On Liminality

Rites of Passage and Liminal Space THEORY The term rites de passage, or rites of passage, was first introduced by the French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in 1909. According to van Gennep, rites of passage comprise a type of transition expressing the dichotomy that exists between “stable” and “transitory” structures or states in someone’s life. A transition is characterized by three phases: first, isolation or separation, then liminality and marginality, and finally incorporation or reaggregation.2 Van Gennep suggests the middle phase, the liminal state, is a period in time and space that an individual typically experiences in forms of ritual. It is a period in which change is happening, an experience of emergence. Through a ritual, the subject experiences marginality as well as adaptation, moving and transitioning forward, and being “incorporated” into a new, imminent situation. Notably, van Gennep classifies liminality as an “in-between” state, a state of meditation, and an individual state of being. Even though liminality is such an important part of our social reality and our personal development within it, the elusive, transitory, and hidden nature makes it challenging to fully grasp. Van Gennep’s theory was elaborated on by the anthropologist Victor Turner in the 1960s.3 Turner described the in-between states of initiation during rites of passage, integrating the concept of liminality into general and broader theories of rituals, which he took up in performance studies. These studies argue that liminality and marginality are conditions that frequently generate and underpin myths, rituals, symbols, philosophical systems, and works of art. Turner realized that liminal rites are moments of creativity because in liminal space we experience openness to the unknown. The uncertainty that evokes vulnerability provides room for something genuinely new to happen, and we begin to perceive and act in a new way. Liminal experiences comprise periods or times of surviving difficulties and coming through them renewed.

A liminal space is an inner state that provokes us to think and act in new ways; it is a space where we are situated in-between experiences, having left one experience but not yet entered the next—and having no a clear vision of what is yet to come. Usually, we enter liminal space when our way of being is disrupted, changed, or challenged. The experience of being in liminality is characterized by a feeling of uncertainty, and of lack of control. Events such as losing a job or a loved one, going through a life-threatening situation or a shocking experience, the birth of a child, the loss of a child, crossing borders, illness, war, and other forms of trauma are examples of experiences that could create a space of liminality for someone. The possible life events that could be considered liminal are too many to note. As human beings, we try to figure out and find meaning to make sense of our liminal experience. In this process, we often invoke ritual means to understand our chaotic experience as part of a larger order or meaning, sometimes just to comfort ourselves with the notion that beneath it there is some underlying purpose. When we find ourselves within chaos, uncertainty, in-between a before and after, the act of ritualizing may assist us to reconnect the experience of our own reality into a larger whole.

Van Gennep, Arnold, A. The rites of passage. Trans. by M.B. Vizedom & G.L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1960). 3 Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” Rice Institute Pamphlet - Rice University Studies, Vol. 60, No. 3 (1974).

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