History Through a Liminal Looking Glass (Part 1)

May 31st, 2015 | By | Category: Articles


Part One:  The Unbearable Lightness of Liminality

Words & images by Jasun Horsley
The Outer Limits (What is Liminality?)

Liminality can be understood as providing four different contexts: spiritual or religious, social, political, and psychological.

  1. Originally the word was coined by anthropologists to refer to religious ceremonial practices, during which participants were led by ceremony masters from one state (and status) to another, such as in a coming of age ritual. The liminal stage is the intermediary one in which the initiate is on the threshold (līmen) between his or her old status and a new, as-yet unknown one.
  1. Socially speaking, liminality refers to periods of chaos in which old structures, institutions, traditions and mores, have all broken down or been destroyed, and in which new ones have not yet been established. People trapped in a liminal situation are not able to act rationally because the structures upon which their rationality was based have disappeared. Being in a liminal state spells crisis for most people; emotions run wild, making clear thinking all but impossible. This leads to “mimetic” (imitative) behavior by those trapped in the liminal space. Situations of permanent liminality are known as schismogenesis. Societies can be stuck for a long time in this state, when the previous unity is broken but the various now inchoate elements are forced to stay together.
  1. In the politics of liminality, the future is unknown. This means there can be no ceremony masters, because no one has gone through the process before, so there is no one to lead people out of it. This allows for the emergence of false ceremony masters who fill the void created by people’s need to be guided. These self-appointed leaders perpetuate liminality because their power and authority depends on the disorientation and helplessness of others.
  1. In psychotherapy, liminality describes a stage in the individuation journey when a person’s old personality (ego) and the accompanying beliefs, values, and standards, have begun to break apart, but in which no coherent new self has as emerged from the “ruins.” In this process, the psychotherapist acts as ceremony master. He or she is there to guide the patient into a new, more individuated state of being. There are two problems with this arrangement, however. Firstly, that the therapist can only act as a ceremony master to the extent that he or she has gone all the way through the liminal journey of individuation (an extremely rare achievement). Secondly, more problematic still, the nature of individuation requires a new, more autonomous state of being, meaning that the person must go through it alone, and eventually reject all external forms of guidance, including (especially) that of the ceremony master (therapist). In a sense, to leave the liminal stage at an individual level means to become functional within it, to accept liminality as the human condition, not as a means to an end but as a never-ending end in itself.

These four contexts are four ways of looking at a single “thing.”


Neti Neti: The Medium is Still the Message So What is the Message?

Liminality is an inherently “spiritual” concept because it relates to the well-known spiritual principle of Neti Neti, not this, not that. Neti Neti refers to how, on the path to Truth, big “T,” the aspirant must carefully inspect every experience that comes his or her way and reject it. Like Buddha under the tree facing Maya, except that, in the end, Buddha also must be rejected as Maya.

The problem with writing about liminality is that writing itself is anti-liminal. Language is a system of symbols that creates the illusion of linear progression from a beginning to an end (each sentence and each word, this piece, etc.). Language and time are similar in this regard, and liminality, like limbo, implies a space in which time itself is suspended. There is nothing than can be said about liminality that doesn’t somehow do it a disservice. There is nothing . . .

I have attempted to address this by writing about the act of writing itself, as I am now doing. This creates a feeling of liminality for me the author and hence I presume for the reader too (and possibly also a feeling of impatience). Is this an essay about liminality or is this the DVD commentary about how the essay was written? Neither? Both? Liminal, liminal, liminal.

I initially attempted this “essay” in the non-liminalist fashion to be more informative and less subjective or “creative,” but it did not work. You the reader must experience liminality, otherwise, by thinking you understand what it is, you will be preventing an experience of liminality from happening. Together we conspire to do this. All of society is like a collective defense against liminality, or not-knowing.

Liminality is like liberation: we like the idea of it but we do everything we can to prevent it from happening. If we didn’t, it would already have happened, because liberation, like liminality, is the natural and inevitable state of existence. Why? Because existence is nothing but perception, and perception cannot be anything other than liminal and free.

With that in mind, I will continue with this essay but exercise my RIGHT to be FREE to make associations that may seem unfounded, random, absurd; because that is what being in a liminal state is like, because liminality means LOSS OF CONTEXT, and because CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. So perhaps liminality means stripping our experience down to the context, and when everything is context, nothing is. Or rather, what is left to be contextualized?

The answer is just this: you (i.e., perception).

This is all for you.


“Thou Art That”: Institutional Identity

Back to the four modes. There is no clear dividing line between religion, society, and politics. It is more of a continuum of “mores,” or modes of behavior. Underneath the religio-socio-political values—and the institutions that uphold and promote them (and enforce them)—is psychology. Psychology explores the formative experiences that give rise to the values that lead to the mores that create the institutions, social, political, religious systems, and so on and so forth.

What I really want to write about now is institutions. What are they, how do they come about, do we really need them and if so why, and when does a necessary, healthy institution become an unnecessarily evil (or “evil”) one?

I know someone who runs a local used bookstore. He takes care of his public image in town because it is good for business. At the same time, he is aware that having a local business helps to take care of his image by making him seem respectable. Having the bookstore gives him a sense of who he is and provides certain limits and cues to his behavior. It tells him “how to be.” Because he represents his business (which is an institution too, albeit a private one), his public personality is in service to his business. In a similar way, institutions protect us from ourselves and in return we hitch ourselves to them and protect the institutions from us.

The idea of universal values (morality) is common to pretty much all social systems. In order to provide the sort of guidance, support, and reassurance needed to create social cohesion and stability, institutions must give the impression of being unchanging, solid, and fundamental. They can’t be seen as merely the products of human minds trying to work out the best way to create social cohesion.

My friend’s bookstore runs along certain rules that he himself didn’t create but which he adopted and adapted from a larger social consensus about how used bookstores run. He can bring something of himself to it but not so much that customers feel unsure about the space they are entering. A bookshop is a kind of liminal space (any kind of business is) because it is a space for passing through, not one to remain in. Whether or not we enter into a bookstore, or any place of business, depends not only on whether we want to buy something but how comfortable we feel about entering, and also, how comfortable we are about not buying. The rules of the used bookstore are simple and universal: come in, look around, buy if you want to, leave without buying if you don’t find anything you like, and don’t take anything without paying for it. There are variables, such as whether customers can use the restroom, or how helpful the staff is, but these can be comfortably negotiated provided the main context has been safely established and is honored. None of these rules (except maybe the one about shoplifting) needs to be written down or stated to customers, at any time, because everyone knows the “doing” of bookstores.

Institutions are like concretized doings, and doings are the embodied expressions of institutions and the internal ideologies that both give rise to the institutions and are upheld by them.

Here’s another example. One of the books in my friend’s used bookstore is, of course, the Bible. The Bible is a book, but unlike other books, it can’t be seen as just another book. It can’t be seen as merely the product of human minds, because to do so would place it in competition with thousands of other books. It must be presented as the Word of God. This is an article of faith. There is no proof that it is the Word of God; on the contrary, it is demonstrably a book written by human beings. Yet the idea that those human beings were divinely inspired (that God intervened in human affairs to ensure the Book came into physical existence in the precise way intended), even though this too is a human idea, is enough to provide cohesion and stability to the collective institution of Christianity. The same applies to The Koran and Islam, Judaism and the Talmud, and so on.

Now that I think about it, language would seem to be a key to how consensuses are created, which perhaps relates to how language is inherently anti-liminal.

The Problem with Problems

Whether they are religious or political (usually a mix of both), ideologies are value systems designed to create and maintain institutions that bring about social cohesion. This may be why psychology is generally left out of the equation when it comes to forming such ideologies.[1]  (It may also be why I seem almost neurotically driven to include my own psychology in everything I write.) Simply stated, the difference with the psychological view of liminality is that psychology tends to view all ideologies as sourced in varying levels of pathology. Yet even as psychology recognizes ideology—and the social identity which it gives rise to—as a form of pathology, it also allows that there may be no realistic way to exist without it. At least, no way that can be talked about or proscribed, since to do so would be to reduce it to an ideology and a group experience (in a similar way that writing about liminality strips it of its liminality).

The function of religious ceremony, spiritual beliefs, social institutions, and political ideologies, and in a large part of psychological treatment too, is not to help us adjust to liminality and make our home there, but to reframe it as a means to an end. A necessary part of that reframing entails creating a new, arbitrary state out of the elements of the old, lost state, for the individual to then move “safely” into. An obvious example would be political elections: each time a new election comes around, the candidates emphasize all the problems (the social chaos, which is to say, liminality) that are current in order to offer solutions. Candidates then make promises which they summarily forget as soon as they gain the desired power to keep them. These are the false ceremony masters who pretend to know how to lead people out of liminality by misrepresenting the nature of liminality—for example, by omitting to mention that the problems they promise to solve are problems which they, or others like them, are responsible for having created (topical example: ISIS terrorist threat being the result of black budget US training and funding of the human elements who then form ISIS).

These false ceremony masters (i.e., politicians) perpetuate liminality while at the same time offering bogus solutions or ways out of the liminal state. This means that liminality must be both downplayed (seen as just a set of problems rather than something inherent to the social structures, ideologies, and institutions) and played up, turned into a SET OF PROBLEMS that can and must be solved, by introducing new values, new structures, new policies, new leaders, and so on, ad nauseum.

The problem is that the problems underlying liminality are not social problems but psychological ones. Hence they can’t be addressed with social reforms or new ideologies. In fact, those social reforms, policies, and “new” ideologies are, as Freud said of religion, symptoms of the problem itself. They do not appear to be symptoms that bring about health, either, but ones that, by being misread and seen as viable forms of treatment, divert our attention away from the problem and onto a bogus solution. (An easy example: institutionalized religion offers a solution to the fear of death—not to mention poverty, social injustice, and a million other more tangible ills—that only postpones these problems and so exacerbates them, potentially at least.)

The problem, or rather, the psychological reality, that isn’t getting addressed here is that most people depend on a group identity for their psychological survival. Most people need a sense of national identity, cultural identity, sexual identity, and so on, in order to know how to behave. The primary way this group identity is provided is via institutional values and valued institutions that we can trust in—except that, we can’t. This perpetual liminality in which the very structures we rely on are by their nature unreliable makes most people highly susceptible to manipulation. All it takes is to undermine those institutions to cause a feeling of panic and then, since people are not trained to know how to handle an experience of liminality, they look to false ceremony masters to herd or entice them towards apparently stable ground. Anything to avoid the unbearable lightness of liminality.

The premise of this series is that spirituality—which in its truest form is the quest to go beyond identity and into what looks like (from this side of the threshold at least) a permanent state of liminality—is now becoming a social, practical necessity. The increasingly deceptive and destructive waters of illegitimately perpetuated liminality and false solutions, dodgy group identities, corrupt institutions, etc., are rising. This creates an ever-more urgent climate  in which neither option in any pair of options is viable, in which everything leads to a double-bind of potentially unbearable cognitive dissonance, a feeling familiar to us all as children, when we are damned if we do something, and equally damned if we do nothing. The primary experience of being in a liminal state is powerlessness.

The only way to navigate these rising waters is to develop a capacity for liminalism, that is, for doing nothing (or not-doing, if you want to get Zen about it): loss of power, control, and even basic knowledge about what is true or false, real or unreal, in the face of increasingly insurmountable collective problems, and increasingly problematic “solutions.”


Part Two.

Jasun Horsley is the author of Seen & Not Seen: Confessions of a Movie Autist, from Zer0 Books.

His website is http://auticulture.com


[1] Psychology, though it has some similarities to ideology, is different from ideology because it allows for the existence of the unconscious (rather than, say, God, or natural law) as the primary determining factor in human activity. As a result, it looks into the ways that values (and ideologies) are formed unconsciously, the determining factor being found not in any empirical truth or reality, but in an individual’s (or society’s) subjective experiences. To give one example, in “The Childhood Origins of the Holocaust,” Lloyd de Mause shows how the Nazi ideology (including the seemingly irrational hatred of Jews) can be traced back to the early, brutalizing experiences of German children in the generations who grew up to form the Nazi movement. http://primal-page.com/holocaus.htm

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3 Comments to “History Through a Liminal Looking Glass (Part 1)”

  1. SC Vandiver says:

    “All of society is like a collective defense against liminality, or not-knowing.

    Liminality is like liberation: we like the idea of it but we do everything we can to prevent it from happening. If we didn’t, it would already have happened, because liberation, like liminality, is the natural and inevitable state of existence. Why? Because existence is nothing but perception, and perception cannot be anything other than liminal and free.”

    There it is.

    The anti-solution: there is no solution because there never was a problem? Is that a question?

    If change is the only constant then truth can never really “come true.”

  2. Vermon says:

    part one was good, thanks for sharing it with us.

    vermon love

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