A research project titled “Systemic Analysis of ‘Marginal’ Literatures” (1994-97) gave the initial impetus for our research on liminality. Whereas our stated goal was a theoretical exploration of the phenomenon of non-canonical literatures, we gradually came to the conviction that “marginal” was too misleading a term for our purposes, and decided to take up the anthropological concept of liminality and explore its implications. The result was a monograph, Margins and Thresholds, which the newly-created Gateway Press published in 2000. The Liminality Seminars, launched in the Spring of 1998, were a second offshoot of this interest, and provided a forum for debate, acting as a sounding-board for ideas and yielding rich feedback which made further research possible.

Over the last forty years, the hallowed status of canonical literary texts has been repeatedly and intensely questioned; as a result, much has been written on ‘marginal’ or ‘marginalized’ literary areas such as Gothic novels, Detective and Western fiction, Science-Fiction, women’s writings, writings by ethnic and/or national(ist) groups, children’s literature, and so on—fields whose very existence and function are defined in terms of canon criteria. For the past seventeen years, an ambitious series of research projects (Systemic Analysis of ‘Marginal’ Literatures, Threshold and Text, The Northanger Library Projectamong others) launched in the Department of English Studies at the UAM have sought to question and redefine the status of texts, genres and other literary systems usually labeled “marginal(ized)”. The adaptation of the concept of “liminality”, as employed in anthropology from Van Gennep to Turner, to the needs of literary study was one logical outcome of this research. Another, the concomitant opening up of the field of inquiry to other disciplines that deal with text, with language, with meaning. Yet another, a series of working papers (Studies in Liminality and Literature) edited by THE GATEWAY PRESS in Madrid, which since 2000 has been publishing the results of the project (for details see http://www.northangerlibrary.com/gateway.asp, and SECTION 5).

By “marginal(ized)” we understand any text generated in a zone which borders on discourse but is excluded from (and by) it. By “liminal” we understand any text generated between two or more discourses, a transition area between two or more universes and which thereby shares in two or more poetics. In a second, derived sense, we also apply the term “liminal” to texts, genres or representations centered around the notion of the threshold, or whose fundamental theme is the idea of a crossover, an entry or a transgression into the unknown, the Other, the Numinous. The distinction between “marginal(ized)” and “liminal”, and the corollaries it generates, shape the basis for this project, and carry a deep reassessment of both our canonical and our marginalized literary systems, as of their teaching. Some of the corollaries are as follows:

a) there exist a multiplicity of literary systems which, if separated by ‘margins’, relate on ‘thresholds’; or, the margin is an unacknowledged threshold;
b) it has long been recognized that every canon presupposes an exclusion, and that therefore
c) the margin is indispensable to the very identity of the canon;
d) to this we may add that, if we accept that the ‘margin’ is no more than an unacknowledged threshold, then the threshold is in itself a ‘territory’ or provides entry to one;
e) the combination of (c) and (d) yields the proposition that the very identity of the canon is bound to the concept of the liminal zone and its transliminal area;
f) given such interdependence, there can be no ‘pure’ literary systems, canonical or otherwise; which leads us to conclude that
g) the threshold, as contact area between any two literary systems, is of vital importance to understanding both; and that, therefore,
h) the study of thresholds, borders and processes must become our central discipline.     

On the strength of these propositions a number of postgrad courses, seminars, researches, projects and publications have been set in motion. More particularly, a series of encounters –the International Seminar on Liminality and Text—have taken place, of which the latest (ISLT 6) is due on April 2012 (SEE SECTION 4). Liminality interests those concerned with the study of borders, interstices, missing links; it is a dynamic concept associated with conflict, hybridity, blend, pollution; with chaos and creation; with fluidity of identity or of meaning; with the unstable or the unsettling; with transgression, subversion, or transcendence. And it is a sufficiently abstract concept for use in such disciplines as study ritual, culture and literature.

As a theoretical tool, liminality enables us to identify sites, objects, characters, events, texts whose main trait is precisely that they refuse definition, classification or analysis within more conventional frameworks. A theory of liminality should help us to understand textual aspects that might otherwise remain invisible or elicit confusing explanations. From previous work by the LIMEN Group , the following would seem to count among the basic properties of the limen, and will have to be taken into account in the construction of a theory of liminality; needless to say, the list is tentative, and not exhaustive:

1. The threshold is betwixt-and-between X and Y, both X and Y, or neither X nor Y
2. It challenges the Law of the Excluded Middle; it proposes itself as a tertium quid
3. It is “a place that is not a place” (Turner), “the new, neither the one nor the other” (Bhabha)
4. It is ambiguous, ambivalent, polyvalent, equivocal, paradoxical, contradictory, all-embracing
5. It exhibits properties different from those of ordinary space
6. Being a frontier, it generates change; or it is itself a changing site
7. It displays a concentration of meaning; or it is conspicuous for its meaninglessness
8. It is unstable, hence unreliable
9. It may exist as a multiplicity of versions of a text; hence it challenges fixed notions as to the stability of texts or of the single author
10. It may therefore consist, not in the line between versions, but in the unstable or ‘dynamic’ space shaped by a plurality of versions
11. It is a site of power: the occupants of or passengers through the threshold are liable either to take this power upon themselves or to be subjected to it. It may be that in the liminal regions there is -paradoxically- no middle way
12. Being charged with power, it is apt to be a site of numinosity, of promise and danger
13. Conversely, qua unstable, it is open, hence exposed, hence particularly vulnerable
14. It can be either subversive or transcendental
15. It opens up (or shapes) new universes

The Numinous, the fantastic, the polyvalent, the Excluded Middle can be viewed as so many tokens of the liminal. Heteroglossia, intertextuality and evolution appear as different kinds of threshold-interaction. Social, ethnic or religious encounters and the resulting conflicts, compromises, changes or double-codings are best described as occurring on cultural interfaces. The Forest, the Garden of Delights, the haunted house or the Frontier are liminal sites in our literatures. Both the hero and his adversary straddle the line in folklore, epic and adventure narrative. Genre formation and genre modification fall squarely within the scope of liminalist inquiry. The strength of the concept is shown by the unity it brings to a heretofore complex and heterogeneous field. There remains, of course, to formulate the theoretical framework that must account for these and other phenomena in a unified perspective while respecting the specificity of each.