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The Perspective of Liminality

The Perspective Of Liminality

Liminality and the ModernBjørn Thomassen. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.


This new book by the Danish scholar Bjørn Thomassen is organized around the term liminality, an anthropologically based idea that is increasingly used in the social, political and human sciences. Apart from introducing the term and its history, it offers studies on a number of key figures in the history of social and political thought from this perspective, including both classical and modern thinkers, from Plato through Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant, up to Gabriel Tarde, Durkheim, Mauss, van Gennep, and Victor Turner. The central aim is to assess whether and in what way liminality helps to understand the terms experience, transition and personhood. In order to bring in the widest possible empirical evidence, Thomassen follows Victor Turner in extending the comparative perspective outside anthropology, by offering case studies having particular contemporary significance, on game and gambling, bungee jumping, and political revolutions. In assessing the likeness between the liminal and the liminoid, a terminological innovation of Turner, in these case studies the book offers a third, new term: limivoid, by thematizing the connections between liminality and emptiness. As the book extensively uses the works of Eric Voegelin, and is permeated by Voegelin’s concern with genuineness and reality, it should be of particular relevance for the readers of VoegelinView.

Thomassen’s central concern is the idea that transformation connected to liminality is both based upon and implies a wholesale change of personhood. It therefore revisits a central concern of our increasingly unreal contemporary world, reality, from the specific perspective of the formation and transformation of reality in the liminal. In particular, it brings together two fields of discourse that so far have been separate: theorizations of the real as a construction (Kant, Newton, Hobbes, Descartes, Durkheim, and in contrast with the ideas of Plato, Tarde, Voegelin) and anthropological studies of transformation (Turner, Bateson, van Gennep). In the past centuries the former perspective has become dominant in social and political theory, highlighted in discussions about the social edifice to be created on the collapsed order of the medieval world.

Central for this discourse is the assertion of one’s own identity, or self-affirmation, focusing on the manner in which the mutual recognition of such self-presentation should be a vital element in social and even political life. A crucial aspect concerns the manner in which the individual self is supposedly autonomous, self-organizing, self-motivated, and thus able to control the dissolved order of the world. Here self-identity and collective identities, like the state and other social identities (class, gender, ethnicity), are articulated upon each other, including the long-term history of such articulation, asserting a new type of principle that could replace religion, as in the case of Hobbes, Descartes, Kant, and Durkheim.

This question, as they all argued, though differently, brings into the problematic the notion of the concrete, or the given in inner relatedness, placing little emphasis on its external formation and transformation. In Cartesian thinking humanity is a production of thinking, rendering god humanized and society divinized. While this point is usually linked to Durkheim, Thomassen claims and convincingly argues that it has also characterized his predecessors – Hobbes, Descartes and Kant as well. It is in this way that the absolute, eventually “transcendental” self comes into being. This kind of de-spiritualized religion became the driving force of modernity, beyond its supposed liberating of men from the burden and destructive forces of nature, which created the modern market and stimulated political revolutions.

Concerning the second theme, anthropological studies of transformation, van Gennep’s path-breaking study Rites of Passage for a long time was all but ignored in the social sciences; for about half a century it was not even translated into English. Furthermore, in spite of Victor Turner’s emphasis on the politico-anthropological meaning of liminality, the term in sociology and the broader social sciences is still discussed almost exclusively as either a simple difference from an imposed hierarchy, or a creative stage for transformation, but not through considering the malleability of self-identity as a problem – in particular, concerning the realness of reality.

A particularly important role is played here by a group of thinkers who at the same time, around the turn of the past century, started to question such constructivism and transformationism (Nietzsche, Unamuno, Ortega and Hofmannsthal), by focusing on the solidity of the concrete self, and considering constructivism as a main symptom and source of nihilism, an idea advanced earlier by Kierkegaard. Both Marcel Mauss and van Gennep participated in this discussion, connected to the work of Durkheim, problematizing explicitly or implicitly its neo-Kantian constructivism. The real could be connected only to the concrete self, and its actual lived experiences. In their critique of Durkheim’s social fabrications, van Gennep argued that it “lost sight of real human beings” while Tarde claimed that Durkheim had a tendency to “construct society as a ‘divine being’, sacrificing the individual at its altar” (p.51), thus directing attention from the concrete to the many, the any, the mass – to the Kierkegardian untruth.

The destruction of the concrete individual being, where differences gradually diminish until a complete leveling takes place, is so gravely problematic that even the author is confused about the direction to follow, whether to accept the rites of passage, including liminality as a necessary, universal (p.4) stage of transformation, as theorized by van Gennep and Turner, or to follow the line suggested in the Part II of the book, in defending the untransformability of the concrete self against such an ultra-constructivist and hyper-Cartesian Enlightenment identity-builder like Durkheim, envisioned in advance by Hobbes.

It is true that the perspective of liminality presents an explanation partly complimentary, partly rival to the modern understanding of the formation of the self. The central idea here, following Foucault and Mumford, is that major technological changes are always preceded by human “technologies” or “machines,” thus the mechanical and forceful manipulation of human beings for transformation. Following and confirming this line of argumentation, recent archaeological discoveries (see in particular Göbekli Tepe and Nevali Çori, but also Tassili, whose significance has not been understood so far) demonstrated that the systematic use of the products of the earth, or agriculture, is preceded by the development of ritual centers, where the facing of the liminal characteristic of rites is replaced by large-scale ritual festivities, eventually leading to new religions, new cultures and new secularizations.

Kant and Newton did not invent something; they simply reproduced their liminal surroundings faithfully and honestly. Their focus on void, nothingness, and artificial constructedness simply mirrored liminality. A chaotic, valueless era, without structure and agency, not to speak of the disturbed, confused self, is well captured by another contemporary author much discussed in the book, René Girard, as a mimetic crisis, also introducing the concept “undifferentiation.” In this condition the elements are without any concernment and discernment. The unity of a living entity is disturbed, as its form has lost its shape due to the transgression of its boundaries, so a condition is generated for the imitation of another, new model. Here liminality has a crucial role in helping to regain the concernment and articulation sadly lost in the modern political and social technological converting processes.

As Thomassen’s term “limivoid” renders evident, the liminal condition is not simply a happy situation in which the suffocating aspects of structural solidity are overcome, thus stimulating creativity, but is identical to the void, or emptiness. Under such conditions only the presence of concrete, genuine human beings can assure a return to stability and meaning. The Cartesian paradigm that also tried to coordinate and localize liminality, answering the frightening question about one’s own reality and existence through the reality of thinking (or rather doubting) already in the 17th century, soon lost its coordination and localization.

As Thomassen brilliantly analyzes, far from overcoming uncertainty, “liminality became established at the core of the modern project”, and its modalities, including play, gambling, comedy, sexuality, entertainment and violence – activities that, strikingly, are also particularly imitative or mimetic, further confirming the validity and relevance of Girard’s perspective – rather “took central stage within cultural, political and economic modernity” (p. 14), because the collectivist, abstract, reductive, classificatory and generalizing notions of Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant themselves proved to be untenable. The Cartesian belief in the sovereignty of the cognitive self became widely questioned at the end of the 19th century, of which a good indication is offered by the conflict between van Gennep and Durkheim (discussed in Chapter 1). No single entity can be reduced to the likeness of another, which implies that the concreteness of a living being has in innate and undeniable value, thus an absolute “right” to existence. The quest for concreteness was present in van Gennep’s interest in collecting a wide variety of anthropological, ethnographic and folkloristic evidence, beyond the neo-Kantian urge for abstract generalizations, reductivism and classificatory schemes (concerns already problematized by Goethe, through Mephistopheles, in Faust I), which animated Durkheim’s project. However, in his book, van Gennep placed an excessive focus on transformation and becoming; a point Thomassen fails to notice.

Thus, following through the Enlightenment predecessors of liminality, with the help of Thomassen’s study, we arrive at the kind of ritualized, secularized religion which social thinkers in the past century, following Hobbes and Durkheim, (mis-) took as the reality of human perception. The pseudo-reality organized into systems constructs a submissive existence under the domination of the state and its legalistic, formalistic structures and institutions that were given a decisive confirmation with their evident – though highly problematic, as limited in its scope – prosperity. Liminality and the Modern shows how this perception led to the rise of a new philosophy of life, obsessed with the way in which entities and subjects can be transformed into other ones, destroying and re-constructing into a new shape structures that were previously considered as natural and unalterable, thus with an elusive search for technological production, even promising a return to the “golden age” by purely technological means, thus generating widespread support for submission to transformation. In opposition, the idea of concrete self, for example as promoted by Hölderlin in the Hyperion, valorizes the effort to fulfill reality, the place and time that is given for every living being (but mainly without institutional dominance – this is why Nietzsche received the erratic nihilist label), so that he or she could pursue a satisfying, intensive life.

In contrast, proliferating liminality led to the increasing dominance of disarticulation. Thomassen uses the examples of gambling, bungee jumping and political revolutions to describe this disarticulation (chapters 6-8). While each of these cases and examples are interesting and relevant, there is a degree of imbalance here, as their characteristics and coordinates are quite different, kept together only by their shared liminality, and the connection with modernity – which of course is the title and central concern of the book. A greater degree of cohesion could have been helpful here.

Liminality is a kind of “second reality,” using Voegelin’s expression, which he developed using some German 20th century novels. It is even a hyper-reality, also close to the term surmodernité, introduced by Marc Augé, which has no meaning or significance whatsoever, except in so far as it is attached to concreteness, to the meaningful, through concrete persons. As the term was derived from rites of passage, or rituals that condense the transition from one position or state to another into a short time and inside a definite, closed space, it involves a dangerous degree of artificiality. Here Thomassen offers a very useful elaboration on the analyses of Turner, who argued, in order to respond to professional critics, that liminality proper is a feature only of small-scale traditional communities, while in the modern world there are only liminal-like, or liminoid rituals, of which a main example is theatre (Ch.3). Quite to the contrary, the significance of liminality is particularly apparent with regard to the study of globalization, due to its capturing the artificial modification of identity, consequence of the fluidity and limitlessness of the global condition, as it is argued particularly well by Thomassen (see in particular pp.216-8).

Globalization for us seems to be an inexorable development, and also natural and rational, given that it is evidently driven by the rational activities of a practically infinite number of individuals, increasingly beyond any political control. Yet, at the same time, living under globalized modernity is to experience an uncertain, anguishing condition, where the lifting of all boundaries and limits results in a loss of concreteness, stability, articulation, and ultimately of meaning, and which could be best characterized, using anthropological terminology, as a paradoxical situation of permanent liminality. Such a situation is particularly puzzling, even paradoxical, as the basis of modernity is usually considered as Kantian rationality, and its equivalents in institutions and structures that set rules and regulate stable limits. The transformation of institutional modernity into globalized modernity re-evokes the old concern with the “irrational rationality” of capitalism. Liminality and the Modern thus revisits, in the footsteps of Max Weber, the question of the specificity of modern “instrumental” rationality as well.

The aim of Thomassen’s book is to open up a new perspective for social understanding, in particular concerning the processes of the formation and transformation of the self, by incorporating an anthropological perspective. The investigation of liminality, this particular void situation – as liminality is without borders or qualities – offers a uniquely promising path to capture the condition that is increasingly marking our times, and thus can contribute to its overcoming, the restoration of stability, the opposite of liminality, and the condition of possibility for meaningful life.

Agnes HorvathAgnes Horvath

Agnes Horvath

Agnes Horvath is a Visiting Research Fellow at University College Cork. She is author of Modernism and Charisma (Palgrave MacMillian, 2013) and Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality (Berghahn, 2015).

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