Posted on 15:05, July 5th, 2012 by Pablo
For some time I have been pondering the issue of liminality. It is a term that appears in cultural studies and all sorts of post-modern rubbish posing as theory, but in this instance it resonates with me and seems to accurately depict a social condition that is increasingly evident in a multi-globalized world. “Liminality” refers to state of intermediacy or even indeterminacy. It is a condition of being caught in betwixt and in between, of being in two or more places at once but not being fully settled in any one of them. It is different from and more than hybridity, which is a combination rather than a condition, although hybridity can lead to liminality in some instances (say, a mixed race person moving between the different class and cultural backgrounds of parents).
In my frame of reference liminality is the condition where a person who has lived for significant periods of time in more than one country finds him/herself saddled with affections and aversions from each, leading to overlapping loyalties, and more importantly, a sense of relativism that destroys any notions of cultural absolutes or ideals. For example, the more the individual lives in different places, the more it seems to me that it is hard to get seriously nationalistic about any one of them. Even such small issues as sports loyalty can be a complicated matter. I, for example, follow Argentina in soccer because I grew up there. I root for Barcelona because it has a genius Argentine forward and a very Argentine style of play, but support Portugal as a national side in Europe because I lived in Lisbon for while and watched several of their players live as part of the experience. I support the ABs in rugby but switch allegiances to the Pumas when the play each other. I support the US in things like baseball and basketball, but then again tend to root for Greece in basketball because I lived in Athens for a while and the Greeks are crazy about b-ball, and cannot help but cheer for any small Latin American country when they play against the US in either sport (and truth be told, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have great baseball traditions and Argentina and Brazil have beaten the US in international basketball competition. Yay for them!).
Although I am not sure that they are sports rather than games, I have taken an interest in and support Singapore in table tennis and badminton because, well, I lived in Singapore for a few years and that is the only thing that they do well when it comes to international “athletic” competition (truth be told the national sport in Singapore is shopping, but they do not award medals for that). When not rooting for Argentina my default options are Chile (where my family lived for several years and where I subsequently conducted field research), Uruguay (where my family vacationed for extended periods during our time in Argentina and where I conducted field research in later years) and Brazil (where I lived episodically in the 1980s).
The sports angle is a minor one. The more serious issue is that as more and more people travel and settle across international borders, the more liminal they become. In many instances this occurs on top of an urban-rural disjuncture, whereby people transplanted from one to the other find themselves (at least initially) alienated and out of synch with the rhythm of life in their new locale. Think of a Laotian peasant or Somali refugee arriving and settling in Auckland. As with most new migrants, particularly those that are involuntarily re-settled, the pull of nostalgia for what was culturally lost very often overwhelms the urge to integrate and accept new values, mores and customs. It is only subsequent native-born generations that feel grounded in the new culture, but even they are often caught in betwixt and in between. One solution, particularly if the native population is hostile to new settlers, is to retreat in parochial defense of the “old” country or way of life. But even that eventually gives way to mixed feelings of loyalty and obligation to the old and the new.
Liminality occurs at the sub-national as well as the international level, both of which have been impacted by the revolution in transportation and telecommunications. There are consequently more and more people living in a liminal condition or state of mind. It therefore seems to me that “liminality” should be included in policy debates about things such as immigration, although to do that correctly we will have to wrestle the term away from the cultural relativists and other intellectual poseurs who think that trafficking in big words is equivalent to practicable and useful social research.
I am no expert on the topic so mention all of this merely as a subjective reflection. It is prompted by the July 4 celebrations in the US and comments by friends back there about how the US is the greatest country on earth etc. Yet most of these folk have never lived outside the States for an extended period of time, so how would they know? From my perspective it certainly has many merits and offers many opportunities, but in the end that is as much due to the its continental size and relative insulation as it is to the particularities of its people, politics and culture. Mind you, I feel certainly loyalty to the US as the country of my birth and whose government I once served, where my children and siblings reside, but that competes with my childhood loyalty to Argentina and current loyalty to NZ (which is where I expect to end my days. That raises an interesting sidebar: how many people actually think about the country or place that they would prefer to die in? I can say one thing for sure. Among other unhappy places, Afghanistan is not on the top of my list, with all due respect to the Afghans that I have known).
Who is to say that Canada, Costa Rica, Norway, Estonia, Turkey, Bhutan or–the goddess forbid–Australia is not the “greatest” country? How is universal “greatness” as a nation defined? One would have had to have lived in many places and have done many different things in order to make such a distinction (I do not mention Aotearoa simply because we all know that it is Godzone). And if one did in fact live in many places doing many different things, it is more likely that s/he would be at a loss to pick one single place as being above all of the rest in every respect. That is what liminality can do to a person–it makes it impossible to speak about culture or nationality in absolute or definitive terms. I say this even though I am fully aware of the canard that states that “there is no place like home,” whereby expats use the experience of living abroad to reaffirm their loyalty to their nation of origin (my parents did this for most of their lives). That may be true in some but not all instances, and I would argue that the more countries one lives in the less able s/he is to make such an assertion.
In any event, I write this as a person born in the US, raised and subsequently lived as an adult in Argentina and other Latin American as well as European and SE Asian countries, who resides permanently in NZ while continuing to travel to Australia, the US and elsewhere for professional and personal reasons. That pretty much defines my liminality, which I am not entirely sure is a bad thing.