On Liminal Space

by Dr. KD Farris


In 1906, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep writes about his cross-cultural observation of tribal rituals, which he calls rites de passage, noting that they consistently contain three distinct stages: separation, limen (liminality), and aggregation. In other words, they always have a beginning, middle, and an end. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Victor Turner picks up van Gennep's work, expanding on these ideas and contributing language through which we can see our contemporary lives taking shape, mirroring these same archetypal structures.

In the tribal rituals that both van Gennep and Turner observe, the beginning stage is established by successfully separating the "initiates" from their known world so they may freely enter the middle stage of liminality. The middle stage, which is the longest lasting of the three, is the prime subject of this lecture series. This stage is orchestrated so as to prepare the initiates to take on their "new station in life," a concept which nowadays is barely known and rarely understood. The third and final stage serves to integrate the initiates back into society where they will then fulfill their new station. Traditional uses for these tribal rites of passage are to demarcate predictable life transitions such as birth, adolescence, marriage, pregnancy, and death. But many other transitions occur which are common yet unpredictable, and which carry the same need for preparation, support, and acknowledgment.

In contemporary life, our awareness of our own "first stage" is often a sudden and abrupt occurrence which serves to "rupture" our sense of being. These days, our culture lacks proper rituals to mark the time and space of these ruptures, their critical role, and subsequent changes. Consequently, we are often plunged into transitions of great magnitude without identification or ceremony. Rupture characterizes our descent into this disorienting terrain, while disorientation characters our experience as we enter and begin to move through it.

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