IRMA RATIANI                                                                                                                                                                     # 15



The term and notion of liminality was introduced by a well-known representative of French positive anthropology Arnold van Gennep. In his work “Rites de passage” (1908) Gennep not only provided theoretical example of liminality but also practically displayed its role in the process of seasonal transformations and individual lifestyle changes as well.

According to Gennep, “Rites de passage” or rite of passage is an obligatory feature of any type of transition and expresses the dichotomy which exists between the “stable” and “transitory” structures. Each process of passage or transition is characterized by three phases: 1. isolation or separation; 2. marginality or liminality; 3. incorporation or reagregation. Separation implies the isolation of chosen individual, so-called “initiant”, from fixed social or cultural structure. Liminality expresses initiant’s ambivalent state, its passage to the intermediate ambivalent social zone, the so-called “limbo”; and the final phase of incorporation corresponds to initian’s return to the society with reinovated social status or “reagregation”.

Among three mentioned phases of particular interest is the second one or liminal phase. In liminal phase an individual undergoes through the full blurring of the social environment, disclaims reality and moves to transit and dynamic condition in-between the solidified and transformed structures.

The term “liminality” derives from the Latin limen and means threshold, boundary, passage between two different places. With the same purpose this term finds it application in Gennep’s theory:  liminal phase with its essence and function is transitional, dynamic, intermediate condition placed between stable and transformed structures.

Conclusion I:  Rites of passage or “Rites de passage” can be defined as a unity of three conditions: “preliminal” which implies isolation from the previous or fixed social structure; “liminal”, which denotes transition period; and “post-liminal”, which is linked to incorporation ceremony with the new or alternative social structure. “Previous” and “New” here means not only small-scale, but wide-scale cultural transposition as well.

Almost half century later Gennep’s theory was re-evaluated in the light of structural anthropology by Victor Turner who defined liminal phase as “interstructural situation” existing among different positional structures.

Turner’s special interest in Gennep’s theory is liminal phase which fulfills threshold function and differs the stages of life from each other.

According to Turner, an individual’s temporary disunion from fixed social structures grants an individual not only the ambivalent social status but frees him or her from any law, norm or rule of social conduct resulting in status which is by nature ambivalent and obscure.

 In liminal state a person is neither “here” nor “there” but “in-between” the juridically, traditionally, conventionally and ceremonially established positions (“betwixt and between”).

The individual occupies a gap between the worlds and becomes a sort of conceptual medium between alternative structures of “here” and “there”.

Thus, the individual is no more under the influence of the effects of “preceding” and “future” statuses and finds himself in an undefined position, awaiting for the realization of reconstructed and renewed cultural models and paradigms. 

Conclusion II: Though liminality seems to be not only transitional form but potentiality as well, because it represents not merely isolation from stable structures but potential possibility to establish an alternative one.

The main purpose and aim of liminal theory by Turner is the creation of positive “alternative” as the valuable opposition to the objective reality.

Positive alternative represents the consequence of the creative will, a valuable synthesis of creative imagination and acting potential, which abandons the existing, solidly established historical and cultural structures and, through the most intense of experiences, attains the desired state of transformation.  The question is: can we use the term liminality in case of literature?

It seems that literature can be an ideal form for these “mystical games”. Literary discourse can create new alternatives because it is a form of game, conditioned by the model   “as if”, in the depth of which real and imaginary worlds are merged and from both of them originates an isolated   intermediate world. Reflecting real or imaginary forms of interrelations and forming their contradictory wholeness the literature creates alternative models of existence.

Conclusion III: Literature by its essence and destination is a liminal phenomenon which fulfills the function of transition phase or, one can say, a “transit carriage”  between the reality ruled by force and distant cosmos elaborated by imagination.

It has to be admitt, that in different time and various contexts much has been spoken on liminal nature of literature.

In Aristotle’s Poetics literature is considered as subversive and corrective marginality as a result of Mimesis, which either changes the object in radically opposed direction, either  fundamentally transforms it. In the theory of the Renaissance thinker, Sir Phillip Sydney poet is regarded as intermediate neutrality between historical reality and philosophical abstraction. For Shiller, literature is an aesthetic illusion which isolates humankind from its sensual environment and transfers it into the world of spiritual freedom. Romantic poet Percy Shelley understoods poetry as self-transcendental flexibility where poetry represents liminal condition, which is placed between historical reality and irreality of thinking and which is permanently producing alternative imaginary models from the existed model of reality.

It is interesting to note that comprehension of these three forms of literary liminality has found wide interpretation in contemporary literary criticism: if in J.P.Sartre, J.Madzota, V.Izer’s theoretical conceptions is obvious Shelley’s influence and literature is regarded as self-transcedental flexibility, theoretical systems of M.Bakhtin, Mann, H.Blume and Perez-Pirmat are returning back to the classical idea of literature as subversive marginality.

Conclusion IV: In history of genre theory, in spite of methodological invariance there is a theoretical agreement: literature is regarded as liminal phenomenon. Literary work is an intermediate liminal occurrence, not only drawing a distinction between an isolating dissimilar worlds but also, based on a particular model of the world, generating the subjective alternative, new model of the “other world”.

Here precision should be done on the notion of “alternative” and that type of interrelation which might be formed between the existed and alternative worlds.

“Alternative” is a Latin word and denotes “choice” worth “other”, which is formed in a process of certain changes. An alternative model is formed on the basis of the existed model but differs from it in a principal way.

 The relationship between alternative worlds is either conflicting or competitive. On this background it might be compatible, incompatible, proportional and non-proportional.

Incompatible and non-proportional or completely contrast relation is expressed by an ontological division germinated in the depth of western thinking: real world/imaginative world. The real world is physical world, an objective system, which is characterized by three-dimensional space, time and motion, the imaginary world is non-physical world, subjective system which opposes the objective system on the basis of ontologically alternative principle of eternity. Literature as a liminal phase or intermediate passage between real and imaginary reflects this contradiction rather well. It fulfills the function of ambivalent ontological landscape between the existed and imaginary systems. From this viewpoint imaginary or invented world is perceived not as “non existed object”, but as an “essence” based on alternative ontological principles which is formed beyond transition phase.

Axes of this high-cost transitoriness in literature are the time-space categories: rites of literary transformations are reachable through special forms of artistic time and space, invented and developed by the author. In this case, “Rites de passage” or ritual of passage becomes a bridge to another, oppositional reality and requires entirely different interpretation of time and space.

V. Turner devoted to the above mentioned problem his research “Images of anti-temporality: An essay in the anthropology of experience”, where anti-temporality denotes alternative condition to the temporality which is limited by time.

This process can be marked as “the passing from temporality to anti-temporality”, stating that anti-temporality, provides the possibility of ontological re-evaluation and remodelling of socio-cultural experience of the humankind, and closely corresponds to subjective comprehension of eternity.

In this case, Turner shares Fridrich von Hugel’s conception, according to which “the only and true”” alternative of the existed normative system is timeless and spaceless eternity existing beyond the real time/space.

Correspondingly, there emerges a paradigm of liminality as ontologically and structurally valuable process, directed from the stable system outside – to the alternative one.

Conclusion V: Liminal phase is an intermediate, transitory and ambivalent condition in which the individual dissociates from the normative context and creates the oppositional antipode of the world through the process of valuable transformation.

Thus, the liminal state is a place of special, mostly sacred time and space, set apart and separated. The mythic journey and the corresponding rites usually rely on the symbolic of death and birth, fraught with conflict and often cosmic score. All rites of passage are the passages of death and rebirth leading participants into another, alternative form of the existence.  Liminal time as well as liminal space expresses the most complicated process of individual’s isolation  from ordered chronological system and integration onto alternative one.

Here is a question: can we use the theory of liminality in case of genre definition?

Interestingly, Turner uses dramatical works to demonstrate liminal processes in literature, but, we suppose, this complicated subjective structure of time-space transition, where one can clearly observe the transformation of the protagonist from the estate reality towards the alternative existence, might be illuminated within the frame of different literary genres.

The adjusting of the notion of liminality to genre system is justified by its transformational function: liminal phase represents that sacral intermediate zone in the depth of which protagonist suffers valuable transformation and moves to the alternative system. The specific feature of the transformation itself (its basis, purpose, character) gives necessary theoretical arguments for genre definition.

Conclusion VI:  The study of literary genre in the context of liminality might be one of the serious contemporary methodological technologies of text research and literary studies.



Volume 1, issue 1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature