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The Ever-Liminal Present

A couple months ago, Noah wrote an entry called "Liminal Space and Liminal Discourse" discussing the notion of liminality, defined in anthropology as “a [state of] ambiguity or a transitional space for the participants in rituals, between certain rites… “when the participant is between what they were prior to the ritual and what they will be after the ritual.” “More broadly,” he wrote – that is to say, in less purely anthropological terms –  “[liminality] can be defined as the space between ‘what was’ and ‘what’s next,’” the state of standing at a meaningful threshold.

As I was re-reading Noah’s entry this morning, it struck me that the space between “what was” and “what’s next” must clearly be “what’s now.” And “what’s now,” in our most common and widespread conception, is the present moment. And the present moment is, of course, ever-present, and largely inescapable as a result. What are we to make of this convergence?

To acknowledge that the definition of liminal space and the definition of the present moment are essentially (inescapably?) identical is, I think, important, as it offers an opportunity for critical self-examination and cultural inquiry. If liminal space (or perhaps a liminal state) is “defined by disorientation, evaluation, not-knowing, and waiting,” experience seems to show the present moment defined by the same qualities – a state of being characterized primarily and permanently by our struggle to craft identity and meaning, stuck between the rock of the past we cannot change and the hard place of the future we can never experience. 

Perhaps a state of permanent liminality lies at the root of our endless struggle. Perhaps our struggle can be more mindful and focused and productive when our state of permanent liminality is recognized as such. Perhaps our struggle becomes submerged and wanton and destructive when our state of permanent liminality is obscured or forgotten, accidentally or intentionally – when we seek or find divorce from the present, and try to reside in the past or the future. 

Noah writes that “our society rejects and abhors [liminal space] in every encounter” and that “success in our society could be defined as the ability to avoid liminal space.” I agree with him. Insofar as the liminal state is characterized by the dissolution and reformulation of established or inculcated identity, as well as increased receptivity to new perspectives, it is a threat to both individual comfort and established power structures. Thus, there is resistance to the conscious embrace of the liminal state at both the micro and macro levels, manifest in micro- and macro-efforts to push human minds out of the present and into the past or the future. 

If this framework/conceptual parallel holds up to any kind of sustained or serious scrutiny, I think it could be of great use in the "American Water/Desert Water" projects that I first discussed a couple days ago. If self-certainty and static identity and a lack of critical self-examination represent the toxic root of "whiteness" in America, then a message of permanent and inescapable liminality has the potential to be productively disturbing.



American Water/Desert Water