Sunday, February 13, 2011

Liminal This, Liminal That

It’s hard to hang out for long in any crowd draped in the fashions of post-modern or queer theory without picking up “liminality” as staple buzzword. What’s on the threshold between states of being gets a more or less immediate vote of approval by the very fact that it doesn’t fit one category or the other–that it queers the stable options and shakes the boxes that people and their experiences get put into.

But if you push beyond the sometimes sloppy generalities to an important source of the word’s popularity, you arrive at the anthropological theories of Victor Turner. From Turner, you get a different perspective on liminality, one with more positive content, with more meat on its bones.

Turner’s view of liminality embraces more than the simple fact of not fitting in. It’s about experiences, especially experiences of ritual, that suspend the clearly defined social structures of everyday life. Hovering between one state and another, outside of ordinary social categories, strips away the distinctions that normally define (and limit) individual identities. It enhances the bond between members of the ritual group and creates among them what Turner calls communitas.

The Latin word simply means community, but Turner uses it to emphasize that this experience isn’t about the structures that usually keep people in their pre-determined place or restrict them to the choices they’ve already made about their lives. Communitas unites the ritual group around a radical encounter with a deeper truth of our Being revealed when ordinary trappings of status and routine are stripped away.

Communitas is the experience of the innumerable faithful circling the Ka’aba in Mecca during the Hajj, which Malcolm X said transformed his understanding of the possibility of connection across lines of race, class, and nationality. It’s the experience of deep fellowship described by walkers on the route to the shrine of St. James at Compostela, cutting across lines of sectarian belief, age, and language in the decades since the medieval pilgrimage route was revived in the 1970's.

And here’s where the penny really dropped for me: it’s also about the distinction between ordinary eros and sacramentalized eros. Turner’s ideas about liminality and communitas help me make sense out of the intense transpersonal bonds that we’re capable of forming in erotic contexts where a focus on predictable individual identities aren’t key to the interaction’s quality. Turner provides insight, for example, into the final, redemptively celebratory scene of John Stuart Cameron’s wonderful romp of a film, Shortbus, set in and around a New York sex club; out of the deep, albeit sometimes ephemeral connections and insights that men experience at retreats offered by the Body Electric School; out of some men’s focused and articulate commitment to BDSM practices and culture; out of the reflection of some queer men (Armistead Maupin among them) that they’ve never felt closer to God than they felt in bathhouses in the 1970's.

The energy of the liminal state–in ritual, in erotic life–is not an unmitigated good. Its power is life-giving; and it’s dangerous. Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies also forged liminal communitas of a sort. The hucksterism of the religious right draws much of its power from the liminality it manipulates in the service of homophobia, misogyny, and class oppression. And the rush of liminal experience can become a drug of sorts, drawing us, if we’re not mindful and grounded, into a pattern of “chasing the dragon,” like the addict who goes on endlessly hoping that the intensity of his first high will be repeated with the next hit. Distorted into a fixture of our daily lives, the liminal recedes endlessly into the distance. Ironically, and sometimes tragically, the more obsessively we try to assure ourselves of access to its power and energy, the more we risk trivializing our search for something precious and unpredictable into a search for cheap thrills.

The liminal exists in balance with the fact that ordinary life goes on. We always return from liminal experiences: to daily lives that often look much as they did before; to jobs that depend on our qualifications and our personal connections; to friendships and primary relationships founded on the specifics of our individual personalities; in short, to life options shaped and limited by the sum of all the choices we’ve made so far. The liminal can reshape our relation to our ordinary lives, but it can only manifest itself in tension with the ordinary. We get into trouble when we imagine that we can make the liminal into “the new normal”; but when we welcome it as an unpredictable guest, we meet extraordinary moments that have the power to change the way we inhabit our skins and walk in them through the world.


  1. Thank you for this. May I ask what book(s) by Victor Turner you are referencing ? I am now quite intrigued by his work and would love to explore it more.

  2. Turner lays out his ideas of liminality and communitas in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. His thought evolved a lot in the course of a long and influential career, but this is his classic formulation. Thanks for your interest!