What is Liminal?

Welcome to Liminal: my personal thoughts and works on care, sacrifice and maternity. I am Inge van Nistelrooij, care ethicist. In my disciplinary field that encompasses philosophy, ethics, feminist studies, and theology, but also in the fields of literature, music, and other arts, I am fascinated by the ‘liminal’. But what is that? Liminal is the space ‘in between’, so not here or there, not mine or yours. I believe that care, sacrifice and maternity are liminal practices. What do I mean by that?

First: care. In my work and in care ethics, care is presented as a relational practice. This means that care is an ongoing dynamic in between persons, or between persons and their enviroment, other beings or their own body. In caring one relates to an other and this may involve many layers: practical, emotional, social, moral, political. It is this multi-layered liminal space, that interests me.

Second: sacrifice. In my work (e.g. my PhD-study) I take self-sacrifice as taking place in this space between self and someone or something else, so it is – again – a liminal practice. Sacrifice is about giving up something of the self, or the self entirely, for something better, something more worthwhile. In sacrifice someone aims at a higher good. Since sacrifice is about reaching for something, but without guarantee of success or fulfilment, it is liminal to its core. As soon as self-sacrifice is coined as ‘heroism’ or ‘martyrdom’ it is contained and reduced to something ‘of’ a person. Drawing upon its literary meaning (sacrum facere = making holy) I prefer to keep it open in various senses: open-ended, ambiguous, ambivalent, dynamic, and aiming for something beyond one’s reach.

And last but not least: maternity. Being a parent, mothering as personal experience and social and political institution has been part of my life since 1999. I learned that multiplied vulnerability and socio-political practice define the position of a mother. In the research project ‘concerning maternity’ at our university, we study ethical and existential questions regarding the beginning of life, particularly from the mother’s perspective. Maternity means the practice of pregnancy, childbirth, and early childcare. Here liminality can be profoundly experienced. It is two-in-one, the fluidity of bodily boundaries during pregnancy. In labor two bodies interact and both mother and child are ‘in between’ two forms of life. Both are in transition to new states of being, one becoming mother and the child coming into the world. In labor and early childcare not only a child is born, but an entire new network of relationships is shaped. For also co-parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, are born. All may experience new liminal spaces.

Hence, care, sacrifice and maternity take shape as liminal practices. They are neither here nor there, but they exist and come about when people live together, in the multi-layered relations between them. These relations may be reflected in our inner space, in thoughts and feelings, our images, convictions and interpretations. And these in turn are shaped and influenced by social imaginaries, culture and art, by systems, organizations and institutions.

This characteristic of ‘betweenness’, of liminality, makes care, sacrifice and maternity impossible to grasp, to commodify, or to own. Instead, care, sacrifice and maternity are fluid, ongoing, ‘in-the-making-and-remaking’. And they are never finished or done with. They may be personal, but they are always beyond the boundary of a person.

On this site these kinds of personal thoughts and works on care, sacrifice and maternity are expressed and gathered by Inge van Nistelrooij, a Dutch care ethicist and Care Ethics assistant professor at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht.