What is Liminality:
The term ‘Liminality’ derives from the word ‘limen’, meaning threshold, a concept mainly used in psychology to indicate the threshold between the sensate and the subliminal, the limit below which a particular sensation ceases to be perceptible. The sense of the liminal as an in-between space, a threshold area, distinguishes the term from the more specific word ‘limit’ to which it is related.
The importance of the liminal for post-colonial theory is precisely its usefulness for describing an ‘in-between’ space in which cultural change may occur: the transcultural space in which strategies for personal or communal self-hood may be elaborated, a region in which there is a continual process of movement and interchange between different states. For instance, the colonised subject may dwell in the liminal space between colonial discourse and the assumption of a new ‘non-colonial identity. But such identification is never simply a movement from one identity to another; it is a constant process of engagement, contestation and appropriation.
Homi Bhabha quotes the art historian Renée Green’s characterisation of a stairwell as a liminal space, a pathway between upper and lower areas, each of which was annotated with plaques referring to blackness and whiteness to indicate how the liminal can become a space of symbolic interaction. That is, the stairwell, the liminal, prevents identities from polarising between such arbitrary designations as ‘upper’ and ‘lower’, ‘black’ and ‘white. In a sense, one could say that post-colonial discourse itself consistently inhabits this liminal space, for the polarities of imperial rhetoric on the one hand, and national or racial characterisation on the other, are continually questioned and problematised.
For Bhabha, the liminal is important because liminality and hybridity go hand in hand. This ‘interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy’. He further employs liminality to show that ‘post-modernity, postcoloniality, post-feminism’ are meaningless if the ‘post’ means after. Each of these represents a liminal space of contestation and change, at the edges of the presumed monolithic, but never completely ‘beyond’. The present comes not as a break or a bonding with the past or future; our presence comes to be revealed in its ‘discontinuities, its inequalities, its minorities’.