Liminality?…Well, there’s a free sample!

One of my favorite jokes in Herge’s Tintin comics is a bit in Prisoners of the Sun (1949), where the Thompson twins ask Captain Haddock what’s in a pile of sacks on the dock labeled “guano.” The captain umms and ahhs a bit, but then a seagull poops on one of the Thompson twins’ hats, and the Captain brightens up, having been handed the perfect short answer: “Guano?… Well, here’s a free sample!”

For those wondering why sacks of bird droppings would be on a dock, guano was once a major industrial commodity, an input for nitrogen fertilizers and explosives. The rise of Chile saltpeter as an alternative, and the adoption of the Haber-Bosch process after World War 1, slowly made it obsolete.

A few years ago, I was challenged by a Twitter friend to explain liminality, and I came up with a thread in response that I think is still roughly right. But if I were asked today, I would gesture vaguely at the world around and say, “Liminality?… Well, there’s a free sample!”

Here’s the thread, it’s from 2017. I meant to turn it into an essay but never got around to it. Now it will probably turn into a chapter of my book project.

Pandemic conditions of course, are liminal as fuck. They’re so liminal it’s obscene. In normal times, liminality is an elusive, uncanny feeling, only accessible with some searching (and possibly psychotropic aid) on the glitchy margins of manufactured normalcy. In a pandemic, we are learning, it punches you right in the gut whether you want to feel it or not. Even the most insensitive clods, apparently oblivious to the shifting moods and energies in the world, feel it.

We are living inside the, biggest, freshest sample of liminality pooped on to humanity by an indifferent universe in more than a century.

What is the feeling of liminality? For me it is a schizophrenic feeling. One part of me wants to just sit and soak in the experience, and write liminal poetry. Another part wants to make and pitch “strategic recovery” PowerPoint decks to prospective consulting clients.

Poetry or PowerPoints? Poignancy or pragmatism? Poiesis or praxis? That’s the liminality question.

The poetic side of me (yes I have one, screw you for wondering) wants to fully experience what we’re going through as deeply as I am capable of, without trying to “respond” to it. That requires a certain empty, reflective, stillness of mind, if not body.

The pragmatic part of me wants to rationally launch into a frenzy of cunning OODA-loop strategery, triggering a compounding temporal advantage with which to navigate the fraught risk environment we are headed for, on the other side of this liminal passage. That requires doing some of the hardest kinds of active thinking humans do.

I think both impulses are good ones to have and act on. I’ll be doing a bit of both. Schizophrenia is adaptive right now. One mind is too few with which to experience a pandemic. You need at least two. Preferably more.

Which is the more authentic, philosophically meaningful response though? Writing poetry (or equivalently, making impressionistic art, or even just sitting and observing/meditating on the events) or making PowerPoint decks (or equivalently, diving deep into medical literature, or following the play-by-play of the news and day trading the volatility)?

It’s partly a matter of taste and talent, but if I were forced to choose, I’d have to say “making PowerPoint decks,” or anything in that broader category of responses.

Unless you are a very good poet, like my friend Robert Peake (I am looking forward to his poetic response to this), there always seems to be an element of self-blinding rather than eye-opening to responses generated by the unformed poetic impulse operating in liminal conditions. You’d think the amateur would be able to generate a more raw, real response, but that’s typically not the case. Paradoxically, it seems to take long training and a lot of practice to see liminality like a poet; to open your eyes to it rather than shut them tight.

The thing is, artistic impulses can easily, and unconsciously, slip into a mode of aestheticizing the apocalypse, while wearing a suit of affective armor crafted from some mix of emotional self-importance and fear. Poetry as a way to avoid experiencing or processing the liminality, rather than as a mode of experiencing it more deeply. I don’t mean to pick on Kitty O’Meara, but her viral poem And the people stayed home is an example of trying really hard to not experience the liminality. It is a sincere, non-cynical response. It is also a good, resonant bit of self-care, and I’m glad it is offering some solace to people who need it (says something that Oprah and Deepak Chopra love it). But it did not strike me as helpful for processing of liminality. It felt like a case of the mind staying home along with the body.

Liminality, like guano, is neither ugly, nor beautiful. It is pre-aesthetic. If you bring a comforting pre-formed aesthetic to the challenge of experiencing it, I think you will fail in every way that matters. I think what will separate the good and bad poetry coming out of this liminal passage is: are you bringing an aesthetic you have already cultivated to your experience, as a filter? Or are you letting the unfactored experience open your eyes in a new way? One to refine into an aesthetic with which to experience the world after this period of liminality is over? If you look at the pandemic now, you might be able to look through the pandemic-formed eye later.

For most of us, it is easier to do that with PowerPoint than with poetry.

There is something deeply honest beneath the apparent ugly banality of pragmatic responses to the liminality on LinkedIn. The site is currently absolutely full of people trying to sell crisis management workshops, investment outlook analysis, “how to reboot” playbooks, how-this-will-change-the-world think-pieces, blatant profiteering overtures, and so on. The only reason I haven’t yet joined them is I haven’t yet put a suitable thing together, not because I don’t want to.

The feed is full of hastily thrown-together PDFs and PPTs, mostly packed with warmed-over, and poorly repackaged, pre-pandemic guano. Almost as fresh a sample of liminality as the pandemic itself.

It’s a beautiful thing.

If you squint a bit, there’s ironically an element of liminal poetry there. It is not intended as poetry, but it serves a poetic function nevertheless. In the firehose of PDFs and PPTs, there is a real element of reckoning with the trauma, fear, and risks latent in this liminal passage. We may all be going to hell, but the road there will be paved with many helpful infographics telling us exactly how we ended up on the road.

On LinkedIn, people are allowing themselves to actually feel this thing. Fearfully and inartistically perhaps, but these mid-career drones are not staying home, at least intellectually. They are venturing out as best they can. The vast majority of these PDFs and PPTs are the discourse equivalents of poorly sewn home-made cloth masks, with a few sketchy-looking N95s mixed in. Meager protection for the currently wild intellectual outdoors, but better than nothing.

In the firehose you find a desperate reaching for the perfect summary graph, the perfect block-diagram, the perfect 7-step response protocol.

It’s a beautiful thing.

I’d be much more interested in reading a poem titled And the people made PowerPoints than one titled And the people stayed home. A real one, not Onionesque snark. (Any takers? I’ll happily publish here)

In the LinkedIn firehose there is some honest reckoning with the fear, disgust, and exhilaration of looking at territories without the palliative lens of an aestheticizing sensibility obscuring the view. As experienced by ordinary, mostly mediocre people who are perhaps not equipped to process this at any level, but are trying their best nevertheless, without flinching too much.

I feel a definite kinship with this tribe. These are my people.

Perhaps it helps that LinkedIn is full of tired, slightly burned-out middle-aged people who have already been tested significantly by life, and have some measure of themselves already (B-, we are all B- people). We the people of LinkedIn can say, with a certain unashamed honesty, “I am so not prepared for this shit, and I wish it hadn’t happened, and I wish I didn’t have to clean up the mess it’s creating in my work life. But I have to, so here is the PowerPoint I slaved 4 days over.”

It’s a beautiful thing.

Almost all of it will fail of course, just as almost all attempts at pandemic poetry will fail. I suspect the average Pandemic PowerPoint will be better than the average Pandemic Poem, but best Pandemic Poem will be better than the best Pandemic PowerPoint. But 90% of both will fail.

I suspect the average PowerPoint will be better because more of us have some real competence in the grammar and idioms of PowerPoint, as opposed to those of poetry. And because the flood of PowerPoints has an undercurrent of real skin-in-the-game fear of the dire situation we are in.

Anyhow, whatever you choose to do: write poetry, make PowerPoints, or both, here we all are. Covered head-to-toe in a big pile of free, stinking, liminality.

While I’m probably not going to attempt poetry, I am trying to devote as much time as I can to letting the poetic impulse take me over, even if it’s only by taking walks, trawling Twitter and LinkedIn for the next nugget of insight, and trying to soak in as much as I can, as deeply as I can. The processing can wait. The aestheticizing can wait. Maybe I’ll take poetry lessons later to work the gathered impressions into something presentable, but for now, simply discovering the nature of liminality in big-pile quantities, seems more important.

And while I am trying to participate in the LinkedIn-style PPT-PDF festival — stay tuned here if you want to pay good money for my contributions to that — I’m trying to do it in a way that leaves a few cracks and leaks unplugged, so some of the guano… I mean liminality… all around us has a chance to make it in, and be preserved for posterity.

I may not write any great poetry through this period, but I hope to produce a stinky PowerPoint or two that I can smell after this is all over, to relive some of this liminality. After it has stopped trying to kill us all.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. And the people made PowerPoints.
    And read blogs, and tweeted, and posted,
    and Excel’ed, and crunched numbers, and generated graphs,
    and deciphered new insights, and studied it all.
    And thought more deeply.
    Some calculated, some programmed, some
    predicted, some made more models.

    And the people began to behave differently.
    And the people learned. And, in the absence of
    people living in vacuous, feckless, misinformed
    and pernicious ways, society began to transform.

    And when the science triumphed, and the people
    respected expertise again, they shamed their previous ways,
    and created new contraptions, and imagined new
    inventions, and produced new policies to mitigate and solve
    the problems we faced, as they had been ENLIGHTENED.

    _____

    by Jeff C.
    (inspired by “And the People Stayed Home”, by Kitty O’Meara)

  2. Terry Cook says

    Well said. 🙏

  3. Ravi Daithankar says

    I started out fully intending to not comment, as my token 2 cents deficit contribution towards the mountain of pointless white noise conversation that’s already out there. But what the heck, here I am shitting at the top of Mt. Everest, making it two inches taller.

    If I am reading this the right way, what you are calling liminality is basically a punctuation or an accent mark along a baseline track that is normalcy. If normalcy can be considered as ground state, any event or space that excites (or sucks the energy out of) this normalcy is basically a liminal space or period. Is it the yang to normalcy’s yin? If that is a somewhat accurate understanding, it follows that an event or space can result in liminality only insofar as it is a significant deviation from normalcy, for a given observer.

    A great counter-example to make that point would be the meta-plot from Munshi Premchand’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi. In that, the two main characters are so dialed in into their personal normalcy, that they take the unmistakable liminality closing in on them effortlessly in their stride. The behavioral equivalent of putting parenthesis around the event and multiplying it by zero. That story is focused on making a different point though, so it doesn’t really go there. But if you view it through a liminality lens, it is a great anti-thesis that blows open the dichotomy between poetry or playbook.

    Which brings me to the point you made about the “authenticity” of a response to such liminality. To me, the most authentic response would be the kind that Mirza and Mir had in that story, which was ironically, trivializing the liminality, thereby normalizing it. Any other response, especially one that is motivated by a desire to come across as authentic, falls short of the mark. Irrespective of whether it is a hacky PowerPoint deck or a labor of love on a parchment scroll, or something in between.

    Stopping to smell the roses can be an authentic response to normalcy, but it can’t be an authentic response to liminality.

  4. and the people made powerpoints.

    and echos went out…
    can you hear me….
    am I on mute…

    is that your child in the background…..
    bandwidth problem…

    click. click
    powerpoint fade

    attention browses
    tabs away
    miles away

    home work?

    no the powerpoints march on…..

    while outside a flower blooms and

    the sun still shines.

  5. Guano Acrostics

    Gone
    Ultra soft
    Ass-wipe:
    No
    onanisms!

    Guard
    Us
    Against
    Notions
    Organized

    God’s
    Unctuous
    Apology:
    Never noticed those
    organisms!

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