– Peter

In Victor Turner’s investigation of ritual practices among the Ndembu of Rhodesia (modern-day Zambia), he theorizes that ritual follows a specific sequence of events for a subject within an ideological and cultural structure. He utilizes Arnold van Gennep’s theory of the “ritual process” found in his article “The Rites of Passage,” which breaks ritual into three distinct and sequential periods: “separation,” “transition,” and “incorporation.” By calling upon Durkheimian ideas about ritual, cognition, and social structure, Turner looks to refine Gennep’s theory. Therefore, Turner offers a different progression within ritual movement: “separation,” “liminality,” and “reaggregation.”

Turner’s distinction is vital for readdressing the importance of ritual practice in society. Rather than simply rely on “transition” as encapsulating the entirety of internal struggle (and eventual relief), Turner establishes the period as “liminality.” Coming from Latin limen meaning “threshold,” the term is defined as being the space between two separate and different planes. In many ways it cannot be quantified or even qualified; however, its importance rises from the implicit ambiguity of its logic. Whereas separation and reaggregation to society are marked events, often with specificity, fanfare, and ease of observation, liminality provides a complexity to the process, which can be seen as the exact flesh of the essential characteristics in ritual practice.

The stage of liminality, as postulated by Turner, can be shifted to present-day social events and challenges. For example, the biological process of menses presents women with the cultural transition from “girl” to “woman.” Many believe this process can be codified within menarche alone, while some believe it’s a longer process without such an easy finish line. What, then, establishes “woman” by ways of menstruation? Is the ability for a female to conceive the necessary requirements for “womanhood?” What about premature menarche, as early as age 8? Are females at this age to be considered “women?” The ambiguity in the process is wide and varied, and many ideas have been posed as to the conversion. If one were to adopt Turner’s theory of ritual process, the separation from society could occur with the onset of menstruation, because this “separates” the female from her group of non-menstruating subjects. Then, the “liminality” stage would be represented by the in-betweenness of maturation, and finally the “reaggregation” would occur with the induction into “womanhood.”

The fact of the matter is ritual practice, which Turner, Durkheim, and van Grennep all agree upon, is a culturally coded structure made up of charged symbols. Turner writes,

“Ritual… is precisely a mechanism that periodically converts the obligatory into the desirable. The basic unit of ritual, the dominant symbol, encapsulates the major properties of the total ritual process which brings about this transmutation. Within its framework of meanings, the dominant symbol brings the ethical and jural norms of society into close contact with strong emotional stimuli… Norms and values, on the one hand, become saturated with emotion, while the gross and basic emotions become ennobled through contact with social values.”¹

Rituals, which each have a unique teleology, work by bringing together norms and cultural values with emotion in a way that excites human reaction while constantly restating and/or redefining those exact cultural norms. This is done through symbolic exertion, and this process allows for a renegotiation of teleological goals, instruments, and structures. In the example of female menstruation, symbols vary greatly by culture, but if one is to take the American paradigm, certain symbols appear quotidian and therefore assumed as “normal.” The technological symbol of the tampon is evident as a repression of physical processes in order to gain cultural agency– the act of hiding menstruation thereby grants capital to the female, as the motion from visible to invisible is culturally esteemed. Or even menstruation could be read as wholly liminal, as it represents the breakdown of internal/external for the body– with menstruation, the inside of the body is revealed in the stage of the external. But does this introduction mean the internal becomes the external? Are they separate? Can they become the same thing? The liminal stage of menstruation remains problematic– is womanhood achieved by simply beginning the process, or does it come at a different point of coming of age? Perhaps the implicit dilemma of specificity reveals how ambiguous womanhood is in Western culture.

Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” can be read as an excellent foray into the exploration of liminality. Each photograph is presented linguistically within the realm of the cinema. The very nature of the title leads the viewer to make a vital assumption about the work– that each photograph belongs to, or rather is inextricably tied, from a specific cinematic narrative. The title works to bypass ambiguity and establish a before-and-after logic to the photograph. In a way, by claiming each photograph as a film still, Sherman is continually opening the blind field, as theorized by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida.² She immediately solves the problem of stasis implicit in the technology simply through the linguistic structure of titling. There is a supposed removal of all artifice to the photographs, as they both appear stylistically and claim to be linguistically from a cinematic text.

Liminality is acheived even at the outset with the titling process for this collection of photographs. The reality of the situation is that each photograph is specifically staged and produced completely within the teleological structure of photography. These are not actually film stills; rather, they are carefully choreographed images with no cinematic narrative. Therefore, the photographs supposedly can be completely removed from filmic dialogue. However, this is not as easy as it may appear. If the photographs are to removed from any discussion of cinematic text, then the titles become obselete and irrelevant. Why, then, are there titles in the first place? Certainly the fact that each still is Untitled followed by a number seems to be indicative of the lack of filmic connection. But the fact is that each photograph is an “Untitled Film Still” (emphasis added) It is impossible to remove the photographs completely from the dialogue and discourse of film. Because of the tension between reality and artifice in the face of the cinema, a liminal space between cinema and photography is achieved. Sherman presents argument and anti-argument, symbol and anti-symbol. One medium is not able to exist without the other ideologically in these photographs, which in turn births one of the ambiguous liminal spaces of the “Untitled Film Stills.”

In discussing the creation of the “Untitled Film Stills,” Cindy Sherman reveals that she was not consciously attacking a theoretical position of the viewer (such as the “male gaze”), but rather was working out her own understanding of what it meant to be a woman in society. She writes,

“The characters… were women struggling with something but I didn’t know what. The clothes make them seem a certain way, but then you look at their expression, however slight it may be, and wonder if maybe “they” are not what the clothes are communicating. I wasn’t working with a raised “awareness,” but I definitely felt that the characters were questioning something– perhaps being forced into a certain role. At the same time, those roles are in a film: the women aren’t being lifelike, they’re acting. There are so many levels of artifice. I liked that whole jumble of ambiguity.”³

Sherman’s explanation is complex, to say the least. Her claim that she was not working with a “raised ‘awareness'” can be read as she was acting as a channel for these characters rather than the point of genesis itself. Perhaps each of the female subjects in the “Untitled Film Stills” is an extension of Sherman’s personality, but isn’t it possible that they exist beyond her conscious, or even subconscious? Does the creation of a character require some level of identification or emotional empathy, or can it exist outside ideology? This difference between Sherman’s conscious and that of the character in the photograph is troubling. If they are staged, does not that go beyond implication and reveal artistic intention? But what if the character had already assumed its host as Sherman’s human form– does then the intention lie within the arena of the character? This in-betweenness is yet another form of liminal space in the “Untitled Film Stills.”

If one were to apply Victor Turner’s concept of ritual practice and symbols to Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” many interesting comparisons may arise. Using the progression of “separation,” “liminality” and “reaggregation,” one can begin to read the photographs as either rituals in and of themselves, or merely as moments within ritual. Although one could claim that many of the women in the photographs, such as #84 (1980), #16 (1978), and #3 (1977), are tied to, and perhaps constructed by, the culturally esteemed symbols of female domesticity, thereby restricting them from leaving the cultural stage, there is a tension between their supposed cultural “role” and their physical manifestation. One could see these women as beyond culture because the ambiguity in their poses, the almost expressionless faces in many of the women, the displacement of the natural setting, or the mysterious nature of their physicality all reject simple demarcation or labelling of their cultural status and/or role. Instead, these women appear to have already been separated from society, but whether or not this self-motivated or dictated from a different subject is still up for debate. This reading therefore assumes the first stage in ritual progression, and hence places the character immediately into the stage of liminality. But where is the stage of reaggregation? A particularly difficult example is “Untitled #12” (1978), in that the woman appears to be distraught by the act of either packing or repacking in a hotel room. Is she here on a tryst? Has she left her husband? Is she packing to head somewhere else? Is she upset about something she has done, or about to do? She appears to be in a dilemma about something, but the lack of given narrative makes it hard to unpack the image. Even so, societal reaggregation appears at this point beyond potential reach. Does this mean that it may never happen? Absolutely not. However, the culturally coded objects in the photograph and their physical placement continually reinsert the character, and perhaps even the photograph, into the liminality stage of ritual practice.

Ambiguity is a major motif of the “Untitled Film Stills.” The title suggests that each photograph contains a narrative for which the still is only a snapshot. Action supposedly occurs before and after each photograph; however, this is complete artifice. Therefore, the “Film Stills” are constantly negotiating liminal space– real and artifice intertwine and often masquerade as each other. It is exactly this in-betweenness that leads the viewer into exploring the potentially deeper levels of meaning with these photographs.


1 Comment so far

  1. Elizabeth on September 29, 2008 8:30 pm

    Recognizing that it is always easier to critique than to create, I have a couple of observations. Why do the photographs portray rituals rather than stereotypes? I like this liminality concept but you have not convinced me that it applies here. Ritual is an intersection of the profane and the sacred: people using actions to petition the gods (however those might be defined). Rituals arise out of societies who view much of life as sacred: conception, birth, death, hunting, dreams, harvests, kingship. Our modern (or post-modern?) secular culture has lost the notion of the sacred. And so I question whether this photos are a ‘window into a ritual’ or something else.

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