Our current age: a liminal age?

Kim de Wildt

There have always been several diagnoses to describe in which day and age we life and what defines us currently. These diagnoses are a means to describe what defines us in comparison to past generations and dynamics and to provide a prospect of the future. Everybody has heard of generation babyboom and the current generation is called generation Y. In Germany you have the ‘68-er Generation’ and currently ‘Generation Praktikum’, in the Netherlands there was ‘Generation Nix’ and nowadays the screenagers.

Since the 1980s paradigm chances have been called within the humanities ‘turns’, such as the linguistic turn, the performative turn and the spatial turn. These turns designate new focal points within the analysis of culture and society. Since the Second World War these turns have also been designated as new intellectual fashions which swiftly follow one another. [1]

I will probably not start a new fashion and do not even want to, but as someone who occupies herself with space as well as with ritual I cannot withstand the need to express some of my thoughts concerning this topic.

Unfortunately, I need to complicate the analysis of our current multi-layered day and age even more.  Besides the already mentioned phenomena of generations and turns I need to address other phenomena as well, which question the self-evidence of the past decades even more. It has never been the case that a complete culture could be subsumed under one particular header, whether it is generation y or performative turn. But nevertheless these labels refer to a certain day and age with a certain atmosphere and show the current state of affairs.

Our present day can be regarded as either positive or negative, dependant on the eye of the beholder. Negative in the meaning of a loss of traditional forms of family, community, religion and an increasing materialistic hedonism, to name but a few. Positive in the sense of increasing possibilities to mould our own life, to express ourselves and to experience the advantages of a globalised society which enables us to have the world in our hands with just one mouse click.

These phenomena cannot be one-dimensionally judged as positive or negative and cannot be captured in one word. Especially our current reality is multidimensional and makes it for us virtually impossible to approach it in monodisciplinary forms. Space or place are not the defining characteristics, nor as time is, or language or practice. The interaction between these phenomena must always be considered in the analysis of our present culture. And therefore the increasing call for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches is just.

A concept which has been helpful to me to grasp these phenomena in our present day and the way in which it can be best described, is the concept of liminality. Liminality is the concept which has been evolved by the British anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) in order to describe the transformation phase in the concept of the rites of passage of the French ethnologist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957).[2]

In his famous monograph Les rites de passage, published in the year 1909, Van Gennep describes transitions which always follow the same pattern. These are social passages, status changes, but also spatial passages which always follow the same threefold structure, namely the threefold structure of the rites of passage. The first part Van Gennep describes as rites de séparation (rites of separation), the second part as rites de marge (transition rites) and the third part as rites d'agrégation (rites of incorporation).[3]

Following Victor Turner I would like to focus on the transition phase. Turner calls this phase the liminal phase; limen signifying threshold in Latin. During the liminal phase the characteristics of the subject are ambiguous (Turner names the subject the passenger): the subject passes through a cultural realm that has virtually no attributes of the past or coming state.

Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions arranged by law, custom, convention and ceremonial. [4]

What does liminality mean to us nowadays? To explore this I will take a personal example in order to show how liminality can function today.

In December 2013 I was invited by the commissaries of gender mainstreaming of my former employer, the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany, to tell something about my professional and personal life stations and the challenges, boundaries, solutions, ideas and means of support I encountered. This presentation I named ‘Religion on the border. Biographical thresholds in life’.[5] This title indicates my liminal life: the word ‘border’ as well as the word ‘threshold’ signify this. By using some biographical examples I will show how much my life has been and still is characterized by liminality. 

The first station in my life, my childhood was very much influenced by a certain girl image: the image of Pippi Longstocking. What attracted me to her were among others her (physical) strength and her (financial) independence. These characteristics are traditionally attributed to boys and men, but Pippi united in her small, liminal being a multitude of characteristics which transcended the traditional male and female imagery. During this time I also experienced another form of liminality: the decline of religion in a rapidly secularizing country. It was certainly a liminal experience: on the one hand I was attracted to the religious forms of Catholicism and on the other hand I was raised in a religious-critical manner in a society which put increasing pressure on the plausibility of religion altogether.

In my later life I continuously experienced liminality in the tension between my faith and between my womanhood. It is a strenuous balancing act in a context which has traditionally not always been female friendly:

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13  For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 1Timothy2

Nowadays I would describe my life also as a liminal life: I life and work as a born and raised Dutch woman seven years in Germany now. How much I am Dutch I really came to experience in Germany. And how much I have become germanised I always experience when I am back in the Netherlands. It is a ‘betwixt and between’ between two neighbouring countries with their own cultures, which seem sometimes very similar and then again completely different. I am not a theologian nor am I a religious studies scholar: I am a border crosser between both disciplines.  Moreover, I am not a liturgy scholar and a religious education scholar: here I move between two domains as well. And precisely that is what makes my job exciting: searching for the connection between two different approaches in the hope that the result will be a happy union. A last domain that I want to address concerns country life and city life. I have lived the fast majority of my life in a Dutch city and work nowadays in the German city of Bonn, that I have grown to love. I life however with my husband and our animals in the country. It is every single time a special experience to be in two completely different worlds within a matter of a few hours. These differences are a physical experience: nature and culture, intellect and body, tranquillity and hecticness. I cannot and will not chance my liminal life: in all domains, professionally and personally, it is essential to me to move around in several worlds: living the liminal life is an exciting life.

This short outline of my life is perhaps not only exemplary for me: on a daily basis I encounter similar life designs in our culture of people who are on the move between countries, careers and relationships (family and otherwise). What these people seem to have in common is this in between: instead of having a certain role in a certain geographical place in a certain society for a complete lifetime, our day and age seems to be defined by fluid roles on the thresholds of life, in which life designs can, and often must, alter fast. This certainly has the already mentioned advantages: I define who I am, and when necessary, I define this everyday anew. However there is a drawback: people can get stuck when they are not able to sustain these tense thresholds and perform proactive to the propositions the world poses. The danger is that one stays in limbo, but this need not be the end of the world, it can function as a way to contemplate the own liminal life: am I still able to perform this balancing act and do I want to perform this balancing act in this form? Should I reorientate or can the needs of the world and my own needs be met? How our society will evolve remains an open question, but this is a characteristic of liminality as well: enduring the uncertainty on the threshold and making the most of it.


[1]    Doris Bachmann-Medick (2006). Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften. Reinbek: Rowohlt. S. 7-8; Victoria E. Bonnell & Lynn Hunt (1999). Beyond the cultural turn: new directions in the study of society and culture. California: University of California Press, S. 1-2.

[2]    Victor W. Turner (1964). Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. In: The Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society, Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, S. 4-20; Arnold van Gennep (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[3]    Van Gennep (1960). The Rites of Passage. S. 10-11.

[4]    Victor Turner (1969). Liminality and Communitas. In: Michael Lambek (2008). A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Wiley-Blackwell, 358-374, hier: 359.

[5]    ‚Religion auf der Grenze. Biografische Schwellen im Leben‘.

Artikelnachweis: https://www.theomag.de/90/kdw1b.htm
© Kim de Wildt, 2014