The words have always appealed to me and I did consider exploring them for the Critical Review. I remember, at the time, my tutor said this would be a large topic to handle and I think she was right. However, this came up again in the feedback discussion on Assignment 5 and my tutor suggested I do some reading and a blog post about it.
From the Latin limin, limen threshold
- Intermediate between two states, conditions, or regions; transitional or indeterminate .
- Relating to the point (or threshold) beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced.
- The term can be applied to rites of passage; religion (sacred space, time and knowledge); particular individuals/groups (e.g. various minority groups, magicians, shapeshifters, shamans) places; folklore; ethnographic research; popular culture.
My first thought was how far the sound of the word matches the notions of transitional or indeterminate – the up and down-ness of the letters with the softness of the consonants brought up by the short sound of the vowels similar to the undulations of the caterpillar as it moves along in its own liminal state. It seems to me that the word contains much elasticity, in that it can be applied to many situations and places so long as it occurs from the same point which is that it involves transition. Immediately I reflect upon this so many examples spring to mind, from the universal to the personal.
The term ‘liminality’ was coined and developed in social anthropology by Arnold van Gennep when, in Rites of Passage (1908) he identified categories of rites – those resulting in changes of status for individual/group and those marking transitions in the passage of time. He emphasises those rites which he believed shared a specific three-fold structure – ‘pre-liminal’ , a metaphorical ‘death’ through leaving something behind; ‘liminal’ a transition rite following a known, prescribed sequence under authority of a ‘master of ceremonies’; ‘post-liminal’ rites of incorporation into society as a new being with a new identity.
Beyond this, Van Gennep suggested four categories of rites emerging across cultures and societies – passage from one status, place, situation to another and the passage of time – becoming aware that these states of in-betweenness are destructive as well as constructive. (See here)
In 1967, the British anthropologist Victor Turner extended the concept towards non-tribal societies and the effect of this state of transition on individuals as everything one believes about self and others falls apart. Turner believed that this intense state of being cannot exist too long without some sort of stabilization of structure – the individual returning to the surrounding structure or else liminal communities develop their own internal social structure, “normative communitas”. (See here ) Thinking of the work of photographers reminded me of Hrair Sarkissian; the way he both embodied and performed his grief at loss of home through a videoed destruction of a model of the apartment building where his parents still lived; thus linking with the pre-liminal and liminal states in rites of passage described by both Van Gennep and Turner.
In essence, the concept of liminality provides an analytical tool through which political and social scientists can explore the intersections between anthropology and social and political environments (Horvath et al, 2017). An ideal subject at the moment would be the individual and social response to the Coronavirus Pandemic and its effect upon public institutions, commercial and social life; including the Thursday evening ritual for clapping for the NHS which both shows support for a beleaguered NHS and provides an opportunity for socially distanced interaction.
Liminal Spaces and Places
Liminal places can range from borders and frontiers to disputed territories and the no man’s lands of space and place in, for example, identity recognition, and homeland between Israel and Palestine. As I write I’m also thinking of Refugee Camps built in the limbo of belonging nowhere and the purgatory of Concentration and Death Camps; reminding me intensely of the reading I did around Terezin Camp in Czechoslovakia for Assignment 4 and my exploration of the psychological concept of ‘home’ (see here)
Liminal places are also found in mythology and religion. They are often in-between places – culturally, geographically or metaphorically -which can be ‘on the edge’ as in edgelands, or serve as a melting pot for different peoples and cultures or on the boundary between two elements such as between land and sky, water and sky, or water and land. Celtic spirituality looks to place where the boundary between heaven and earth, or the divine and human, is especially ‘thin’. There is also the concept of Ley lines which are said to crisscross around the globe. These hypothetical lines are dotted with monuments and natural landforms and carry energy lines along with them which are concentrated at intersection points and can be accessed by certain people. In the brief video below Patricia Klinck refers to ley lines and liminal spaces as she talks about her walk along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
In her subsequent book Klinck writes of trying to make sense of a strange experience which had occurred whilst walking in the early morning when her paint horse, Indio, and Prince, the first horse she owned appeared to walk on either side of her. She wondered why the deep anxiety she felt the night before had evaporated in this euphoric morning then remembered reading years before about liminal space, ‘[… ] a space that is neither up nor down, in nor out, real nor imagined. It was the space beyond the world we knew. That was what I was experiencing – something beyond the world I knew’ (2016 loc 1352 of 3159).
The concept has also been applied to spaces like Niagara Falls, “… to which pilgrimages are made and where rites of passage occur” (Winchester et al 2003:151) and Brighton as it changed its identity from being a resort town in the Regency era to one associated with pleasure, carnival and the liminal, with the beach as a physical threshold. (ibid p. 151)
Applying liminal and liminality to my Assignments
I’m interested now to have a look at my Assignments in the Landscape Module in relation to these words – remembering too that ‘liminal’ is in danger of being an empty signifier if applied too widely – just as the word ‘iconic’ has been.
Assignment 1 – Seeing the Unseen: Using infra-red photographs as a metaphor for the unseen in the landscape – events, histories. In the sense of limen/threshold and ‘Relating to the point (or threshold) beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced’, this could apply to near infra-red light itself which cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Assignment 2 – The Basingstoke Canal: Liminal spaces – ‘Intermediate between two states, conditions, or regions; transitional or indeterminate’. The canal bounds the edge of Woking town centre and divides it from much of its housing. It could be said that its bridges and side paths act as portals to different spaces.
Assignment 3 – The Silent Pool: This pool is definitely a liminal space to me in respect of geological, cultural, economic and social history. A spring fed pool originally complete in itself, near to the earlier Pilgrims Way on the North Downs. Its water has a blue opalescent colour which has a calming, still effect and the combination of the low branches of its shrouding trees and the clearness of the water create both a window to the fish beneath and a reflective surface which drawn the visitor into its depths.
The drive for economic expansion in the mid-17th Century led to the extension of the pool into a new pond, joining a tributary of the Tillingbourne river whilst watering Albury estate and then giving power to flour mills. In 1858 Martin Farquhar Tucker wrote a book called Stephen Langton: A Romance of the Silent Pool which included a tale of a woodcutter’s daughter who drowned in the pool trying to escape from the attentions of the then Prince John. The book added realism by including real historic characters and Tupper’s aim was to attract people to the area. Subsequently, early photographers used Silent Pool as a subject for the new postcards which were becoming popular. Even though the tale is known to be untrue, people comment that they wish it was. The aura of the pool itself plus the story encourage the imagination and so puts people into a different realm. Water from the pool is now used to make Gin in a distillery on site and so the story continues. Looked at in a different way, the pool itself has remained constant whilst time travels around it.
Assignment 4 – Can the meaning of ‘Home’ be captured through Photography: I think that the concept of liminality as identified by Van Gennep and Turner is strong here as I have mentioned above already and it adds more structure to my theme – individuals and groups in transition, having to leave the remnants of their old life behind, find new ways of living and question their identity.
Assignment 5 – Horsell Common as Liminal Space: This protected space both delineates the edge/boundary of Woking whilst being a place apart through its history and geological features, which seems to me to plant it more firmly in the far past than the present. Perhaps its protected space speaks to that too whilst not being overtly recognised. There are Bronze age barrows in one part, unusually for this area. The Common’s Sand Pits are a small part of the Bagshot Sands which were formed in the Upper Eocene era of the Paleogene Period around 33 to 56 million years ago. The “Great Bagshot River” flowed from the South West through a very large part of southern England to Essex where it flowed into the North Sea. It’s almost surreal to be on the Sand Pits knowing of this, whilst modern Woking life carries on outside it – a strange kind of sea-less beach. This feeling of being in a place apart is also amplified by the twisted tree roots, the gnarled barks of silver birch trees, tall, waving pines and feathery grasses and pale clumps of heather. This is a space and place that lends itself to leaps of imagination and story-telling.
Assignment 6 – Ether Hill: I think there’s a looser connection here, if at all. I’m not sure. There are the Seasonal transitions of course, and I’ve become more aware of their subtle quality, despite the fact that we have always had rites/celebrations of changes in the Earth’s journey around the Sun, however we have named them. They used to be marked by lunar cycles whilst, now, we mark them by date. I actually think the old ways were better; more ‘natural’. They are certainly transitions in time though and additionally the memorial benches, trees and flowers I’ve noted have marked someone’s passing.
I feel as if I’ve only just begun to explore these concepts so these are definitely ‘notes’. Doing this has firmed up my ideas around Assignments 3, 4 and 5 though, so has been very useful as I’m considering ‘final’ versions. I think there’s work here for the future.
Horvath, A; Thomassen, B and Wydra H. (2017) Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality.,Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Klinck, P. (2013) Each Step Is the Journey: The Call of the Camino. Keylinks International
Winchester, H.P.M., Kong, L., & Dunn, K. (2003) Landscapes: Ways of imagining the world, London: Routledge.