For the past year, I have been chipping away at a novel I am writing, and after a while of dissecting my subject I realised one of the major themes I wanted to explore is liminal spaces. A subject which seems as relevant for discussion now as ever.
“A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.” (1)
Liminality crops up a lot in critical theory because so many artists are obsessed with those gaps between definitions. It can be a source of immense creativity; think androgyny, fluid boundaries of sexuality, time, space and the carnivalesque. It is the intersection of tradition; the space where expression is free, if we let it be. As such, it’s a great place to play.
The liminal space I explore in my story is the town I grew up in: Blackpool. To me, our seaside town is the ultimate liminal space. Before the pandemic, it was a town of stag and hen dos; the place which not so long ago had the highest teenage pregnancy rate; a town of rich entertainment history which has largely been forgotten as those generations become muted.
Before that, it was a resort hugely popular for working class holidays during Lancashire Wakes Weeks. And prior to that it was the place where Victorians came to take in the sea air. But it was something before that too and before that and before that. However, we have scant history to work from because its identity really came to the fore thanks to the industrial revolution and rise of the railways.
I have heard Blackpool discussed in so many guises, but they are all so extreme: faded grandeur, ailing seaside resort, area of deprivation. These are terms the locals are all too familiar with. To the point that they don’t just become identifiers of the place; they become by extension part of your identity too. But the problem with all this layering of labels, especially during the past forty years since the town’s decline has been especially marked, is that no one on the inside is sure what its identity is.
You could say, it occupies a liminal space.
This becomes more self-explanatory when you understand its unusual context.
In my opinion, even the most obvious icons of Blackpool’s culture continually occupy a liminal space. Fairground rides that suspend you in the air. Entertainment that traverses the fine line between tragedy and comedy. Clowns that wear two faces. Fortune tellers who stand between the present and the future. Piers stretching out into the sea that are onshore yet off. Rocks that lie in the littoral zone purporting to be of a lost town or civilisation.
We are also the place that caters to political party conferences one week and the world’s largest magic convention the next. The place where pigeon fanciers and punks convene. We have always attracted the people on the fringes, the transient population, and I think that is because we are both a physical extremity (out on a limb at the end of the M55) and a place of mythical status. We can be whatever you want us to be, all things to all people. Our identity is fluid.
Elements of this used to bother me. I didn’t understand where the council’s plans for regeneration fit with the history I knew and the way I experienced the town for myself. But now I think I’m starting to understand. I suppose I was worried that throwing up the kinds of glass and aluminium structures you find in any town or city would rob us of our ‘identity’. That it would change us by overwriting some previous definition of ourselves. But I see it’s probably not even possible, for better or worse, because Blackpool is the archetypal liminal space. The more it evolves, the more its identity becomes muddled, which is probably what makes it a place of richness. Let’s not forget the most interesting identities are the ones which defy definition.I think that’s why we find it such a magical place too. Many people from all walks stored their dreams here, even if they didn’t always deliver.
In my story, the physical liminal space I am seeking to step into isn’t just the town itself, it is, more specifically, the geographical littoral zone between the highest water mark and the furthest reaches of the tide. The place where two groups of rocks are situated: Pennystone Rock and Carlin Rock.
But as with any hero’s journey, the liminal space for novelists and readers also exists within the self; that which was previously unknown, unseen or unacknowledged about the protagonist’s character is drawn out through the story’s developments. In actual fact, novel writing or any kind of story occupies a liminal space in itself: the uncomfortable in-between stage before what author and readers will know can be known.
This past year has been crucially interesting because Blackpool will have to redefine itself once again. But beyond that, leaping from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, you could say 2020 itself is the archetypal liminal space:
“During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” (2)
We have seen those members of society who were once operating at the fringes – undervalued – become the key workers upon whom we depend. Delivery personnel, care givers (largely women), supermarket workers… By inversion (a classic trope of the liminal space), those we once placed more highly as a society became redundant overnight. Personalities, celebrities, the higher classes. They have had to reinvent themselves to survive in this the ultimate year of liminality: 2020.
No doubt we have all also undergone our own hero’s journeys over the past year, perhaps triggered by this momentous event on a global scale. I know I have. However, my journey into the unknown began in Autumn 2019, before anyone knew about the pandemic. But even at that point I knew I was standing at the edge of a threshold. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew my scenery, while being exactly the same, had shifted. I believe we know when we are on the edge of the precipice even if we can’t see it. We can feel the updraft of the gulf of change beneath our feet.
Of course, the liminal space is supposed to be uncomfortable. That’s because it is a waiting, a transition that will ultimately leave you changed. But perhaps we can also find liminal spaces sources of relief. It’s during periods in my life such as these that I look to learn more about the inherent disorder of life, and increasingly quantum physics, whose beautiful chaos is a revitalising example of the liminality of something we often view as unchangeable and fixed: science. The potential for alternate realities, of something being and not being at the same time, grants, I suppose, a sweetness that nothing can ever be known with any kind of certainty:
“Like Quantum Mechanics, liminal reality is also characterized by ‘spooky action’ that defies rationality. And yet, somewhere deep in the mysterious code of it all, the chaotic seeds of what comes next are present and operating.” (3)