On liminality… and what feels like the longest rite of passage. Ever.

Illustration by Aline Fouard
There is something contagious about the frenzy that is “back to school.” And when I say contagious, I mean it in a germy, plague-like, I-don’t-know-where-I-caught-it kind of way. It’s frantic and stressful and every year it manages to derail the carefully planned timeline I have for progressing through my program.

I should clarify that for me, the September frenzy has less to do with surviving the various froshy going-ons on campus, and more to do with organizing my eight year-old son’s entrance into grade three. Thus, for the past two weeks I seem to have done nothing but fill out forms, buy ridiculous amounts of HB pencils and glue sticks, and cope with the after-effects (exhaustion and crankiness) of adjusting to classroom rules after two months of freedom outside at the pool.

There is, however, a flipside to these mundane burdens: it puts me back in touch with the incredible sense of possibility and excitement that accompanies all this madness, and is materialized in getting new books and pencil cases and pairs of indoor shoes. Because at eight years old, going back to school also means making new friends, learning new things about the world you live in, and realizing you’re capable of doing stuff you didn’t know you could do (like making model cars out of broken HB pencils when you should be practicing your dictée words). At eight, it doesn’t matter that millions of other people have already done what you just did, or already know what you just learned.

After more than a quarter century of Septembers and almost a decade of university, getting back in touch with the exhilarating drive to constantly widen one’s perspective of the world is a very welcome reminder of why I’m here. Still.

When I think about my graduate student experience, the first word that comes to mind is “liminality.” Rooted in the Latin term limen (meaning threshold), “liminal” is used in social theory to describe an intermediate state or period of transition. It became an important word in the anthropological lexicon thanks to Arnold Van Gennep’s work Rites of Passage (1909). In his analysis of the cultural rituals that mark life’s transitional moments (e.g. initiation rites, marriages, funerals) Gennep identifies three distinct ritual stages: separation, transition, and reincorporation. Through a set of ritual acts, a person is removed from her previous social life, undergoes some kind of symbolic change, and is then reintegrated into the social group in an entirely new capacity. The liminal state refers to the second phase – the transitional period during which the individual (or group of individuals) has shed one social status but has not yet fully entered the next.

On the one hand, because it is an “in-between” state of being, liminality can be an unsettling and ambiguous experience; the individual has no clearly defined or stable social role, is often put through disorienting and anxiety-producing tests (of skill, endurance, knowledge), and is usually both temporally and spatially cut off from the rest of the social group. How does this relate to graduate school?

Well, through my own various responsibilities on campus I am something in between a student and teacher, there are always looming proposal defenses or progress reports to keep me from becoming too comfortable, and the nature of my work (which at this point involves large amounts of reading and writing alone) is incredibly isolating. The result: all this liminality sometimes makes me feel totally ambivalent towards my research.

On the other hand, and what the back to school frenzy reminded me, is that it is precisely because being a graduate student is so liminal that it also has the potential to be an extremely fruitful, creative, and even socially regenerative experience. In this sense, like the anthropologist Victor Turner writes in his book, The Anthropology of Experience, liminal experiences can be described as:

“dominantly in the subjunctive mood of culture, the mood of maybe, might be, as if, hypothesis, fantasy, conjecture, desire. … Ordinary life is in the indicative mood, where we expect the invariant operation of cause and effect, of rationality and commonsense. Liminality can perhaps be described as a kind of fructile chaos, a storehouse of possibilities, not a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structures, a gestation process, a fetation of modes appropriate to postliminal existence” (p. 42).

Does pursuing a PhD feel like the longest rite of passage ever? Sometimes. But I prefer to think of it as four years of “fructile chaos.”

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