According to the Oxford English Dictionary, liminal (adj.), in its rare usage, is: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process. A more specific definition of liminal as it pertains to psychology states: “Of or pertaining to a ‘limen’ [in Latin] or ‘threshold.’” These two definitions recognize the threshold, being the “beginning of a state or action, outset, opening,” as somewhat synonymous with the liminal state.1 The notion of a liminal period was first introduced by ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in his exposition of the “rites de passage,” or rite of passage “which accompany every change of place, state, social position and age.”2 For van Gennep, a rite de passage consists of three stages: the separation, or detachment of a subject from its stabilized environment; the margin, which is an ambiguous state for the subject; and the aggregation, in which the passage has completed and the subject has crossed the threshold into a new fixed, stabilized state. The liminal period of the rite de passage is the second stage that is characterized by being passed through; i.e., the purpose of this period is to transfer the subject from the original site to the new site.
Liminality (n.), which has not yet been acknowledged by the OED as a word, refers to the quality of an object that has entered this process as well as the quality of the process, itself. Relating back to the more specific definition of liminal, the “limen,” or “threshold,” is what begins the process. The concept of liminality works well in media theory, since there are many reasons why one may consider media as liminal. Media may adapt a multitude of forms, even including what can be considered to be “formless.” As it is both “everywhere and nowhere,” conceptualizing media as liminal does not seem too far-fetched.3 A medium, according to the OED is “something which is intermediate between two degrees, amounts, qualities, or classes.”4 The liminal state, as the second stage in a rite of passage, is “a middle state.” Mediation, as a process, could run synonymous with the liminal period of ambiguous, “vague” transition.5 When thinking about the purpose of a medium, i.e., what it is supposed to achieve through its “middle ground between materials and the things people do with them,” liminality is its quality.6
Anthropologist, Victor Turner, concentrates his exploration of liminality primarily on the rites of passage that especially have to do with initiations, because he understands that these processes best exemplify the transitionality, or becomingness of the liminal state. Likewise, in media theory, a medium serves as both the processing of information from one node to another and as an object that can be observed for its own internal qualities and potentiality.
One of the simplest ways to conceptualize the becomingness of liminal space in media is to think of the virtual. In his essay “The Reality of the Virtual,” Slavoj Žižek addresses Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the virtual as “pure becoming without being,” which is “‘always forthcoming an already past,’” but is never present or corporeal.7 The virtual is a liminal space that consists only of its becomingness-state, and not an actual being or object to become. It exists as pure becoming that suspends both “sequentiality and directionality”; it is a passage, but there is no line of passage.8
Even though both Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner locate liminality within an event (ritual for both of them, and initiation more specifically for Turner), the event is clearly not the only place in media where one can find an understanding of the liminal. Alan Liu, just like Žižek before him, plays on the idea that the liminal can exist as this larger, directionless (or at least, reciprocating) space. He identifies an “encounter” of new media between literary and digital traditions, which he notes is a “thick, unpredictable zone of contact—more borderland (9) than border line.”10 This encounter zone, he explains, adapting Jean-François Lyotard’s concept, produces and accommodates new media that are inherently pagan; that is, they are “other” and “outside,” but also inextricably intertwined with that which they are separated from. Liu elaborates with an explanation of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the essence of new media by stating that “even as [McLuhan] projects the otherness of new media onto the cultural other, he introjects that otherness into the cultural self.”11
Folklore and popular culture have allowed many different manifestations of liminal beings to emergence as representations of ambiguous identity. Turner notes that “liminality is the realm of primitive hypothesis, where there is a certain freedom to juggle with the factors of existence.” 12 He describes the nature of the subject as somewhat incorporeal, dissolved, or even “invisible” during the liminal period.13 The subject, while neither located in the departed stage nor in the arrived-at is still reliant on the presence of both stages. This “transitional-being,” or “liminal persona,” is characterized by a series of contradictions.14 As having departed but not yet arrived, he is “at once no longer classified and not yet classified…neither one thing nor another; or may be both; or neither here nor there; or may even be nowhere.”15 This subject, during the liminal stage, is “‘betwixt and between’” all the recognized fixed points in space-time of structural classification.”16
Whether or not they are identified as such, the notion of liminal beings has been explored by scholars throughout the field of media theory. McLuhan mentions objects of technology, such as the camera or the handgun, as being extensions of the human body. The result of this technological prosthesis is a metaphorical amputation of some aspect of “humanness” from the person, who, having been stripped of what makes him whole as a human being, has now slipped into the liminal state.
Donna Haraway, in her famous essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” discusses the liminality of the cyborg in terms of boundaries and contradictions. She articulates the complexity of the cyborg as being an “image of both imagination and material reality,” a “hybrid of machine and organism”; it exists as both-but-neither of these states.17 Like Turner, Haraway references invisibility as a key classification of the liminal being insofar as it cannot be recognized as any singular, corporeal, or embodied entity. Cyborgs, she notes, “are about consciousness.”18 In a semiotic sense, “they are floating signifiers” that cannot construct a sign as they are not accompanied by necessary signifieds.19
Although the official terminology for the liminal addresses points in time and places of action, one can see that by situating it within the complex context of media—areas and practices of mediation, as well as mediated subjects and objects—the concept of liminal shapes a variety of ambiguous forms (and anti-forms). Keeping in mind more comprehensive set phrases, such as “betwixt and between,” “transitionality,” “becomingness,” and “borderland,” allows a flexible entryway into a sense of pure essence in the liminal—to, literally, its liminality.
1. Oxford English Dictionary, “liminal.”
2. Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period” in The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967) 94.
3. W.J.T. Mitchell, “Addressing Media” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 216.
4.Oxford English Dictionary, “medium.”
5. W.J.T. Mitchell, “Addressing Media,” 204.
6. W.J.T. Mitchell, “Addressing Media,” 204.
7. Slavoj Žižek, “The Reality of the Virtual” in Organs without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2003) 9.
8. Slavoj Žižek, “The Reality of the Virtual,” 10.
9. My own italicization.
10. Alan Liu, “Imagining the New Media Encounter” in Introduction to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Forthcoming) 3.
11. Alan Liu, “Imagining the New Media Encounter,” 4.
12. Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period,” 106.
13. Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period,” 95.
14. Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period,” 95.
15. Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period,” 96-7.
16. Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period,” 97.
17. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women : The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) 150.
18. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” 153.
19. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” 153.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women : The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Liu, Alan. “Imagining the New Media Encounter” in Introduction to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Forthcoming.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964.
Mitchell, W.J.T. “Addressing Media” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Turner, Victor. “Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period” in The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Žižek, Slavoj. “The Reality of the Virtual” in Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences. New York: Routledge, 2003.