In Limbo: Using Liminality Theory To Explore Abstract Spaces

(Audrey Jang • The Student Life)

My study abroad group left Paris for a weekend to travel to Avignon, a small town in the south of France. We left early in the morning, which meant that I had to wake up at five in the morning, or, put simply, too early.

As the train rolled through the French countryside, I watched a lone car meander down the highway, lights briefly illuminating the still dark landscape. I was reminded of a very odd sensation some may have felt before. It’s the feeling of interrupting your road trip to stop off at an empty gas station to buy gum at three in the morning. Perhaps it is leaving an academic building at 4:14 a.m., and seeing nary a living soul on your bleary-eyed, freezing walk home. Or, perhaps it is the morning after your high school or college graduation when you wake up and ask yourself, “so, what am I now?”

These situations can all be described as liminal. Both liminal and liminality come from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold. ”Liminal” first appeared in psychologist Arnold Van Gennep’s 1884 publication Les Rites de Passage.

In his essay, Van Gennep discussed the three-part process of societal rituals: separation, liminal period, and reassimilation. High school graduation marks the initial separation from the status of the graduate as a “high schooler,” as the graduate is removed from the group they previously identified with. When the student begins college, they begin the phase of reassimilation, where they are placed into a new identity group, and grow to learn a new set of societal rules. But what happens in between? What about the summer where the student is neither high schooler nor college student? This, Van Gennep would say, is the liminal period.

The notion of liminality was not further developed until the late 20th century when cultural anthropologist Victor Turner further explored Van Gennep’s liminal period. For him, liminality was the ambiguity of an individual’s place in the duration of a social ritual. It was, essentially, what Britney Spears might have felt when she sang “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.”

And yet, of these examples of liminal situations, only the last applies to social rites of passage. The other two deviate from the concept of rituals and from Turner’s original definition. In fact, liminal theory hasn’t just deviated in one way; it has deviated in many ways.

The concept of ambiguity and liminality has been adopted by many fields. The field of folklore studies has adopted liminality to explore the myth of the morally-ambiguous trickster figure that exists in most of cultural folklore. Western religious studies has picked up the theory to explain and explore varying concepts of Purgatory as a liminal location.

And amongst a younger group, Liminal Theory has been taken quite literally. Rather than being abstract spaces between one stage of life and another, liminal spaces have become physical ones. The gas station in the morning where you buy gum during a road trip, for instance, is a place between your starting point and your destination. As are the buildings you see on your walk home from your study spot. They are liminal, some have speculated, because they serve no purpose in themselves. They are just the meaningless space between your meaningful point A and point B.

Other frequently named liminal spaces include airports in the wee hours of the morning, diners in the last hours of the night, and laundromats in either of the two. And often, these types of liminal spaces include a specific reference to time.

Not much has been written on this subject of “liminal time,” though if I may pose my own speculation, the specificity of the hours may be a result of duplicating the liminality of the space, because those “late night/wee morning” hours are, themselves, liminal. Unless you are an insomniac or a CS student at the 5Cs, these hours are reserved for sleep. We’re not meant to be going to laundromats at three in the morning, or passing through gas stations at four. By placing those odd spaces in an odd time, the notion of liminality intensifies.

Though the concept of liminal spaces is interesting, it’s a very theoretical concept. Not much scientific literature has been written on it, and discussion of liminal spaces has been contained mostly to popular culture. Despite the highly theoretical nature of the idea, the history of the word itself is interesting. What started out as anthropological terminology with practical applications has been claimed and reworked frequently and by many different disciplines, all of which are searching the answer to their own “ambiguous” question. The folklorists seek to classify a figure that evades classification, and the religious scholars seek to do the same with Purgatory—perhaps one of the most vague religious concepts.

Liminal is indeed meant to describe the ambiguous, the “betwixt and between,” as Turner once wrote. Yet, these transformations of the word have left it so estranged from any formal usage that it has now become what it was meant to define: ambiguous, betwixt, and between.

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