Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Institut für Sozio-Semiotische Studien ISSS, Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Liminal and Hybrid Aspects of Intersemiotics

Madeleine Schechter (Tel Aviv University, Israel)



Studying society (i.e. people and their culture as a whole) from an intersemiotic approach raises several intriguing questions that emerge from the specific meaning ascribed to the particle "inter". In this respect, reference to the whole - or all the cultural categories combined - and the conceptual and organizational schemata that lie beneath the constitution of society and its production, implies a certain conception of limit. The latter can be defined either in terms of "border" (which only divides), or of "threshold" (which both divides and connects).

The aim of this article is to explore the question of intersemiotics from the theoretical perspectives opened up by two closely-related key concepts, that characterize different historical cultural climates: liminality and hybridity.


Liminality and Hybridity as Heuristic Cultural Models

In recent decades liminality and hybridity have become the focus of theory in various fields of research, such as anthropology, sociology, literary theory, and cultural studies. I shall explore here their relevance for the semiotic enterprise in depth.

Within the postmodern intellectual project hybridity seems to offer a preferential conceptual alternative, used to relocate several of the main approaches to cultural criticism from the post-colonial perspective.

However, behind the multiple uses of these increasingly fashionable terms, mainly used as heuristic models in the analysis of culture, lies the concept of limit,including a span of related senses, from the physical limit dividing places, organisms, and things, and up to the boundaries between categories and the conceptual schemata within a certain culture. In other words, inasmuch as both liminality and hybridity bring to the fore the transitional, the ambiguous and the paradoxical, they also highlight at the most general level the problem of categorization, which requires an uneasy combination of logical, linguistic and ontological analyses. In this respect, it is highly significant that the so-called "classical" view of the structure and function of concepts in Western culture, and subsequently that of categorization, bears the name of Aristotle. On the other hand, as Mary Douglas showed many years ago in her classical book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), generalizations such as concepts and categories play a cardinal role in every culture, in establishing clear-cut and stable taxonomies. Douglas perceives the concept of pollution as representing a social reaction to any act of challenging the accepted social categories. Thus, what is unclear and ambiguous or contradictory at the level of social identification is regarded as "unclean" from a ritual point of view.

In Western tradition, limit appears very early on in Greek philosophy, where peras is connected to the problem of the continuum, with the general sense that limit marks the end of a region in space, also indicating the suppression of all separations. Thus, in the literal sense, as mentioned above, limit has a purely physical connotation, being the place where a certain reality, i.e. thing or territory, ends. However, the term has also had from the beginning a complex meaning, since limit can exist only in connection with a "before" and a "beyond". As such, interest in the limits of the categories and consequently in their transition or transgression, is the hallmark of a certain epistemological shift, whose focus is not on limit as border but on limit as threshold (which both connects and separates), creating a "third space" (in Homi Bhabha’s formulation), and as such can be described as in-betweenness (in Victor Turner’s terms).

This perspective is further analyzed here through a set of terms, namely: liminal, liminoid and liminality, which were first used in anthropology. They describe entities, states, and cultural processes and their symbolic elaborations and presentations, which exist in between domains and, therefore, in between otherwise distinct categories. In this respect, biological hybrids, which are the result of cross-breeding between two individuals belonging to different species or races, can be seen as the natural model of liminal states or entities in cultural domains.

As critical concepts, the history of liminal and liminality has been linked to the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep's Les rites de passage (1908), whose main focus was the analysis of ceremonies accompanying an individual "life crisis", which he called rites de passage. Within the pattern of the rite, van Gennep distinguished three phases, termed by him separation (séparation), transition (marge), and incorporation (agrégation). In time the term "passage" has come to replace "transition".

The relevance van Gennep ascribed to the transitions from one situation to another in the life of an individual and of the community cannot be sufficiently emphasized. The transition phase was already described in terms of liminal (Lat. limen, i.e., threshold), in the English translation published in 1960, to describe a sort of social limbo, which has few of the attributes of either the preceding or subsequent states: "Thus, although a complete scheme of rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation), in specific instances these three types are not always equally important or equally elaborated ." (van Gennep 1960: 11) .

In the second half of the 20 th century the scientific contribution of Victor Turner to the field is arguably the most important. Although he started his research with tribal societies, following van Gennep, he extended the use of liminality to the study of liminal features characterizing both individuals and collectivities, and subsequently of the symbolic genres belonging not merely to small-scale but also to large-scale societies, including the complex social structures of Western culture. This development is of paramount importance for the semiotic aspects of liminality. Turner also introduced the term liminoid, which is akin to, without being identical with, liminal. A detailed comparison between them can be found in From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (Turner 1982). According to Turner, the liminoid describes those social processes and their symbolic forms that undermine the well-established structures, and denotes those "anti-", "meta-", and "proto-structural" states specific to modern industrial societies (cf. Turner1982: 32).

Moreover, although liminality might appear at first glance as suggesting a loss of power and vitality, due to its location on the "edge", it is in fact a powerful source of creativity, generating symbolic forms of culture from rituals and mythologies and up until works of art and analytic tools in terms of root metaphors or models of reality.

In order to clarify these multifaceted terms and their further relevance for this intersemiotic study of culture and society, I shall refer to several of their features as they are underscored by Turner in various texts. First, as early as 1967, in his book The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, while coining the familiar phrase "betwixt and between" (Turner 1967: 93), Turner considers some of the socio-cultural properties of "liminal period" and of "liminal personae" which can be seen as isomorphic with liminoid, i.e. Western cultural processes and their products. As such, he describes the period of margin or liminality as an "interstructural situation."

Consequently, the liminal personae or threshold-people are ambiguous, being both present yet

[...] in the liminal period, structurally if not physically, "invisible". As members of society, most of us see only what we expect to see, and what we expect to see is what we are conditioned to see when we have learned the definitions and classifications of our culture. A society’s secular definitions do not allow for the existence of a not-boy-not-man, which is what a novice in a male puberty rite is(if he can be said to be anything). (Turner 1967:95) (emphasis added).

Second, Turner underlines the cardinal role played by liminality in undermining social definitions, i.e. the cultural categorizations, usually posited in terms of pairs of opposites, i.e. "either/or" that is replaced by "both/and" (in the vein of Western ambiguity), as well as by "neither/nor". In this respect, liminal personae: "are at once no longer classified and not yet classified. [...] The essential feature of these symbolizations is that the neophytes are neither living nor dead from one aspect, and both living and dead from another. Their condition is one of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories." (Turner 1967: 96-97) (emphasis added)

According to the negative or positive aspects involved in liminality, the liminal state can be described in terms of: "both/and" or "neither/nor". In The Ritual Process (1969), Turner restores those features that can be applied mutatis mutandi to Western forms of culture (while taking into account the specific differences between liminal and liminoid):

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. (Turner Ritual 1969: 95)

A last definitional term for the l iminal and liminality, which unveils their proximity to ambiguity and paradox, is that of play (or playfulness), which first designates at the concrete level the various cultural practices that perform in the liminal phase of culture innumerable and unexpected kinds of inconclusive, transitional or transgressive interactions and, as such, lead to the conceptual indistinctness between entities belonging to different realms and, consequently, between their symbolic forms. Thus, according to Turner:

Liminality may involve complex sequences of episodes in sacred space-time, and may also include subversive and ludic (or playful) events. The factors of culture are isolated, in so far as it is possible to do this with multi-vocal symbols [...], such as trees, images, paintings, dance forms, etc., that are each susceptible not of a single meaning but of many meanings. Then the factors or elements of culture may be recombined in numerous, often grotesque ways, grotesque because they are arrayed in terms of possible or fantasised rather than experienced combinations. [...]
Inother words, in liminality people "play" with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarize them. Novelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiarelements. (Turner 1982: 27) (emphasis added)

Turner goes further, and in characterizing liminality he draws on Sutton-Smith's comparison between the normative structure and the anti-structure, with the latter better understood as a proto-structural system, being the "precursor of innovative normative forms. It is the source of new culture." (cf. Turner 1982: 28); and he adds:

What interests me most about Sutton-Smith's formulations is that he sees liminal and liminoid situations as the settings in which new models, symbols, paradigms, etc. arise - as the seedbeds of cultural creativity in fact. These new symbols and constructions then feed back into the "central' economic and politico-legal domains and arenas, supplying them with goals, aspirations, incentives, structural models and raisons d' ê tre. (Turner 1982: 28)

In this respect, Turner’s terms, i.e. liminal (already used by van Gennep in a cultural and not merely physical sense) and liminoid become heuristic models, whose aim is to verbalize and elaborate an analysis of culture, starting from the deep-rooted human insight into the fruitful, powerful, and creative potential of thinking about those disturbing yet fascinating states and processes that are neither determined nor limited nor amorphic nor limitless.

Although cultural hybridity (as already mentioned) is a critical term almost identical with liminality, it enlarges the framework of the discussion by focusing mainly on a set of connected issues whose core is that of the question of identity, such as ethnicity, community, nation, racism, gender and globalization or localization; all these subject matters are also inscribed on the agenda of cultural studies at large. It might be said that, in the same way that the awareness of threshold problematizes the definiteness of limit qua limit, by positing the latter in a dialectical relation with its transgression, the hybrid born out of the transgression of the boundary between natural species, undermines every organic theory of identity. From here emerges a wide range of ideas that provide an invaluable contribution to the theory of liminality (whose main concern is that of marginality, i.e. threshold in Turner’s vein), by concentrating through the model of the hybrid on the question of identity, in the postmodern context, which acknowledges the multiple sense of self. It is obvious that liminality and hybridity are complementary notions, inasmuch as any process of hybridization implies, as a necessary requirement, the replacement or transgression of the limits between categories with a threshold or a spatio-temporal interface (real and symbolic).

In the earlier phase, the role of liminal and liminality was to challenge the accepted social structures and to reveal both the positive and negative power of the spatio-temporal interface that undermines the traditional categories, or the in-betweenness as the source of creativity in society. The current focus on hybridity is taking place at a time when this process has already been philosophically grounded and, as such, the hybrid, in an age of blurred borders, is just another name to describe how certain things are usually considered to be. The theory of cultural hybridity starts from hybridity as an encompassing cultural phenomenon, present in all areas of cultural praxis. Even a fleeting glance at the book Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism (1997), a timely and comprehensive anthology of articles, highlights the main themes and directions of research which involve the topic of cultural hybridity in an age of cultural complexity. In her introductory study, Pnina Werbner shows that as long as culture was defined according to categories, hybridity (otherwise described in the same terms as liminality) remained a powerful analytical tool in highlighting the role played by the "symbolic hybrids to subvert categorical systematic oppositions and hence to create the conditions for cultural reflexivity and change." (Werbner 1997: 1)However, in postmodern culture, multiplicity, mixing, complexity, indefiniteness, and transgression have become the dominant organizational and conceptual forms of culture.

Thus, in Werbner's words, this new heuristic model for the study of multi-, trans-, cross-culturalism tries to solve the "puzzle of how cultural hybridity manages to be both transgressive and normal, and why it is experienced as dangerous, difficult or revitalizing despite its quotidian normalcy?" (Werbner 1997: 4.). Cultural hybridity is first and foremost embedded in ambivalences of all imaginable kinds: such as, in the co-existence of anti-essentialism with a reinforced notion of ethnic communities; in developing both cultural changes and resistance to changes in ethnic or migrant groups and in nation-states; in the co-presence of certain dominant, i.e. essentialist discourses, with a bias to heterophilia; and in anthropological research, which reveals that although culture is a complex whole, it still perpetuates some earlier notions of race, etc. In general, in their search for meanings the authors connect between definitions of postmodern subjectivity or identity in terms of hybrid and hybridity, and the way in which new symbols concerning the question of identity and its related areas occur. Werbner concludes her study with a project for future research by saying:

The challenge, then, is to develop processual models of hybridity to replace the current stress on contingent hybridity, a self-congratulatory discourse which leads nowhere. [...] We need to consider precisely what it is that cultural hybridity and essentialism from the margins do in this context.
Even if we think that they expose thetransparency of ethnocentric hegemonic cultural assumptions, we have to recognize the differential interests social groups have in sustainingboundaries. [...] It is this interest in the boundary that makes the experience of hybridity disturbing and shocking for some, while for others is revelatory. (Werbner 1997: 22) (emphasis added)

Hans-Rudolf Wicker too, in "From Complex Culture to Cultural Complexity", using the Creole model, reaches the conclusion that "culture - far from being a complex whole in the form of identifiable structures or significations - exists only in its variations and transitions."(Wicker 1997:38.). Wicker further, and in a way reminiscent of Werbner’s accent on processuality, underlines that culture manifests itself through the ability to take meaningful intersubjective action.

Close to this view of hybridity is that of the negotiation of differences in the production of identity, as revealed by Homi B. Bhabha in his influential book The Location of Culture (1994). Both in his general conceptions and in terminology, Bhabha preserves the basic spatio-temporal conception of liminality, while introducing the term hybridity in order to explain the way in which identities are formed, i.e. at the interstices between older domains of differences. The transformative, processual and inconclusive formation of what he describes as "border lives" is not the outcome of some pre-given states of affairs, but at one and the same time an incessant negotiation simultaneously leading to new cultural traits characterized by fluid and "hybrid" combinations, and the dissemination of the primary conceptual categories such as "class" and "gender" into a multitude of subject positions, i.e. differences and their claim to identity.

It might be said that although the study of hybridity, such as that developed by Bhabha, refers to the colonial and post-colonial debates, the theoretical strategies can mutatis mutandi be successfully applied to the analysis of other kinds of interactions, transgressions, and negotiations of cultural schemata, starting from the suspicion and abolishment of the traditional binarism with its categorical and hierarchic organization of culture in terms of "either/or", and followed by the adoption of new models such as "both/and" or "neither/nor".

Similar opinions are also expressed by Nikos Papastergiadis in his essay "Tracing Hybridity in Theory", where he combines between post-colonial discourses and a broader perspective from which the "cultural hybrids" afford "national reconciliations"; and elsewhere he asserts that:

The positive feature of hybridity is that it invariably acknowledges that identity is constructed through a negotiation of differences, and that the presence of fissures, gaps and contradictions is not necessarily a sign of failure. In its most radical form, the concept also stresses that identity is not the combination, accumulation, fusion or synthesis of various components, but an energy field of different forces." (Papastergiadis 1997: 258)

This last definition of hybridity is highly consistent with Turner’s own position, according to which liminality is to be found on the processual continuum of order-disorder, as already quoted.


Liminality and Hybridity from a Semiotic Perspective

The question now becomes that of how the sign-dependent and sign-constituted media and processes and their interrelatedness (which constitute the subject-matter of semiotics), disclose and focus on those liminal or hybrid aspects (that were originally the concern of anthropology), and consider them as the essential features of production of signs and of creation of meaning.

In fact, one is dealing here with a salutary symbiosis between the classic stances of semiotics, whose purpose is the systematic study of the production and interpretation of signs, and the impact on whole areas of cultural studies of the uncanonical yet pervasive insight of in-betweenness.

It might be said that both the study of semiosis and the study of liminality and/or hybridity, articulate discourses of interdisciplinarity and evolve from a basic dimension of human experience, i.e. the symbolic one, as already described by Ernst Cassirer in An Essay on Man :

Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality.[...] Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man's cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum. By so doing we can designate his specific difference, and we can understand the new way open to man - the way to civilization. (Cassirer 1972: 24-26)

However, it seems to me that the possibilities opened up for semiotics mainly by Victor Turner's theory of liminal and liminoid, are consistent with certain far-reaching developments taking place within the field of contemporary semiotics itself.

In this respect, while acknowledging the difficulty of integrating within an all-embracing view F. de Saussure's and Ch. S. Peirce's methodologies that engendered modern semiotics, one can, however, have recourse to an observation made by J. Culler in his book ThePursuit of Signs (1981), where he contends that: "The offerings of Saussure and Peirce are thus in various ways complementary. Moreover, they occasionally reach the same conclusion though beginning with different assumptions." (Culler 1981: 24). It might be said that, in principle, the gap between the two is encapsulated by Sausssure's binary approach, which led to the isolation of the system of language as a totality from its historical roots, on the one hand; and by Peirce's philosophical endeavor to construct a taxonomy or mode of classification that would account for the diversity of signs on the other. In this respect, the similarities observed in the long run are due, in my view, to their common ground, i.e. the rationalistic Western philosophical tradition, and consequently to the dominant view of categorization and definition of concepts to which both binarism and taxonomy belong.

Hugh J. Silverman, who considers the signifier as the key element of any semiotics or semiology, provides an account of the relevant changes in the modern history of the sign with its components: the signifier, the signified and their relation which engenders signification. These changes may also explain the interest in liminality and hybridity, although this approach is still sporadic in semiotic studies.

According to Silverman, the significant transformations in the semiological tradition undergone by the signifier since Saussure's formulation are due to certain confluences of strains of thought and disciplines. In this respect, he mentions the contributions of several semioticians and philosophers, such as C. L é vi-Strauss, J. Lacan, R. Barthes, J. Derrida, J. Kristeva, U. Eco, M. Merleau-Ponty, M. Foucault and J.F. Lyotard. The outcome of this process is that the focus on the correlation of the signifier and signified within the binary pair constituting the sign, is replaced by a situation in which: "the marks of the postmodern operate in the interstices between signifiers which present their meanings but also present the unpresentable." (Silverman 1998: 11) (emphasis added)

This formulation strongly recalls the liminal "in-betweenness", and the "interstitial" enhanced by the theorists of hybridity.

The latter concept has almost entirely taken the place of liminality as an analytical tool in the last decade, although there are no substantial differences between the two. Moreover it might be said that interest in the question of identity, described in terms of a hybrid, is only one of the multifaceted aspects that liminality has dealt with from the very beginning.

According to Papastergiadis, a cogent contribution to the semiotics of hybridity is that of the Russian semiotician Yuri Lotman. In Papastergiadis' view:

If the concept of hybridity is to go beyond a mere celebration or denigration of difference, then Lotman's theory, which outlines the dynamism of difference within culture, might provide a valuable framework.[...] In Lotman's theory the form of culture is defined via references to motion rather than by comparison to a static or bounded object; hence it is seen to be more like a river with a number of currents moving at different rates and intensities. The aim is to see how culture operates as a whole, in a state of constant 'creolisation', or what he calls 'semiotic physiology' as opposed to the 'atomistic' approach'. (Papastergiadis 1997: 268)

U. Eco, too, mentions Lotman's far-reaching shift in the semiotic methodology: "Even in the Sixties, Lotman understood clearly that the multiplicity of codes in a given culture gives rise to contrasts and hybrids, or 'creolizations'." (Eco 1990: xii)

The concept chosen by Lotman in Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (1990), as a heuristic model to describe the intricacy of cultural communication whose model is the literary text, is that of semiosphere or the "semiotic space". This model underlines a paradoxical wholeness-in-diffuseness, and therefore the basic schema of communication "has to be 'immersed' in semiotic space" (Lotman 1990: 123). Thus, the system of the acts of communication co-exists with the experiential dimension that maintains yet transcends codification. In other words: "paradoxically semiotic experience precedes the semiotic act" (Lotman 1990: 123)

There are certain relevant features of the semiosphere that can indeed be identified as "hybrid". First, the co-presence within language of well-defined, i.e. grammatical, forms and functions and of transitional ones: "[...] a language is a function, a cluster of semiotic spaces and their boundaries, which, however clearly defined these are in the language's grammatical self-description, in the reality of semiosis are eroded and full of transitional forms."(Lotman 1990: 124)

Or, as he notes further on, the semiosphere, which includes not only the separate language but the whole semiotic space of a certain culture, is characterized at one and the same time as by analogy with the biosphere as the "totality and the organic whole of living matter and also the condition for the continuation of life"; and by its heterogeneity:

The languages which fill up the semiotic spaces are various, and they relate to each other along the spectrum which runs from complete mutual translatability to just as complete mutual untranslatability. Heterogeneity is defined both by the diversity of elements and by their different functions. So if we make the mental experiment of imagining a model of a semiotic space where all the languages came into being at one and the same moment and under the influence of the same impulses, we still would not have a single coding structure but a set of connected but different systems. (Lotman 1990: 125)

Another hybrid feature of the semiosphere is that binarism, as a working law of the semiotic system, is "however realized in plurality". Moreover, the codes are constant yet incessantly renewed, a fact that enhances the dynamic and not static view of culture. As he puts it a little further: "[...] we have to remember that all elements of the semiosphere are in dynamic, not static correlations whose terms are constantly changing." (Lotman 1990: 127) This situation is effectively exemplified through a description of a museum. (see Lotman 126-127)

The most intriguing term introduced in the chapter on Semiosphere, is the notion of boundary. At a first glance, this term seems identical with that of threshold as defined by V. Turner:

But the hottest spots for semioticizing processes are the boundaries of the semiosphere. The notion of boundary is an ambivalent one: it both separates and unites. It is always a boundary of something and so belongs to both frontier cultures, to both contiguous semiospheres.[...] The boundary is a mechanism translating texts of an alien semiotics into "our' language, it is the place where what is "external" is transformed into what is "internal", it is a filtering membrane which so transforms foreign texts that they become part of the semiosphere's internal semiotics while still retaining their own characteristics. (Lotman 1990: 136-7)

However, under deeper analysis neither the semiosphere nor its boundary can be genuinely conceived as hybrid. It is true that the former is infused with transitional, dynamic features and center-margins dynamics, but all these uncanonical aspects are an integral part of the system and therefore of its rules of communication and creation of meaning, even when the focus is on the multiplicity of codes. The boundary, in its turn, although ambivalent, clearly separates the 'inner' from the 'outer' space of the semiosphere. Moreover, the inner space articulates a multi-level system, and Lotman adds:

Certain parts of the semiosphere may at different levels of self-description form either a semiotic unity, a semiotic continuum, demarcated by a single boundary; or a group of enclosed spaces, marked off as discrete areas by the boundaries between them; or, finally, part of a more general space, one side of which is demarcated by a fragment of a boundary, while the other is open. Naturally, the hierarchy of codes which activates different levels of signification in the single reality of the semiosphere will correspond to these alternatives . (Lotman 1990: 138) (emphasis added)

Thus the boundary acts as a regulating principle of the system and its codes, organizes the hierarchy and, finally, co-ordinates various taxonomies within the semiotic space.

In other words, in Lotman's view, the infinite inconclusiveness of the hybrid as a heuristic model for the analysis of culture is undermined by the traditional foundations of semiotics that lie beneath the concept of semiosphere.

Lastly, one must recall that Lotman's theory (like Bakhtin's poetics and his concepts of dialogism; and that of carnival, a posteriori appropriated by the theorists of liminality) is text-oriented, i.e. the text is the meaning-generating mechanism.

U. Eco underlines that in Lotman's view:

[...]language is the primary modeling system and we apprehend the world by means of the model which language offers. Myth, cultural rules, religion, the language of art and of science are secondary modeling systems. [...] If texts represent models of the world, the set of texts which is the culture of a period is a secondary modeling system. It is thus necessary to attempt to define a typology of cultures, in order both to discover universal aspects common to all cultures and to identify the specific systems which represent the "language'. (Eco 1990: x)

While taking into account the novelty of Lotman's ideas, I propose to revert to Turner as a basis for a further development of a semiotic approach to both liminality and hybridity.


Cultural Performances: Experiencing the Threshold

As already mentioned, semiotics (which provides a methodology for interdisciplinary studies concerned with the phenomenon of meaning in society), nowadays focuses more on the interstices between signifiers and their signifieds than on their correlation.

This situation marks a shift in paradigm from the focus on Being to the structuring process of Becoming. In other words, it replaces the exclusionary mentality of the "either/or" (whose model is the limit or border), with the inclusionary perspective of "both/and" and, what is more, with "neither/nor" (whose model is the threshold), which enables one to grasp and make sense of the continuum of it-is-it-is-not-it-is, and so on.

Key terms, such as in between, between and betwixt, third space, negotiation of identity, oscillation between identity and alterity, or between center and marginality, creolization, crisscrossing of boundaries, multi-ethnic equation, cyborg politics, dialogue in a context of difference, to name but a few, are heuristic tools used to describe cultural states of affairs involving ambivalence, ambiguity, and paradox, which are described as liminal and hybrid. Concerning this point, Turner's stance is cogently enunciated:

Meaning in culture tends to be generated at the interfaces between established cultural subsystems, though meanings are then institutionalized and consolidated at the centers of such systems. Liminality is a temporal interface, whose properties partially invert those of the already consolidated order, which constitutes any specific cultural "cosmos" (Turner 1982: 41.).

In order to explore the liminal and/or liminoid socio-cultural settings (which already include the hybrid ones) and their symbolic forms, Turner employs a semiotic methodology he defines as "comparative symbology". However, this discipline, unlike Lotman's semiotics discussed above, focuses not on language and texts as models of culture but on performative genres, i.e. rituals, social dramas or cultural performances, and aims at grasping the ludic nature of their meaning.

As already mentioned, Silverman noted that cultural studies are concerned "more in the producing of the signs themselves - semiosis rather than semiotics." (Silverman 1998: 1). In this respect, liminality and hybridity, although also involved in the phase of production, i.e. in-betweenness, face us with quite a different situation, which goes beyond not only the older immobility of sign systems, but even beyond the dynamism of ongoing semiosis, as generally acknowledged. In-betweenness, which was first grasped in ritual has an experiential dimension that performatively creates cultural meanings. These terms require further explanation.

Turner's approach as developed in his various writings since the 1960s, brought not merely a fresh but in many ways a radical contribution to the future of both semiotics and postmodern cultural studies, to which the concept of hybridity belongs. In 1982, while retrospectively describing his methodology, i.e. comparative symbology, Turner underlined the differences within continuity between the semiotic turn undertaken by his approach to cultural anthropology and semiotics. Since, in his view, semiotics was identified with Saussure and, in a way, restricted to the linguistic phenomena, he had taken on the study of liminality (including both liminal and liminoid phenomena) through "comparative symbology", whose subject-matter is the "study and interpretation of symbols", emphasizing that

Comparative symbology is not directly concerned with the technical aspects of linguistics, and has much to do with many kinds of non-verbal symbols in ritual and art, though admittedly all cultural languages have important linguistic components, relays, or "signifieds". Nevertheless, it is involved in the relationships between symbols and the concepts, feelings, values, notion, etc. associated with them by users, interpreters or exegetes: in short it has semantic dimensions, it pertains to meaning in language and context. Its data are mainly drawn from cultural genres or subsystems of expressive culture. These include both oral and literate genres, and one may reckon among them activities combining verbal and nonverbal symbolic actions, such as ritual and drama, as well as narrative genres, such myth, epic, ballad, the novel, and ideological systems. They would also include non-verbal forms, such as miming, sculpture, painting, music, ballet, and architecture." (Turner 1982: 21)

Thus, he proposed to shift the focus from a view of signs as an atemporal, synchronic and closed system, in the spirit of traditional semiotics, to their perception as immersed in, and sensibly structuring, the temporal flow of human experience:

Symbols, both as sensorily perceptible vehicles (signifiants) and as sets

of "meanings" (signifiés), are essentially involved in multiple

variability, the variability of the essentially living, conscious, emotional,

and volitional creatures who employ them not only to give order to the

universe they inhabit, but creatively to make use also of disorder,

both by overcoming or reducing it in particular cases [...]

When symbols are rigidified into logical operators and subordinated to

implicit syntax-like rules, by some of our modern investigators, those of us

who take them too seriously become blind to the creative or innovative

potential of symbols as factors in human actions. Symbols may "instigate"

such action and in situationally varying combinations channel its

direction by saturating goals and means with affect and desire.

Comparative symbology does attempt to preserve this ludic capacity, to catch

symbols in their movement, so to speak and to "play" with their

possibilities of form and meaning. (Turner 1982: 23) (emphasis added)

This meaning-in-becoming might be described as liminal, and it is explored by Turner in cultural performances or cultural genres. Thus, it is first and foremost the cultural event and not the text that plays the role of the meaning-generating mechanism.

In an article entitled "Liminality and the Performative Genres", published in the influential book Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance

(1984), Turner employed a new term, i.e. "subjunctive" vs. "indicative" mood, in order to describe those cultural phenomena that are analogical to the mood of verbs that expresses suppositions, desire, possibility, rather than to state actual facts, and specifies that:

"Ritual, carnival, festival, theater, film, and similar performative genres clearly possess many of these attributes." (Turner 1984: 20-21)

The domain of "subjunctivity", in which the paradoxes of human experience are embodied through performance, might also be seen as identical with cultural liminality, from rituals and up to forms specific to modern, technological societies:

Public liminality is governed by public subjunctivity. For a while almost everything goes: taboos are lifted, fantasies are enacted, the low are exalted and the mighty abased; indicative mood behavior is reversed [...] Liminality itself is a complex phase or condition. It is often the scene and time for the emergence of a society's deepest values in the form of sacred dramas and objects-sometimes the reenactment periodically of cosmogonic narratives or deeds of saintly, godly, or heroic establishers of morality, basic institutions, or ways of approaching transcendent beings or powers. But it may also be the venue and occasion for the most radical skepticism [...]. Ambiguity reigns [...]. (Turner 1984: 21-22)

All cultural genres explored by Turner, whose model is the ritual, are performative, while the term "performance" is definitionally consistent with that used a few years later by Richard Bauman:

A mode of communicative behavior and a type of communicative event. While the term may be employed in an aesthetically neutral sense to designate the actual conduct of communication (as opposed to the potential for communicative action), performance usually suggests an aesthetically marked and heightened mode of communication, framed in a special way and put on display for an audience. The analysis of performance - indeed, the very conduct of performance - highlights the social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions of the communicative process. (Bauman 1989: 262)

According to Turner and Bauman, the constant features of a performance (in terms of which the cultural meanings are created and communicated, are: 1) it expands on a continuum of human activity between behavior and action, vs. the performance of language, qua language; 2) its general model is not the text but an event; one could say not "the play" but "the stage drama"; and 3) it is characterized by its "reflexivity", described by John J. MacAloon in his introductory essay to Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle as "that capacity of human beings to distance themselves from their own subjective experiences, to stand apart from and to comment on them". MacAllon continues, following Turner's cardinal insights, "stages are made of boards", and "reflexivity is more than an analytical construct" (1984: 11-13)

Thus, Turner's field of research, i.e. rituals, social dramas, and cultural performances in general, and his semiotic methodology, sparked a paramount interest in performance, a concept that encompasses a wide range of activities not only in the arts but also in the social sciences and in contemporary theory.

Marvin Carlson, in his book Performance: a critical introduction (1996), analyses the general modern intellectual context of performance that provides a framework for various interrelating fields such as performance art (whose model is theatrical performance), anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. As such, performance has become the site of intriguing cross-fertilizations between theory and practice. Nevertheless, as Carlson remarks, although "performance" and "performing" are used in widely differing circumstances, there must be a common denominator. "If we mentally step back from this common practice and ask what makes performing arts performative," concludes Carlson, "I imagine the answer would somehow suggest that these arts require the physical presence of trained or skilled human beings whose demonstration of their skills is the performance." (Carlson 1996: 3) He also underlines, similar to Turner, MacAloon and Bauman, the relevance of theatrical performance, which on the one hand embodies the essential features of performance, while providing an analytical tool for other fields on the other hand: "It is not surprising that such performance has become a highly visible - one might almost say emblematic - art form in the contemporary world, a world that is highly self-conscious, reflexive, obsessed with simulations and theatricalizations in every aspect of its social awareness." (Carlson 1996: 6)

"Performance" and "postmodern" are closely-related terms, referring to a wide range of activities and denoting both performance arts and theoretical reconsiderations of culture which are grounded on, and which cultivate, ambiguity and paradox. According to Ihab Hassan, the latter "veers toward open, playful, optative, provisional (open in time as well as in structure or space), disjunctive, or indeterminate forms, a discourse of ironies and fragments [...], a desire of diffractions, an invocation of complex, articulate silences." (Ihab Hassan 1993: 154)

In this respect, performance has become a preferential medium and an analytical tool for the intricate postmodern climate. However, as the above quote shows, "performance" and "performative" also refer to certain discursive strategies encompassing literature, poetics, aesthetics and philosophy, which also provided the background to the recent approaches to hybridity. In this respect, Bhabha's Location of Culture, rethinks the question of identity by exploring various post-colonial narratives and literary works, in terms of which he defines hybridity and its complementary concepts:

What is theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These "in-between" spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood - singular or communal - that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.

It is in the emergence of the interstices - the overlap and displacement of domains of differences- that the intersubjectivities and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural values are negotiated [...]. Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic and affiliative, are produced performatively. [...] The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation (Bhabha 1994: 1-2.)

However, while taking into account the far-reaching impact on cultural studies of the actual research into hybridity, Turner's view concerning the incessant novelty of cultural meanings (which "play" with the categories of culture and emerge from and through the performative genres, whose model is the ritual), still offers firmer ground from which to overcome the stage felt by many as the "end of theory". This is why I consider that his ground-breaking approach to liminality, as articulated by verbal and non-verbal symbols yet not based on linguistic models or focused on texts, provides both a fruitful source of ideas and a rigorous methodology for both cultural studies and semiotics.

Liminality and hybridity are currently at the core of cultural theories and practices involving interdisicplinarity. In this all-embracing search for "correspondences" through the "forest of symbols", Turner's innovative avenue offers an inspiring guide.

© Madeleine Schechter (Tel Aviv University, Israel)


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Turner, Victor W. "Liminality and the Performative Genres". In: MacAloon, John J (ed.) Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of CulturalPerformance. Philadelphia: A Publication of the Institute for the Human Issues, 1984, 19-41.

Werbner Pnina and Tariq Modood (eds) (1997). Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and Politics of Anti-Racism. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.

Werbner, Pnina (1997). "Introduction: The Dialectics of Cultural Hybridity". In: Werbner Pnina and Tariq Modood (eds). Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and Politics of Anti-Racism. London & New Jersey: Zed Books, 1-26.

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1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht

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For quotation purposes:
Madeleine Schechter (Tel Aviv University, Israel): Liminal and Hybrid Aspects of Intersemiotics. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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