Changing Names, Shifting Shapes, Blurring Boundaries (Part 1?)

(by Lonespark)

I’m working on a post about The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and in the course of thinking about the characters, liminality has come up a lot.

Liminal places are in-between: Thresholds, passages, borders… Places for departures, and arrivals.  Places, sometimes, for waiting.  Places for people who didn’t fit anywhere else.

Liminal characters are multifaceted, or in-between… They have more than one relevant identity, personality, name… More than one homeland, family, culture, shape…

A lot of queer and/or trans* characters are liminal in some ways… to the point where these kinds of liminal identities are often taken as, or intended to be, symbols of queerness.

A lot of bi- or multi-cultural, -lingual, -racial, -ethnic, etc. characters illustrate and interact with liminality.  Immigrants and refugees… Fugitives or spies… Traders, explorers, conquerors… Hostages… Those who leave the familiar for love, knowledge, freedom… Second- and third- generation immigrants, people with mixed ancestry, people with heritage in places that no longer exist… (That might describe the majority of people on Earth now or throughout history.  We are always leaving homes and making new ones, finding, building, claiming our new lives…)

Liminality can mean showing different faces, or speaking different tongues, as needed.  I don’t think characters who engage in code-switching are necessarily liminal figures, but they often seem to be.  Slaves who are warriors.  Gods who are slaves.  Heroes disgraced.  People rescued or repatriated, whether or not they wish to be.

What does liminality mean to you?  What is its importance in your life?  Who are your favorite liminal characters, in texts or works of any kind?

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10 thoughts on “Changing Names, Shifting Shapes, Blurring Boundaries (Part 1?)

  1. DawnM May 21, 2014 at 5:27 am

    There is a book I like: Passage by Connie Willis. It imagines a space that people can occupy that is not life and not death but an in-between waiting place.

  2. froborr May 21, 2014 at 11:36 am

    I’ve always understood that part of the point of the liminal is that it’s not important in itself, but only in its capacity to separate things. Nobody cares about doorways, but passing through them is important because it changes which side you’re on. So it seems a little odd to me to be asking about the importance of liminality in someone’s life?

    I think the liminal characters I’m most interested in at the moment are the Slender Man and, uh, basically everyone in Revolutionary Girl Utena.

  3. christhecynic May 21, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    I once watched a lecture on cupids in Roman art. They tend to be liminal figures and blur the line between the medium and the thing depicted. They can do many things but they’re basically always interacting with the forth wall. At the very least they lean on it, sometimes they kick a hole through it with their foot.

    There are many examples but I think my favorite is when were depicted as carrying a fabric rope on a stone sarcophagus. A fabric rope is light, it’s a ceremonial thingy of no real value and, more importantly, basically no weight. But it was carved out of stone, which is heavy, and since the cupids interact with the medium in addition to the subject matter they were depicted as laboring under the weight of the stone the rope was carved from, not the fabric it was meant to be depicting.

  4. J. Random Scribbler May 21, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    @Froborr: To me, liminality is interesting when it’s not as simple as going through a door or switching from one state to an absolutely different one. As a programmer I’m constantly working with abstract on/off, yes/no, whole-number states where there isn’t much liminality, except where they collide with the real world. (Whether because something’s wrong with the hardware, or because the program has to deal with special cases.) Sometimes liminal situations are troublesome and annoying, but other times they’re what reminds me I’m dealing with real people instead of just numbers.

    @christhecynic: Huh, somehow it never occurred to me that classical art would deal with stuff like the fourth wall. No reason it shouldn’t though. Do you remember what it was about cupids in particular that they were associated with that kind of meta stuff?

    @all: I can’t think of specific fictional characters, but the type of liminality I find most interesting in fiction is when characters grow and change. It’s fascinating to see a character start reaching for a change they can only glimpse, then have a breakthrough moment, then struggle between old and new as the balance slowly shifts, and even when the change is complete, still having to deal with the lingering effects of the past. While it’s fun to fantasize about simple and painless changes (say, turning off depression at the flick of a switch), they often feel like cheating when they happen in fiction.

  5. christhecynic May 24, 2014 at 10:02 am

    I asked the lecturer if there was any sort of myth to go with these cupids, and the answer is that there doesn’t seem to be. They seem to exist in visual art alone which means that we don’t have any explanation from the ancients.

    There’s Cupid, son of Venus who appears in various myths, some lifted from the Greeks others uniquely Roman, and then there are these cupids, plural, who violate the fourth wall, show up in places most people wouldn’t be allowed to be (the title of the lecture was “A cupid may gaze on a King” which you’re not going to have much of anyone else doing in the same way) and such.

    Guesses can be made, but they’re just that: guesses.

    Of course cupids are fairly liminal in themselves anyway. Cupids, Centaurs, Satyrs, anything that’s part man part animal is a violation of the pigeon holing that goes on in Greek and Roman stuff. Even when they’re on your side they’re untrustworthy and scary, not because they’re dishonest but because they break the ridged boundaries that are meant to be maintained. When everyone is supposed to be in one box or the other they live on the threshold.

    Centaurs, for example, can’t be trusted to have human levels of control. When human beings at a wedding kidnap the people they consider hot the human beings are assholes. When Centaurs do it it’s because they’re part animal and simply don’t have the same control over their urges. You’ve still got to stop them, which might involve a battle, but there’s not really animus. It’s not their fault because they’re not fully human and sometimes the animal side takes charge.

    In .hack//Sign at some point I’m, hopefully (got I need to get back to making posts), going to get to an entire episode that takes place in a liminal space.

    There’s two versions of “The World” in the show. One is the computer game representation of it that everyone is supposed to be in. The other is the real thing, a place that the computer game is attempting to model. Tsukasa lives there, and it’s much richer than what the programmers were able to create for their MMORPG. It has hot and cold, smell, touch, pain, pleasure, the ability to be wounded in ways the game simply doesn’t recognize, so forth.

    But in one episode they go to a place where the two things meet. Other characters come as close as they ever will to experiencing what Tsukasa experiences. They aren’t trapped in the game world like Tsukasa is, but pieces of the world beyond the programming start to come to them. One can feel the sweat on another’s hand when she should just feel the controller in her real world hands.

    One can pull off a burst of strength by psyching himself up even though that should have no effect on what his character, which is supposed to be little more than lines of code, can do.

    Though they haven’t quite stepped out of the computer simulation into the world beyond, the world the simulation is simulating, they’ve at least got their foot in the door.

    It’s an interesting thing.

    Mythologically liminal characters are often very important. In Christianity, God is not human. Humans are not God, yet this Jesus person somehow manages to exist on the threshold between the two.

    Hercules was mortal. And immortal. He bridged the gap between humans and the gods and things got just plain weird as a result. He has a shadow of a ghost in the afterlife because humans leave ghosts when they die, but he became a god when he died, so he must leave a ghost but he can’t leave a ghost and thus: shadow of a ghost.

    Dionysus is about as close to Hercules as you’ll get in non-Hercules Greek myth. He was always a god, in spite of his human mother, but he grew up as though he were a mortal. More than that, he lives in liminality. Basically all of his festivals are about smashing walls that keep society moving and setting up shop in the hole you just smashed into the wall.

    For some reason rigidly ordered societies seem fascinated by what happens when something cant be categorized within the existing order.

  6. Lonespark May 24, 2014 at 10:47 am

    That’s a hell of a comment, chris – could be its own post!

    I do think of liminal figures being important in religion and mythology. Wouldn’t psychopomps kind of count? And deities who have loyalties to/connections with multiple subdivisions of the cosmic order? Like Persephone?

    Like Loki. His fingerprints are on everything mighty the Gods have, and he’s a force for the disruption of their society, plans, and pretensions… A lot of figures come to know two (or more) worlds such that they can access both/all but not really belong to either/any of them. Hel definitely falls in that category, and depending on your interpretations of stuff, maybe Baldur could too? As opposed to Skadi, or Gerd… They cross the Gods in-group/out-group boundary, but then stay on one side.

    I’m trying to think if I’d characterize Odin as liminal. He is an intrinsic part of the creation and destruction of All The Things. But those bits of creation and destruction, brilliance and madness, seem to me to be always part of his character – two great tastes that vanquish your enemies and use you mercilessly for his own ends. He doesn’t so much disguise his motivations… unless he’s in disguise? IDK if that really counts. YMMV.

  7. Lonespark May 24, 2014 at 10:51 am

    As a programmer I’m constantly working with abstract on/off, yes/no, whole-number states where there isn’t much liminality, except where they collide with the real world.

    This makes me think of scientific modeling, and all different kinds of quantification and rating. But I never would have thought of relating it to liminality until you mentioned it. Very cool.

  8. Lonespark May 24, 2014 at 11:01 am

    I’d be especially interested in anyone’s thoughts on how this relates to queer or trans* identities. Or possibly to any other identities. Because people are not, in fact, literary symbols or allegories or whatever.

    There may be a sense of balancing and blending aspects of identity for some people (most people?) but still a basic sense of the wholeness of self. And it is wicked annoying for other people to presume you’re a combination of distinct parts rather than a whole you with a perfectly good individual and group identity. (Especially since groups can overlap, duh, draw a Venn diagram if it helps.) But I can’t speak to that from experience much.

  9. Lonespark May 24, 2014 at 11:05 am

    J. Random Scribbler

    I can’t think of specific fictional characters, but the type of liminality I find most interesting in fiction is when characters grow and change. It’s fascinating to see a character start reaching for a change they can only glimpse, then have a breakthrough moment, then struggle between old and new as the balance slowly shifts, and even when the change is complete, still having to deal with the lingering effects of the past. While it’s fun to fantasize about simple and painless changes (say, turning off depression at the flick of a switch), they often feel like cheating when they happen in fiction.

    Yes to all this! Well said.

    And I have had experiences like this in real life, too. Where I look back after a few years or months and am completely astounded by how different my life, or my relationships, or my attitude toward something, has completely shifted, in ways that seemed utterly impossible from where I was standing then.

  10. Lonespark May 24, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Also,

    It’s fascinating to see a character start reaching for a change they can only glimpse, then have a breakthrough moment, then struggle between old and new as the balance slowly shifts, and even when the change is complete, still having to deal with the lingering effects of the past.

    Did someone say “Zuko?”

    Also I wish this made me think more of Korra, but sadly, noooo…

    And I do find “After the redemption arc” stories very interesting, with characters who have done truly awful, unforgiveable things, and are trying to do some good in the world, and how do they handle their guilt or the ways the past touches on the present, and how do other characters treat them… And what kinds of acts or rituals of reconciliation or restorative justice exist in their societies or faith traditions.

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