Sunday, October 14, 2012


“Liminal” -- like “paradigm shift” and “flow” -- is one of those terms that everyone has fallen upon with great enthusiasm and carried off to distort at their leisure.  It is powerful enough to be useful, but now that I begin to see so MANY things as liminal, I feel the need to go back to original sources.  The tipping point came when I was thinking about how to distinguish “peak experience” from “liminal” and musing on the craving in some circles for intense experiences (“liminal” or "peak experience"?) which they pursue with sex, money, drugs, travel, prestige, dangerous company, fast driving and so on.  In fact, when I googled I found a guy with the idea that there are only NINE intense experiences but he won’t tell you what they are unless you buy the book or attend the workshop.  My guess is that he’s making mucho dinero.

Raking through my bookshelves again, I find “Performance in Postmodern Culture,” an anthology edited by Michel Benemous and Charles Caramello. (1977)  One of the few chapters I can understand is Victor Turner’s.  “Frame, Flow and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality.”  A former classmate of mine who actually made it to Broadway in the days when it WAS Broadway, cannot tolerate what he takes to be “performance theatre” -- scrappy, crappy, no script, self-indulgent baloney.  That’s not what is discussed here.  I’m going to quote Turner quite a bit, partly because I’m going to print part of this to use for a cheat-sheet.

“This term, literally ‘being-on-a-threshold,’ means a state or process which is betwixt-and-between the normal day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending, preserving law and order, and registering structural status. . . it is a time of enchantment when anything might, even should, happen. . .  One might say, without too much exaggeration, that liminal phenomena are at the level of culture what variability is at the level of nature.”

Here’s what I get out of the above.  Selection of whichever creatures fit the environment the best is dependent on there BEING differences among them so as to have something to select from.  This is the point of meiosis (sex at the genomic level): to create a spectrum of possibilities.  Human interference tends to want to force uniformity, thus eliminating any possibility of variability so that if the environment has a sharp change, none will survive.  Liminality is not so much a matter of escaping all restraint in a kind of ecstatic flight as it is “taking your car out of gear so as to shift” or -- at the public level -- considering an upwelling of criticism and pressure to change.  One ritual Turner describes is that of a tribal group “telling off” African chieftains who have been oppressive or selfish.  Too bad THAT didn’t persist!  Something like the court jester who mocks the king, for his own good.

Von Gennep, the guy who thought up this “liminal” idea, was using it mostly to refer to personal “rites of passage” which Turner lists:  “one sociocultural state and status to another; childhood to maturity; virginity to marriage’ childlessness to parenthood, ghosthood to ancestorhood; sickness to health.”   But he did distinguish between these private, personal rites and those that were societal, cultural:  “peace to war; scarcity to plenty; winter to spring.”   Maybe the kind of stuff the poll takers are constantly pursuing and distorting with their assumed categories since upwellings of new thought and rebellion are generally invisible until they hit some sort of critical mass or someone finally writes a defining document, like “Silent Spring.

So now we suddenly come to Erving Goffman’s “framing” and I have to search my shelves for his books.  In the meantime, from Wikipedia it's “looking for themes that persist across time. . . According to Kuypers,  framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner. Frames operate in four key ways: they define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies.  [Sounds like a sermon outline.]  Frames are often found within a narrative account of an issue or event, and are generally the central organizing idea."   This is the way politics operates, as well as religion.  What liminality does is offer an opportunity to step away from the old frame and consider the reality and usefulness of a new frame.  

People filled with fear cannot access liminality. They cannot feel the disfunction of an old frame.   Those who are NOT afraid to search for a new frame, might be those disgusted with the two-party system, the “personhood of corporations,” or the infallibility of the Roman Catholic church.  But how do they find a new frame?  In fact, this decade or so has been an almost liminal era in which technological change and migration of populations have opened the way for rethinking sexuality, economics, lifestyles, and religion.  That’s not even mentioning the revolutions.  My belief is that in suppressing the search for new understandings, esp. through the use of fear, the churches and politicians in the end drive the people away.  They prevent an honest look at what is.  They don’t want Oz’s curtain swept aside.

The concepts of “framework” and “structuralism” are related to each other and also key to the idea of “liminality” which is the “time out” from the assumed “way things are.”  And now we know that these phenomena are “felt” as well as organically recorded in the brain.  Taboo and propriety are written into the brain in childhood.  When they don’t work because they've become dissonant, both individuals and societies need a way to re-frame, re-structure.  These procedures are commonly used among counselors (“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”) and among economic or corporate organizations.  (Bankruptcy.)

Turner says in this essay something I hadn’t considered before: the difference between an African performance meant to mark a renewal or rite of passage, which was originally called “liminal,” and a modern Euro-American performance (by artists for an audience) that is critical of the status quo, which he calls “liminoid.”  (I don’t think he means this as a diminishment of significance anymore than Ronald Grimes meant “parashaman” to mean “lesser.”)  He feels it often happens that such liminoid performances produce an emergent new way, but not as a naive group event so much as a pervasive cultural imaging like theatre, movies and other art.

He also talks about the “ultraliminal,” which I hadn’t heard of before.  “The danger here is not simply that of female “unruliness.”  [He’s speaking of ritually cross-dressing males on the rampage.]  “This unruliness itself is a mark of the the ultraliminal, of the perilous realm of possibility of “anything may go” which threatens any social order and seems the more threatening, the more that order seems rigorous and secure.  The powers of the weak -- to curse and criticize -- set limits on those of the strong -- to coerce and ordain.”  Consider the Red Chinese Cultural Revolution that eliminated every learned person of a generation.  The Middle East is overrun with examples.  I’ll quote Tim:  “Revolutions are over-rated.”  Esp. when they are “framed” by media who are outsiders and manipulated by capitalist forces.  “Ultraliminal” may turn out to create a bomb crater.  Which might make a good foxhole.  Is there something wrong with that?  Taking refuge in a destroyed place?  There’s so much more to think about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

liminal is the in-between, the neither this nor that. A doorway, a threshhold, a stairway, the dawn, the dusk, a hermaphrodite, a coming of age ceremony.

peak experience to me deals more with intensity and importance in someone's life.

So they are different things, but they can connect

i suppose you could have a liminal experience which is also intense enough to be a peak experience. For example in traditional societies, as when African youths are circumcised as part of coming of age rites, or a Blackfeet in a Sundance, especially when the mind is fluttering in vision in nonordinary consciousness