All night long, like memory, the fog
has deepened. I reach it
again and find you are still there.
Ships of all sizes fumble
towards the harbor. Table lamps
set out everywhere on their decks,
hundreds of them gleam dully.
Again the world is wondrous
— James Sallis, Beside You
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
I was at the first of things,
I will be at the last.
I am the primal mist
And no man passes me;
My long impalpable arms
Bar them all.
— Carl Sandburg, The Mist
Everything is mist and haze, slipping in and out of focus. A swirling kaleidoscope of shapes and colours – a peloton – that temporarily takes on form then dissolves. All is liminal, caught between two states. We strain to recognise patterns. To make sense. Is this flux merely representative of the human condition? A primordial smog from which we briefly mould meaning and existence before fading out?
One of the highlights of Antony Gormley’s 2007 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London was Blind Light. This consisted of a luminous, cube-like glass structure filled with white mist. To enter the cube was to experience sensory deprivation. Unable to see more than a couple of feet in front of you, visitors either stood still or staggered around with arms outstretched. Shadows loomed before you then melted away again as the mist filled the gaps that had briefly taken on human form. From without the cube, too, observers could see a shadow play of briefly visible silhouettes, the occasional hand or leering face suddenly pressed against the glass.
I was reminded of this experience last week when I visited the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain in the company of Andy Swann. It seemed that both of us responded more viscerally to those paintings that denied the viewer clear lines and bold forms. Paintings filled with swirling skies or troubled seascapes. The more impressionistic the style, the greater the sense of emergence (rather than completion) of image and form on the canvas, the more profound the response I felt to the art. With such paintings, there was a sense of co-creation between artist and viewer. The canvas itself occupied an in-between state.
In this respect, J. M. W. Turner’s Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis is particularly powerful. It brings into play ideas about chaos and order, time and space, circles and spirals, writing and creation. At its centre sits the faint figure of Moses. He is writing the biblical tale of Genesis. He imagines the world and humanity into being through stories of divine intervention. He seeks to make sense of the chaotic maelstrom, the swirl of space and time that surrounds him. His only companion at the centre of the frame, joining him from the crowd below, is the serpent that will slither its way into the Eden of his narrative.
Outside the frame, in the painting’s title, looms the figure of writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The allusion is to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, in particular his writing on light and darkness, and the notion that every colour combines the two. In other words, every colour bridges between two states; it is both and neither, suspended, liminal. It swirls, creating a mist, refusing to take on permanent form.
This becomes an apt metaphor for human action and thought. Many turn their lives into a quest for meaning and understanding. The process of detection provides a sense of purpose. Patterns are recognised, one clue is linked to another, choices are made, and sense emerges from mists of confusion and obfuscation. For some though, that is not possible. Maude, for example, the geriatric heroine of Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing, gradually loses her hold on reality as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. Memories become fragmentary. Past narratives intrude on the present. Written notes, intended to jog memory and trigger action, are rendered meaningless. All is fragmented, foggy, just out of reach. Leonard Shelby, troubled hero of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, is another detective whose faculties fail him. The reminders he has tattooed on his body have catastrophic consequences.
Short-term memory and misguided action often intrude into contexts relating to societal, political and workplace change. The swirling mists clear temporarily, bold action is taken, then new fogs of forgetfulness descend. Spiral-like, we both progress and repeat. Small steps. Net marginal gains. The question that troubles so many of us now is how to effect something more fundamental, lasting and wide-ranging? How to truly shift from one state to another? To stop the kaleidoscope spinning and clear the mist away?
Liminal thinking is the art of finding, creating and using thresholds to effect change. It is a way of approaching situations with the system in mind rather than individual interactions. It is a kind of mindfulness that can be applied to the social systems we live and work in. Liminal thinking is the art of finding, creating and unlocking potential.
— Dave Gray, Liminal Thinking
Liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs during periods of transition. It’s the ugly duckling stage of life, the “in between” in a rite of passage, and the barely perceptible threshold in a change of mind.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled
Organizations must also periodically go through such wrenching times of transition, and it is during such liminal times that leaders have their greatest impact. They must manage to both craft the new world with smart strategy, often in the wake of disruption, and cause the organization to embrace the required change.
— Dan Pontefract, Leadership in Liminal Times
Humans form original ideas by subconsciously weaving fragments of stored ideas and memories with awareness drawn from real time observation. While a bit abstract, this notion of conceptual blending seems important for learning professionals and others keen on constructing tools and techniques to help organizations meet the challenges of liminality.
— David Holzmer, Knowledge and Our New Era of Pervasive Liminality