a liminal space itself. And many religions treat places of worship as liminal spaces, separate from and subject to different rules than, mundane space. While he does not explicitly use the terms liminality or liminal space, Mircea Eliade’s landmark book The Sacred & The Profane is an excellent examination of this phenomenon.
Is the Internet a Liminal Space? I don’t know. From a retro-futuristic angle, the internet as conceived by Gibson, Sterling, ‘80s-’90s ttrpgs, etc. certainly was. But the internet we know and live with? I think that is more of a question. It is certainly interstitial. But has it become too ubiquitous and too mundane to truly qualify as liminal space.
Liminality in the Time of Covid (with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez). The pandemic meets the definition of liminal space in a surprising number of ways, even conforming to more academic definitions of a Rite of Passage…with behaviors, prescriptions, lexicon, and even “ritual garments” that can be fully understood only in the context of the liminal event.