The Liminal Experience of Crisis: Facing Suspended Animation in the Era of COVID-19

To be in crisis is to be betwixt and between.

Leysia Palen
Mar 17, 2020 · 8 min read

In times of crisis, we often feel betwixt and between. Anthropologists have talked about these moments as rites of passage, and are associated with planned events in life (like graduation, moving house, changing jobs) (Turner, 1987). To be in transition — to be neither here nor there — is to experience liminality (Boland, 2013). Unexpected events are perhaps the most acute in giving rise to liminal spaces, because endings are sudden, and the plans for what comes next are unknown. For unexpected events that happen on a regional — or even a global — scale, it is no longer simply the ritual of “graduation” that marks transition from one stage of human development to another — it is now a graduation ceremony that might not happen at all. This loss of experience that comes from the suspended animation of sequestering is liminality in the large, and though we are experiencing it together, which helps, we are also experiencing it alone, which is as painful as it has ever been.

These ideas come from in-progress work with my colleagues Melissa Bica, Jen Henderson, Jen Spinney, and Erik Nielsen, in which we have been examining how and why people post online during a multi-hazard event, which in turn stems from Erik’s atmospheric science work on the conceptualization of “TORFFs” — tornados and flash flooding—that can co-occur. TORFFs are an extreme (but not rare) case to examine: What does one do in the face of conflicting risk communication that instructs to “get to higher ground” because of flash flooding, but to “lower ground” for tornados? What is one to do when choices are hardly choices at all, but instead a weighing of unknown risk?

Furthermore, what is the effect of maintaining a digital presence online during periods of liminality? What we are finding is that, like our studies before, people who are affected by a crisis post online to seek help and advice in a variety of ways. But often, once help and advice are offered, the discursive acts take on other meaning, particularly when the solution to the trouble is unknown and needs waiting out. Preliminary findings from our current research and prior research that have bearing on the COVID19 pandemic include the following points:

A. People may find that documenting the experience online is helpful, particularly as it is felt personally and locally.
Documenting experiences makes them more real; the act of documenting and sharing the documentation structures the liminal space, and gives it purpose that one can control. In the early days of the COVID-19 event, we are seeing people post pictures of empty market shelves. Some posts point at the perceived problem of so-called “panic shopping,” but we might take the total of it to communicate how strange and unexpected the world is right now at this very moment.

It might also be similar to sending photos from the warfront: This is really happening. And in anthropologist’s terms, it might be a way to confirm the beginning of a state of transition for oneself, and to prepare others who might also be watching.It might also be a way to say now, “I am here (in this space of uncertainty),” and, for afterward, “I was here,” not unlike the narrative trope of a person stranded on a desert island who marks the days by etching lines in rock.

For more geographically contained disasters like TORFFS, public posting might be a way of shouting out, “I don’t want to be alone.” For the pandemic, where we all face the same threat, it might more hopefully be, “You are not alone.”

B. People seek to create community.
One way to manage the anxiety of uncertainty is to help others with the resources or expertise that oneself possesses. We are seeing self-organized community movements of gathering supplies and helping those who cannot leave their homes during the COVID-19 crisis, actions that we have seen flourish since the Haiti earthquake in 2010 in an unimaginably large set of creative ways (and is worthy of a recap in a future post to properly describe and credit those activists who have organized such activities, as well as those researchers who have carefully documented it).

Another way in which this is manifesting is through people in other regions with advanced COVID-19 diffusion advising others about what their futures may be like if they don’t take precautions. For example, residents in Italy and Korea are issuing warnings to residents of other countries about the consequences of failing to take early action. Sarah Vieweg and I also saw this behavior across two university shootings in 2007 and 2008, where students from the first university advised students from the second about how public or private they should choose to be on what was then the new world of Facebook.

C. People may continue to seek normalcy, but then must also negotiate power differentials.
In seeking normalcy for oneself in times of uncertainty, we might expect services to be running as normal. The problem of course is that those people and groups who offer those services might be beholden to those who demand them. Supplies might be short. Deliveries might be delayed. Young children at home might put a productive work day out of reach. Or, alternatively, some services might be running as normal (construction, local food markets), and might need extra financial attention for those with the means to assist. Crises are the time to make room for reasonableness and generosity.

So what might these findings from prior experiences of other liminal experiences inform what we might do during this one? Here’s how I am interpreting these findings for myself in these early days of COVID-19, and turning them into action.

1. I am maintaining daily routines.
For me, this begins by doing the same mundane things I do every morning, now more than ever: wake up at the same time; open the window shades; put in a load of laundry; start the coffee; unload the dishwasher; and then guiltlessly sit down to read or watch something not news related that I enjoy. Then, and only then, do I turn to news and email.

2. I am recognizing that things are different, and that by doing something new, even if small, I am marking this period of change.
For me, I am reading news for much longer than my typical daily routine allows. I therefore need to stop from deep-ending on it with a brief walk outside specifically to see how the plants are doing. This is not time I would have normally taken, and so this step is meditative, and a small new ritual that marks time.

I also find myself returning to Facebook, which I had previously given up based on my concerns about the platform’s lack of action to misinformation spread. I still feel strongly about this, but I also need to connect with others about this pandemic experience in a semi-public way. My unwillingness to give up the familiarity of Facebook right now leads me to my next observation…

3. I am acknowledging that loss cannot be given up in total and at once.
For me, this means I am not quite ready to admit that my son’s graduation ceremony will be cancelled. And I am not sure he is either, so until we have confirmation of that, we’ll keep it open as a possibility without getting our hearts set. Similarly, the high school prom is likely not going to happen, but my daughter and I kept our plans to look for a dress. We ordered one on-line. We don’t know if it will be worn any time soon, but we like seeing the pretty frock on the closet door. The experience of finding it together is one the pandemic can’t take away.

4. I am checking myself to make sure that I am plugging into power differentials in ways that benefit others.
Some of us can work from home; many cannot. I am trying to be thoughtful about how I can keep some plans that help businesses and others’ incomes in ways that do not further cause them stress. For example, we had existing plans to re-roof our house this month. This is a service that might be able to continue safely and benefit a local business and their employees, but I will be sure to ask if that is true. In addition, I am thinking about moving up a landscaping job I had planned in about year for summer 2021 to this spring, if that helps another small business. The money returned to me from a cancelled trip is now available to use in a different way. I would schedule entirely for their optimization, because they, too, have child care challenges. I hope to encounter other ideas as time goes on.

5. I am acknowledging my need for seeking and providing information.
This is what you are witnessing here, in my effort to blog and to tweet, which is something I have found hard to do. It is difficult because it requires distilling months-long research into something brief, which feels like I am short-changing the investigation and cutting corners on the expertise others have to give. I also have a hard time keeping up with respect to demands closer to home and work. I think my solution will be to include this into my daily routine (routines!) that productively bounds the time a little.

6. I am acknowledging my need for optimism.
Today” is managed by routines. Two weeks from now is utterly unknown. Six months from now is as unknown as life usually is — at least I think — but the rituals I love are pretty likely. My kids and I decided to make candles during their now extended spring break that we will give as presents for the fall and winter holidays. It is an activity that is based on a forecast for a new-normal future. That it is attached to shared rituals also helps us imagine being on the other side of the liminal experience.

We are all in a state of liminality, and perhaps in suspended animation. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to try to find a way to unsuspend, and take action within our new household orders, while also treating oneself and others with care as we navigate this massive transition to an uncharted destination.

Leysia Palen has been conducting crisis informatics research since 2004 as a Professor of Information Science and Computer Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. She and her research can be found at https://cmci.colorado.edu/~palen/.

This is the second article in a series on research and reflection during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Victor W. Turner. 1987. Betwixt & between: The liminal period in rites of passage. In Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation, Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster and Meredith Little (eds.). 3–19.

Tom Boland. 2013. Towards an anthropology of critique: The modern experience of liminality and crisis. Anthropological Theory 13, 3: 222–239. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499613496731

CUInfoScience

research and musings from the Information Science department at CU Boulder

CUInfoScience

The Information Science department at CU Boulder is powered by interdisciplinary research and teaching that allows us not only to imagine what today’s technology makes possible, but to invent what society will do with technology next.

Leysia Palen

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Professor of Information Science & Computer Science, Univ of Colorado. Disasters, Tech, Teaching, Research—and other Risky Things. www.cmci.colorado.edu/~palen

CUInfoScience

The Information Science department at CU Boulder is powered by interdisciplinary research and teaching that allows us not only to imagine what today’s technology makes possible, but to invent what society will do with technology next.

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