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 Liminal Space
A common phrase in Place Writing
Liminal places feature quite frequently in Place Writing. I like the word ‘liminal’, and the phrase ‘liminal space’, but I am beginning to question what I mean by it. ‘Liminal’ rolls off the tongue and I tend to sprinkle it liberally in my writing so I need to pull myself up and revise my vocabulary. I’m a writer, not a lexicographer, so I’d like to take a bit of space here to explore the notion of liminality.
When I started my study of Place Writing I began to notice the phrase ‘liminal space’ making a regular appearance in the texts I was reading. I thought, ‘oh, that’s a good one, I’ll put it into a sentence of my own somewhere’. I thought I knew what it meant. But the more I’ve used it the less careful I’ve been, and I think I may have lost the true meaning. I dare say I’m not the only one who might be using it incorrectly or carelessly.
The trouble with ‘liminal’ is that it’s overused—once alerted to it you see it everywhere, but I never came across the word when I was a kid. I looked up ‘liminal’ in a number of dictionaries, and learned it was first used in the nineteenth century and the Collins online dictionary shows a graph of its recorded usage. Something dramatic happened around 1987 when its usage increased exponentially. Since then, the line graph has gone up like a rocket. What happened in the 1980s? Do you know? I was having babies so that decade was a bit of a blur.
Liminal is a describing word, an adjective of ‘limen’, which is a Latin word meaning threshold. When working as an interior designer, I understood thresholds to be doorways, entry points to, and exits from, a building. Architectural thresholds are usually gaps in a structure that you can walk through so I wouldn’t include windows in this definition although this could be debated. And now a memory has been triggered. You’ll probably be aware of the tradition to carry a bride over the threshold. When first married, my husband attempted this, but we rented a first floor flat with a garden entrance and the staircase proved a little too much.
In practical terms, a threshold is perfectly clear to me but the adjective is more obscure. Dictionaries provide a variety of definitions for ‘liminal’:-
On the threshold.
Relating to, or situated at, a sensory threshold.
Between or belonging to two different places, or states of being.
Transitional or transformative spaces, often associated with a forlorn atmosphere, typically abandoned places.
The middle stage of a rite of passage.
Relating to the point, or threshold, beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced.
At a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, or ways of life.
The state between waking and sleeping.
The threshold at which a stimulus begins to produce an effect.
So… liminal can relate to a physical state or a state of mind. And when we start describing the latter in conjunction with place, the dimension of time asserts itself and creates all sorts of chaos.
With Place Writing in mind, can we describe a building, series of buildings, or a venue as liminal? My list of possible examples includes:- hospitals, boarding schools, universities, stately homes, museums, art galleries, motorway service stations, ports, docks, prisons, and pleasure parks. One of these in a piece of writing might look like this:
‘Several tall cranes, painted in coats of red and blue, tower over the port; beacons of liminality, they appear strong and elegant, they ease with the wind and ache with a need to work.’
At first glance I would suggest the reader knows what I mean by ‘beacons of liminality’ but should I be more specific with this description? What do you understand by it?
Two books with an abundance of liminal places are Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment and Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.
Liminal places don’t have to be situated on the edge of society, they don’t have to straddle a topographic or geographic border, and they’re not necessarily abandoned places, but they do have to own some of the characteristics of liminality as provided by the dictionary definitions. However, the brevity of definition serves only to confuse my understanding of what ‘liminal space’ is, or could be, as it pertains to place and Place Writing. A very long essay could be written on the subject I think, but a detailed and thoroughly researched piece from me on the spatial and temporal dimensions of ‘liminality and its use in creative writing’ will have to wait a while.
For now, I’d like to just record some thoughts and draw your attention to the ever-increasing use, and possibly mis-use, of the phrase ‘liminal space.’ Can you recommend some interesting books or articles that focus on place and liminality? Have you been perplexed by this concept, or is it only me?
Let me know if you have used any of these ideas in your own writing. Let’s expand the conversation.
Links and credits:
My stint in a church Crypt is the subject of an earlier Substack post—A Crypt Experience—and it’s probably the most memorable time I’ve spent in a liminal place:
‘Some years ago, most of the coffins were removed yet hundreds of bodies remain hidden behind partition walls, stone tablets, and padlocked iron gates, or beneath bricks and engraved stone markers in the floor.’
Link to Islands of Abandonment and Cal Flyn’s website here.
Link to Edgelands and Michael Symmons Roberts’ website here. (I couldn’t find a website for Paul Farley.)
Collins dictionary: liminal.
Photos: Wedding couple by Katelyn MacMillan via Unsplash. Other photos my own. The port is Valencia, Spain.
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