In Between Daze

A brief history of today’s most pretentious word.

Do you know what the word liminal means? No? Good news. The concept of liminality has a 14,000-word Wikipedia page. Good-faith question: If a 14,000-word Wikipedia entry is necessary to define and trace the history of a word, is it really a good word? Does it not at that point score high on the jargon spectrum, approaching one hundred percent?

Art curators the world over would clearly say no. The word has littered nearly every bit of art writing I’ve read in the last twenty years, excepting perhaps the work of Dave Hickey. It appears in just about every other issue of Artforum for the last ten of those. Now it’s everywhere. Ask a man who has curated an exhibit of cats on the internet to simply compare them to dogs, and he will tell you that, “Cats are more mercurial and liminal.”

God knows why the art people picked this up. I’d like to blame professionalism, but it isn’t even a word most professional art critics have used. Clement Greenberg, who is sometimes credited with having invented American art criticism, never used it. Jed Perl either.

In nearly every instance, the word has been unnecessary. (Are cats liminal? Mine’s pretty blunt about her existence, I have to say.) Even where correctly deployed, it seems superfluous, self-justifying. Last week, it cropped up in an online preview run by the New York Times of the forthcoming Diane Arbus show at the Met Breuer. A pretty but not altogether remarkable photograph of a child waiting to cross the street is subjected to this gloss by the curator:

“Arbus was particularly sensitive to children,” the curator Jeff L. Rosenheim said. “They’re in the process of changing their identities as they grow. She’s at the curb — the curb itself is that liminal stage.”

This smacks of mistaking the artist’s intention for the eventual effect of the picture, but then, all curators talk like this. If they can’t explain the art, then what are they doing? It’s a good question. I thought writing for a living would be a racket, and I’d be paid to pick out good art and go to parties, but since then I’ve learned it’s the art people who have the real scam going.

Long did I assume, like everyone else, that the vogue and the vagueness of liminality came from academia (no one is more to blame for the bad writing of the average holder of a bachelor degree than the postmodern academics). But the word’s been kicking around since the late nineteenth century, mostly used by psychologists. Per the Oxford English Dictionary:

Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process. rare. b.b spec. in Psychol. Of or pertaining to a ‘limen’ or ‘threshold.’

“Rare,” heh. People miss that part of the explanation, I guess. They also miss that though liminal sounds like it should be related to the verb limn, which means to depict or to describe something, it is not. Witness: in Michiko Kakutani’s entire history as the New York Times book critic, she has used “limn” 38 times. But she has never, not once, deigned to use the word “liminal.” Searches confirm this.

The first person to use it in the New York Times was actually Herbert Mitgang, in a 1958 trend piece on beards — “a particularly attractive red one had entered the male liminal consciousness,” he wrote — so the fault may not be completely attributable to art criticism.

In the end, it all goes back to psychology. In 1906, one Dr. John Duncan Quackenbos (yes, his real name) published an article on the “Transliminal” in the August edition of the North American Review. Dr. Quackenbos was interested in hypnotism, and he was a member of the London Society for Psychical Research, which still exists. He wrote:

In the transliminal sphere, we are capable of acting independently of a visible corporeity; and, as beings cast in the image of God, we intuitively apprehend, we possess supernormal knowledge and wield supernormal power, we are subject to impression by other human personalities, as well as obnoxious to the touch of higher spiritual intelligences, and we are gifted with a measure of prescience that on occasion forecasts what is to be.

In other and fewer words: the notion of the liminal comes from people who believed in the possibility of supernatural powers. Not all that different from postmodern academics, if you really think about it.

In general, the word threshold could do liminal’s job quite nicely. “Threshold” has a pleasing onomatopoeic effect — there are two main beats in it, and because “hold” is a down beat (don’t bother me with scansion terms, there’s no need to get technical here) it nicely mimics a step. In a pinch, or if you don’t like the slight implication of forward movement in “threshold,” “in-between” does quite nicely. Or “transitional,” though that one can sound a bit too much like you have a masters in public administration.

Of course, these more plain words do not give you the inner moral and intellectual authority of “liminal.” But there are risks. I had a friend who thought the word would be useful in plain conversation. “I am in a liminal state on this streetcar,” she once observed. Very shortly thereafter, everyone quit talking to her. They could not understand a goddamn word she was saying.