What is Liminality?

Our World in One Word

James Cussen

James Cussen

Published in The Living Philosophy

6 days ago (Medium.com)

If you’re feeling lost and aimless in today’s world and you can’t figure out what really matters then you’re not alone. The usual diagnosis for this loss of meaning in life is Nihilism. But Nihilism is merely a symptom of a bigger problem. Nihilism makes it seem like the universe is broken and the only solutions are personal — whether that’s Existentialism or Stoicism, Buddhist meditation or Jungian archetypes. But the truth is simultaneously more terrifying and more of a relief. You may have never heard the term liminality before but in a weird déjà vu kind of way you know liminality because you’ve been living your whole life in it without realising.

Our entire postmodern age is defined by liminality. Looking at the the big picture of society right now you can see two major trends in meaning-making that seem to be demographically disconnected but which share the same rhizomatic rootstock.

On the one hand there are the Leftist movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Social Justice movements. The emphasis in this corner of the culture is collective: there are collective problems from bigotry, systemic racism and wealth inequality which must be dealt with collectively perhaps by revolution.

On the other hand there’s the Individualist movements which cluster around the so-called Meaning Crisis of Nihilism. Nihilism is the sense that nothing has meaning and the usual solutions offered on this side of the culture are centred on the individual who must find meaning in the ruins of our traditional value systems.

In this instalment we are going to explore the meaning of the word Liminality and its origins in anthropology; at its relationship to the Structured society of politics, laws and markets; and the three directions it attacks this Structure from. In future articles we will look at the connection between Liminality and the Meaning Crisis of Nihilism on one hand and at Liminality as the roots of the Leftist value system from social justice for racial minorities, women and LGBT+ to the critique of capitalism and the advocacy of alternative Marxist and Anarchist economic systems.

The Three Types of Communitas

In a previous instalment on the publication we explored anthropologist Victor Turner’s distinction between Structure and Antistructure. These are the yin and yang of human life. Structure is the domain of hierarchies and status, of politics, economics and the legal system. This is the solid container of society that we live inside.

Antistructure (also known as Communitas) is the yin to this yang. If Structure is the cup then Antistructure is the water of life swilling around inside. It is the domain of love and meaning — of soul and spirit. It is the actual living that takes place within the container of Structure. It’s the Jim and Pam in every office; it’s the camaraderie in the trenches — it’s what we call the human element.

Antistructure needs Structure as a container. Structure is the skeleton which enables human life. And like a skeleton Structure seems almost unchanging and eternally stable but if Structure is to be living then it must constantly be reborn. If not Structure becomes ossified. This is where Antistructure comes in. Antistructure is the force that constantly renews Structure. Our living culture is constantly updating the political, economic and legal superstructure of society. Thus society’s Structure while stable and slow changing is in fact always changing and updating over time thanks to the living force of culture.

The best analogy I know of the interplay between Structure and Antistructure is the geological analogy of tectonic plates. The tectonic plates are in constant motion. If you are standing in the middle of a tectonic plate the thing seems eternally solid and unchanging. But these tectonic plates are in a constant process of renewal — something which those at the edge of plates are all-too-aware of. Volcanoes and earthquakes are the violent manifestations of the death and rebirth of the plates.

In his work The Ritual Process Turner distinguishes between the three forms that Antistructure takes: marginality, inferiority and liminality. Each of these are a direction from which Structure is renewed by Antistructure. As Turner puts it:

“[Antistructure] breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority.”

In the decades since Turner’s great works, the term liminality has entered the cultural consciousness. With that cultural popularity the aspects of these three have merged into a more monolithic concept of liminality. This triple nature of liminality can be mapped neatly onto the geological analogy.

The death and rebirth of the tectonic plates doesn’t happen at the centre but at the margins of the plates. And the space into which these plates die and out of which they are born is the dynamic mantle of the Earth. The mantle is the largest portion of the Earth making up 84% of the planet’s volume. The plates of the planet sit on top of the mantle and are slowly churned around the surface by its motions. Where the plates pull in opposite directions the mantle spews up new material from beneath to form more tectonic plates. In this we can see the directions of marginality and inferiority. In volcanoes — also found near the edges of plates we can see examples of liminality where the underworld bursts through weak points in the Earth’s crust.

In this instalment we’re going to look at these three heads of liminality: firstly at liminality proper, then at marginality and finally at inferiority before seeing how each of these bleeds into the others in the monolithic term of liminality.


Image via Wikimedia: Public Domain

Though Victor Turner’s anthropological work in the 1960s and 70s popularised the term liminality, this was a resuscitation and amplification of Arnold von Gennep who coined the term at the end of the 19th century.

The term liminality itself comes from the Latin limin meaning threshold. This is the same root as the word subliminal but with the threshold in that case being a psychological one where something is “sub” — i.e. below — the threshold of consciousness.

In the case of liminality however the threshold is not a psychological one. In anthropology liminality refers to a particular stage in rituals. It is crossing the threshold into an entirely new way of being like Alice going through the looking glass. These can be rituals centred on individuals like Ayahuasca ceremonies, 10-day meditation retreats or in the so-called “rites of passage” rituals of tribal and traditional peoples where the person moves from one status to another such as when a boy becomes a man, a woman becomes a mother or when a couple get married. Or they can be collective rites that mark particular points in the crop cycle like Mardi Gras, Halloween or the Ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries.

Liminality is the middle phase of these rituals. It’s the space “betwixt and between” as Turner put it. It’s the stage when the old has been dissolved but the new has yet to be born. It’s the chaotic fast-flowing river between the two stable shores. It’s a stage of pure potential when the regular Structure of society is no longer present.

In this ritualistic state of pure liminality, all of Structure’s distinctions of wealth, property and power are dissolved and so there is a flattening of all hierarchies; the initiates have no status, no property, no identity. Everyone is the same; everyone even looks the same — sometimes they wear no clothes, sometimes a uniform and sometimes they are dressed like monsters. Even sex differences dissolve; in many such rituals people are stripped of their names and men and women are all addressed by the same term. In short, everything that distinguishes us from each other in rank or status is dissolved.

This is liminality. Turner writes:

“The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.”

And what emerges is something fascinating powerful and transformative. Turner notes how during liminality those undergoing the ritual together:

“tend to develop an intense comradeship and egalitarianism”

and in this space

“A mystical character is assigned to the sentiment of humankindness”

Instead of their relations being structured by their position in society — like their job, wealth or background — the relations between the initiates are spontaneous and unstructured. There is a camaraderie and a love just for the sake of it. There is a deep authenticity to this way of relating.

Among the other traits that Turner associates with Liminality are:

  • Disregard for personal appearance
  • Simplicity
  • Foolishness
  • Humility
  • Homogeneity
  • Silence
  • Sacredness and
  • Continuous reference to mystical powers

In liminality the secular status-oriented mode of being dissolves and the mystical mythic magical mindset becomes the main reality. As Turner puts it:

“if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs.”

Liminality Outside of Ritual

Image via Wikimedia: Public Domain

All of this is very interesting but if liminality simply applied to a stage in tribal rituals it wouldn’t have gained the cultural traction that it has. The reason for this stickiness of liminality is that it shows up throughout our own 21st-century culture as well — in its interstices, its cracks and its thresholds.

We can think of teenagers who have crossed the threshold out of childhood but have yet to cross the threshold into adulthood. We might also think of university students whose Dionysian lifestyle is neither the Structured authoritarian ways of school and childhood nor the Structured society of the adult workplace. There are those who are between jobs, at festivals, on gap years or travelling longer term. And we might also think of the more traditional ritual spaces like 10-day silent meditation retreats or ayahuasca ceremonies. Such ritualistic experiences are growing in popularity today — perhaps because they fulfil a growing thirst in the psyche. We might also think of the less strict cousins of these rituals like Tony Robbins’s massive events or yoga teacher training courses.

On a larger scale we can speak of liminal ages. The Hungarian Sociologist Arpad Szakolczai has written much about the idea that modernity is an era of liminality. And this makes sense if we think of liminality as being a time when old Structures break down and new ones have yet to be born. This is the meaning of Nietzsche’s declaration that God is Dead and it’s the very essence of Nihilism. Our modern world isn’t the only example of such liminality; there are many examples throughout history. In Western history we could look at the French Revolution, at Ancient Rome at the time of the Republic’s collapse or at Greece a few centuries earlier. Further east we could look at the Warring States period in 5th century BC China. This theme of liminal ages is something we will explore in greater depth in the article on Liminality and Nihilism.

What these collective and individual experiences have in common is that they all partake to a greater or less degree in the state of liminality — a state of betwixtness and betweenness as Turner put it. Most of the time we are living within the given Structure of the system. But the closer we tend towards liminality the more this Structure is dissolved for us.

And it seems that the function of this dissolution is the rebirth of the system — whether that’s an individual reorientation of our lives or a society’s reorientation. To use one of Marx’s favourite metaphors, Antistructure is the mystical insides of a cocoon where the caterpillar of the old Structure dissolves and is reborn as a butterfly. Or in the language of Jordan Peterson Maps of Meaning, Liminality is the Chaos principle out of which Order is reborn — it is the belly of the whale out of which we rescue the father which symbolises the Structural ordering of things as in the Pinocchio or Osiris stories.

Structure like the skeleton is made of strong stuff. But without the constantly renewing marrow liminality, Structure becomes dead and brittle. Without constant contact with this reanimating principle Structure becomes disconnected from this lifeforce of pure Being and in time it becomes ossified, rigid and it loses all connection to the values of Liminality — equality, spontaneity, freedom, human kindness and the mystical interconnectedness of all beings. To return to the geological analogy we might compare the dynamic tectonic system of Earth’s crust with the dead static crust of Mars’s surface.


Image via Wikimedia: Public Domain

Of course as we’ve noted above, the dynamic force of Antistructure doesn’t just break into Structure through the interstices of these transitional periods and rituals. In these liminal spaces we get a bit of time outside of regular society which gives us a vantage point from which to evaluate our lives and our society. Such betwixt and between spaces are not the only vantage points from which to look at Structure. The other great vantage points are Marginality and Inferiority.

Marginality refers to those at the edge of society. In Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual Turner writes that:

“Evolving species push back boundaries, so that it is on boundaries that creative thought must dwell. Inner space, like outer space, has boundaries, and these often prove to be the boundaries of symbolic systems.”

The marginals are those at the edges of society who are still part of the societal Structure like those zebras on the outside of the herd. The zebras in the middle of the herd live in a much more zebra-centric world. But those on the edge while still attached to the herd are also exposed to the dangers and beauty of the world in a way that their more Structured brothers and sisters at the centre of the herd do not.

It brings to mind one of our great marginals Nietzsche and his quote about the dangers and possibilities opened up by the death of God:

“Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits .. feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘’open sea!’’”

The marginals see things that the rest of us don’t and it is they that steer the herd with their movements.

Nietzsche isn’t the only marginal we’ve looked at on The Living Philosophy. The ancient Greek philosophers were the archetypal image of this state of marginality. We see it in many of philosophy’s most iconic and eccentric figures like HeraclitusDiogenes and Henry David Thoreau. Or we can see it in those who founded their schools which quite suitably were at the edges of the city like Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus whose AcademyLyceum and Garden were all outside the city walls of Athens.

The marginality of philosophers is a later form of the marginality of the shaman (with an overlap in the Pre-Socratic philosophers especially Empedocles who thought himself a God). As well as shamans and philosophers there are more modern examples like the marginality of disabled individuals and immigrant communities who occupy this same peripheral ground.

Turner also talks in detail about the hippie movement as being a Antistructure-driven subculture on the margins. They opt out of society and want to reconnect with the land, their bodies and their fellow man and woman. They reject the Structures of society and go in search of something more real — they go in search of happiness and truth.

In all of these cases, the Marginals occupy the fringes. They are part of society but they exist outside the centre of the herd. This puts them in a liminal position between the ingroup of culture and the outgroups. They are neither fully us nor fully them. From this ambivalent position, the marginals have a different view on what Structure is.

This is a theme that French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari explore in depth with their concept of Minor Literature. This concept was developed in their study of Franz Kafka who was a Jewish man writing in German in Prague the capital of present-day Czech Republic. He was writing as a member of a marginal group — the Jews — in a marginal language — German — which to compound matters was not the language of his group. All of this points to an extreme marginality.

This marginality puts a great tension on the mind of the individual but it also gives a powerful perspective from the vantage point of what Richard Rohr calls “the edge of the inside”. From here the individual can see the culture from the inside but without being intoxicated by the culture’s self-mythologising. This is a uniquely powerful position — close enough to genuinely understand but far enough away to be free to criticise.


Image via Wikimedia: Public Domain

The third group are the structurally inferior — those who occupy Structure’s lower rungs.

Here we can think of children, we can think of minorities and of women especially before the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 20th century. The same also applies to Marx’s attention to the Proletariat and Tolstoy’s valorisation of the simple life of the peasantry.

Turner also adds conquered natives, jesters and holy fools to this category. If you think of role of the Jewish people in Ancient Rome, of the Irish under British rule, of the Aborigines in Australia and the Native Americans in North American culture there is a Structural inferiority to these peoples. There is a bias against them — having been defeated there is less respect for them.

There was a time when signs in Britain would advertise jobs with the qualifying condition that No Irish Need Apply and other signs saying No Irish No Blacks No Dogs. I noticed a similar undercurrent in Australian society where there was a gaping bias towards Aborigines by many people that I met even when the society as a whole was trying to be more politically correct. There is a similar relationship in Ireland towards the Travelling Community.

As we see in Turner however this relationship isn’t just negative. These conquered native peoples take on a mystical aura in the society. In The Ritual Process he talks about the Mbwela people who were conquered by the Ndembu and who played central roles in the rituals of the Ndembu people.

In our own history we might think of the emergence of Christianity out of the conquered Jewish people in Ancient Roman culture and of the mystical quality associated with Native Americans in North American culture and Aborigines in Australian culture. We could also argue that the modern Western prestige of Indian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism — which spread into the West in the 19th century with the work of the Theosophical Society — might have something to do with being the natives conquered by the British Empire. Looking at the history of Irish mythology I also wonder whether this might be where the Tuatha dé Danann — the divine fairy people — came from since in the old stories they were the people here before the Gaels arrived and dominated the island.

Turner also talks about the village idiot and Holy Fools as being Structurally inferior. We can think of Dostoevsky’s holy fool heroes Prince Myshkin in The Idiot and Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov and of the prostitute Sonya in his book Crime and Punishment. And we might also think of Jesus the son of a carpenter or of his ragtag band of fisherman apostles.

And then there’s jesters who were entertainers with little status on the one hand but as we see so often in the plays of Shakespeare, the Fool could speak truth in a way that nobody else could. Their inferiority brought a liberation which enabled the outflow of Communitas values.

In each of these cases we have a Structurally inferior section of society but among whom a certain Antistructural tendency either emerges or at the very least inspires others. There is a mystical aura that attaches to those with lower Structural status which like the margins and the gaps is a place where Structure is permeable to the transformative powers of Antistructure.

Overlapping Groups

The thing about these categories of Antistructure is that they are overlapping. The marginality of the philosophers like Heraclitus or Diogenes means they are at the edges of society but originating from the higher classes there is also a liminality and inferiority to their roles — because they don’t simply fit the mould of the Structurally inferior there is a sense in which they stumble between the cracks. Heraclitus would have been king of Ephesus had he not turned his back on the role. His position as a philosophical gadfly of the city then is not simply a critique of the Structurally inferior nor is it simply the marginality of the outsider.

We might say the same of the shamanic role. Shamans live their entire lives in liminality. They have a statusless status being in the world but not of it. Like the smiths of old they were marginal magicians at the edge of the culture and this brought respect but also distance. Marginality is baked into their position.

With prostitutes like Dostoevsky’s Sonya in Crime and Punishment we can see a Structural inferiority but also a marginality — since these sex workers operate illegally and at the edges of society. There is also a degree of liminality to their place in society — a theme explored in movies like Pretty Woman.

And if we think of the position of Native Americans with respect to North American society there is a marginalisation — being at the edges of the society; a liminality — being trapped between the Structure of their own society and the Structure of this Western colonist; and finally there is an inferiority — because they are not the ones with power in society.

So these categories aren’t entirely separate and often tend to collect together.

This overlapping nature of the pure liminal, the marginal and the inferior points to a shared archetypal pattern which is captured wonderfully by the expression “the edge of the inside”. None of these groups are outsiders to the culture and yet they are not at the centre either. They are part of the herd and yet they are exposed to the worst elements of the herd and to the world beyond the herd. Thus liminality as the state of being “betwixt and between” is the basic DNA underlying these three states.

We can see how the radical politics of right-wing populism — of which Trump is the current American figurehead — derives its liminal archetypal charge from the Structural inferiority of the rural ocean of Americans in contrast to the “Rich Men North of Richmond”. Meanwhile in leftist radicalism the focus is on a different group of Structurally inferior and marginal groups which is the African-American community, the LGBTQ+ minority and women. In both cases the radicalism derives from the liminal position of the people but it leads to violently contrasting politics. The details of these groups is something we’ll be exploring in more depth in future installments.

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