Veils, Loops and Paradox: The Nature of the Liminal Domain

(This post was first published at TheLiminalityProject.org on June 17, 2020)

While some attempt has been made to describe the experience of liminality, we are often left with a list of what it is not: it is not familiar structure, it is not rational, it is not linear. The ambiguity and confusion we experience in this phase of the passage is often described by contrast, according to what it is not. That is understandable. It is much easier to describe the concrete than the abstract. And yet, a description of the liminal is very often what people desire most.

Before attempting to describe the subjective experience of liminal time and space, I want to have some conversations with a few physicists, mathematicians and philosophers.  If we are going to be talking about the disruption of our familiar order of life, the crossing of a threshold out of structure into antistructure, whether prescribed or imposed upon us, we need to explore the ground we supposedly stand upon.

When the late physicist Bernard d’Espagnat described reality, he spoke in terms of its veiling; ordinary observable reality – let’s call it the realm of Newtonian cause and effect – acts as a surface or veil for what is hidden beneath it.[1] If a theologian were saying the same thing the language might be “things visible and invisible,” a sacramental way of describing reality. Regardless, the reality we perceive is the surface of the pond, not the pond in all its depths.

We suppose this surface to be reliable and solid, something dependable and predictable. And to be sure, it often is. That’s how we can calculate that we are about out of milk, need to make a trip to the store, know a pathway there, remember transactions that will obtain the milk, and return home to drink it. Usually that is the case, but not always.

To make life easier our brains and social structures have created maps of predictability to keep this cause and effect surface easy to navigate. When people deviate from the pattern they are corrected. Mechanisms in our worldview keep the ball bouncing. Until it doesn’t anymore. Then, if we were a quantum physicist and not a Newtonian, we might say that it was only time until the house of cards fell, that we could only maintain this illusion for so long.

That, by the way, is exactly what most of the world religions have said for millennia, that what seems to be real is indeed illusion, that nothing is permanent save what buoys it up from beneath, that there is a difference between the essence of things and the form it takes in history. Or, returning to the physicists, that there is energy on one side of the equation and everything else on the other side.

So, there is only so much that can be known on a plane that is so unpredictable. For example, as every freshman physics major knows from Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle, one cannot know the velocity of a particle and its location as the same time. To know one is to not know the other.

All said differently, a mathematician-philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein would say that there is a difference between a mathematical proposition and reality as it actually is.[2] Propositions only resemble reality to a greater or lesser degree, and in every case, theory is not entirely equivalent to reality. The finitude of the human mind cannot exhaust the complexity and unpredictability of reality.

Though much is known, much more is unknown. And what is known is often the reflection of a surface which conceals more.

Douglas Hofstadter says nearly the same thing about those things which live beneath the surface, but with an intriguing analysis.[3] He says that the mind itself contains an amazing self-referential feedback loop – one that is paralleled by phenomena in the natural world and quantum realm. In his study of the mathematician Gödel, he found something reminiscent of Wittgenstein, namely, an Incompleteness Theorem in which all axioms include undecidable propositions. Neither a system nor absolute boundaries exist, except those which are humanly constructed in order to operate. Like the art of M.C. Escher with its paradoxical patterns, finitude and infinity are allowed to coexist, the known and unknown overlapping in intersecting planes. The loop is created by means of a pattern that has a beginning and an ending, yet no beginning and ending. It is at once finite and infinite.

All of this is to say that what we take for what seems to be obvious structure is but the appearance of the surface. When unveiled the undercroft contains deep patterns which unfold, replicate, and determine the shape of the visible by action of the invisible. What is revealed is an intertwining reality that holds the rational and irrational, finite and infinite, seen and unseen, structural and novel, conscious and unconscious.

Taken together, these insights shape our view of the Rites of Passage, and in particular our perception of the difference between structure and antistructure, the pre-liminal and the liminal.

Because the liminal domain is characterized by the lack of structural foundations we once experienced on the surface, our movement through that space does not follow a linear pathway. The passage is often irrational and populated by strange coordinates, exhibiting paradox, shifting identity, and the fluidity and looping of time itself. The conscious gives way to the unconscious.

By way of encounter with this strange reality beneath the surface a new reality is created. It is not the same as the previous reality, though it may share some of the same previous form. The post-liminal state is shaped by the shattering of illusion, through everything that has been discovered in the liminal dark interval. And so, societies and individuals may be transformed. The spiritual depths inform the material world. Through many veils, loops and paradoxes we have already come. And old worlds die even as new ones are born.

[1] D’Espagnat, Bernard. Veiled Reality: An Analysis of Present- Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts

(CRC Press, 2019)

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

[3] Hofstadter, Douglas. I am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2008)

Masked and Unmasked

If there is one thing that has become emblematic of this season of pandemic, it is the mask. We are masked, we mask ourselves, we sell and buy masks, we scramble for masks, we resent having to wear masks. Public spaces contain masked people scattering to and fro. We notice who is and who isn’t masked and have feelings about them. In the realm of online commerce, producers of masks compete for the position of most trendy, least expensive, or most effective.

We are masked.

And yet ironically, at the same time, in the liminal space beyond the threshold of what might have been normal, much is being unmasked.

What is mostly being unmasked are the stories we tell ourselves. Back in the old world these stories propped up the way things were, kept us striving after the next shiny thing, and even defined who should stay where and how. Some stories made more than a few of us hyper religious. Other stories provided ways we should be patriotic. But mostly the stories we were told and continue to tell ourselves defined a world. This is how we see and understand things. At least in the old world we did.

Surprisingly, this same time and space that has required we wear masks is now methodically exposing and unmasking us in other ways. These painful revelations of the in-between include the ways that aspects of our true selves have been covered by false stories. And the ways our false stories have created pain and suffering for those around us.

Of the many Biblical water stories, two are conspicuous in the way they unmask us.

The first is the flood story which, if read with its full narrative power, won’t leave one of us back in the old broken down life before the waters lifted the ark off the ground. The past and its ways are washed away and an interim community of hope floats toward the future. Somewhere on the other side chaos a new world rises up like a dove flying over Atlantis. If we don’t see rainbows we should.

But then there is the water that provided the supposed escape route for Jonah. This is no moral example tale, this prophet running from destiny. But his story does cast a light on our own cowardice, our unwillingness to move forward when it is hard, our reluctance to let go of fear and hate and become more of what we are meant to be. Jonah is washed away by another flood – a storm – though his transportation is by submarine. His ark is a big fish, and it serves as his temple, womb, transforming container, and way out all in one. When he is spewed out on land at the very place he first departed, the circle is connected: Jonah is conspicuously unmasked, shown for who he is, even as he is given a second, quite imperfect run at it.

In both stories the truth about the world and our human nature is unmasked in unavoidable ways. Deep calls to deep. It echoes off the betwixt and between canyon walls of our existence. All that is hidden is revealed.

All that is to say that this liminal interlude represents more than a regrouping, timeout, or waiting room to get back to normal. It is more than that. In the fullness of time we swim in a tsunami of history. The flood has washed away the old world, and no matter how reluctant we are, the only way forward is forward. Even if we attempt to batten down the hatches on the old world, a big fish is sending us where the work really needs to begin.

This is the gift from the time of masks, to be unmasked so.

And yet, there is another sort of mask, a future, transcendent mask, that arrives for an altogether different reason. We are told that after Moses descended from the holy mountain his face was so luminous that he had to wear a veil to spare the eyes of all those who beheld him. Such is the mystery of the new world on the other side of the flood, a hoped for, future world of the most sacred imagination, a mount of transfiguration where the face of the holy shines like the sun and a bright cloud of presence consumes the need for every mask that ever was or ever will be.

Liminality in a time of Pandemic

(This blog post from Timothy Carson previously ran on TheLiminalityProject.org)

As I opened up a small tutorial class in the Honors College of the University of Missouri this week, I checked in with students, asking them how they were doing. It was more than rhetorical; I really wanted to know, considering the big changes unfolding around us. Following a short silence one of the students simply said, “Every day just gets stranger and stranger.” That pretty well summed it up. He didn’t have to delve into the various layers of emotion. The rest of us could fill in the blanks.

It could be said that most everyone affected by the current rising pandemic is sensing something similar, that things are getting stranger and stranger. Oh, yes, the emotional underlay might be fear, or anger, or a sense of helplessness, but the overwhelming sensation is one of strangeness. I don’t think that is so unusual. In fact, when whole societies cross certain thresholds that separate them from what was their familiar way of life and plunges them into a whole new way of things, we say that they have plunged into a state of social liminality, betwixt and between, an ambiguous, undifferentiated state in which familiar and even taken for granted landmarks are absent.

In a larger sense, the Corona virus pandemic belongs to a family of related pandemics throughout history, pandemics that all brought about severe social disruption. And pandemics belong to the even larger category of disasters – fire, war, earthquake, flood, hurricane, tsunami, drought, exile and migration, explosions, and revolutions. All of these chaos events cast whole groups of people into a new state of things. They often necessitate great efforts at survival. Organizational structures are shaken and reorganized. Some things later return to their former state of being before the disaster and some do not.

In Rebecca Solnit’s in-depth study of disasters entitled A Paradise Built in Hell she identified dozens of social disasters of various kinds and analyzed their impacts, aftermath and communal responses. Her conclusions are very interesting as they stand in some sharp contrast to prevailing assumptions about what disasters yield. In fact, many of the researchers who specialize in disasters in the aggregate or in particular disasters cite the same difference between popular assumptions and reality.

One of the assumptions about large chaos events is that the society will devolve into anarchy, rioting, and violence. Though that occurs in some measure, the opposite is most usually the case. What normally occurs is a gathering of the tribe for mutual survival. Class distinctions are often set aside. Individuals and sub-groups self-organize for the public good – like providing shelter, food, water and medical attention. In liminal studies we say that such groups facing similar challenges experience Victor Turner’s now famous coined term, communitas – a special community of the in-between.

In many cases governmental structures can be helpful – if they are already effective and serving the interest of the people. When they are not they often only protect their self-interest, even worsening the aftermath of disasters by enforcing unnecessary marital law, applying violence where it is unnecessary and impeding recovery rather than facilitating it. That was conspicuously in play in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

One of the key findings of disaster studies is the relationship between disasters and revolutions. In almost every case that governmental structures were either the cause of enormous human suffering or were incompetent, the disaster shook loose the hold of that government on its own power. Revealed for what they were or were not, governments fell from the raw power of disasters, losing their mandate and position as a result. The people not only welcomed the fall but worked to make it so. A sweeping disaster can either start or complete a process of social transformation, thrusting the society into liminal chaos until it reconstitutes itself. This can take place quickly or stretch into a rather indefinite process.

In our world-wide pandemic many things will transpire as a result of a great disruption. The familiar and supposedly safe structures of life will give way to uncertainty. The time of chaos will reveal true resiliency among groups of people who will not only protect themselves, but come together in common cause. Ineffectual and self-serving government and its officials will be revealed for what they are and give way to forms more responsive to the people. Local and regional efforts will rise to the top as models of what the tribe may do on the front lines of challenge. And in the best case scenario we will discover what is needed to address the new normal, a way of necessity that is discovered in the midst of liminal time and space, positioning us individually and socially to move forward differently.

We shall be changed. Into what is yet to be determined. But the artists of the human spirit will be crafting new vehicles to take us there as they navigate that liminal dark energy that defies our every attempt to control it.