Liminality: a Student’s Response to Victorian Aestheticism

Liminality in Victorian/Online Communications, or, “How many times can I say ‘liminal’ in 1000 words or less?”

To begin with a definition: Liminal experience acts as the transitional stage between that which is and that which will be. The post-liminal stage is marked by change to the person, place, or thing which has undergone liminal action. In the strictest sense liminality requires a component of ritual, but realistically the component of ritual is less important than the component of transformation. Additionally, many things are accidentally ritualistic (ex. traveling, morning preparations, etc).

Due to the often accidental nature of personal transition it ends up being difficult to isolate the liminal stage from that which is pre- or post-liminal. This is especially true in exploring mortuary and personal loss narratives as although a person has left, and thus the relationship has entered a post-liminal stage, those left behind by a loss enter a liminal stage of grief. This liminal stage of grief is often interpreted as a post-liminal stage in itself, as is shown in Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s sonnet A Superscription (1870-1881): “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; / I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell;” (Rosetti). In this case the grief-stricken has embodied the loss within themself. This difficulty surrounding the ability to discern that which is liminal seems to be the guiding force behind the concept of “realism’s ghosts”–how is one to consider the space between cause and effect when the transition seems almost instantaneous?

While it’s arguably important to be connected to others through similar liminal experiences—growing together in similar ways—the liminal, passionate experiences of the individual are more important to the Victorian aesthetic. This isn’t to say that the experiences of communities as a whole are devalued by this sense of individualism, but rather that each person will have their own emotional reactions and thoughts separate from a community as well as within it.

The prioritization of individuality is prevalent in the conclusion of Walter Pater’s essay, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). While Pater’s conclusion calls for more focus to be placed upon individual experiences and reactions to art, it also calls for the preservation of passions, “To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, […]” (Pater 210). Pater concedes that in order to both grow and maintain our passions, we must share our experiences with others while taking into account their experiences: “What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy […], or of our own” (Pater 211). This “courting [of] new impressions” Pater talks of reminds me of the ways in which social medias have taken hold with respect to conceptualizing personal experiences against the experiences of others. The rapid social dis/approval processes inherent to sites such as Tumblr or Twitter are beneficial in regards to their ability to share a lot of information with a lot of people, however the quality of said information becomes debatable by virtue of rapid transmission.

In considering the Victorian focus on liminality in reference to current social media technologies I found myself focused on my own experiences with queerness. Arguably the act of “being” “queer” is an active state of transformation—and is thus trapped in the liminal stage—but there are specific situations and influences which may be looked upon after-the-fact (post-liminally). Publishing a blog post about a specific interaction with my family, for example, means quick responses from peers in ways which other medias (ex. print) can’t offer. In being able to speak to others about experiences as they occur, including those experiences which have an overall detrimental effect upon the writer, there is the opportunity for the experience to be validated through shared experience. When I told my parents that I would be changing 2 of my given names the interaction was overwhelmingly positive, with the caveat that I “shouldn’t” tell the rest of my family until after my grandmother passes away. In sharing this interaction online I was met with a number of responses within hours of the post along the lines of, “happened to me too, tbh, don’t worry.” While not the archetypal queer, my own experience was overwhelmingly validated through the experiences of others.

While there are positive experiences to come out of these rapid dis/approval process online, there are also those which build into negative structures. For example the approval of certain queer narratives over others plays into the creation and maintenance of homonationalism within lgb/t+ communities. Overarchingly, amongst a number of communities, this is reflected through the creation of archetypal concepts of peoples and identities. The “right” information comes from the “right” people experiencing the “right” reactions post-liminally (and, arguably, there is a pressure to react to liminal experiences in the “correct” way as they are occurring). As Mattilda Berstein Sycamore recently tweeted: “The problem with realizing you’re not the only one is when you realize you are.” Does the creation and implementation of archetypes have something to do with the many experiences only being able to be properly processed post-liminally? It would make some sense, as the categorization of experience is a common piece of the post-liminal stage. Even if one is able to recognize or connect to a liminal experience or action as it happens, the expression of the experience can only happen in pieces. A true summation of experience is only possible post-liminally, and even then only if the experience changed a person in a way which they are able to recognize.

The Victorian preoccupation with the liminal is pretty strongly mirrored by our own preoccupations with the same. While we have more access to one another we’re still concerned with maintaining our passions, and sharing those passions with others.

Though I’ve now entered the post-liminal stage of this project, I’m only just coming into the liminal stages of this class. Here’s to hoping we, as a classroom community, make it through the next few months of perpetual transition unscathed and the better for it.

5 thoughts on “Liminality: a Student’s Response to Victorian Aestheticism

  1. Question for the OP in regards to liminality and modern social media technologies, if I may.

    Do you find that the rapidity of the (dis)approval process via social media can be construed as a form of unintentional attack on liminality? Or, to put it another way, do think that we sacrifice individual liminal moments in order so that we may quickly connect with peers over shared experiences?

    The quality of the rapidly shared information on social media is, as you say, debatable, but I find myself wondering about the quality of the actual moment of transition itself. If responses flood in immediately, one doesn’t have to sit with the (potential) discomfort of waiting for validation for too terribly long. Personally, I think that that moment of potential discomfort–putting yourself out there and waiting to see if anyone responds, or even notices–is important for one’s own personal development. But, of course, I could certainly be wrong. I am curious to know your thoughts on the matter, just not too quickly.


    PS – I posed this as a question for the original poster, but I would love to know how other people feel about this.


  2. I think this comes down to an ideological concern as to whether or not people are “too connected” to social media. To which, honestly, the answer is probably closest to, “it depends.”

    I have a panic disorder, and being able to connect to another person or persons instantaneously makes triggers a lot easier to deal with, for example. If I’m having a flashback and think there’s someone in my house (who isn’t) being able to talk that through with someone or someones in-the-moment is a lot more helpful in regards to me being able to function as a human being later on than waiting until the moment’s past and hoping for the best.

    However, when my Aunt and Uncle went to Scotland for a month, for example, they posted everything (thought, emotion, experience, etc—like, everything) they did online. This made talking to them a couple months after the trip about the trip kind of awkward, because we already knew most of what they’d done while abroad.

    These are two obviously different situations of discomfort, but I think that they illustrate a certain amount of dependency upon the situation to answer the question. Today in class we talked about Swinburne’s The Triumph of Time, and for all the excess I think one of the things it shows rather well is the fact that perceptions of time may be altered by situational stimulus (“a fugitive pain” may be fleeting, but it sure as heck feels like forever). There are situations wherein discomfort can be dangerous (emotionally or physically), and lamenting the fact that we can’t hold on to those moments with more intensity seems a little… sadistic, honestly. Having said, there are also times where we need to put our phones down and quit posting pictures of Beatrix Potter’s garden so we can stop to smell the roses.

    So in the end I guess my answer is, “Yeah, there’s a sacrifice of individual liminal intensity for the Vine—but so what?” Moments are personal to begin with. How we deal with moments should be just as personal (even if that means sharing every moment publicly). Not everything needs to be a formative experience.

    (Sorry for the long reply, and doubly sorry if this doesn’t actually answer your question. Hope I waited long enough!)


  3. These are engaging, and challenging questions. I especially like the OP’s reference back to our class on Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time.” As you can probably tell by now, I’m committed to thinking about the Victorians as a reflection of our own present moment (or vice versa). Our questions today about the flattening of experience resulting from social media and our collective need to be online are not that different from questions asked by the Victorians. Think, for example, of that passage from Hardy’s Tess that we discussed on Tuesday. Hardy’s narrator observes that the modern penchant for long views has reduced immediate experiences or emotions to a “monotonous average.” I remember reading recently a think-piece online about the need today to rediscover or return to rituals as a central feature of our lives today. I’m not a big fan of rituals by any means, but I must admit that there’s some validity to this way of thinking. Rituals of all kinds introduce a kind of permanence in the world, but they also allow for deep contemplation and liminality.

    By the way, let’s see if we can develop some of these ideas in your final research essays this semester. Also, why not work some of these ideas into a proposal for the English department’s student conference next February.


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