All the abstracts for the different ISLT6- speakers are available in this section:


Institut Catholique de Paris, France

Immigrant Liminality: the Case of Vladimir Nabokov and His Lolita or The Velvety Victim in the Dungeon

In what we consider the traditional Gothic, liminality—or images of in-betweenness—play an important role. Think, for instance, of the traditional Gothic setting of the ruined castle, placing itself in a liminal space between past and present, presenting the past lingering on in the present. Think also of the temporal setting of the Gothic, where mysterious things tend to take place at dusk, between day and night; at midnight (between one day and the next) or at the winter solstice (at the darkest time of the year, between the disappearing sun and its returning). And think of the characters of the Gothic: ghosts (between life and death); werewolves (between animal and man) or monsters (for instance between man and machine, like Frankenstein’s monster, or between (wo)man and gadget, like the female character in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film Air Doll. Rhetorical figures such as personification and dehumanization, which place their subject between the categories of the human and the non-human, obviously play a large role, as well as “Gothic” states of mind, between dream and reality, between innocence and guilt and always between fascinations and fear... Indeed, they seem always to be accompanied by a sort of breathless apprehension, going all the way to terror.

Behind this fear are certain aspects of our psychic functioning and ultimately the biological characteristics of our human brains, which are designed to receive and to process information by way of prototype categories, that is, through the classification of concepts around certain “best” examples or prototypes. This ability of our brains to instantly categorize states, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings and movements obviously developed to ensure our survival in the world that we inhabit, and any inability to categorize becomes clear immediately in our behavior, making us hesitate and ultimately paralyzing us with fear. During my sabbatical at Cal State Berkeley, I was lucky enough to be able to discuss the matter with the cognitive linguist Professor George Lakoff. After one of his lectures on prototype categories, I asked him what happens if we are unable to categorize. His answer came instantly: “well, we just have to, or else we cannot move ...” “Exactly,” I though, “we will be frozen... with fear... as in the Gothic.”

Immigrants, obviously, find themselves in a liminal space where these categorization processes are disrupted in various ways. Indeed, old categorizations have instantly become useless and new categorizations need time to develop. In addition, previous categorizations may linger, unwittingly disrupting subsequent ones and so strange mixtures may occur. All this causes a certain amount of fear—terror even—accompanied by emotional and physical paralysis. Immigrant authors, obviously, exploit this paralysis, expressing it in their writings in the form of imagery and rhetorical figures that can clearly be seen as Gothic.
Vladimir Nabokov places his protagonist Humbert Humbert’s relationship with Dolores Haze— his “Lolita”—in a liminal space in various ways. Indeed, he chooses for the consummation of their transgressive relationship a setting close to Poe’s House of Usher (the “pale Palace of the Enchanted Hunters” located on the borders of a stagnant lake under “spectral trees”) and presents his fear of not being able to hold on to “his velvety victim” through the Gothic image of the dungeon. This paper, which is part of a larger project on cognitive science and literature, will explore the ways in which Nabokov’s transitional position is represented in his writing by way of such gothic imagery and rhetoric strategies.


Brunel University, London (UK)

Liminality, Neuroaesthetics and Practices of Performance and Technology

Performance and technology in all its divergent forms is an emergent area of performance practice which reflects a certain being in the world - a Zeitgeist; in short, it provides a reflection of our contemporary world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In a relatively short period of time there has been an explosion of new technologies that have infiltrated all areas of life and irrevocably altered our lives. Consequences of this technological permeation are both ontological and epistemological, and not without problems as we see our world change from day to day.
Exemplary digital practices are Blue Bloodshot Flowers (2001), featuring an avatar called Jeremiah, Merce Cunningham’s Biped (2000) with its virtual dancers, and Stelarc’s ‘obsolete body’; in film, the digital innovation and creativity of The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) and the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005); in sound and new media interactive practices, the ‘intermedia’ of Palindrome, and the ‘electronic disturbance’ of Troika Ranch; and in Bioart, the ‘recombinant theater’ of Critical Arts Ensemble, the ‘phenotypical reprogramming’ and ‘functional portraits’ of Marta de Menezes and Eduardo Kac’s ‘transgenic art’.

Such works present innovation in art practices, being at the cutting edge of creative and technological experimentation. It is also my belief that tensions exist within the spaces created by the interface of body and technology and these spaces are ‘liminal’ in as much as they are located on the ‘threshold’ of the physical and virtual. I am suggesting that it is within these tension filled spaces that opportunities arise for new experimental forms and practices. As such, I identify certain features that are central to these new practices. Firstly and foremost, the utilization of the latest digital technology is absolutely central since within these various art practices and performances there is an assortment of technologies employed. Another important trait is an accentuation of the corporeal in terms of both performance and perception since in much of this performance the body is primary and yet transient.

Such quintessential features demand a new mode of analysis which foregrounds the inherent tensions between the physical and virtual. These practices, in different ways, emphasize the body and technology in performance and they explode the margins between the physical and virtual and what is seen as dominant traditional art practices and innovative technical experimentation. Therefore, my main premise is the exploration and investigation into the physical/virtual interface so prevalent within the digital.
As a development of my previous theorization on liminality I believe that aesthetic theorization is central to this analysis. However, other approaches are also valid, particularly, those offered by recent research into cognitive neuroscience, particularly in relation to the emergent field of ‘neuro-esthetics’ where the primary objective is to provide ‘an understanding of the biological basis of aesthetic experience’ (Zeki 1999).


University of the South-West (Potchefstroom, South-Africa)

Between past and future: Temporal thresholds in narrative texts.

The relation between the human experience of time and the narrative representations of time is extremely complex. In Time and Narrative Ricoeur mainly theorises the temporal ontology underlying narrative representations, but when he discusses the work of great novelists the transforming potential of structured narrative temporality becomes apparent. This paper focuses on the way in which novels are modelled to reinvent time aesthetically, geared to restore or even innovate temporal possibilities. The main characteristic of time according to Ricoeur is its discordance: Time is split into past, present and future, it is simultaneously sequential and durative, experiential and cosmological, and eternal as well as transient. On the other hand narrative is concordant discordance; it replies to the aporetics of time by structuring discordance and converting its paradoxes into an aesthetic dialectic.

In this paper various examples of temporal structuring which resemble or iconically call forth the metaphor of the threshold, will be pointed out (in novels such as King Queen Knave by Nabokov, Austerlitz by Sebald, The Book of Happenstance by Winterbach and The Way of the Women by Van Niekerk). The main part of the paper will be devoted to an analysis of the temporal structures in Fugitive pieces by Anne Michaels. There are several key events and salient moments in the plot of the novel which can be regarded as threshold experiences and in which the representation of aspects of the plot foreground these events and moments by portraying the subject as balancing on a threshold.
The ethical debates about representing the Holocaust in fiction calls attention to the view of trauma represented in the novel. Temporal pre-understanding (what the cognitive psychologist John Michon calls "tuning") is transformed into narrative configurations and then reconfigured by readers (what Michon calls "time"). Strategies of representing time is especially meaningful in Fugitive pieces as Michaels succeeds in representing the aporia of the referential experiences by approaching the narrative material in indirectly and by using poetic language. The open-endedness of metaphoric language enables the author to write about contentious narrative and historical material suggestive of the aporetic nature of the referential material. She creates new aporias in the narrative text itself by opening up the imagination. Temporal structuring forms part of the layered narrative style and contributes to the multiplicity of representing the force of the experiences of the main character.

The complete breakdown of continuities in the life of the main character, leads to a series of liminal experiences and processes from which he doesn't seem to be able to escape and which he transcends only partially. Human beings see the present as the future of the past and the possible future as a continuation of the present. The radical breach of linearity and the intense awareness of death disrupt all continuity for the subject and he repeatedly has to cross a threshold to a life in which nothing is fixed or predictable. The most fascinating aspect of the novel is how the poetic and aesthetic character of the narrative enables the author to represent trauma as an ongoing process which defies closure.


Nottingham Trent University (UK)

Liminality, the readerly and writerly in Charles Chesnutt's The Colonel's Dream

My paper will explore the ways in which authors in a liminal position within a dominant cultural matrix often explore the threshold between the readerly and writerly (of Barthes) in order to convey what might well be described as sub-liminal narrative messages concerning the dominant culture and the way(s) in which it marginalises and represses and discriminates. I will take as my case study the work of the African American Charles Chesnutt and as my particular u his novel, The Colonel's Dream. I will analyse how this novel establishes a matrix of ironies that draws the reader into what lies in a narrative sub-liminal, underneath the apparent story of a well-meaning and benevolent philanthropist, revealing how his apparent motives are in fact complected by the emerging development of capitalism in the USA and its over-weening drive for growth and profit, which means that his apparent motives are in fact fatally conflicted and undermined -- quite literally for the African American characters within the book. The reader is thus compelled to adopt an active interpretive position in order  to understand this layering and the ways in which the Colonel, a shrewd capitalist, is ironically undermined by his own (self-)identity and its social matrices.

Universitat Jaume I (Castellón, Spain)

Who are we when faced with empty space in the painterly and cinematic arts?

“[...] but to his surprise he saw that the door was open, and the more he looked inside the more Piglet wasn’t there.” from A house is built at Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne, 1928.
How does the subject as audience become part of a painting or frame of film space apparently empty of human activity with its probable system of meaning? Are the scenes even empty, since there is actually a something involved. According to film expert Manolo Dos: “That something is the Important Thing beyond the experience of the scene. The space is not actually empty, rather a set up forcing the thrust of attention toward the possibilities of that which is outside the image. Both the emotion and the significance of the scene rely on the highly conscious design of the painter or director meant to influence the somewhat “under-consciousness” of the spectator-subject.” (Personal interview, September 21, 2011)

What emotions are involved? Is there an inherent desire for narrative to fill the space with story? What does the subject-perceiver experience in that zone where emptiness seems to be happening. Is there an imbalance between the expectations of empty contrasted with full within these works? Or between a kind of silence related to the sounds of speech, music, background noise, etc.?
Three paintings as well as scenes from three films will be discussed related to the subject as malleable material on a threshold of a place not clearly defined by human presence other than the viewer.
This lecture is meant to be interactive with the very people at the talk. Approaches to interpretation can vary, so the opinions of those in the position of spectator are important both on a personal and on a theoretical level.

William Merritt Chase,
Vilhem HammershØi
Edward Hopper
Film makers:
Fritz Lang
Roman Polanski
Woody Allen


Universidad de Huelva (Spain)

Hybrid Identity and Migration in Agnès Agboton’s Más allá del mar de arena and Fatou Diome’s En un lugar del atlántico

The exploration of contemporary migration narratives written by women writers of the African diaspora leads to a reconceptualization of the so-called new European identity that needs to account for the pluralization of hybrid and multi-layered identities on European soil. Agnès Agboton`s Más allá del mar de arena and Fatou Diome’s En un lugar del atlántico are excellent examples of African European texts, as they focus on a twofold objective: On the one hand, they attempt to incorporate migrant women’s voices to the tapestry of recent voices and cultures unheard of in Europe till quite recently. On the other, their publications point out at the difficulties involved in the adaptation to a new language and culture, especially severe in the case of the constant cultural negotiations migrants (and concretely women migrants) have to face on an everyday basis.
Moreover, these works also highlight the heartwrecking loss of identity markers that are also part of the migration process, and may result (at least initially) in a jarring sense of divided or fractured identity. Informed by an acute awareness of the devastating effects of applying an Eurocentric perspective that tends to identify the Other with the migrant figure, these texts intend to overturn conventional Western binaries and dichotomies. In doing so, both texts complicate univocal readings of identity and citizenship by claiming hybridity and liminality as assets for the construction of a more inclusive sense of belonging to multiple countries and/or communities.

University of Tel-Aviv

The Future of Liminality Studies

After twelve years of experiments, projects, encounters, conferences, and publications, the Liminality group is now solid enough to look at itself. Professor Miriam B. Mandel will (1) review our past, summarizing the main lines liminality research has followed so far, and (2) outline a proposal for defining our future. Items for discussion at the Round Table will include: naming the organization, setting up and naming some manner of organization for the study of liminality, establishing its financial basis, drafting its constitution, deciding the formats for future publications and conferences, and developing topics to ensure administrative strength and intellectual growth.


Universidad de Salamanca (Spain)

Liminal territories: the Divisibility of the Line in Thomas King’s “Borders” and Courtney Hunt's Frozen River

Margins are dangerous. Societies are most vulnerable at their edges along the tattered fringes of the known world Sheila McManus The Line that Separates

In his encyclopedic Natural History 36: 19-20, Plini refers the anecdote between two Greek painters, the established and admired Apelles, and a younger and promising Protogenes of Rhodes. Hearing of this great artist, Apelles went to Rhodes to visit his studio, and found Protogenes absent but a large empty panel waiting on its easel. The elderly lady custodian asked whom should she say had paid him a visit. Apelles then picked up a brush, said “By this person,” and proceeded to paint a narrow very straight line across the canvas. When Protogenes later returned and was shown the line, he instantly recognized the famous steady hand of Apelles. He then took another color and carefully painted an even finer line within the borders of the first one. Secreting himself away, he awaited Apelles’ reaction upon his return. Apelles, taxed to his utmost, then split the previous two lines by a third extremely finely applied line, upon which Protogones appeared and admitted defeat. This anecdote of professional rivalry and mastery provides a visual image of the tracing of the border, a fine line that divides a territory just like the straight brush cuts across the canvass, splitting the space into two. What the final painting reveals is a line within a line within a line. In this talk I suggest that these series of Borges-like bifurcations in space have an uncanny continuity with Derrida’s vision of the border in Aporias, where the philosopher deconstructs “this institution of the indivisible” by emphasizing that the mere tracing of the border “can only institute the line by dividing it intrinsically into two sides” (1993: 11). The story and the movie I propose for analysis split the border into different sides and territories, into identities and un-identities, places and un-places.


University of Nottingham (UK)

Liminality and Patricia Highsmith's First Three ‘Ripley’ Novels

My abstract here is provisional as I am still engaged in my preparatory reading. One definition of liminality is of a state ‘outside the bounds of “normal” human experience’ where ‘the subject is radically ungrounded’ (Kali Tal). In my paper I will be examining the first three novels in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, foregrounding her protagonist’s liminal status. In Ripley’s initial move from the US to Europe, in The Talented Mr Ripley, we see a crossing of international boundaries (a liminal space) which brings with it a refashioning of the self, the abandonment of certain American values and ways of living in favour of a more aesthetically pleasing European lifestyle. But to take advantage of the latter, Ripley needs (like Gatsby) to reinvent himself. Highsmith is fascinated by the relationship between violent crime, deception and the free-floating nature of subjectivity, the ability to move between selves, the performance of identity rather than any notion of essential selfhood. Thus Tom Ripley acts out a series of parts, takes on the identities of others – most significantly Dickie Greenwood and, in later text, the artist Dermatt. And even as he plays himself (Tom Ripley) in the last two of these novels, he moves between the life of a leisured dilettante in rural France and murderous action; between a certain respectability (which includes his life as an amateur artist and his dedication to home and garden) and all sorts of shady dealing and risk. Such transitions both destabilise any notion of the grounded self, and radically challenge our understanding of what ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ might mean. He anticipates Hannibal Lecter here in the ‘oxymoronic implosion of definitions’ that compose him. Both monstrous and civilised, ‘he is an ethical abomination with whom one is manoeuvered into identification’ (Taylor on Lecter). There is more to say about liminality and the dividing line between (supposed) authenticity and fake or forgery in Highsmith, especially as it relates to the field of art itself. And on why Highsmith chooses the crime fiction genre in the first place for her work. Here, Bill Brown’s comment on ‘the mesmerising power of genuine liminality, where the structures of normalcy and everyday security break down’ will provide the prompt for my analysis.


University of Nottingham (UK)

Performing Self and Decentred Subject: Revisiting the Question of Voice.

   One recurring theme in discussions of African American culture has been the importance of oral expression and of music. For many it has been used  to invoke both the immediacy and presence  of the perfoming artist and the idea  of an unchanging cultural/ racial essence and identity, and as a result it has sometimes seemed to sit uncomfortably with the post-structuralist critique of the privileging of voice as any sort of guarantee of presence, and the consequent decentring of the subject.   I want to look at some of the issues of authenticity and subjectivity raised by instances of the African American speaking and singing voice, and then some recent poetry which explicitly explores the idea of the subject in play and performance.

To do this I want initially to revisit some of the key debates over voice and presence involving Derrida’s critique of phonocentrism etc and the idea of performative language. One of the effects of Derrida’s early work was to undermine the common conception of the speaking subject as a locus of ummediated presence, with its insistence on the iterability and hence textuality of all utterances . The recourse to song and music, especially produced by ‘primitive’ people, as a marker of the possibility of a place beyond mediation and textuality, has been subject to rigorous deconstructive critique, by Derrida and others, but what happens when we focus on the voice itself, in its materiality, in a range of contexts, including poetry and song?  I want to deliberately emphasise the materiality of voice, taking off from Barthes’ idea of the ‘grain of the voice’ and showing how this operates in African American performances. I will look at the way performers have used and celebrated the possibilities for an African American cultural identity rooted in oral and musical performance and improvisation, but expressed in new technologies, in what Weheliye has called an African American sonic modernity to explore liminal subjectivities. I hope to illustrate the talk with recordings of voices in various performing modes.


Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Subject to Clinamen: John Milton, Richard Bentley and the Phantom Editor of Paradise Lost.

Inspired by a prophylactic desire to safeguard written meaning, Richard Bentley’s emendations of the text of Paradise Lost in his revised edition of 1732 dramatically question the very possibility of a text having a fixed, unproblematic meaning. The paper tries to show Bentley’s purported task of relieving Milton’s text from “corruption” as a fantastically productive textual force doubling the virtuality of many of the poem’s signifiers and destabilizing its supposed univocity.


The Queen’s University, Belfast (UK)

Mysticism and Liminality in Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo is a Spanish painter who fled to Mexico shortly after the Spanish Civil War (b. Anglès, Girona, 1907; d. Mexico City, 1961). Affiliated briefly with the Parisian Surrealists, she went on to produce her mature work within the very broad framework of surrealism’s postwar turn to the marvellous and the esoteric. A long line of critics have argued that the protagonists in her paintings are embarked on a quest for pyschological or spiritual fulfillment (Kaplan 1988; Arcq 2006). But the way we read this quest and its implication in narrative has also been challenged (Epps 2006), with the argument made that Varo’s characters are always only shown in the process of becoming. This is an important insight as it signals their ‘betwixt and between’ state. Yet the focus on the way we construct a narrative tends to blur the object of the characters’ quest and to pass over symbols of mystical endeavor. Both aspects are best brought out by reframing the discussion of her work through the concept of liminality. Varo’s characters are depicted as if they were fairytale characters on their way to or from a sighting or a feat which will transform them. In other words, Varo uses the world of the marvellous –a counterworld—to figure a journey that promises to overpower and change the subject. In its use of symbolism from different esoteric traditions, ranging from alchemy to Tao to Gurdjieff,  the paintings’ inspiration is Jungian. It was Jung who linked the discovery of his own psychology to a katabasis, comparing the descent into the Feminine world of the unconscious to an enlightenment secured through initiation in mystery cults centred on Mother goddesses (Davies 2010). We suggest that Varo’s characters are engaged in a similar journey and that we see them in the process of this descent (or ascent).


Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain)

Complexity and liminality: a model of characterization in Gothic fiction

The talk will explore and refine the concept of formulaic language as applied to the Gothic novel, since we believe it is a key element to understand the reader’s appreciation of the character.

We will depart from the assumption that the most common reaction to the text and to its characters is a feeling of repetition, of “stock” or unidimensional characterization. We will then present the tools that will enable us to unravel the complexity that emanates from the use of formulaic language. To do so, we must explore the way in which formulaic language constructs a web of meaning, connotation and reference, both intratextual and intertextual, which may initially result in a deceptively simple consideration of the character as one instance of a clearly defined type. We will not disregard this initial appreciation, but will rather take it as a departure point and examine it closely, to ultimately postulate that characterization in the Gothic novel reveals heroes and heroines that dwell in the limen, in paradox and ambiguity, in unresolved and insoluble complexity.
Metaphors from the field of Mathematics, mostly from the areas of chaos theory and fractality, will be used to gain insight into the dynamics of complexity in the Gothic novel. The contribution is intended as an introduction to a reappraisal of Gothic characters, by dealing with paradoxes that will lead us to a liminal territory of tension between the fairytale character and the unstable enlightened self, the sublime and the homely. Paradoxes and amibiguities that, like the “typically extraordinary” nature of the character, may originate in dychotomy, but which are rendered more and more complex by mechanisms of iteration and self-similarity, minimal variation and reference.


The Open University, UK

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as Liminal Art

It is no exaggeration to say that Western art music in the nineteenth century can fairly be divided into works from before and after Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1857). It’s opening chord, forever after known as the ‘Tristan’ chord, represents and symbolises the manner in which this work is a watershed. Its harmony was regarded as at the limit of expression at the time – beyond that limit by many. It is therefore one of the works most suited to investigation as a liminal work.

This liminality goes well beyond its historical status. It is also aesthetic, in that subsequent music either follows Wagner’s technical innovations, or actively resists them. But there are other domains in which its liminality can be explored, and which illuminate some of the reasons for this cultural status.

Firstly, the setting of the action deliberately foregrounds the liminality of the characters’ positions. Ships, gardens, and voyages frame the narrative, so that the entirety of the action is decentred and displaced. Secondly, the plot is driven by the boundary between the rational social world determined by politics, duty and loyalty, and the irrational personal world that for both central characters is overwhelmed by sexual passion. Thirdly, these conflicts are used by Wagner to question the validity of the nineteenth-century belief in the individual subject. Tristan and Isolde are both destroyed by their passion, ultimately finding subjective integrity only in extinction. This is reflected in the way that Wagner’s musical technique resists the hierarchical organisation of the musical language he inherited, creating instead what has been described as a “network” of harmonic relationships, a musical emlem of liminality itself.


University of Tromso (Norway)

Liminality and Borders in Literary Aesthetics

Writing poetics is often an exercise in distinguishing between different categories: elements in the text, parts of the text. The differences between these sometimes explicitly figured as borders and transitions (such as beginnings, plot turns and revelations). In traditional poetics, literary categories are often territorialized in a conceptual landscape and works are subjected to unities. Distinctions are also made between a range of phenomena and their others: good literature and bad literature, originals and imitations, affect and decorum, literature and history, reality and fiction, plausibility and fantasy, poetic language and prosaic language, readers/audiences and texts, the text and its outside, etc. Again, such otherings may be figured as borders of various kinds: absolute divisions, mixings, magnetisms, dialectics, etc. Within these processes of distinctions and borderings, various subject positions are being constructed: authors and their readers, critics, characters, and not least poeticians and their readers.

The purpose of this presentation is to examine, in a wide range of writings in traditional and modern poetics, possible border narratives, border figures and liminalities brought into play in such writing. The approach is broadly one taken from border poetics: the acknowledgement of border processes taking place on different surfaces which sometimes join in telling ways. In some poetics for example, relations of power surface between categories and subject positions, especially apparent in the various otherings going on in these texts. Certain categories, including literature itself, are made sovereign over others, authors exercise freedoms (e.g. deus ex machina), etc. In some, such relations are explicitly made into topographical borders, including Plato’s famous admonition to exile all practicioners of literary and aesthetic imitation from his ideal state, or Boileau’s scepticism to rhymesters ”on the other side of the Pyrenees” who in their works break with the unity of time. The question raised – in such cases most clearly – is whether a poetics can be evaluated from its confirm or challenge territorializing and ”container” concepts of borders; whether it allows for liminal states, categories and subject positions.


University of the South-West (Potchefstroom, South-Africa)

Liminality in Ingrid Jonker’s Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre, 1963) and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965)

In 2010 a new Dutch film on the life of the celebrated Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker (1933-1965) was released. Despite numerous historical inaccuracies – and a total neglect of the fact that she wrote in Afrikaans – the film Black Butterflies again focused international attention on a poet who, partly due to her early suicide, became a cult figure in Afrikaans literature. The originality of her imagery as well as the strong tensions in her work between life and death and male and female, calls for comparison with that other famous poet suicide, Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). They were almost exact contemporaries and their work eloquently expresses the tensions and uncertainties of being female poets in an age of profound social change, inter alia in gender relations. The history of their canonisation, partly through the agency of powerful male figures like Jack Cope and Andre Brink in Jonker’s case, and of course Ted Hughes in Plath’s case, is equally fascinating material for comparison.

In this paper I focus on the liminal situations and imagery in the two near-contemporary collections, Rook en Oker and Ariel. In-between states and imagery of these states are apparent in poems like “Lady Lazarus”, “Death and Co.” and “Tulips”. The poems on pregnancy and birth by the two poets (“Your’e” and “Pregnant woman”) are especially clear depictions of liminal states – often in surprisingly different terms and from different perspectives. In both poets angst, doubt and meaninglessness come to the fore strongly, yet their work also maintain strong elements of self affirmation.

In the end I will try to assess the impact that liminality in the two poets’ work had on their international recognition and canonisation and on the images of the poets that are created in Black butterflies and in the film Sylvia (2003). This might be quite topical in view of the release of The bell jar, a new film adaptation of Plath’s novel from 1963, directed by Nicole Kassell, later this year.


University of Tromso (Norway)

Liminality through Drowning: The Aesthetics of Death and Memory in Slave Narratives


This paper takes up the challenge posed by Paul Gilroy in his important book, The Black Atlantic (1993) when he suggests that there is a need to examine the history of modernity “from the slaves’ point of view”: “These emerge in the especially acute consciousness of both life and freedom which is nurtured by the slave’s “moral terror of his sovereign master” and the continuing “trial by death” which slavery becomes for the male slave” (55).  I want to take up this challenge by examining the genre of slave narrative, both one from the nineteenth century, Fredrik Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) and then an more recent example Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts (1997).  I will show that the memories of slavery become an unsettling interruption in each text, cutting across the “frontier” between narration “proper” the unfolding of actions in time and its double, the mode of description, the rendering of spatialized scenes through dense visual or multisensory rhetoric (Genette, “The Frontiers of Narrative” in Figures of Literary Discourse).  These unstable memories emerge to form a threshold connecting “the temporal and spatial modes, the visual and aural codes” (WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory, 191) of the text. What another group of critics suggest is that these texts an internal frontier between description and chronological organization.   I will argue that Douglass’s text uses memory to frame a threshold, which can only be crossed through rhetorical configurations and sentimental tropes that merge the descriptive and the chronological through syncretic phrasing conjoining past and present description.  While in Feeding the Ghosts memory is a disruption represented as a gap or space which emergences as a shadow text or image, an “unstable assemblage of faults, fissures, and heterogeneous layers that threaten the fragile inheritor from within or from underneath” (Foucault, The Foucault Reader, 83).

The problem here is where to start a discussion of liminal spaces and narrative, memory and slavery, whether in the first “slave narratives” of the 18-19th centuries or within the “neo-slave narratives” starting in the 1960s through 2000?  One could say that in both periods the slave narrative most often set out to examine the ways in which the seeing and speaking black subject spoke of and about slavery as an institution, and tried to establish a position of eye witness to slavery in which “the unvarnished truth” would be spoken or written.  The authenticity of the “self” who “told their own story” within these slave narratives was established either by their detailed descriptions or by a confirming confident or transcribing listener.  The speakers in the slave narrative, whether historical or modern, often speak of themselves in a former time mediated by memory, narrated as autobiography, and in such a way that they are outside that “peculiar institution”: the speaker is a former slave. 

Most critics who have examined the early narratives have argued that description dominates, and that the tropes of transparent access allow the narrator to give the reader a “window” into a world composed of a series of “scenes, sketches, or incidents” of slavery.  Thus place and spatial description tend to dominate the other very active element in these narratives: memory.  It is a source of chronological organization creating “configurational time” (Ricoeur) within the “story world” of the text. The subject identity of “I” and the uses of their “eyes” are central in all these narratives.

While one critic has argued that memory is not self consciously presented in the early slave narrative, another argues the reason is these authors’ lack of literary skill (see James Olney in The Slave Narrative, 148-175 and William Andrews, To Tell A Free Story, 8).  However another group of critics, Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates, The Slave Narrative, xi-xxvii) and WJT Mitchell, suggest memory as “a passing on” of a public and collective social past is self-consciously and consistently the subject of these narratives (Picture Theory, 193).  However it is Mitchell who puts his finger on the problem which is central to my paper.  Memory for writers as sophisticated as Douglass demonstrates strange gaps and blind spots in which “the blankness of memory is so radical that it can’t be described as forgetting, amnesia, or repression, but as the absolute prevention of experience, the excision not just of memories as a content, but the destruction of memory itself, either as an artificial technique or a natural faculty” (186-87).  And we are now familiar with Toni Morrison’s famous phrase in Beloved: “It was not a story to pass on” suggesting both the imperative to remember and to forget in such texts. 

I will show that this tension of remembering to forget, and the uses of memory within the historical and contemporary slave narrative can be meaningfully explored using some of the concepts of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner as well as those of border aesthetics, especially “representation”. By using Douglass as my starting point, and then comparing his problematic representation of memory and narrative with that of Fred D’Aguiar’s in Feeding the Ghosts we will gain a clearer perspective on representations within cultural theory  and these two narrative texts.