It's been over a year of quarantine, and I feel like it's been a year wasted in a holding pattern.
In response to COVID, we've all mapped out our work schedules, habits, and rituals to adjust to working, schooling, and living at home. As I thought about how we're all experiencing this collective moment, comforting friends, sharpening our Twitter fingers, and grieving lost ones, the word liminality came to mind. Since then, I haven't been able to get the word out of my head, so I looked it up, like listening to the end of a song to resolve the tension.
Liminality can be defined as follows:
In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite's liminal stage, participants "stand at the threshold" between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes.
Put differently, it's like a space between two worlds, a stage between stages.
Per the table below (yes, it's Wikipedia, feel free to refute the vibes) there are different types of liminality, based on the participant, and their respective perspective(s):
Per the above, liminality can be in respect to time (entering into periods of war, celebration, forgiveness), physical space (crossing borders like Ellis Island, traveling across biomes), and cultural space (rites of passage, joining clubs or cultures, experiences with different cultures). Things like rooms, puberty, asceticism, wars, festivals, athletic teams, fraternities, and even modernity can be defined as liminal states!
This resonates deeply with with the way I think about my place in the world because that interpretation encourages us to recognize the liminality in each passing moment. For instance, if one wants to calculate the volume of a 3-dimensional shape, one might take the area of a small slice of the shape, and then sum the areas of the slices. If we look at the years and years of our lives, we can see that our lives are also made up of millions and millions of moments where we take or are taken by action. This is both empowering and disenchanting. When we look at the way that stories have been, are, and always will be told, we seem to prefer distinct points in a story. As a result of being either socialized or intrinsically attuned to distinct narrative beats, we (myself included) can be prone to letting moments slip by, being taken by our actions or otherwise unable to correct course. I have about 400 tabs related to ideas, and 20 drafts for Notion blog posts. In this hesitation, I sense an aversion to scarcity and an inclination to hoard knowledge for myself. Is it a reactive response to feeling as though the world is moving in ways I cannot understand? In avoiding the consumption of these tabs, I reject the assumed future state where I have attained the skills nestled within: a knee-jerk fear that mastery of those skills will:
- (a) never come.
- (b) leave me changed in ways I will not be able to appreciate until that familiar sense of self is gone.
On the other hand, something that I'm working on recognizing is the power that I often wield to both define and take control of the course that I and the world set for ourselves, and one another. Externally, the crypto space is moving at what feels like a breakneck speed. When I was last in front of people in Osaka, everyone was abuzz about DeFi and DAOs, but the conference felt different. Now, the market is recognizing the value and power of these tools, and more people are throwing their hats into the ring. It will be interesting to see how changes in the physical and fiscal world will play out online, especially as people eventually are presented with going to the office.
To put it differently, it's like the fig tree in Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar:
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."
The metaphor represents the same liminality that we all face, regardless of our life stage. The holding pattern that we've collectively been forced into for over a year is creating a wellspring of pent-up anticipation, and we're seeing it expressed in predictable ways. We can recognize how we all yearn to be outside, living in the moment, doing hoodrat stuff with our friends in a sunny place where COVID is only an afterthought. But that anticipation for a return to preceding times doesn't serve us: time has passed, people have died, and the world has already changed as a result of the pandemic. Time only moves forward for beings like us, and instead of waiting for some return to normalcy, we can take control of the actions, habits, routines, and decisions we can affect, and pull ourselves and our loved ones into ideal futures.
After we've passed through this liminal "COVID" space, will we ever stop being Chronically Online? How will we modify how we prioritize spending time and interacting with one another? For one, I believe that people will recognize and respect people not wanting to be on camera, and remote work will become more accepted as a direct result of employees empathizing with remote work. I also anticipate that people will also build and retain more close-knit micro-communities. In crypto, this could happen in the form of DeFi tokens, community tokens, NFT collectives, or DAOs, where the community leaders or teams guide their communities into their own respective promised lands in the metaverse. Outside of crypto, I think that we'll continue to see the creation of a creator middle class as creators build communities on sites like TikTok, YouTube, OnlyFans, and Patreon.
Across both crypto communities and otherwise, the value of curation will continue to increase as people associate the negative aftertaste of being online with social networks effectively pitting users against one another for clout. To that point, it will be captivating to see how social tokens will be adopted, both in the short term as creators try to supplement income lost due to COVID and in the long term, as people determine which clout games are worth playing.
Ultimately, I think that recognizing the liminality in our day to day moments can reveal to us the moments that afford us maximum agency, if we're willing to look for them. In this act of assuming control, we can better understand what's going on in the present, and pull ourselves into the future we want for ourselves. For me, by naming the resistance I find the ability to chart a course for myself where doing the work becomes a habit, a means in and of itself. In that process, there's a beauty in that.
- First post is short, but wanted to get the nervousness of the first rep shaken off! Thanks to everyone who proofread and sanity checked this document late night on a Sunday.