politics of the hap

On Liminality.
July 18, 2013, 8:16 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery

‘It’s life on the edge but not over it.’ – Rosi Braidotti (2006, p.163)

Room 11, Mario Wagner. © Mario Wagner

Room 11, Mario Wagner. © Mario Wagner

Liminality from the Latin ‘limen’ means threshold or margin. A state of liminality is one where the usual order of things is suspended, the past is momentarily negated and the future has yet to begun. The liminal stage is one where the social order is turned upside down. Victor Turner (1974, 1982) has utilised the work of Arnold van Gennep (1909) from his book Rites de Passage, to develop this understanding of liminality. Van Gennep outlined three stages in a rite of passage: the initial stage of separation from one’s group or society, the middle stage of liminality, and the final stage of reintegration. It was the middle stage that caught Turner’s attention, the state of being ‘betwixt-and-between’ two defined identities, and freed from the normative obligations they imply. In Turner’s work, focused on the anthropological study of “tribal” societies, liminality meant a physical separation from one’s community, it was to undergo a necessary rite of passage where signs of pre-liminal status were destroyed and a liminal status applied.

Standing outside of not only one’s own social position but from all social positions allowed the potential of forming a new alternative identity. The liberation from normative constraints, social roles, social status and membership proposes a radical potential of becoming through the literal sense of losing one’s dwelling place. Innovation happens in the space of liminality, a space Turner also refers to as ‘anti-structure’. The normal structures of society we live by act in order to inhibit or obstruct this limitless potential of becoming, as the creation of new identities and social arrangements may act to subvert the status quo (Turner 1974, p.13-14). Such a space is also therefore one of heightened affectivity, of uncertainty and insecurity.

Liminality is a process that in tribal societies according to Turner is navigated through the use of rituals and customs. To contrast this mode of liminality with how liminal spaces are experienced in an industrial society, Turner talks of the ‘liminoid’. The liminal is an obligatory rite of passage, it is compulsory, serious and demanding, it is not designed to be subversive. The liminoid on the other hand is a space of play and choice; it is voluntary and has the potential to be highly critical. Turner describes entertainment and art as liminoid forms. They are pockets, or spaces in daily life outside the realm of work, in that region we describe as leisure that provide opportunity to explore and reflect upon potentials and alternatives. This liminoid space of play is one of spontaneity; it is concerned with the immediacy of now, not of working toward a specific future. Yet liminality is not a state of meaninglessness. A state of exploration and play where social formations can be reconfigured and reconsidered is not one of chaos or disregard for the consequences.

I would suggest that liminal spaces are not only entered consciously via choice or obligation as Turner highlights but emerge out of resistance (a resistance to the normative structures of living) and also through force, as in the incidence of grieving a death. The space of grief if we compare it to a state of liminality – where one is no longer what one was but is not yet anything in particular – is not a chosen space, yet it does contain many obligatory rituals to guide the way: funeral ceremonies, the recovery process, the stages of grief etc.

The rhetoric of liminality and becoming often paints a fantastic picture where ‘anything can happen’. But to be exposed to new potentials does not necessarily signify a positive process. In the recovery narrative there are right and wrong modes of becoming. Attending a counselling group for example, demonstrates the need for ritual and framing of liminality to avoid a sense of unraveling. The very ambiguity of liminality which allows its potential may also be the scene of disease, despair, death, suicide, of a breakdown without replacement of well-defined social ties and bonds (Turner, 1982, p.46). Liminality thus can foster a state of no recovery much in the same way it can build the foundations for positive transformation. Liminality makes no promises of a better future, or indeed of any future at all. As Turner describes: ‘Liminality is both more creative and more destructive than the structural norm’ (1982, p.47). Further being ‘betwixt-and-between’ causes one to literally and figuratively lose one’s sense of being in the world. When the taken for granted is swept away, ‘we can easily loose our grasp of external reality and our sense of inner self-coherence’ (Stenner & Moreno, 2013). As in the experience of grief, when the taken for granted is no longer, one’s sense of self is destabilized, the idea of rational agency appears impossible. In such a state people might then be more open to those experiences of suggestibility, mimesis, social influence, imitation, contagion (Stenner & Moreno, 2013 p.24).

The self-destructive potential of becoming and of liminality is often avoided by theorists such as Rosi Braidotti (1994, 2006) where the desirable position for the subject is always in transition, a subject relinquished of the idea of fixity and authentic identity (Braidotti, 1994, p.23). Stenner and Moreno (2013) argue that affect studies often avoid or negate structure in favour of flow. They propose instead that liminality and affectivity should always be seen as a transition. There can sometimes be a sense that liminality is a permanent state of modern society, everything – our identities included – is non-permanent and fluid. Liminality gives rise only to more liminality. The liminal space is all the more fraught with the decline of ritual and ceremonies to allow us to ‘pass’ from one identity to another. ‘Passing’ as used by Ahmed (1999) is not a becoming but simply a passing from one identity to another. Braidotti would claim we should become without becoming anything in particular. While this is an intoxicating vision, this mode of self-conscious play seems an unrealistic and unsustainable mode of existence. Furthermore one has to be sufficiently situated in order to grasp this very process. Liminality and becoming are not just free floating states but a state in between. Liminality is still situated between two different ordered and normative structures. How one views one sense of self, and what future they perceive, is simply then a matter of which side of the threshold they find themselves.

Some staging in the liminal process is important therefore not in order to provide no other options (to follow a limited narrative or else be deemed pathological) but to facilitate a productive becoming (Stenner & Moreno, 2013). To view liminality as a process is to suggest like Deleuze & Guattari something that ‘must not be viewed as a goal or an end in itself, nor must it be confused with an infinite perpetuation of itself.’ (1984, p.5). The aim is not to prolong the sense of liminality nor to interrupt it prematurely. Thinking about grief then we can say the aim is not to encourage a prolonged sense of unhappiness but nor is it to label grief with a time frame that implies one step too far over the line is pathological. Here then we might consider Braidotti’s quote at the opening of this piece ‘ ‘It’s life on the edge, but not over it.’ Liminality is a state where new potentials and limits can be challenged and explored, and yet there is a sense to not to go too far, to not ‘go over the edge’. What lies over the edge? Braidotti claims the body will signal when it reaches a limit through somatic expressions, being sick, that act as corporeal warning signs. Self-destructive modes mark the territory of what we think is possible, they draw out the boundaries. Yet self-destructive modes are ways of coping, they are bad habits that become rituals, addictions. They are the mal-adaptive forms of recovery that are the symptoms of complicated grief: insomnia, eating disorders, hoarding etc. These bad habits are the negative options available in a space of liminality. They are a mode of grasping, comprehending the world as well as a way of holding the self together. Ritual in Turner’s description of liminality was productive, it assisted people from A to B. Ritual becomes a way of survival, similarly bad habits, or bad rituals become a way to survive, yet this promise becomes a false one, they cause an unraveling, they do not provide a future.

How to navigate the liminal space successfully? How to select the footholds that will carry us and not cause us to spiral down? There is it seems a need for not only attachment or belonging but for the correct forms of attachment and belonging, for positive encounters, not destructive ones. This is all the more complex when we consider how people may resist the available options to them. Liminality then can also become a way of getting stuck, both by lack of desirable avenues and exits but also by the fact that even if given the space for novelty and change, it does not follow that someone should or will choose to act on it. The capacity to think of the new is not the same as enacting that as a reality. As mentioned previously bereavement is not a choice but a forced entrance into liminality. The bereaved individual will not necessarily then happily dispose of their prior identity, they might maintain many attachments to the deceased, as well as their identity that was constructed around the world of the person they have lost. Not letting go and not forgetting then can force a sense of ‘stuckness’, the person will go neither forward nor can they go back. Angela Kelly (2008) provides an interesting understanding of liminality in the case of a terminal illness, AIDS dementia, where she claims liminality becomes a permanent way of living. Liminality as a process is one in which people enter and then leave, yet Kelly claims that liminality is a state that sometimes becomes impossible to leave. The continual disintegration of disease with no recovery, where no future is possible places the person in a sense of the ever present now. There is a tension between viewing liminality as a phase and liminality as a way of life. This again highlights the importance of thinking about what side of the threshold you are looking from, or in this case looking from within liminality itself.

This also might elucidate why hope is so central to a recovery narrative, or to thinking about how to die well. To have hope even in a state of liminality where all that one has known is eradicated, keeps open the opportunity of constructing new futures and of transitioning us safely to those new horizons. What is important to remember, as Kelly (2008) illustrates is that hope is not always a possibility, but further not always desirable. Hope also can take on different forms than the dominant narratives imposed on us. To transition through liminality is then not necessarily to get over the loss or trauma but can be a way to create newness founded on the very loss of the original place. Some losses are irrecoverable but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as foundations for the new (Butler, 2003). Again let’s not forget the new is not always positive – self-destructive habits are new even if not productive. What is key here is that loss can build a way of living a different life not through a desire to forget the past but the very act of not forgetting.

In Van Gennep’s rite of passage to enter a liminal phase is to lose or forget one’s pre-liminal status. Clinging to memories and the recollection of memories can then be seen as a way of dwelling in the past, as making us stuck. A new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum ‘Memory Palace’ is an illustrative reminder of what might happen if we are encouraged to forget. Developed around a story by Hari Kunzru the exhibition depicts a dystopian vision of London where all signs of modern civilization are to be destroyed and all means of remembering are prohibited. As Kunzru writes, the rulers of this new world claim: ‘Knowing nothing should be cherished: it’s a sign that you’re free of trace.’

So though some memories we may resist, reject or continually attempt to destroy, they are some things that shouldn’t be forgotten. The question then is what should we let go of and what should we hold on to? This is not always a conscious decision, what we remember and how we remember is often beyond our control and comprehension (insert neuroscientific data here). At the end of the exhibition it poses the question, ‘If you could keep one memory, what would it be?’ The visitors are then invited to write down their memories in words and or pictures on a screen which then become displayed as part of the exhibition. The replies vary between the trivial, a picture of someone’s breakfast consumed earlier in the day, to a delicate drawing of a grandfather’s hands. The question also forces an uneasy realisation that the memory one chooses will be the only one that composes who we are. Perhaps in retrospect people should rewrite their answers to ‘how to walk’ or ‘how to speak’  – here’s a lesson that reveals we can only remember to keep what we haven’t already forgotten, but instead the memories chosen were centred on relationships and love. In the pretext of the vision of a world depleted of hope, future and memory, a world focused only on the very present now, it was remarkable to see not only how vital memory is, and how the past structures our existence in a very fundamental way, but how affect and feeling is placed at the centre of what we take ourselves to be. Here then was a clear example of Turner’s ‘communitas’ a spontaneous, transitory union between people, relationships that enable becoming through a sense of belonging, but a belonging detached from the prescriptions of social structure. Perhaps then it is in this enabling, inclusive form of communitas, of union between individuals, a union not of one but of multiple, that a sustainable sense of becoming can be realised and the gulf of the liminal space negotiated.


Ahmed, S. (1999). ‘She’ll Wake Up One of These Days and Find She’s Turned into a Nigger’: Passing through Hybridity’, in Bell, V. (ed.) Performativity & Belonging. London: Sage, pp. 87-106.

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Braidotti, R. (2006) Transpositions: On nomadic ethics. Cambridge: Polity.

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Butler, J. (2003). ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’, in Eng, D. L. & Kazanjian, D. (eds). Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Kelly, A. (2008). ‘Living Loss: An exploration into the internal space of liminality’, Mortality, 13 (4): 335-350.

Stenner, P. and Moreno, E., (2013). ‘Liminality and affectivity: the case of deceased organ donation’, Subjectivity, 6(3), (In press).

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, Metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca & London: CornellUniversity Press.

Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.