“Liminal Space” and Aesthetics as a Practice of Individual Responsibility
Like “intersectionality” and “performative,” the term “liminal” has crossed over from graduate seminars to internet vernacular. Perhaps ironically, about a year before the COVID-19 pandemic emptied public spaces around the globe as everyone quarantined in their homes, “liminal space,” or an eerily depopulated transitional space like a hallway or parking lot, emerged as a trendy visual aesthetic on social media. The liminal space aesthetic began as a May 2019 post on 4chan’s /x/ board, which is dedicated to the paranormal. In response to a request for images that “felt ‘wrong’ or ‘off’ somehow,” one user posted a yellowed image of an empty and dimly-lit office-like room with sad ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights, aged wallpaper, and even sketchier carpet. According to the Lost Media Wiki, the image’s metadata dates it to a camera manufactured just after the turn of the millennium, making the image itself almost as uncannily dated as the interior design of the room it depicts. Digging even deeper into the metadata, this wiki finds that the image was first posted as early as 2012 and occasionally popped back up in the years leading to its spring 2019 moment of virality. From this individual image, the “liminal space” trend snowballed into hashtags, Twitter bots, a subreddit, Spotify playlists, and even an indie game.
“Liminal space” is popular enough to warrant its own entry on the Aesthetics Wiki, which is basically UrbanDictionary for internet subcultures. If liminal space is, as the wiki title suggests, an “aesthetic,” then the “aesthetic” referred to in today’s internet vernacular is not the same thing that Western philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller, theorizing what Jacques Rancière will later call “the aesthetic regime of art,” refer to as “aesthetics.” In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European philosophy and the aesthetics tradition that follows from it, fine art and the aesthetic dimension exist autonomously of everyday reality in a realm of universal laws or standards free from private interest. In other words, fine art and the aesthetic dimension are analogs for the classically liberal ideal of the public sphere as the locus of universal civil emancipation and separate from the world of social reproduction. However, because it lacks any sense of universal standards and is framed primarily as a matter of private individual interest and responsibility, the liminal space aesthetic illustrates how the concept of aesthetics has adapted to twenty-first century neoliberal ideologies and institutions. Just as everything from public health to public education gets deregulated and privatized, so too does aesthetics.
Autonomy and Universality in the Aesthetic Dimension and the Public Sphere, aka “Strong Aesthetics”
The “aesthetic regime” of art is Jacques Rancière’s term for the philosophy of art that dominated most of Western modernity, from roughly the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. As Rancière explains, “the aesthetic regime of the arts is the regime that strictly identifies art in the singular and frees it from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genres.” The aesthetic regime marks a break with the way Europeans had understood art from ancient Greece through the middle ages. In this tradition, “the logic of representation . . . enters into a relationship of global analogy with an overall hierarchy of political and social occupations”—in other words, the hierarchy used to rank people is in turn used to rank arts and artworks (i.e., logics of representation). As I explained in my book The Sonic Episteme, Plato, for example, modeled his concept of harmony on the same overarching hierarchy he used to rank people. Plato thinks metaphysical idealities should always rule over material realities. So for him, in both harmonious sounds and virtuous people, the ideal (the soul, math) is proportionally larger than and in charge of the material body. The aesthetic regime is a reaction against this system in which there is an explicit hierarchy among people that is analogous to an explicit hierarchy among the arts.
Just as the classically liberal political philosophy of that era claimed to produce a civil sphere absent hierarchies and subjection while re-making new sorts of “private” hierarchies around race and gender, the aesthetic regime’s claim that art exists in a separate ontological domain autonomous from everyday reality creates refreshed versions of old inequalities behind the veil of liberation. “The aesthetic,” Rancière explains, “strictly refers to the specific mode of being of whatever falls within the domain of art, to the mode of being of the objects of art.” The aesthetic regime posits “art” as an ontological state purportedly distinct and free from all others, most especially the realm of social reproduction. The aesthetic regime frames what Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse calls the “aesthetic dimension” as ontologically distinct from everyday reality. As he explains, “the radical qualities of art…are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence.” While critical theorists like Marcuse and his student Angela Davis tend to complicate the relationship between the aesthetic dimension and everyday reality (just as feminists like Carole Pateman and Sylvia Federici have shown how the “public” and “private” are not so much distinct as mutually constitutive), the aesthetic regime art posits the aesthetic as an idealized model of a reality separate from private interest and social reproduction. An “idealized model” is one that assumes the best possible underlying conditions, such as the absence of structural inequality. The primary function of ideals-as-idealized-models in Western philosophy is, as philosopher Charles Mills astutely puts it, to pass off the world as experienced by the beneficiaries of patriarchal racial capitalism as THE world itself and thus misrepresent exclusionary models as universally inclusive ones. As an idealized model, the aesthetic abstracts away art and artists’ dependence on the work of social reproduction, which patriarchal racial capitalism relegates to white women and non-white people. As feminist artists like Carolee Schneemann (performer of works such as “Interior Scroll”) or Jana Sterbak (creator of the meat dress that later inspired Lady Gaga) have made clear, art is absolutely inseparable from social reproduction and private individual interest. However, the aesthetic regime needed to prop up the idealized model of a separate ontological dimension. This was the only way they could have it both ways—simultaneously maintain the aesthetic as a dimension of freedom and exclude the classes tasked with social reproduction (and the work they did there, like flower painting or cooking) from free relations. The aesthetic regime oversells the extent of the ontological distinction between art/the aesthetic and daily reality because their claim to liberate art from its ties to established social hierarchies would otherwise fall apart.
From the perspective of the aesthetic regime of art, art’s existence in its own separate plane of being is what, for example, makes a work a painting rather than just some piles of acrylic and pigment on canvas, and what, according to analytic philosopher of art Arthur Danto, distinguishes Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes from the ones on supermarket shelves. In the aesthetic dimension, artworks exist as art. And as art, a work is free from subordination to any other function or purpose, similar to haute couture fashion that isn’t really intended to be worn in everyday life. For example, fiber artist Rosemarie Trockel knits sweaters with two necks and other similarly impractical designs. From this perspective, art exists for its own sake, for the sake of its aesthetic qualities alone, and not for any purpose such as warmth. Fine art and its aesthetic properties are thus supposedly free from the constraints and determinations of daily life.
The autonomy aesthetic regime grants art is analogous to and philosophically intersects with the autonomy of the liberal subject. Cleaving the public sphere from the private in parallel to the way Kant cleaves fine art from craft, classical liberalism holds that autonomy exists in the civil sphere, whereas the private sphere is the realm of material need and dependence. Just as art’s autonomy comes from its purported ontological separation from everyday life, the liberal subject’s autonomy exists outside the sphere of life’s reproduction.
This autonomy posed a problem that was both political and artistic: how can people and/or artworks be autonomous yet also follow universal rules or principles? Or, put differently, how can independent individuals all arrive at the same shared universal laws of civil society and/or fine art?
Kant’s attempt to solve this problem is perhaps the most well-known. In both the Critique of Practical Reason, which is his major work on ethics, and the Critique of Judgment, his major work on aesthetics, Kant develops theories of subjective universality, or universal principles that are not top-down and objective (e.g., from a king or a god), but bottom-up and subjective (i.e., from independent individuals). In Kant’s ethics, universalizability is the crux of the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which holds that individuals should always act the way everyone, universally, in that situation ought to act. More precisely, the idea is that each time you make an ethical choice, you are in effect laying down a universalizable ethical principle: this is the way everyone in my situation should act. Individual subjects articulate universal ethical laws. Kant’s aesthetics work the same way, except the foundation of the universalizable claim is not reason (as in his ethics), but feeling. As he explains in the Critique of Judgment, “if he proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone.” From Kant’s perspective, if I say something is beautiful, this assertion is not motivated by any “private conditions, on which only he might be dependent,” so it must apply equally to everyone. If my liking is based on private preference, it doesn’t count as a judgment of beauty because aesthetic beauty is a matter of public assent. As Kant explains, “judgments about the agreeable are merely private, whereas judgments about the beautiful are put forward as having general validity (as being public).” In ethics as in aesthetics, the public/private split supposedly solves the problem of subjective universality by creating a domain absent private individual interest, inclination, or preference.
Classical liberalism’s putative public/private split is also the main way it hides patriarchal racial capitalist oppression behind the veneer of civil equality. As philosophers from Marx to Carole Pateman and Charles Mills have argued—in ways that parallel feminist art historians’ critiques of the fine art/craft hierarchy—civil emancipation does nothing to ameliorate (and often reinforces) private oppression. Take France’s law about secularism (laïcité). In the name of separating church from state and maintaining a religiously neutral civil society, France bans the wearing of overtly religious apparel; however, this law primarily impacts Muslim women who have immigrated from France’s former colonies by prohibiting them from practicing hijab. De jure religious emancipation is de facto religious discrimination. In this case, the emancipation of the public sphere from religious preference intensifies private inequalities between Muslim immigrants from France’s former colonies and white Christian French citizens. Analogously, the autonomy of “fine” art has been used to justify the exclusion of white women and people of color from arts canons and arts institutions. As feminist art historians Roziska Parker and Griselda Pollock demonstrated in their critique of the fine art/craft hierarchy, a medium’s status as fine art or craft was determined by where and by whom it was typically made, not by its objective properties. Embroidery, for example, was craft when done at home by women, and art when done by professionals for the Catholic church. Fine art, like civil autonomy, was thought to exist in the public sphere, whereas craft, like gender and race-based subordination, was supposedly found in the private sphere. Though civil society and fine art were said to be spheres of equal autonomy, their supposed separation from the private sphere (the domestic, the space where social reproduction happens) obscures the reality of ongoing subjection there.
In the aesthetic regime of art, classical liberalism’s public/private split distinguishes art from craft and the aesthetic dimension from everyday reality. But as everything from the US’s COVID response to the Supreme Court’s summer 2022 decisions about religious liberty, guns, and abortion made clear, the very idea of “the public” is under attack as both neoliberals and neoconservatives rush to privatize everything. In the 21st century, “aesthetics” evolves so that it can continue to perform its traditional work of hiding inequality behind claims to equity, but in terms better suited to our new, neoliberal reality.
Liminal Space as an Aesthetic
Both a flexible aesthetic deregulated from universal standards and a transitory state that individuals are privately responsible for leveraging into success, “liminal space” is the paradigmatic “aesthetic” of the neoliberal era.
First, the internet contains seemingly endless permutations of the liminal space aesthetic. If you go down a rabbit hole on the “Liminal Space” Reddit, you will soon discover that no two images look exactly the same. Top posts from September 2022 include an apartment hallway decorated to look like it was a street with houses and yards, a field of grass and weeds growing on the floor of an empty warehouse with flourescent lighting, a hotel hallway (labeled “classic liminal”), and a snowy landscape from an early 2000s video game. Some liminal spaces are brightly lit, some are dark and shadowy. Some liminal spaces are neat and tidy, some are shabby. There is an ongoing debate about whether liminal spaces are inhabited: whereas the rules of r/Liminal Space prohibit images depicting inhabitants, one of the images from the 2000s video game post above is from the first-person-shooter perspective and includes that character’s arms. Unlike British visual artist William Hogarth’s “line of beauty” or Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker’s Ursatz, which articulate a specific shape as the universal standard against which visual or musical beauty is measured, a liminal space does not have to take a particular prescribed shape or style.
Like an empty but well-lit sports field at night or a residential street at daybreak, liminal spaces are defined by their transitionality, or their being on the cusp between two more clearly defined states. As the Aesthetic Wiki explains, liminal spaces are “physical spaces that, due to their function, are transitional in nature.” Liminal spaces are between full and empty, or between night and day. For example, r/Liminal Space users distinguish between a liminal aesthetic and a post-apocalyptic one because the latter aesthetic is not in between, but post, whereas in a liminal space change is still in process and unresolved. And there is no one way to be between things—betweenness is a spectrum stretching from any one point to any other point. Like “here” and “now” in Hegel’s dialectic of sense-certainty (and this skit from Spaceballs), “between” describes any particular point on the line from A to B, making it at once particular (a specific form of relationship) and universal (applicable to any instance of that relationship). Any space, be it a gas station, a mall, or library stacks, can be liminal so long as it evokes a liminal or transitory vibe.
Liminal space is a deregulated aesthetic. Deregulation is a neoliberal strategy that involves minimizing state governance of markets, such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996’s elimination of the cap on the number of radio stations anyone can own in a given market. By removing public interference, deregulation purportedly increases the freedom of private markets. However, what deregulation actually does is privilege those with access to private wealth and property while further disadvantaging those without such access. For example, the US government’s failure to regulate the price of insulin has led drug companies to get rich off the backs of people who spend up to 40% of their income on this drug they need to live. Deregulation frees those who already have significant private wealth to earn even more of it at the expense of the rest of us.
Like other deregulated or “weak” aesthetics, “liminal space” rewards creators who use this aesthetic as a vehicle for accumulating private wealth, be it in the form of social or human capital, or virality that can be monetized or leveraged into sponsorships. Liberated, as it were, from the imperative to conform to universal standards free of private interest or preference, the liminal space aesthetic encourages social media users to mine their private individual realities for liminal landscapes capable of racking up likes and shares. In this respect, the liminal space aesthetic exemplifies broader shifts as the West’s aesthetic concepts adapt to neoliberal ideologies: it doesn’t matter how abnormal or weird you are so long as you can leverage that vibe into something successful or profitable. Megastars like Beyoncé may still be able to make the world stop with game-changing releases like Renaissance, but social media and streaming platforms favor personalized consumption, such as TikTok’s (in)famous ForYouPage. For example, website LaterBlog recommends users “focus on a niche” as their number two hack for going viral on TikTok. As feeds are algorithmically adjusted to reflect individual users’ ever-changing tastes, creators find success by tapping into well- but narrowly-defined audiences. Weak aesthetics proliferate on TikTok and other social media platforms for precisely this reason: what matters is finding a pond in which to be a big(ish) fish. For example, the YouTube streaming channel Lo-Fi Girl has grown so successful that it opened a record label for distributing and licensing its signature chill sounds. None of this music has ever reached the Billboard charts; rather, its success comes from catering to a niche aesthetic and monetizing it through merch sales and licensing. With anything resembling a monoculture long in the rearview mirror, “aesthetics” have shifted away from universals toward a more flexible sense of capacity for success, i.e., of having a profile aligned with success and private property/human capital accumulation.
“Liminal space” is a paradigmatic aesthetic profile. A profile is an orientation, a configuration of traits or properties that point in some directions more strongly than others. Hotel hallways, lit sports fields at night, residential streets at dawn, and snowy video game landscapes all share a common profile: though they don’t share the same collection of common features or properties, each image’s collected properties point in the same direction, i.e., toward liminality. Indices of future potential rather than past or present conformity, profiles are more like tendencies than standards. For example, when the FBI profiles a serial killer, they’re not looking for a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that all serial killers have; rather, they’re trying to organize the bits of evidence they have found into a narrative outlining the suspect’s personality and state of mind to help them figure out what the suspect might do next. In this sense, profiles outline a set of individualized capacities or inclinations. For example, each image on r/LiminalSpace depicts liminality in its own unique way. Together, those images demonstrate how far the pendulum has swung away from public, universal aesthetic standards and toward private, individualizable profiles.
Profiles are evaluated according to their tendency or orientation: do they tend toward private responsibility or private property accumulation, or do they tend toward dependence and/or criminality? Images of liminal spaces don’t need to meet some standard of “liminality”—they just have to embody that aesthetic profile in a way that leads social media users to like and share them, and thus feed platforms the free data they in turn monetize through tailored advertisements. For example, the Aesthetics Wiki is owned by Fandom, who tout their ability to harvest data that advertisers can use to “reach passionate, engaged fans—at scale.” On Fandom platforms, users’ rabid pursuit of their niche private interests translates into ever-more fine-grained ad targeting that the company can sell to advertisers; it doesn’t matter what their niche interest is, so long as users keep posting and engaging and feeding Fandom’s coffers of monetizable data. Put differently, what’s being evaluated is not the content posted on the Aesthetics Wiki, but the platform’s tendency to produce profitability. Stealing workers’ free labor and enclosing it into private wealth, Fandom’s business model adopts the paradigmatically capitalist profile of creating property out of theft from workers. On the flip side, as investors who own the songwriting catalogs of 20th century superstars sue writers of new but similarly-sounding songs for infringement, US copyright law is increasingly interpreted to criminalize songs that adopt a similar musical profile to existing intellectual property. For example, California investment banker David Pullman owns part of the estate of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye; in 2018, he sued British pop star Ed Sheeran for infringing on his copyright in “Thinking Out Loud.” Though the two songs are not exactly the same, passages from each have similar sonic profiles, or what the suit identifies as “the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping.” Regardless of whether Sheeran actually copied Gaye and Townsend, the fact that his song shares a sonic profile with theirs is being used as grounds for a claim that Sheeran did not sufficiently rely on his own intellectual private property and infringed on the IP of others. Unlike Fandom, which is viewed as a success because it steals from workers, a song with a similar profiles to existing IP is viewed as a crime because it steals from property owners. Note too how the copyright suit effectively criminalizes insufficient private responsibility, much in the same way US welfare policy since the 1990s has become increasingly a carceral process used to police poor people. In the absence of universal standards, “private responsibility”—the reliance on and accumulation of private property—is the core issue in evaluating the aesthetic profiles of both Sheeran’s song and any weak aesthetic circulating online.
With its deregulated boundaries and privatized metrics, the “liminal space” aesthetic exemplifies how the general discourse of aesthetics has evolved for greater compatibility with neoliberal ideals of privatization and personal responsibility. Just as the aesthetic regime of arts reworked the classical philosophy of art so that it was compatible with evolving, modern social and political hierarchies of personhood, the shift toward deregulation and private responsibility is yet another such reworking, this time in service of greater compatibility with neoliberal social and political hierarchies of personhood. As a transition between two states, liminal space is a prime opportunity for personal responsibility.
Being in transition is an opportunity for resiliently transforming uncertainty and risk into human capital and other forms of private property. As a platform for resilient overcoming, liminal space is more than just an especially clear example of neoliberal aesthetics discourse–it is the paradigmatic aesthetic, much in the same way beauty and sublimity were Kant’s paradigmatic aesthetic feelings.
Liminal Space and Resilience Discourse
The relationship between liminal space and private responsibility is most clearly and explicitly articulated in its co-optation by psychology and management. In these domains, “liminal space” refers to a moment of life or business transition where roles and identities are in flux. An opportunity for either success or failure, companies use this idea of “liminal space” to sell you on your individual responsibility for resiliently overcoming life’s challenges (and buying their services as an investment in yourself or your business).
Liminal space’s crossover into psychology is at least a decade old, but its popularity has taken off, interestingly, over the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in late summer 2022, the teletherapy service BetterHelp and online magazine vertical Forbes Health both published explainers discussing the dangers and promises of psychological liminality. As BetterHelp puts it, “liminal mental states” are “transitional moments” such as divorce, job loss, or adolescence, where one is transitioning between identities and life directions. Described as “uncomfortable” (BetterHelp) because it “holds a huge helping of the unknown” (Forbes), a liminal state presents risks: in the space between the old and the new, it is unclear if you will land in an equal or better position than where you began. While this risk certainly presents the potential for loss, it is also an opportunity for gain. As Forbes Health put it, “The trick is figuring out how to flip the script to see a liminal space as not something to be feared, but rather something to be leveraged for personal growth.” Similarly, the website VeryWellMind explains that “liminality also can be an opportunity for transformation. It might not have been the path you would have chosen, but it is the path you are on now.” As these quotes suggest, liminality is a psychological state that can be flipped like a depreciated asset and transformed from something of low to high value. Just as the dingy carpet and yellowed wallpaper of the first liminal space image posted to 4chan evokes real estate ready to be bought low, renovated, and sold high, a liminal psychological state is an opportunity for investment and profit. Liminality, in other words, is an opportunity for resilient overcoming.
As I argued in my book Resilience & Melancholy, twenty-first century resilience discourse is one prominent manifestation of the neoliberal imperative to personal responsibility. Amid deregulation and divestment, resilience discourse makes individuals responsible for overcoming systemic failures. Figures of resilience abound in pop culture: there’s the disabled person who triumphantly overcomes their disadvantages to achieve success, the “girlboss” or “lady entrepreneur whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream,” and of course the regular individual trying to navigate an ongoing COVID pandemic that the government has declared to be over. In all these examples, systemic failures including ableism, patriarchy, and the privatization of public health present individuals with risks they are forced to manage on their own, with their own private resources. For individuals, states of systemic failure are liminal states: they place us between a state of full safety and security and a state of precarity. In this type of liminal state, the only thing we have to rely on to keep ourselves out of precarity is ourselves…and our private wealth and other “private” advantages like racial and gender privilege. Medicalized as a psychological disorder, liminal states are thus framed as individual deficits rather than systemic failures, something for which individuals are privately responsible for flipping into a net gain in human capital.
The name of the management consulting firm “Liminal Space” highlights this framing of liminality as an opportunity for resilient overcoming: the whole point of hiring management consultants is to solve a business challenge, so the firm’s name communicates that they help clients transition from a state of uncertainty to one of success. As they explain on their website, “The word ‘liminal’ refers to the space beyond a boundary or threshold: an area of the unknown. We like it because we think breakthroughs happen if you’re willing to explore new – and sometimes challenging – territory.” In the context of management consultancy, a liminal space or state is explicitly an opportunity for making more money and, in the words of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, “never let[ting] a crisis go to waste.”
Psychology and management understand liminal states as opportunities for accumulating capital, whether it be the human capital gained through resiliently overcoming a job loss or divorce, or the capital capital gained through corporate restructuring. Just as the liminal space aesthetic prioritizes deregulated private interest over universal standards, this framing of liminal states prioritizes private property over anything resembling a sensus communis or other sort of commons. For Kant beauty and sublimity were paradigmatic aesthetics because they could be theorized and experienced in ways that clearly exemplified the universality and rationality that supposedly distinguished the public, civil sphere from the realm of private interest. Today, however, when government’s only function appears to be enforcing private interest and responsibility through, for example, COVID policy, that throws the entire population into a huge liminal state. Liminal space is the quintessential example of a neoliberal aesthetics grounded in privatization.
Whereas the public/private and art/craft hierarchies were designed to mask exclusion behind nominal universal civil emancipation, deregulation and privatization mask oppression behind nominal inclusion and opportunity. Just about anything—like, um, liminal spaces—can be aestheticized, but for all the “democratized” liking and clicking of whatever niche vibes float someone’s boat, this is also an exercise in surveillance capitalism where we are the product used to keep platforms’ stock prices afloat. Here, the pursuit of private individual interest fuels the 1%’s accumulation of private property. A far cry from democratization, the pursuit of niche private aesthetic interest turns individual internet users into free labor for platform stockholders. Moreover, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made so unavoidably clear, not everyone has the resources necessary to get out of a liminal state ahead. Whereas the public/private split was once used to reserve the rights and benefits of full personhood (like life, liberty, and happiness) for those who had the privilege of access to public, civil society, today that entitlement is increasingly determined by access to private individual and family wealth. For this reason, increasing people’s exposure to liminality amplifies the unequal distribution of personhood. Unfortunately, in the US as in most of the Global North, everything from COVID to climate policy is designed to do just that.
 Jacques Rancière,The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 23.
 Rancière, 20.
 Rancière, 22.
 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward A Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, trans. Erica Sherover (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 6.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 55.
 Kant, 54.
 Kant, 57.