Saturday, 11 January 2014

Liminality: Using Anthropology to Understand Taiwan

Stéphane Corcuff, one of the world’s most prominent Taiwan Studies scholars, has long been interested in applying anthropological concepts to political science. In his recent essay (Corcuff 2012), he reinterprets the familiar concept of “liminality” as an alternative to “marginality.” As Corcuff notes, he adds a spatial dimension to the concept. Corcuff thus remains close to the word’s Latin root limen, meaning “threshold or margin.”  Interestingly, Corcuff refers to Taiwan as “a threshold of China” (2012: 62).

The concept, however, is very loaded due to its history in anthropology. Arthur Van Gennep crafted the concept in his 1909 book on rites of passage. In ceremonies related to marriages, funerals, or transition from one age-set to another, people go through preliminal rites of separation, liminal rites of transition, and postliminal rites of incorporation (Van Gennep 1960: 11). Victor Turner elaborated liminality into “betwixt and between” states of ritual, most elaborate in initiation rites. Paraphrasing one of Turner’s key articles (Turner 1964), liminal persons are structurally “invisible,” neither boys nor men, neither living nor dead. In some societies, initiates might even be treated like corpses. Borrowing from Mary Douglas, Turner showed that liminal bodies were often perceived as polluted. A further characteristic of liminal beings is that they have nothing. Liminal people experience complete submission in relation to authority and complete equality in relation to each other. Liminality can be a period of reflection, an encounter with the sacred, endowing people with capacity to adopt new social roles.    

Corcuff does not attribute all of these characteristics to Taiwan. As a political scientist, he may be concerned that Taiwan is often invisible in International Relations discourse – where scholars often assume the island’s fate will be decided by Beijing and Washington and ignore the perspectives of the country’s 23 million people. Many scholars fail to see that the Republic of China on Taiwan is an independent, sovereign state; but this means it is the ROC and not Taiwan that is invisible. Corcuff probably is not suggesting that Taiwan is polluted, or in a special relationship with the sacred. Indeed, Corcuff is most concerned about discourse, and hopes that the word “liminal” can somehow restore to Taiwan the “power of words” (Corcuff 2012: 55).

For anthropologists, the main issue is that “liminality” evokes a transition from one state to another, an argument that Corcuff cannot make without falling into teleological speculation. Is Taiwan in transition from the “Republic of China” to the “People’s Republic of China,” or from “dependence” (another concept explored in the same article) to “independence”? Due to the original meaning of the concept, Corcuff’s description of Taiwan’s liminality as cultural or geographical proximity to China remains somewhat unsatisfactory as anthropological analysis.  Perhaps borderlands, defined as “an interstitial zone of displacement and deterritorialization that shapes the identity of the hybridized subject” (Gupta and Ferguson 1992: 18) would have been more appropriate. Corcuff has done an excellent job of showing how Taiwan is culturally and historically so complex that it cannot be accurately reduced to the avatar of some trans-historical “China.”  He is less convincing in his use of one anthropological concept, but this inherent pitfall of interdisciplinary research detracts only barely from his main argument.

Corcuff, Stéphane. 2012. “The Liminality of Taiwan: A Case-Study in Geopolitics.” Taiwan in Comparative Perspective 4: 34-64.

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6-23.

Turner, Victor W. 1964. “Betwixt and Between: the Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.”  Internet resource:, last accessed January 10, 2014.

Van Gennup, Arnold. 1960 [1909]. The Rites of Passage: A Classical Study of Cultural Celebrations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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