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Knowledge and The New Liminality

December 24, 2013

As change and disruption grow increasingly ubiquitous, the concept of liminality or a space of “betwixt and between” is becoming an important topic for many out there, but particularly for those of us who think a lot about organizations and the people in them. I’ve written about liminality previously, and I increasingly feel that it is one the most important themes in leadership today.

So I was quite happy this past week when I found two recent pieces of writing that have affirmed my initial thoughts on the matter while also challenging me to consider liminality on an even deeper level.

Liminality: A Space of Self Discovery

In Pamela Weintraub’s rich and insightful piece, at the oh-so-fine online magazine Nautilus, the author points to 21st century cultural and employment trends to support her call for a broader consideration of how liminality is impacting all our lives.

In At Home in the Liminal World Weintraub nicely parallels indigenous practices that saw liminality as a turbulent transition space with current trends–specifically professionals’ growing tendency toward multiple careers and loose attachments to community and culture.

While some may take her piece as just more evidence of cultural breakdown, Weinstraub makes a compelling case that something more vital, and even constructive may be at play.

Liminal transitions, she observes, have traditionally taken the form of rites of passage that result in profound self-discovery. In addition, as cultural anthropologist  Arnold Van Gennep has written, this turbulent period of awakening can strip everything from the individual but in return leave them with a deeply expanded capacity for serving the larger social order.

Not Your Father’s Liminal Turbulence

This notion of being stripped bare can give us more than a moment of pause. (Particularly, if we’re the ones experiencing the loss!) But Weintraub makes point that our relationship to liminality appears to have undergone a radical and even more disruptive change.

In contrast to the historical accounts by Van Gennep and others who viewed liminality as a break from otherwise stable norms, Weintraub asserts that liminality itself—along with all its attendant disruption—is now the norm. (Interestingly, I made a similar point about liminality being the new, fixed state of post-industrial leadership. It seems we’ve entered an era where are few stable norms; but more on that another time…)

The key point here—and Weintraub alludes to this–is that if liminality and its accompanying disruption is now the norm, then we must somehow cultivate purpose and practices for making constructive sense of a lived experience that feels increasingly fragmented and uncertain.

Action, Knowledge, and Uncertainty

This week over at The Cognitive Edge Network, the ever-enlightening Dave Snowden had a posting that spoke to the challenges of developing responsive action amidst conditions of high uncertainty. (Snowden is quite the polymath and his pragmatic approach to helping groups and organizations work with narrative, knowledge and complexity, is well worth following.)

Snowden’s post on peer to peer knowledge flow, while not addressing liminality per se, takes on the related challenge of formulating action when confronting conditions where knowledge is fragmented or otherwise out of sync current conditions.

I got particularly excited by his reference to Fauconnier and Turner’s recent work The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities. These gentlemen were new to me and their theory of conceptual blending appears to largely unlock the long-standing mystery of how humans generate creative thought and formulate action under conditions of uncertainty.

 Conceptual Blending and Pervasive Liminality

According to Fauconnier and Turner, humans form original ideas by subconsciously weaving fragments of stored ideas and memories with awareness drawn from real time observation.

While a bit abstract, this notion of conceptual blending seems important for learning professionals and others keen on constructing tools and techniques to help organizations meet the challenges of liminality.

Taken as a whole, this is a lot of information to share in one posting, but these ideas are fascinating and have a tremendous potential for helping to address the challenges of disruption and “full time” liminality. For now, I wanted to share the basic concepts, get the conversation going and, hopefully, develop things even further.

So for now—on the eve of Christmas and a week away from one of our most popular liminal transitions, I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and the best luck with all you discover in your own blending space of the betwixt and between.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2014 6:16 am

    Your post about liminality intrigued me not only as an idea that I have not previously been exposed to but it also resonates with me. What I do not want to do is to cite myself as an example of liminality because ironically, once so cited I ironically will cease to be liminal.

    You will see the connection with liminality immediately upon reading my summary post at and for added measure I have added a post at Tumblr which expresses this form of liminality as virtual bodylessness:

    It is true that at the tumblr account I have included a picture of myself, but it is also a picture from a much younger time, that it represents a transition and a moment, but not the present moment.

    The space inbetween and betwixt for me is an opportunity provided by the modern age. I am not clear whether Weintraub is saying that liminality is a norm, or that because uncertainty is the norm today we have the opportunity to be liminal.

    I do see liminal as a cultural dimension in the past but not necessarily a ritual or rite of passage. If I take Alexander the Great and how his conquest was based on absorbing cultures rather than over-throwing them, where he succeeded I would say those cultures were not liminal. The first liminal culture he encountered was in India and in my mind, it wasn’t just that he was far away from Macedonia, but the toll of liminality in the culture he found was too taxing – both for his conquest and more importantly at a personal level.

    If liminality is a norm then it is the virtual dimension which will give that property. One of the reasons that academics did not take too kindly to the “ramblings” of the “Cluetrain Manifesto” is that I believe that Locke, Weinberger, Searls and Levine were writing about a new type of liminal culture. There are Alexander the Greats in the virtual world today, one of them being Facebook and another being Google – and IMHO, the idea of liminality being a norm is one that tests the limits of their existence.

    There is a liminal culture at Diaspora but it did not disrupt the dominant conquerors of the virtual landscape. Instead it poses questions about our own liminality as virtual citizens. I would go on and posit that a virtual citizenship is liminal, otherwise it is simply an extension of that idea called the “meatspace”.

    That is why I think Diaspora is not an example of a marginal community but a liminal culture in a virtual space whose atoms are made of uncertainty. Yes, we have turned cyberspace into an abject version of meatspace, but I think we need to look at the virtual experience beyond it simply being a commercial extension.

    In this respect I would describe liminality in the virtual space as cultural rather than organizational – which is the liminal expression in the writings of the “Cluetrain Manifesto”, that which does not fit an academic structure but portrays something which we could not get our hands around when it was written, but which has played itself out.

    This “playing out” or emergence is the same as the observations of Marshall McLuhan, or as we would like to refer to it “probes”. McLuhan warned that the electronic age serves as an extension of our nervous system, but for me the antidote to that extension is liminality. Of course the effect of uncertainty is an affect also on our nervous system but it is not an extension of it, that is the norm as I see it.

    An example of this extension is both in the idea of trolls and followers. For trolls, I do not see them as a marginal population online. Offline they are but online their desires are not liminal but subliminal. A subliminal message is one that we do not see but has an effect on us and a troll is after an effect. When I look at an online community such as Tumblr, the liminal are the content providers but the followers themselves are subliminal – why? because they can curate that content as an extension of themselves.

    I could describe my virtual exploration as liminal but as I have said above, I would not want that label to be affixed to me because then it is a label, but as a cultural property, liminality serves definitely in my mind as a shared experience. Liminality can be an experience rather than simply an extension of our nervous system but only when it is an experience that is between and betwixt.

    What I call “Spectraneuron” is a liminal experience but this is because there isn’t “identities” or “personas” involved, in the namings I utilize, they name the virtual space in no different way we affectionately name things but if that space becomes my identity, it no longer serves as liminality. Something that lives as liminality at that point is effectively dead – and at that moment I can say to myself “welcome back to the real world” 🙂



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