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Liminality II: the serious part

[ by Charles Cameron — follow-up to Liminality I: the kitsch part, dealing with the strange business of liminality, submarines, monks and more ]

Limen is the Latin for threshold, and the liminal is therefore what happens at thresholds.


Something pretty remarkable happened as 1999 turned into 2000 — something liminal. And it happened aboard the USS Topeka, SSN-754 (below):

USS Topeka, credit: United States Navy, released ID 090623-N-1126G-005

The Associated Press reported:

Its bow in one year, its stern in another, the USS Topeka marked the new millennium 400 feet beneath the International Dateline in the Pacific ocean. The Pearl Harbor-based navy submarine straddled the line, meaning that at midnight, one end was in 2000 while the other was still in 1999… The 360-foot-long sub, which was 2,100 miles from Honolulu, Hawaii, straddled the Equator at the same time, meaning it was in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Some of the 130 crewmembers were in Winter in the North, while others were in Summer in the South…

Sitting pretty on the threshold between two millennia, two centuries, two decades, years, seasons, months, days and hemispheres was an extraordinarily liminal idea — as the two-faced January is a liminal month — and I think illustrates effectively the terrific power of the liminal to sway human thinking

Navy commanders in charge of billion dollar ships seldom get up to such “fanciful” behaviors!


And if we might turn from the contemporary US Navy and its submarine to ancient Indian mythology and Hindu religion for a moment:

Narsingh avatar depicted in Nepali dance, credit: Navesh Chitrakar, Reuters / Landov

The story of Narsingh (above), the fourth avatar of Vishnu in Vaisnavism, also captures the idea of what’s meant by thresholds very nicely:

A tyrannous and oppressive king obtained a boon from the gods that he should die “neither by day nor night, neither within the palace nor outside it, neither at the hand of man nor beast” and thought his boon conveyed immortality — but when he persecuted his son, a devotee of God, a half-man half-lion figure — the Narsingh avatar of Vishnu — met him on his own doorstep at dusk and slew him, so that he died neither by day nor by night, neither within the palace nor outside it, and neither at the hand of beast nor of man.

Dusk, doorsteps and metamorphs are all liminal, — with respect to day and night, home and abroad, man and beast respectively.


Anthropologist Mary Douglas has pointed out how things that are “not this, not that” (ie that don’t fit our categories) are precisely the ones that taboos form around – hence her remark in Purity and Danger:

Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained

Consider for instance the dietary condemnation of amphibians in Leviticus, as being neither walking nor swimming creatures — fitting neither the normative category of “animal” nor that of “fish”. But Douglas is thinking in static categories, while Victor Turner thinks in process.


Turner takes the condition that’s between “this” and “that” and views it as part of a process in time, where “this” is how things have been, and “that” is how they can be in future – effectively, the turning point between one way of life and another.

Turner is interested in this primarily because the tribes he studies as an anthropologist create rituals which act as magnifiers of this sort of transition (his scholarly reason), and because such turning points, so ritualized, turn out to be important junctions in human lived experience (his human reason).

Turner tells us that those who are passing through a limen in social life are usually thrown in the stockade — the vice-chief who is about to become chief along with the village drunk, the pickpocket and the crazed idiot — and can then be taunted and tomatoed by all and sundry, while feeling that intense kinship with their stockade mates no matter the symptoms (success, failure) which brought them there. Which keeps them humble, builds character, and builds their capacity for empathy.

Only then can the vice-chief be brought back into society and proclaimed as the new chief.


Basing his own work on van Gennep‘s account of rites of passage, Turner sees such rites as involving three phases: before, liminal, and after.

  • Before, you’re a civilian, after, you’re a Marine — but during, there’s an extraordinary moment when you’ve lost your civilian privileges, not yet earned your Marine status, and are less than nothing — as the drill sergeant constantly reminds you — and yet feel an intense solidarity with your fellows.
  • .


    • Before, you’re a novice, not yet “professed”, after, you’re a monk — but during, you lie prostrate on the paving stones of the abbey nave in as you transition into lifelong vows poverty, chastity and obedience.
    • .

      There are two things to note here. One is that liminality is a *humility* device, the other is that is creates a strong sense of bonding which turner calls *communitas*: in one case, the Marine’s esprit de corps, in the other quite literally a monastic community. Part of what is so fascinating here is the (otherwise not necessarily obvious) insight that humility and community are closely related.


      There are also liminal festivals, like India’s Holi Festival or the mediaeval Catholic Feast of Fools (about which Harvey Cox wrote a book), in which the usual hierarchy is turned upside down for a day — so that a choirboy celebrates Mass and the bishop becomes the busboy, or the brahmins are pelted with old shoes and paint balloons by the village prostitutes and drunks…

      This may all sound pretty silly, but consider again the specific quality of humility which it brings out:

      Something of the sacredness of that transient humility and modelessness goes over, and tempers the pride of the incumbent of a higher position or office. Liminality implies that the high could not be high unless the low existed, and he who is high must experience what it is like to be low.

      Turner comments that these are socially sanctioned devices for *making the certain degree of hierarchy that’s inevitable in human affairs tolerable once again* — that we need such devices, that the “modernizing” west tends to forget them, and that liminality as process is deeply embedded in human social wiring, and should be appreciated rather than overlooked.


      Turner himself was a Catholic, and it’s not surprising that he turns to Saint Francis for another example of liminality, pointing out that Francis was basically trying to convene a group of friends to live a *permanently liminal life* with him – that was what his idea of the Franciscan Order was all about — and that all such attempts fail (he compares flower power in the sixties) because the liminal cannot sustain itself but must naturally pass across into hierarchy, where it refreshes and revivifies structures which would otherwise become dry and lifeless:

      It is as though there are here two major “models” for human interrelatedness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of ” more ” or ” less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

      In Turner’s view, this liminal refreshment is constantly arising in the margins of structures, and should be welcomed and incorporated — the strange, edgy and uncomfortable fellow in beggars rags being invited to the high feast – the limen offering spontaneity and inspiration to match and complement the discipline and reliability of the structure.


      And where does all this leave us?

      Hopefully, with the understanding that our categories of the sacred and the profane are too simplistic for the complex workings of human culture and religion.

      Liminality is a mode of intensification.

      And I’m wondering to myself: regiments and battalions and brigades are clear cut categories, there’s nothing (apart from their initiation rites) liminal about them. But insurgents, able to blend in and out of a population, civilian yet militant, militant yet civilian?

      Is insurgency warfare inherently liminal? And if so, what does that have to teach us?

4 Responses to “Liminality II: the serious part”

  1. Kurt Says:

    This is an intriguing line of thought. Mao’s theory had guerrilla war being neither political work nor conventional war but a necessary stage to eventual power. He often fought against attempts to bring forth the marxist eschaton too quickly.  And then there is Eizenstat and Barnett who look to seams and gaps where the condition of NOT being connected is a threat to those who’ve crossed the threshold to connectivity. Insurgents thrive in the liminal realm, particularly when they lose sight of the political ends they fight for, and violence become the ends.

  2. Michael G Moore Says:

    Am thinking, perhaps, that it is the nature of the “states” which are bounded by liminality that determines the type of liminality between them. Another term for liminality is riparian (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riparian_zone). Here the two “states” are markedly different, one tending to the solid and the other to the liquid. Accordingly, can such a concept assist the issue of liminality with the final sentence re-written as “Is insurgency warfard inherently riparian? And if so, what does that have to teach us?” – if anything?

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    For that matter, the hydrodynamics of turbulent vs laminar flow might be an interesting area to investigate for potential cross-disciplinary insights.

  4. Michael G Moore Says:

    Acknowledged, Charles. A recent BBC piece http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18789154 seems to resurrect some age old “religious faultlines”, although its detail is questionable. Worth a look, at some of the tropes being discussed, if only to overlay the concepts from this blog on to the ones in this BBC piece…

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