If there’s one thing I’ve tried to keep in mind as someone invested in Ojibwe language revitalization, it is the fact that languages change over time. This is part of the life of a language; any language that remains vital, creative, and useful will change according to the needs and interests of its users. So while I pretty much think that idealizing linguistic purity is antithetical to language preservation or revitalization, once in a while I do feel a need to intervene against a change that goes against the spirit—and more importantly, the usefulness—of a particular word. One English word that seems to have lost much of its critical and analytical edge is “liminality.” Too much has been made of its sense of being stuck “betwixt and between,” like in a doorway between rooms, and not enough attention has been paid to what lies on either side of the threshold.
My take on the word comes from straight-up anthropology, but I don’t want this to read as a reclamation of the word on anthropology’s behalf. No, my concern is with how the term is used in Indigenous studies in particular, but other social sciences and humanities in general, as a shorthand for uncategorizable, or marginalized, or ontologically oppressed/repressed, or (and this is the worst) hybrid. Liminality may be each of those characteristics, but without noting the particular contexts, then the concept is severely limited and even potentially erasive or blinding.
I first learned the term from Victor Turner, the anthropologist influenced by Ian Frazier’s The Golden Bough and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With 1000 Faces. Turner looked to these narratives and comparative literary studies for insights into rites of passage. Turner identifies parallels between various Azande rites of passage and The Hero’s Journey narrative outlined by Campbell. The hero basically goes through three stages:
1. Departure. The hero leaves the everyday world behind.
2. Initiation. The hero learns through trial and/or mentorship what must be done.
3. Return. The hero brings wisdom or some other gift back to the people.
This is the same structure of a rite of passage. A person starts out from one stage of life, undergoes a process of transformation, and comes out the other side in a new social role. Stage 2 is the liminal period, and is often marked by symbolic death and/or de-individualization.
When I teach Turner, I ask my students what rites of passage they have gone through. The first one they think of is their high school commencement. Commencement obviously marks a departure from school, and perhaps even a departure from childhood. They may have had an 18th birthday celebration, but I am pretty sure that commencement was a more widely shared social marking of adulthood than any party.
The graduates are usually dressed in a uniform fashion, and often discouraged from deviating from the dress code. They are lined up in seats (my students always look uncomfortable when I point out how row after row of mortarboards can look like a graveyard from the back), and exhorted to apply what they have learned, always remember who has shaped their values, to never stop learning, or some other platitudes intended to open up the next stage of their lives. Then they walk past the school officials, who confer the gift of a diploma (or reasonable facsimile thereof), and once the tassel is moved from one side of the mortarboard to the other, then they are marked as being in a new social state or role. They entered the room as high school students (their pre-ritual state), and will walk out of the room as graduates (their post-ritual state), but for several hours were marked as being both and neither, or “betwixt and between.”
Within Indigenous studies and other disciplines, the term liminality names a lack of clear identity. It may be a holdover of the hackneyed “walking in two worlds” discourses of the previous century, but the term also seems to have become a synonym for being left out, or even cast into the state of exception. Calling such a state “liminal” misses several productive points that Turner describes.
First of all, a person in a liminal state is dangerous and in danger. Mary Douglas’s opposition of purity versus danger is relevant here. An initiate undergoing initiation is neither one status or the other—thus, impure—and they are more than both and neither at the same time. In fact, they are potentially anything and everything, because the rules that govern the behaviors of the pre-state and post-state do not apply to the liminal state . In fact, a person in the liminal state may in fact enjoy an extraordinary freedom from rules and social constraint. In classical anthropology and psychoanalysis, for example, it is in these liminal spaces that taboos are broken. Being set apart through mythic marking is necessary for the existence and practicing of social clowning, where people take on a liminal status or perhaps blend categories to produce social commentary through criticism and counterexample, like tricksters who mix animal features with human features, or who mix gender or age-grade categories. In some social settings, it would be an egregious violation of protocol to act like clowns (or, for that matter, like a stand-up comedian), for to behave like that would bring punishment.
There is a type of liberty or freedom inherent to the state of liminality that we should not ignore. Freedom is precisely what is missing from the state of exception. The state of exception is where a person is deliberately left out of law and order. They are beyond the law, but not in that cool, mercenary way that lets them get away with murder. A person (or group) constructed into a state of exception is placed into a subhuman limbo, and who may be killed but cannot be murdered, due to the political nonrecognition of their legal status as human beings. Persons in a state of exception do not need to be consulted about any policies or decisions that will impact them directly. People in a state of exception are denied any sovereignty.
Equating liminality with the state of exception erases some of the potential for transformative transgression of law and order. There is no leniency for clowns in the state of exception, no room for tricksters. If we look at treaty rights struggles, for example, many of the victories Indigenous people have enjoyed in the last few decades have arisen out of liminal spaces that persisted despite the attempted imposition of the state of exception upon us by colonialism and imperialism.
But there is a structural problem in misusing the concept of liminality, namely a failure to identify what states or roles the liminal state sits between. Labeling a marginalized state, or a state of exception, as liminality often fails to specify what the pre- and post-state (stages 1 and 3 in the rite of passage) are in relation to the liminal subject. Indigenous studies scholars can not afford to be so free and easy with their terminology, because the normative, default narrative is the myth of progress in combination with the myth of the greater good.
Under colonialism, the pre-contact state is cast as primitive. Words like “savage” (noble or ignoble), the “state of nature,” or other infantilizing or dehumanizing labels, are applied to Indigenous peoples. But what is the post-state, what is stage three, under colonialism?
To this day, there are but two post-contact states offered to Indigenous peoples by colonialism, and while these are in some tension, they are more harmonious than most people notice. The first option is extermination, and the second is assimilation. Both options are patently genocidal, but one manages to appear more “progressive” and is the source of contemporary discourses of inclusion, multiculturalism, economic development, and rights recognition. The other is still celebrated, even romanticized, in purportedly sympathetic media and other discourses.
Both options presume that Indigenous peoples are a “vanishing race,” either through physical death or the elimination of our distinctiveness as Indigenous peoples through loss of our languages, cultural practices, and lands. This is the normative state of colonial discourses, so to get away from these two options requires a fair amount of rhetorical work and educational scaffolding.
Colonialist discourses, including their laws, cannot easily account for Indigenous people who are neither dead nor assimilated. Those of us who have managed to avoid death or definition are a problem, a remainder that must be carried over to the next placeholder in hopes that it can eventually be reconciled through colonial formulas. Often, the colonizing method of such accounting involves great efforts to deconstruct the political authenticity of Indigenous peoples so that they can be treated as mere citizens of the colonial state, or mere members of a racialized minority waiting to be assimilated (or bred out through blood quantum nonsense), or somehow deemed to be fakes unworthy of recognition. The pressure is on to reduce Indigenous rights to a matter of civil rights—the individual rights of inclusion and freedom from discrimination—instead of collective or historical rights (i.e., sovereignty), which colonial systems of law are largely unable and unwilling to deal with.
If a scholar does not specify an alternative to these two colonialist futures—the options of extermination or assimilation—then one or both of these options will be assumed, even reified.
If a scholar does not highlight the transformative potential of practical action from the margins (or the “liminal”), then the work ignores the structure of colonialism as well as the history of resistance to colonialism, which often operates exactly from these liminal spaces to imagine, embody, or enact sovereignties that exist outside the boundaries of colonial law and practice.
Thus, Indigenous studies scholars cannot afford to conflate liminality with the state of exception or the inertia of “hybridity.” It is our critical responsibility to identify and highlight the transformative potential made available to Indigenous peoples through and despite colonialist structures, discourses, institutions, and practices. Invoking “liminality” without specifying at least one acceptable social state or critical role for Indigenous peoples can only reinforce the presumed “progressive” linearity of colonialism and its presumed erasure of Indigenous peoples. This demands a carefully maintained openness to what we’re calling Indigenous futurisms.
In other words, when we find ourselves in liminal space, we should always be asking ourselves: What do we see for ourselves on the other side of this threshold?