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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Here We Go Again—Liminality Reiterated

Here we go again with liminality, which shows up about as often as the eternal return, and it should, because liminality is intimately related to the eternal return, being a part of this pervasive pattern.   Liminality is a concept that was introduced by Arnold van Gennep in 1908 in his book Rites de Passage, which was not translated into English until 1960.  van Gennep uses the term liminality to describe the transition phase of rites of passage and it comes from the Latin limen, which van Gennep notes means threshold, a doorway, or entranceway. 

Thresholds are also a piece of hardwood or stone at the bottom of a doorway.  Separating grains or seeds from their stalks, husks, etcetera is called threshing, which is usually done by slapping the stalks against something.  The Indo-European root for threshold is ter II: with some derivatives referring to twisting, boring, or drilling and piercing, and others referring to the rubbing of cereal grain to remove the husks, and thence to the process of threshing either by the trampling of oxen or by flailing with flails, to rub, turn.  Thresh and threshold come from the Germanic threskan to thresh or to tread (AHD, 2000c, p. 2051), while other derivatives of ter II are from the Greek tornos, meaning a tool for drawing a circle, lathe, and the Latin tornare, to turn as in a lathe. From tornos and tornare come words like tornado, return, turn, detour and attorney  (Shipley, 1988, pp. 407-408).  I find it interesting that Victor Turner would write about thresholds, and that I as an attorney would be so drawn to them!  By looking at the etymology of threshold, we can anticipate that the stage of liminality, is not always pleasant.  But grains do get set free of their old structures when they are threshed and then new things can be made from them or they can be planted and the cycle will continue. ∆RC[mp7]

van Gennep’s rite of passage applied to all rituals of transition: from calendrical and cyclical rites involving entire societies, including travel and territorial passages; to life transitions involving the change in status of individuals or groups; initiation rites such as puberty, marriage, and death; but also including pilgrimages, and visionquests.  van Gennep saw that these rites had in common three different phases, which he labeled separation, transition, and incorporation.

Different rites would focus on different phases. Marriage rites, for example, would typically focus on the incorporation phase, while funeral rites would typically focus on the separation phase.  In the separation phase, the focus was on clearly demarcating a space and time from the profane, or the construction of a cultural realm that was defined as out of time (van Gennep, 1908/1960, p. 24).  In Mary Poppins, we see this separation phase at the beginning when Bert “sets the mood,” so to speak. This occurs just after the opening credits finish, when in a spontaneous reverie,  Bert alludes to the eternal return—“I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”  At Disneyland, Main Street USA, too, has this function. [This idea is explained more fully in the "Child of the Times" excursion, located on Main Street USA in the "Extra Excursions" chapter] Symbolic behavior during these rites concentrated on detaching from previous social positions and statuses, and often there was reversal or inversion of the status quo. 

The transition phase, also referred to as margin or limen was a period or area of ambiguity, which Victor Turner later characterized as antistructure and where symbolic behavior continued to involve inversion and reversal. V. Turner was most interested in this phase, which we will be exploring in more depth. The incorporation or reaggregation phase concerned a return to a new status and relatively well-defined positions.  During the liminal phase, old statuses were no more, and new statuses were yet to be.  V. Turner talks about antistructure as involving liminality and communitas.  Communitas is a particular quality often present in liminality.  V. Turner found that participants in rites of passage and pilgrimages often experienced communitas—a feeling of connectedness, of familiarity, freedom and equality.  By communitas, V. Turner (1982b) meant “a liberation of human capacities of cognition, affection, volition, creativity, etc. from the normative constraints” of ordinary life with all its cultural categories, roles and statuses (p. 44).


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