Dwelling on the Edges
Liminal spaces can be transformative.
Posted August 22, 2019
In 2017, the archeologist Christine Finn responded to Edge’s Annual Question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” Her response, explained in a brief essay, is liminality (Finn, 2017). She described an experience watching the sky on the morning of the winter solstice, searching for the subtle changes that might make the shortest day of the year more tangible. She observed, “what emerges for me is a search for absolute acuteness: that nano point where some thing changes, and every thing changes.” She further wrote that, “at a time which celebrates fuzziness and margins and convergence I am also intrigued by that absolute movement from one stage to another, one which finesses so acutely, it has a point.” Though not widely known, the concept of liminality is inventive in deepening our understanding of transitional states, rituals, thresholds, and change.
Liminality is not found in the OED though the adjective, liminal, is described as, “of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Liminal is derived from the Latin “limen,” which means threshold. The OED notes that liminal first appeared in psychology publications in 1884, though it was popularized by ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in his major work, Les Rites de Passage in 1909. We are indebted to van Gennep for the idea of rites of passage—rituals, ceremonies, and passages that mark cultural transitions—which include three phases: a separation, a marginal or liminal phase, and an incorporation phase. In our contemporary western culture, rites of passage are useful ways to describe and understand coming-of-age events (moving away to college, marriage, retirement), religious rituals (baptism, bar and bat mitzvah, first communion), or even professional rituals (like the white coat ceremony in medicine).
The anthropologist Victor Turner discovered van Gennep’s work in the 1960s, elaborating extensively on van Gennep’s middle, liminal phase. “Betwixt and between” is how Turner described liminality.
It is, quintessentially, a time and place lodged between all times and spaces defined and governed in any specific bicultural ecosystem, by the rules of law, politics, and religion, and by economic necessity. Here the cognitive schemata that give sense and order to everyday life no longer apply, but are, as it were, suspended—in ritual symbolism perhaps even shown as destroyed or dissolved. (Turner, 2017)
The liminal space, for Turner, is transformative and exists outside cultural and temporal rules and constraints. Within it, someone moves from one state to another and the movement becomes ritualized symbolically. And as Finn has described, we can sometimes detect the “nano point where some thing changes, and every thing changes.”
However else we might describe psychotherapy, we can think of it as a healing ritual, where symptoms have, in a sense, served as a kind of invitation. At its best, the therapeutic relationship becomes a container or vessel that allows room for the concrete to become symbolized. After being greeted in the waiting room, managing the fees and forms, a conversation that starts in an initial interview can become increasingly symbolic and perhaps transformative over time. Symptoms are perceived as attempted solutions and self-cures, and become understood within the context of the patient’s relational history. Then there is that nano point of liminality—or what the psychoanalyst Murray Stein calls “the muddle”— which can seem confusing both for the therapist and the patient. This muddle is likely fueled by the transference developing in the therapeutic relationship, where the respective histories of the therapist and patient become intertwined. In Stein’s view, a therapist listening concretely to the patient hears the “enharmonic” tones and signals from the patient; listening symbolically allows the therapist to hear the “resonances, reverberations, depths, dimensions” and gives a sense as to what may be more elusive, mysterious, and perhaps unspeakable. Stein says that the muddle—that liminal point of confusion—requires a “third ear” on the part of the therapist, which can, “hear a latent signal dimly beneath a misleading and deceptive surface of static and disinformation” (Stein, 1991). In this way, the muddle signals that patient and therapist may be at the verge of discovering something important.
D.W. Winnicott emphasized these in-between states in more practical terms, and his paper, Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, became his most popular work (1991). He gave clinical practitioners ideas that were immediately helpful, including the idea of a transitional object (e.g., attachment to a blanket or stuffed animal). For Winnicott, it was important that the child did not need to define a transition object as being either real or imagined—indeed, the object could exist in a liminal space in between reality and fantasy, where creativity and play could flourish. He extended the focus from objects to phenomena and experiencing, with implications for parenting, education, and psychotherapy. Eigen described Winnicott’s therapy as, “an atmosphere in which two people could be alone together without all the time trying to make sense of what was or was not happening. Developing a capacity for play (transitional experiencing) went along with tolerating unintegration and madness” (Eigen, 1991).
From a wider angle, psychotherapy itself is often about being in between two places, in a kind of psychological waiting room (or airport terminal). These places may be temporal—as in the liminal state of adolescence, being between jobs, or at the cusp of retirement. Or, these spaces may be more motivational—on the verge of working through painful trauma, deciding to have a child, or making amends to a loved one. There is psychological space in the gap between inaction and intention, a gap filled with imagination and possibility. Turner (2017) said that prophets and artists tend to be marginal or liminal people, calling them “edgemen." Therapists (along with their patients) dwelling on the edges and in the peripheries of paths not yet taken may also find themselves among their ranks.
© 2019 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved.
Eigen, M. (1991). Winnicottt’s area of freedom. In Liminality and Transitional Phenomena. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications.
Finn, C. (2017). What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? Liminality. Retrieved from https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27094
Stein, M. (1991). The muddle in analysis. In Liminality and Transitional Phenomena. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications.
Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.
Turner, V. (2017). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge.
van Gennep, A. (1919). The Rites of Passage, Second Edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.