Permanent liminality
— published in: On drifting (2020)
— author: Arpad Szakolczai, anthropologist et sociologist, Hungaria
permanent liminality

Permanent liminality is derived from the anthropologically based term liminality. Liminality was taken up and disseminated by Victor Turner, from the classic but for long much ignored work of Arnold van Gennep on rites of passage. By now it is a widely used concept in social, political and cultural studies, just as in comparative mythology and literature, capturing spatial and temporary situations of transition or in-between-ness.

The use of the term by Turner was largely celebratory, focusing on situations in which rigid, taken for granted structures became porous and malleable, generating a feeling of communitas and rendering possible change and creativity.

However, as the use of the word spread, it was increasingly realised that a real-world large-scale liminal situation, with the literal collapse of order and the structures of meaning, might generate a void, nothing- ness, an anguishing condition of flux and liquidity that threaten with anxiety and meaninglessness.

Liminality is also helpful to reconceptualise marginality. A marginal place or situation, whether socio-politically or geographically, is at the edge, far from the centres of social life or political power. However, as possibly also being located in between nearby centres, a marginal place can suddenly become liminal, gaining influence by mediating between them, and eventually might even grow into a rival centre. The development of Flanders, in between German and French culture, o ers a good example, with the ever-larger fairs of Antwerp giving birth to the first stock-market.

Permanent liminality, strictly speaking, is an oxymoron, as a liminal condition in time is by definition temporary. However, conditions that were thought to be only temporary might persist and thus become lasting, seemingly eternal or permanent, creating an intense feeling of absurdity, even unreality. A particularly striking example is the Iliad and Odyssey, first with a war that symbolically lasts forever (ten years), and then with a similarly unending travel of the hero back home.

Not surprisingly, Ulysses became hero of an archetypal (hyper-)modern novel, capturing the modern condition, which argua- bly is permanently liminal, generating a profound sense of anxiety and homelessness, culminating in a sense of unreality : that reality itself stopped being really real.

Over history, the Mediterranean Sea shifted from being marginal to liminal and back. Without sailing, the sea is an unsure passable boundary; with sailing, Sicily can be much closer to Tunis than Morocco; but then, with the rise of states, the Mediterranean Sea again – though not always – became a border rather than a connecting point.In what sense can the Mediterranean be permanently liminal? One possibility is through identifying liminality with liquidity, following Bauman, one of the first sociologists to use the term liminality.

For water, thus the sea, liquidity is indeed a permanent and not temporary condition. However, while liquidity is fundamental for life, it is incompatible with the solidity that is central for meaning – even for solidarity, as shown by the etymological connections (solidarity comes from solidity). Thus, permanent liminality (in time) almost inevitably brings about meaninglessness and absurdity.

However, the spatial permanent liminality of the Mediterranean can be conceived in a different manner. Arguably, the Mediterranean is too big to be tightly controlled, like the crossing of a river or a lake; but not as big as an ocean, which cannot be routinely crossed.

Is it thus the best of both worlds? Unfortunately, not necessarily, as the history of piracy in the Mediterranean shows– a term which, strikingly, is also derivative of limit / liminality (see the etymology of pirate in Greek peirates / peras limit / *per dangerous trial or crossing). If any liminal condition is inherently not just liberating and creative but dangerous, then anything that can be conceived of as permanently liminal is, inevitably, even more dangerous.

To be sure, without danger, life becomes terribly boring – but a certain kind of permanent liminality, arguably, is boredom raised on the second power; reaching limitlessness itself, which is also etymologically identical to evil.