Jeremy D Johnson

Three Theses on Liminality

On Thresholds, Interregnums, and Coyolxuahqui



Recently I published an impromptu podcast on “liminality,” which was the product of a series of recent conversations hosted between the Mutations discord, The Stoa, and "the Twitter discourse.” 

What follows, then, is an attempt to turn middle-of-the-night mic soliloquy to midnight missive; a leap from auditory invocation to textual inscription.
Aguri Kitamura, “The Uncertainty of the Waning Moon,” 1988.

I. Threshold

First, a necessary digression. 

I came across the word “limn” while reading one night, in the buzzing chatter of online “liminal web” discourse. It means: "early 15c., 'to illuminate' (manuscripts), altered from Middle English luminen, 'to illuminate manuscripts' (late 14c.)."

These days, we use limn figuratively, to “portray” or “depict” something. One imagines a dim fire on the horizon; a mere gesture of light at the edge of dusk or dawn, a waning fingernail slice of the moon.

As we cast our eyes on this imaginary horizon we have already found the meaning behind the world “liminal:” "of or pertaining to a threshold,” 1870, from Latin limen "threshold, cross-piece, sill."

Of course, whenever we have a “limit” (another word in this sprawling rhizome of etymological relations), whenever we build a wall, we have also generated the possibility for its transversal

So we are on the topic of horizons and thresholds, limits and walls, and their appropriately hidden transversals (vertere, from the root *wer-, “to turn, bend”). From this place, we understand liminality to be that initiatory threshold where the limits of our knowing meets the horizon of our being

These thresholds are initiatory. They are transformative. Full of bendings, turnings and reversals; where inner-meets-outer like a Möbius strip, an intermediary tidal zone of death and resurrection, morphological transfiguration. Fish-becoming-amphibian.

We are at a civilizational threshold, but we humans, who can claim both fish and amphibian as our ancestors, have crossed many a threshold before. These images: the limn of a horizon, a wall-that-is-a-door, a tidal zone, are meant to invoke the powerful magical and mythical language conveyed through word “liminal” itself and its nearly overdetermined complex of meaning.

II. Interregnum 

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci monument, 2013.
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian Marxist philosopher, and famous for his Prison Notebooks.: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

Meta- already implicates threshold and boundary crossing, but for this thesis—if I were to further consider “liminality” to be a word that meta-, integral, regenerative or transformational communities ought to bandy about to describe themselves—it would need Gramsci’s integral understanding of the interregnum. As poetic as it is grounded in a sense of material history, Gramsci’s understanding points us to the complex tensions of our own present. We proclaim the radical potential of new technological innovations (see Web3), yet at the same time these new (and arguably real) possibilities are dramatically undercut by their own contradictions, or refusal to associate (or learn from, for that matter) with past social movements:
"…many of the innovations in the crypto space are actually rediscoveries of organizational structures first explored by socialist traditions of the past with plenty to learn from. In fact many of the descriptions of organizational structures described under guild socialism sounded similar to many of the ideas professed by the DAO-pilled (DAO2DAO, DAO networks, etc.). The difference today however is that many of these organizational structures are potentially closer to being as easy to implement as traditional companies than ever before with the pros and cons that come with using a blockchain."
We need, in other words, to recognize the interregnum that we are situated in, between our material histories on one horizon and our material futures on the other

Another face of liminality. 

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture illustrates the continuity, for instance, between the intentional communities of the 1970s and their turn towards Whole Earth Catalogue and libertarian cyber utopianism in the 1980s. 

Now as Silicon Valley technocultures make another turn on the spiral back towards an aspirational “Game B” culture, how much awareness do these communities have about what came before—their own material histories— and what lessons are they taking to work out these contradictions? 

A necessary move must involving efforts to ask for guidance in the “Western self-decolonization” (Weber), to find relationship with place and time and the more-than-human, to cohere the “old world” from the “new world” in themselves so that they cease to produce, as Gramsci wrote, “the time of monsters.”

This thesis, then, is largely a call for liminality itself to be a “calling in” invitation for historical literacy, and finally a recognition of that interregnum of our material histories, so that we can realize new possible, material and planetary futures.

III. Janus / Coyolxuahqui

Coyolxāuhqui, Mexico City.
If the first thesis is the mythic-imaginal import of thresholds, and the second recognizing the interregnum our material histories/futures, then the third is that dreaded (or greatly anticipated for our communities) meta-turn. A move into the interrelatedness and complexity of it all: liminality as the transformation of our meaning-mattering, our worldview, our structures of consciousness

Jean Gebser (1905-1973) invokes the titan Janus to describe our liminal epoch:
"A further complicating circumstance in the realization of our stated task is inherent in the natural condition of our epoch. Since a restructuration of our form of realization is now taking place, all of its manifestations are 'Janus-faced.' On the one hand they are still bound to the consciousness structure in force until now which, to the extent that it is deficient, is now threatening to collapse. Yet they are already indebted to the new yet only gradually emerging consciousness structure which is in process of formation. As a consequence a certain confusion comes to the fore because the weakened foundations of the old manner of thinking are not yet sufficiently counterbalanced by the consolidation of the new mode of perception.
…Much of what goes on today is a dissolution; but it is not just a dissolution, for 'dissolution' also contains a 'solution.'"
Like Gramsci’s “interregnum,” Gebser’s “Janus-faced” epoch speaks to the unbearable awkwardness of our becoming planetary, brimming with contradictions and the spinning vertigo of old-new mutations. 

The “task” Gebser speaks of is our own: the old is imploding and the new must be consolidated, have strong enough roots in the material world to burst from the soil and know the new day. This requires a tremendous intensification of consciousness. 

The liminal threshold we face is in working to overcome these tensions of old/new within ourselves and working out their realization in meaning and matter, consciousness and culture, material history and social imaginaries. 

The world is falling apart and coming together all at once, and simultaneously, like Marshall McLuhan’s vortexes and maelstroms.

Feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa (1942-2004) also understood the nature of such ruptures in worldview, and as she highlights, these ruptures have already been occurring for centuries during the process of colonization, Edgar Morin’s “Planetary Era”; this is the making of my own Mexican ancestry.
"Este choque shifts us to nepantla, a psychological, liminal space between the way things had been and an unknown future. Nepantla is the space in-between, the locus and sign of transition. In nepantla we realize that realities clash, authority figures of the various groups demand contradictory commitments, and we and others have failed living up to idealized goals.

We’re caught in remolinos (vortexes)… Torn between ways, we seek to find some sort of harmony amid the remolinos of multiple and conflictive worldviews; we must learn to integrate all these perspectives."
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro
We have all made our way into this liminal space — and some of us, like the Mesoamerican peoples who faced the destruction of their world centuries ago and then had to go about the business of living after that apocalypse, have been here for quite some time. Now planetary conditions, be it the uprootedness of our global system or the nearly universal conditions of the so-called “meta-crisis,” have thrown humanity as a whole and all our interspecies kin into the uncertain liminal conditions of the present. 

Liminality is here and now. It is you and me. It is a very palpable structure of feeling. 

We may not, in fact, have much need to identify this particular corner of the web as “liminal,” or ourselves as liminalists (please forgive me for that neologism), because liminality is something like the de-facto Anthropocene condition. We are, as it were, in the thick of it, as in Donna Haraway’s “thick present.” Before you know you’re there, you’ve already arrived.

Nick Estes, writing on the history of indigenous resistance, reminds us that “our history is your future,” and so one way we might begin to work with this present is to recognize the common task of searching for habitable futures:
“In nepantla we undergo the anguish of changing our perspectives and crossing a series of cruz calles, junctures, and thresholds, some leading to a different way of relating to people and surroundings and others to the creation of a new world. Nepantleras such as artistas / activistas help us mediate these transitions, help us make the crossings, and guide us through the transformation process—a process I call conocimiento."
Anzaldúa’s “nepantla” and “nepantlera” are insightful for this thesis. If we are all in liminal times and to call ourselves especially liminal is not only beside the point, but flirting with a dangerous ahistorical view, then nepantleras comes closer to approximating what some of our communities might actually feel called to do: to be at the threshold, to make crossings, to guide each other and ourselves through a process of transformation. Dissolution and solution. Regeneration. 
"Chaotic disruptions, violence, and death catapult us into the Coyolxauhqui state of dissociation and fragmentation that characterizes our times. Our collective shadow—made up of the destructive aspects, psychic wounds, and splits in our own culture—is aroused, and we are forced to confront it."
Coyolxuahqui is the goddess of the moon in Aztec cosmology. Perhaps even more appropriate than Gebser’s Janus, Coyolxuahqui’s journey of waxing-and-waning, fragmentation and regeneration, is reflective of our own age of old systems and worldviews bursting apart and we — in the liminal thick of it all, the vortex — undergoing a process of dissolution-solution.
"The Coyolxauhqui imperative is to heal and achieve integration. When fragmentations occur, you fall apart and feel as though you’ve been expelled from paradise. Coyolxauhqui is my symbol for the necessary process of dismemberment and fragmentation, of seeing that self or the situations you’re embroiled in differently. Coyolxauhqui is also my symbol for reconstruction and reframing, one that allows for putting the pieces together in a new way. The Coyolxauhqui imperative is an ongoing process of making and unmaking. There is never any resolution, just the process of healing."
The fragmentations of the old worldview - call it the “mental” structure of consciousness or modernity or the “perspectival world - continue to unspool more and more of humanity into the conditions of liminality, of being in “the time between worlds” (Stein), but in this process we also have certain opportunities to move towards healing. New roles that come to the fore (the Coyolxuahqui imperative), such as threshold crossers and mediators between old and new worldviews. 

We need individuals and communities that serve these liminal times by calling them into being with the fullness of their senses and with a compassionate dedication to realizing instances of these new futures in the present. Transforming fragmentation into cohering fragments of integral futures. Doing the difficult work that is both material and spiritual. Finding ways back into relationship with place so we are in relationship with planet. Guiding ourselves through this unmaking and re-making of the world. Coming home.

In other essays I’ve referred to this intermediary guidework involving a kind of “evolutionary triptych”:

mutations (new consciousness)

imagination (creative expressions of that new consciousness through language, art, and knowledge crafting)

futurability (the process of actualizing new material futures)

In the “interim world,” as Gebser called it, we can use these tools to help us navigate the threshold. 

And so we return again to the meshworked tapestry of it all:

1.    Liminality as a threshold, the very word containing the integral meaning of boundary-and-transversal.
2.    Liminality as a calling in to knowledge and literacy of material histories, necessary and entangled with our material futures.
3.    Liminality as a re-structuring of consciousness and culture in the fragmentation and regeneration of worldview, and we (if we were to identify a role for ourselves, called to speak to these times) as healers, mediators, and threshold crossers, realizing fragments of integral futures in the present.

If we can hold these three meanings on the nature of liminality, perhaps we can do something with the word and its meaning. Regardless of what various communities of practice and social transformation end up calling themselves, we must all go on living in this liminal present. 

Speaking of living.

Helen Ward’s hedgerow
There is one more image that has, true to its character of its denizens, snuck into the conclusion of the thesis. The hedgerow. It gives us hope for life in liminal zones.

Hedgerows are boundaries distinguishing one place from another, but they are made from living wood that is thatched (*wer-, “to bend,” shows up once again) into the shape of a fence. All manner of critters find their home there, amongst the flurry of twisted root and branch. We, too, might find life here, discovering hidden passages and passageways to and from one side or another. This way, we might whisper to someone approaching, another person seeking more habitable futures elsewhere, you won’t find roads here. No, it’s not very brightly lit. No, there’s no straight path through. But here you’ll find all manner of twisting burrow and turning branch, and those are all a much better bet, because where you’ve found kin, where you’ve found relations, you’ll find tomorrow.

Anzaldua, Gloria. Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro:Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality
Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin.
Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks.

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Words by Jeremy D Johnson
Author 📘 "Seeing Through the World" | Editor/Publisher @Revelore Press, @Liminal_News | 🎙️Mutations podcast | Integral philosophy & futurism.