“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word limen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.”
Liminality will define my summer. After successfully defending my prospectus last week, I have a new task ahead of me and must master a new set of skills. I have to read an immense volume of historical records, find a story to tell, synthesize a lot of context, and then effectively communicate it to an academic audience. I have practiced these skills at earlier points in my short research career, but never to this extent. The scope of the dissertation is overwhelmingly large.
In truth, I’m quite exhausted by liminality and feel that I’ve spent more than sufficient time in this state over the past year. I finished my coursework last May, and began the ritual of preparing for my doctoral exams. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew that I had to read the 150 books and articles on my lists, and to figure out how they were all in dialogue with each other. I knew that my exams would pose a question for me to answer, using the readings as support. I had no sense of what these questions would be, however, and it made me very insecure about whether I understood the arguments in these texts or whether I was taking notes “correctly.” It was only after two and a half months that I woke up one day and realized that the disorientation had lifted and that I truly understood what the heck I was doing.
Immediately after finishing exams, the liminality set in once more. In early February I wrote this in my journal:
“The transition from exams to prospectus has been rough. Just as I got used to reading everyday and nailed the historiography, I have to get back into the swing of writing.”
I worked really hard to develop a daily ritual of dedicated, focused writing—with your help, dear readers—and again the liminality ebbed as the process of prospectus writing became routine. I lived with the prospectus for four months, and now it’s done. There’s nothing to do, no tweaks or revisions to make. My job is now to go and start the research, to fulfill the ceremony of writing a dissertation. Three transitions in one year is quite a lot, and I’m tired of the insecurity that arrives with the “ambiguity and disorientation.” That’s why I’m relieved that it’s also summer, that I can take a break without getting too behind, and to focus on other activities for a little while.