Derived from Latin limen meaning “threshold”, liminal refers to a transitory, in-between state or space, which is characterized by indeterminacy, ambiguity, hybridity, potential for subversion and change. As a transitory space it foregrounds the temporal border and in narrative is often associated with life-changing events or border situations. It also constitutes a border zone and is closely connected to Bakhtin’s threshold chronotope.
The concept has been introduced by anthropologists van Gennep and Turner, who employ liminality to describe the transitory stage characteristic of rites of passage in various cultures. Upon their ritual exclusion from society, adepts enter a liminal zone of indistinction from which they are bound to return changed thereafter becoming fully acknowledged members of their respective communities.
In literary, post-colonial, and cultural studies the concept has been successfully adopted to circumscribe a being on the border, or on the threshold, dividing distinct spheres, identities or discourses. Cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, for instance, refers to the liminal in post-colonial literature as a potentially disruptive inbetweeness.
“This interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (Bhabha 5).
This liminal, “third space” of cultural enunciation constitutes inherently uncanny “alien territory” (56), which not only becomes productive of new meanings, social relations and identities, but also disrupts and subverts established entities. This understanding of the concept of liminality has, for instance, been applied to the South African novel by Hein Viljoen and Chris van der Merwe.
Manuel Aguirre employs an understanding of the liminal as a defining feature of the Gothic novel. In his understanding, the effects of terror in the Gothic novel are due to the diegetic (textual) constitution of a threshold between a “domain of rationality […] and the world of the Other, the Numinous” (15). This threshold, or limen, expands and becomes an unhomely space of its own in which protagonists are caught up and subsequently attempt to escape.
"First, the threshold is characterized by a potential for disorder; second by asymmetry; third by instability." (Aguirre 31)
- Aguirre, Manuel. “Liminal Terror: The Poetics of Gothic Space”. The Dynamics of the Threshold: Essays on Liminal Negotiations, Eds. Jesús Benito & Ana M Manzanas. Madrid: The Gateway Press, 2007.
- Bakhtin, M. M. "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics." Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 259-422.
- Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
- Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960.
- Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974.
- Turner, Victor. “Variations on a Theme of Liminality”. Secular Ritual. Eds. Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1977. 48-65.
- Viljoen, Hein & Chris van der Merwe (eds.). Beyond the Threshold: Explorations of Liminality in Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.