On Liminality.

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.

13 thoughts on “On Liminality.

  1. Excellent! Well said on all counts. I also love much about the old country (the US) but don’t care if I never hear that mindless mantra again: “The US is the greatest country on earth, etc”. If you’re going to engage in the discourse there, public or private, you’re pretty much required to stick that bit in somewhere.

  2. You know, I’ve read all the arguments you are making about liminality in terms of transnational migrants in texts that you would probably denigrate as written by ‘cultural relativists and intellectual poseurs.’

  3. Alex: No, I do not know. But If your take is that the subject is already well treated as an inter-textual discursive phenomenon in which all reality is subjective and relativized, then please do not bother reading further.

  4. No, thats not what I’m saying at all. I was just suggesting that your dismissal of vast swathes of humanities research was a little snarky. Especially as you (possibly) lifted the phrase ‘betwixt and between’ from Turner, who is the inspiration for a huge amount of said research.

    Either way, I did find everything else in the post interesting, especially the perspective on sporting loyalty. It brings to mind the question of insider/outsider status in one’s new society, and whether or not the truly fanatical fans of sports teams fully accept outsiders joining them in supporting ‘their’ team. I’ve seen examples of this here, Pakeha rugby fans who care deeply about the All Blacks being sniffy about people of Asian descent sitting next to them in the stadium, that sort of thing. The assumption is made that you can’t be a real fan unless you have grown up supporting a team. I don’t subscribe to this belief myself, but I have seen it expressed a lot.

  5. OK Alex, I am clearer on your original point. Since this is a blog and not a scholarly article I was not about to delve at length into the reasons I have little use for most po-mo or cultural relativism, although I do respect the better expressed instances of each.

    Your observation about native born versus immigrant fandom is interesting. I am not up on NZ rugby intimacies, but think that what you describe may be more a reflection of Pakeha culture rather than NZ rugby culture. What I have noticed as a soccer fan in several countries is that the locals happily welcome outsiders pledging their allegiance to their team, with the exception of teams that have a narrow sectarian base or whose fans include organized crime members (unfortunately, as is the case in Argentina).

  6. Great blog Pablo, I enjoyed the sporting dilemmas as I frequently find myself supporting several team’s being country of birth, lived there or because I live here.In some cases purely because I visited a country and had a hell of a good time.

    Somewhere in the blog when I read it at lunch time I thought hell Pablo is heading toward multi national corporations but rereading now I can’t find the bit that made me think that, probably my head is in a different space.

  7. Thanks Hamish. The sporting analogy seems to have struck a chord. I did not mention triathlon, which I did for nearly 20 years and represented both the US and NZ back in their respective days. I support NZ in triathlon as a first choice, but given my trajectory also support Chilean, Argentine, Brazilian and Portuguese athletes before jumping on the US bandwagon and unless thy are head to head with a Kiwi (and even then I have mixed emotions).

    More importantly, the true test of liminality is when two countries/peoples/places where one has lived in or amongst enter into conflict. At that point a choice must be made. I, for example, support Argentina when it comes to the Malvinas Islands. I did not support the dictatorship that tried to reclaim them by force, but understand the motivations behind the move. I also understand the US and NZ reasons for backing the UK, but reckon that is imperialist and servitor imperialist interest at work. Since I see imperialism as a mixed blessing at best, I side with the non-imperialist county where I grew up.

  8. I can see your point Pablo regarding the Falkland Island’s, I blogged about the alleged Argentine plan to offer fishing licenses over the Falklands territorial waters recently.

    Logically Argentina should be the sovereign power and a British withdrawal I think might have been possible bar the regimes,( Gaultier’s not Thatcher ) short sighted view of the world.

    The British have been decolonising and I watched it from a privileged position in Vanuatu, just ask any French colon how that turned out.

    Sorry Argentine Generals singing there love for the ” Malvinas ” tends to make me think that the result over self determination that will be voted on soon might be a bit more democratic.

    I know people, well two people ( phone contact only ) in the administration of Aquaculture and Fisheries in the Falkland’s and they assure me they know where they want to be.

  9. Hamish:

    I have no doubt that the kelpers prefer to be British. That allows them to live beyond their means. But the issue of disputed sovereignty is now about resource exploitation rather than self-determination.

  10. Fascinating post Pablo. Given the Great Kiwi Diaspora, and our fondness for OE, the subject of liminality deserves a wider audience. The perspective you get living in and absorbing another culture should benefit all sides. I can’t help thinking that the parochialism shown by many Americans is influenced by their lack of a broader perspective not gained by overseas experiences. The opposite being true of the New Zealander. Generally, we have an ability to tolerate other cultures, and accept other points of view.

  11. Steve: That is a good point. One would think that Kiwis are disproportionally “globalized” and therefore liminal in outlook given the percentage that go on OEs. The trouble is that many of those going on OEs are traveling on extended holidays rather than settling in a foreign country for an extended period of time. As for those that do, well, many of them come back with attitudes similar to John Key’s (e.g. if it works in Singapore it must work in NZ).

    As for the US–well, when only 20 percent of a population of 300 million plus living in a continental sized country have traveled abroad you are bound to have a pretty fair amount of ignorance about the world at large. Which, of course, makes them ripe for manipulation by demagogues and national chauvinists posing as political leaders.

  12. A ‘period of transition‘ and ‘which ‘side’ am I on…’ can exist within national borders also. A hell of a lot of people on these here shores are obviously conflicted about their objective place in New Zealand society.

  13. Pablo, I would like to belatedly thank you for ruining my Thursday. You gave me a lot to think about, about my experience, about my fears for my daughter’s early years in China (she’s 1, so idiots running up shouting “Hey! Look at the little foreigner!” (she was born here in Beijing and her mother is Chinese, dammit!) simply don’t appear on her list of priorities just yet, fortunately) and my fears about moving my family back to New Zealand some time before the wee one needs a primary school. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t get done, but I don’t regret that, because with this post you gave me a lot of great stuff to ponder. Thank you.

    Stephen Doyle, sorry, but I’m going to have to disagree with your “The opposite being true of the New Zealander. Generally, we have an ability to tolerate other cultures, and accept other points of view.” Pablo has highlighted some issues around the OE. I also have met more than a few highly parochial New Zealanders, including right here in China. For example, I have never heard an American boast about how long they’ve lived in China without learning Chinese. I have heard two fellow Kiwis boast along those lines, though. And yes, ‘boast’ is the right word for how they were talking. Also, Winston Peters, Don Brash, and whatsisface of the National Front (Kyle somebody?) draw their support, as minuscule as I hope it is, from somewhere. The OE is fundamentally good, and there are many benefits to having a widely-scattered diaspora, one of which is the positive side of liminality, but not all Kiwis travel and not all those who do learn well from their experience, even when they do spend years overseas, settle down in, and even marry into other countries and cultures.

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