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Liminal Space as Critical Space

With my interest piqued following a reflection on the interesting (but probably simplistic) idea of an “ever-liminal present,” rooted in the definition of liminal space as lying between “what was” and “what’s next,” I picked up a copy of Victor Turner’s essay “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.” So much of my interest these days is in searching for tools and language that might help to increase or create American critical capacity, and so I was hoping for additional insight into the critical potential of liminal space, and the use or production of liminal space in aid of implementing discourse ethics. 

I was not disappointed. “Betwixt and Between” is a treasure trove of interesting ideas. While the essay examines liminality in the narrow context of a particular subset of rituals – for example, “Omaha [Native American] boys going alone into the wilderness to fast and pray… as [being] ‘liminal’ between boyhood and manhood” – it offers observations of abstract liminality that seem well-suited to broader application. More importantly, it paints a picture of the liminal space as one extremely conducive to the procedure and substance of ethical discourse – characterized by a set of traits that might go a long way to reifying lofty ideals like “symmetry, reflexivity, and reciprocity.”  

“The liminal group,” Turner writes, “is a community or comity of comrades and not a structure of hierarchically arrayed positions.” If comradeship is a boon or even a precursor to the implementation of a discourse ethic, and “comradeship, with its familiarity, ease, and, I would add, mutual outspokenness, is once more the product of interstructural liminality (with its scarcity of jurally sanctioned relationships and its emphasis on axiomatic values expressive of the common weal),” then interstructural liminality is a productive space. Two of the three key values of discourse ethics are symmetry and reciprocity – requiring all participants in discourse to be treated as equals, and requiring all participants in discourse to give as well as take. If implementing a discourse ethic depends on this high degree of deeply rooted and well-trained egalitarianism in a given group, this makes the liminal space – or liminal persons – attractive to anyone seeking to implement such an ethic in practice. 

Turner also discusses the cultural training of persons in a liminal space via the use of sacra– symbolic objects exhibited for the transmission of meaning. In discussing the frequently monstrous traits of sacra, he refers to William James’s “law of dissociation,” stated as follows: “when aand b occurred together as parts of the same object, without being discriminated, the occurrence of one of these, a, in a new combination ax, favors the discrimination of a, b, and xfrom one another.” In James’s own words, quoted by Turner, “what is associated now with one thing and now with another, tends to become dissociated from either, and to grow into an object of abstract contemplation by the mind.” “The monstrosity of a configuration throws its elements into relief” – and thus, in observing a monster, or any combination of traits not commonly observed, those in the liminal state are compelled to become “vividly and rapidly aware of what may be called the ‘factors’ of their culture.”

Any state which may make people “vividly and rapidly aware of the factors of their culture” is an inherently intriguing one, to me. If it is true that “liminality may be partly described as a stage of reflection,” one where liminal persons “are alternately forced and encouraged to think about their society,” armed (via sacra or otherwise)with such tools as the “law of dissociation,” then liminality promotes reflexivity – the third major virtue of discourse ethics. Emerson wrote of a “revolution… gradually wrought by the domestication of the idea of culture” – shifting culture from a wild and frequently destructive thing to one that serves human needs. Reflexivity – critical self-examination, and the accordant awareness of the factors of own culture, and how they shape us – is a prerequisite to that revolution. If we can root ourselves in liminal space, in the knowledge that it is also reflexive and/or critical space, then we can take great strides toward the domestication of our own culture, which has become so deeply wayward.



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