A Thinking Tool for COVID-19 and Beyond: Liminality

Gizem Oktay
May 25, 2020 · 11 min read
Illustration by author. Instagram

COVID-19 Disclaimer: This article was written before we entered the epoch of COVID-19, however, since the ways of thinking mentioned here perfectly fits into the nature of a pandemic, the author kindly asks you to put what you read in the perspective of COVID-19.

Humility Statement: The observations and deductions in this essay have been already made by others. They are floating somewhere in the web of entangled networks. I don’t claim to invent any idea stated here nor do I believe that they are ancient wisdom. That being said, what is hidden usually is in front of our eyes.

I. Entangling the linear

We live in the liminal space between the time immemorial — the world without time, of origins and creation — and the conquest narrative where technology reigns as a super-structure in the future. The idea of our world being conquered by technology is not new. We have been playing with it ever since the invention of machines. However, the game has become trickier with the invention of artificial intelligence: our ultimate desire to play God, to give birth to a sentient being via our ‘minds’.

This desire creates at least two conflicts of interest between humans and machines. First, our wish to attribute consciousness to machines contradicts the Western thinking of putting the human mind at the top of a consciousness hierarchy. Second, for the last three hundred years (mainly since Industrial Revolution), we embraced a narrative where we conquered nature, bent it to our will, created systems that only seek a cumulative growth at the expense of swallowing every actor ad infinitum [1] until there is nothing else. However, if we follow Jean Baudrillard and accept that everything seeks its death [2] including systems, humans, and nature, the idea of infinite growth sounds unattainable.

Somewhere along the line, the story between humans, nature, and machines has become an infinitely linear narrative. Humankind conquers nature and creates AI, and eventually, AI conquers humankind.

A simple ending to a simple narrative.

But the narrative being simple does not come from it being essentialist, meaning it does not capture the essence while being simple. Keeping an Einstein quote in mind, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” [3]

The story between humans, nature, and machines became simpler than it should be. It became reductionist in a way that it does not take into account different actors in an entangled, complex network where there are countless unknowables to human awareness and therefore fatalist descriptions cannot be our go-to solution to explain the complexities around us. The notion embedded in reductionism, that everything in the universe, -no matter how complex, mysterious or spiritual it might seem- can be theoretically reduced into a series of “nothing but” descriptions: nothing but atoms, nothing but neurons, nothing but genes [4], goes hand in hand with many dualisms that cloud our grasp of a world composed of a single, dynamic unfolding [5].

Dualism and reductionism exist at the core of certain paradigms that are integral to our thinking: the dichotomy of mind/body, soul/matter, logic/emotion, nature/technology, male/female, and all the other Cartesian[6] forms of thinking we can come up with. Current capitalist points of view perpetuate these dualisms by putting human intellect at the top of a pyramid where everything else is put at the bottom to be reduced as ‘other’ and consumed, abused, or destroyed: women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and more-than-human beings namely animals, soil, bacteria, rocks, and rivers… Anything that is supposedly beneath the human mind, is reduced to be at the beck and call of human desire.

What has not been discussed as the core problem here is consciousness. It is the ruler that we use to measure our degree of ontological importance. Nature and animals have been measured as little as possible with this ruler due to the false idea of humans reserving consciousness to themselves. The same ruler has been trying to put machines on a similarly low level too, except maybe recently, our efforts in trying to give machines consciousness and sentience may have changed this. Alas, the domination of human consciousness remains.

But borrowing from Donna Haraway in saying: How do we infiltrate ‘cracks and matrices of domination?’ [7]

If domination is practiced in a hierarchical and reductionist way, then one way of infiltration could be eliminating reductionism. As vague as it may sound, discovering non-reductionism is found in equally vague places: places of ambiguity, places where opposites merge, and in states of in-betweenness.

II. A form of non-reductionist thinking: Liminality

Developed by folklorist Arnold van Gennep and later taken up by 20th-century anthropologist Victor Turner, liminality refers to the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete [8]. It is considered a state of betwixt and between. The internalization of this concept incites a non-reductionist perspective since any effort to position liminality either at the bottom or the top of some ontological ruler will result in reductionism for the sake of dismissing ambiguity. Therefore, to try to grasp liminality in itself is non-reductionism.

The term liminality may belong to the realm of anthropology, but the embodied experience of in-betweenness is a traceable concept in small-scale societies, Buddhist schools of thought, rituals of archaic tribes, mythical characters, and even quantum mechanics [9]. It is woven to our collective understanding of the world as much as the dual paradigms that created the linear narrative between humans, nature, and technology.

We need to reconsider certain dualities such as mind/body, interior/exterior, subject/object, nature/technology, human/non-human, and unravel these by freeing them from reductionist approaches.

III. Premeditating Liminality

How does dualism turn to liminality? Or how does liminality exist as non-reductionism? Answers can be found through the usage of liminality as a metaphor, a mediator between the mind trying to grasp it, and the essence of it being grasped.

In 2008, an exhibition called sk-interfaces: Exploding Borders in Art, Technology, and Society took place in the FACT art center in Liverpool, curated by Jens Hauser [10]. Hauser wrote an article for the exhibition catalog, called “Who is Afraid of the In-Between?” In the article, the theme of the exhibition was introduced as the skin is an interface or a milieu, inspired by the concept of liminality as an emotionally uncomfortable betwixt and between a period of transition during which one is in a “neither here nor there” situation of enhanced self-reflexivity — for example during an initiation ceremony [11]. To quote from the article:

“…Skin becomes a symbol: skin is the largest organ in the human body making up 16% of our body weight; it’s a semi-permeable membrane demarcating the outside world from the internal spaces of the body. As technology becomes more sophisticated, our notion of what is organic or ‘natural’ and what is man-made becomes blurred. The idea of interface -the point of connection, the place in between one thing and another- is challenged… The skin as a permeable membrane, with reception as well as transmission capabilities, is a metaphor for the unstable limits of our bodies and existences.”

The idea of skin being a permeable interface between ourselves and the world suggests an interaction between the two and thus allows for reciprocation and change. It is a guide to see liminality as a representative of the blurring space between two opposite ends. This has parallels with some of the trademarks of our network culture, defined as the blurring lines between virtual and corporeal, subject and object, interior, and exterior. If we are living in between these blurring dualities, doesn’t that mean we are also at where dualisms leave their place to co-mingling of opposites and reductionism leaves its place to entanglement?

Indeed, the interior/exterior duality that Western schools of thought used to separate mind from body or soul from the body does not apply to our experience any more. We do not exist “in” our bodies. We are our bodies. And a part of this body is snapped out and implanted on mobile phones and a part of our brains is Google itself now. So far, we have not been ashamed to use this extrapolated brain and its capabilities incessantly. As the mind-body duality dissolves itself into elongations of corporeality and consciousness, we are becoming liminality as we live entangled lives on both virtual and corporeal realms. It requires no effort to understand that our daily life experiences are predominantly metaphysical and in that sense it transcends the dichotomy of sacred and profane, work and play, real and virtual.

IV. References of liminality

The definition of liminality suggests states of in-betweenness. If such a definition were to become a metaphor, where would we apply this metaphor to embody liminality as a tool of thinking? There are a couple of different categories that could help do so including mythology, philosophy, and biology.

IV.a. In mythical, cultural, and fictional beings

In mythology, the archetype of “trickster” such as the Coyote or the Sidhe from Ireland, is considered a disruptive character, a being that can create ambiguity in between chaos and order. According to Graham Harvey (2008),

“…Tricksters do anti-social and dangerous things, often harming themselves as well as others, but thereby making the world more like it is in lived experience.” [12]

Trickster is a character who can travel in between two realms: the sacred, being the realm of gods and deities, and the profane, the realm of the mundane and daily life. Similarly, shamans and cyborgs are considered liminal beings, for shamans’ ability to mediate this and the other world; their presence being betwixt and between the human and supernatural. [13]

Cyborg, although initially a fictional concept, is championed by Donna Haraway and its existence is being interpreted in new ways [14]. According to Haraway:

“…High-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between humans and machines. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices. In so far as we know ourselves in both formal discourse (for example, biology) and in daily practice (for example, the homework economy in the integrated circuit), we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras.”

Liminal beings do not only belong to the realm of myth nor fiction. According to Reuven Kahane in his book The Origins of Postmodern Youth:

“…Intersex or transgender people, bisexual people in most contemporary societies, people of mixed ethnicity, and those accused but not yet judged guilty or not guilty, are liminal. Teenagers, being neither children nor adults, are liminal people: indeed, “for young people, liminality of this kind has become a permanent phenomenon… Postmodern liminality” [15].

This definition goes hand in hand with other statements that define liminality and liminal beings as the ‘other’. This is the same type of Western thinking that posits its normality by labeling everything else but itself as other, strange, or primitive.

IV.b. In philosophy

Philosophy has long dealt with many of the thinking tools discussed earlier in this essay, from dualism to reductionism, and non-reductionism. As 21st-century schools of thought begin to dissolve the subject/object paradigm, a new form of thinking emerges where the human mind does not occupy every inch of ontology. As one of these schools of thought, object-oriented ontology (OOO) embraces the term flat ontology to demand equal autonomy for all objects namely humans, non-humans, bacteria, soil, and events [16]. Graham Harman, the founder of OOO, brings up an article written by Jose Ortega y Gasset (1914) to explain the further meanings of this philosophy in his book Object-Oriented Ontology (2008).

The article is crucial in internalizing liminality, as it explains metaphor as a theatrical act. The performative nature of metaphor becomes a tool to internalize liminality, as metaphor becomes a metaphor for liminal space.

Ortega y Gasset thinks metaphor as of having a theatrical nature; the existence of a performer is needed to link the likenesses of two objects with different qualities. From that perspective, the interpreter, becomes a performer and they put themselves in the shoes of objects to be linked and compounded. This has an empathetical connotation as it requires mirroring with both sides.

Metaphor, like skin, becomes an interface between the performer and the objects. Qualities of metaphor allow the performer to embody the different characteristics of objects, allowing the performer to sway in between them.

IV.c. In biology and physics

The cell wall is a semi-permeable membrane. It can perceive matter, transfer it, accept it, extract it. From this perspective, membrane allowing for reciprocity and being flexible can be considered a liminal space. Similarly in physics — thermodynamics — critical points like the liquid-vapor critical point, where the point cannot be defined either as liquid or vapor is a liminal space.

Endnote — Liminality in COVID-19: Where atopy and atemporality merge?

Types of Liminality. Source: Wikipedia

I explained liminality as the rite of passage between two states. According to moments, periods, and epochs for individuals, groups, and societies, a liminal space for society is defined as “a whole society facing a sudden event where social distinctions and normal hierarchy disappear”. This is a very convenient explanation as COVID-19 forced the entire humanity to take shelter under uncertainty. We suspended our temporality in exchange for a liminal space where we don’t hold our pre-liminal state but have not begun to reach our post-state yet.

In 2010, novelist Bruce Sterling gave a fascinating talk on the subject of atemporality, called “Atemporality for the Creative Artist”. There, he mentions it as an asynchronous communication form that reflects the loss of a canon and a record. He claims that we lost the linear historical narrative and entered into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures. Although this talk was given in 2010, it sounds more relevant than ever. That is the problem of defining everything we see as “new normal”, it sounds like yet another attempt to pinpoint a milestone on an entangled road. If you can’t see the beginning nor the end of the road, then how are milestones supposed to help us? If we are to accept time as a non-linear entity, through the cracks of linearity a new type of thinking emerges. And as Bruce Sterling also suggests:

“What’s needed here is like a kind of atemporality that’s like agnosticism. Just a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism about the historical narratives. I mean: they just don’t map onto what is going on.”

Indeed, this will be our main objective during and after COVID-19, as we learn to ride the liminal storm of uncertainties, ambiguities, and atemporalities. Liminality carries the potential to become a strategy to be used during this time and other times, either of the past, or the future.

Whoever can adapt to uncertainty and embody the character of a trickster, who can disturb the existing system with a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism like Sterling defines, will leave the liminal space of COVID-19 with winnings, instead of anxieties.

Bibliography

[1] ad infinitum: again and again in the same way, forever.

[2] Baudrillard, Jean (1998). Forget Foucault. Massachusetts: MIT Press

[3] “In honor of Albert Einstein’s birthday.” Championing Science, https://championingscience.com/2019/03/15/everything-should-be-made-as-simple-as-possible-but-no-simpler/

[4] Lent, Jeremy. “A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism” Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, Nov 2009. Retrieved from: https://jeremylent.wordpress.com/2009/11/18/a-false-choice-reductionism-or-dualism/

[5] Lent, Jeremy.

[6] Cartesian dualism: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dualism/

[7] Haraway, Donna (1985). A Cyborg Manifesto. Publisher unknown.

[8] Turner, Victor (1974). “Liminal to liminoid in play, flow, and ritual: An essay in comparative symbology” (PDF). Rice University Studies. 60 (3): 53–92.

[9] Herbert, Nick. Quantum Reality. 1987

[10] sk-interfaces https://we-make-money-not-art.com/skinterfaces/

[11] Hauser, Jens. sk-interfaces: Exploding Borders in Art, Technology, and Society. Liverpool: 2008 Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/38598075/sk-interfaces_Exploding_Borders_in_Art_Technology_and_Society_Liverpool_

[12] Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. New York: Columbia University Press 2006

[13] Harvey, Graham.

[14] Harvey, Graham.

[15] Kahane, Reuven (1997). The Origins of Postmodern Youth. De Gruyter Press

[16] Harman, Graham (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology. Penguin Random House

[17] Sterling, Bruce. Atemporality for the Creative Artist. WIRED, 2010. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist/

A Liminal Space

Discovering liminality through philosophy, mythology, and technology

A Liminal Space

A Liminal Space is a publication dedicated to discover the in-betweenness between mythology and technology, the ancient and the future, and every opposite edge of existing dualities.

Gizem Oktay

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A Liminal Space

A Liminal Space is a publication dedicated to discover the in-betweenness between mythology and technology, the ancient and the future, and every opposite edge of existing dualities.