Online Liminal Subjectivity

Ellen Strenski
University of California at Irvine

"[T]he bonds of communitas are anti-structural in that they are undifferentiated, equalitarian, direct, nonrational (though not irrational), I-Thou or Essential We relationships. . ."
(Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Symbolic Action in Human Society 46-7).

A good way to understand the nature of these hybrid electronic writers and readers engaged in a compelling gift exchange of aesthetic pleasure is to borrow and apply Victor Turner's concept of liminality, which Turner borrowed from Van Gennep's concept of "rites of passage." "Liminality," for Turner, is the impermanent, indefinite, unstructured condition experienced by everyone at various times of being between structures. This transitional, threshhold condition is charged with uncertainty, power, and danger. Neither inside nor outside, this hybrid condition is contained by social rituals, whether the Quinceañera, Ndembu shamanism, or activities of Greek letter societies on campus. These rituals are often characterized by the exchange of gifts--actions as well as objects--which function to domesticate and thereby control otherwise anomalous, and therefore threatening, behavior. For instance, the Quinceañera rite of passage celebrates a young girl's coming of age when she is 15 years old with festive display and gift-giving. The adolescent is a typical liminal hybrid: part child, part-adult. Adolescence is a liminal condition, wherein the liminal being oscillates between ascribed statuses and roles: driver, voter, drinker, tax dependent, student, soldier, parent, viewer of PG films, recipient of reduced fare bus passes, sexual partner, participant in Juvenile Court, subject of city curfews, etc.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
Ellen's Stuff:
Hybridity & Liminal Subject Formation | Epistolary Art | Electronic Gift Exchange
Electronic Hybridity | Conclusion | Works Cited

The opposite model of change is incremental--if not pre-ordained--development: an egg, if nothing interferes with it, hatches and eventually grows into a chicken, or whatever, according to its genetic blueprint. For the anthropologist following Victor Turner, or the sociologist following Erving Goffman, however, the human social dynamic is not so smooth. Liminal experiences occur at the disjunctures, the ruptures, between defined structures. Note the emphasis on "between," as in Ulmer's observation that computer-mediated communication comes "between" print and speech. Cyberspace creates such a liminal condition; e-mailers are electronic hybrid subjects.

Fluid definitions of the hybrid, electronic self are obvious in the proliferation of "'nyms" (aliases and pseudonyms) in cyberspace. However, whether or not these aliases can be deciphered is not the point. It is not anonymity as such, in other words, the camoflauge of anonymity, that is appealing in 'nyms so much as the opportunities these aliases provide for creative role-playing. When composing on line, for instance, the two fictional sex therapists in novelist Offit's Virtual Love, go-dot and E-man, know very well who the other electronic correspondent is: Aphra Zion, M.D., or Marc Martell, M.D. Whoever go-dot and E-man are, they are not these supposed real life characters. They are liminal creatures, defined by what they are not, who they are not, and where they are not. In cyperspace, go-dot and E-man can exchange e-mail messages that Zion and Martell could not write to each other. That these two characters meet in cyberspace and there fall in love with each other's electronic avatars is all the more interesting since these characters are supposed to be professional experts in the dynamics of just such emotional projection. The novelistic result is an ironic application of the "physician, heal thyself" dictum. In any case, writing and reading the open-ended, destabilizing, revealing electronic texts generated by this hybrid medium precipitates the formation of online liminal entities: temporary, hybrid, alter egos. The now famous New Yorker cartoon with the caption, "On the Internet no one knows you're a dog," is funny, but it misses this essential point--the electronic invitation to become temporarily a cat or a dog or any other desired metamorphosis.

Electronic subjectivity is accordingly hybrid in a structural sense that goes beyond matters of individual personal preference for various online disguises. E-mailers are located not so much in a contact zone as in no zone at all or, at least, between zones, hence transitional, or in Turner's term, "liminal." Three features of Turner's analysis of liminality apply particularly to e-mail: liminal subjects' gratifying experience of what Turner calls "communitas," their outspoken freedom and spontaneity, and their property-less condition.

Turner invokes theologian Martin Buber as best able to describe the state of "communitas": "Essentially, communitas is a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals [who] . . . are not segmentalized into roles and structures but confront one another in the manner of Martin Buber's 'I and Thou'" (Ritual 131-2). Turner's emphasis on "I-Thou or Essential We relationships" (Dramas 47) echoes Altman when Altman refers to "the interpersonal bond basic to the very language of the letter (I-you)" (118). Communitas is the experience of the ensuing relationship, the We, the "intense comradeship" (Turner, Ritual 95) which is achievable by liminal subjects in cyberspace. Communitas can happen on line precisely because this new electronic social space is not structured by social cues and clues reflecting conventional roles and status for individual participants and thereby restraining them to decorous expectations.

So, too, online liminal entities experiencing this freedom and spontaneity are "outspoken," one of Turner's recurring terms: "This comradeship, with its familiarity, easy and I would add, mutual outspokenness, is once more the product of interstructural liminality" (Forest 101). It is interstructural because hybrid. Note, too, the emphasis on "mutual." Turner refers to "something 'magical' about this experience. Subjectively there is in it the feeling of endless power" (Ritual 139). Does this not sound like a description of much online discourse?

Finally, liminal entities are propertyless; they "have no status, property. . . rank or role" (Turner, Ritual 95). They are unbounded by any kind of commodification, or other way to calculate commerical qui pro quo. They are accordingly free to exchange what can be thought of only as gifts: the pleasure or terror of personal affirmation or attack conducted in aesthetic terms, that is, in a conversational style that, as Tannen reminds us, is "essentially literary" (154).

A further implication of liminality accounts for much technophobia, the "[structurally] inbuilt negativism that strikes at the outset," referred to by Fred Kemp. Because "transitional beings are particularly polluting" (Turner, Forest 97), computer enthusiasts, especially in a different environment, say cyberrhetoricians working in a humanities department, naturally enough elicit from colleagues a threat response to their sheer physical presence. That the offense is occasioned by "interstructural liminality" is a useful reminder not to take such a apparent affront personally.

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