Liminality and the Short Story
University of Würzburg, Germany
March 7-10, 2013
This conference will probe into the diverse dimensions of liminality, as they manifest themselves in short story writing. The short story can be considered the liminal literary genre par excellence, as it develops out of and mediates between essay and sketch, poem and novel, narration and discourse, elitist and popular culture. Some subgenres of the short story particularly further the interconnectedness with liminality. The story of initiation provides an interface between anthropology and literary studies. It also depicts a liminal stage in human life, the transitory phase between childhood and adulthood. The short story cycle or short story collection (also termed short story sequence or composite novel) is linked to both serialized forms of publication in magazines on the one hand and the striving for cohesion and unity, typical of the novel, on the other. It gestures in the direction of both short story and novel and thereby opens up liminal spaces of continuity and disruption.
Liminality in short fiction is not only an aesthetic and generic phenomenon. It also ties in with numerous ethical, cultural, and philosophical questions which are also addressed by contemporary theories. Modern fiction represents, for instance, conflicts between alternative moral value systems and competing ethical norms. Some protagonists of famous novels, such as Emma Bovary, Captain Ahab and Huck Finn, but also the central characters of equally famous shorter fictions, such as Goodman Brown, Bartleby, Amasa Delano, Daisy Miller, Marlow and Nick Adams, are involved in such conflicts in complex ways. Conversely, contemporary ethical theories demonstrate, chiefly with reference to the Bible, that narrative representation and storytelling are essential to the development of moral judgments. Emmanuel Levinas draws on the Old Testament figures of Job, Jonas, and Cain. Jean Baudrillard refers to the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden Eden. Jacques Derrida, like Kierkegaard before him, takes Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac as paradigmatic for the paradox of the human condition, which he also finds adequately represented by Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener". In the interplay between fictionality and normativity, the normativity of boundaries becomes obvious in gestures of border crossings and transgression, when existing boundaries are being subverted, removed or displaced. Borders and border crossings are interdependent in dynamic processes of mutual legitimation and deligitimation.
Borderline phenomena shed new light on the liminal spheres of ethics, but also on current theories of gender, ethnicity, (post)coloniality, and ecology. Thus the reach of the concept of liminality ranges far beyond its origins in seminal studies of cultural anthropology by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. Most importantly, Foucault's spatial concepts of the heterotope, Agamben's of the threshold and Derrida's of the limitrophy are considered of prime importance. The boundary is not a line but a space with a density and dynamics of its own, following its own rules. Liminal spaces can develop chronologically between a previous and a resulting state, systematically between one and another state, and spatially between here and there. Liminal zones thus appropriate their own chronological, systematic or spatial extension and dramatize the contradictory interrelation between heterogeneous systems. Of particular importance in this context are processes of cultural in- and exclusion, which produce shifting boundaries.
In addition, the process of drawing boundaries itself can be examined, as boundaries are produced and constructed. They reveal themselves in important ways as the result of complex cultural, social, and political processes. Thus three major dimensions of liminality emerge: the ethical dimension of moral transgression, the cultural dimension of heterotopic orders, and the self-reflective dimension of the constructedness of distinctions. The constitutive in-betweenness of the short story's characters and settings renders it an ideal terrain for mapping out those liminalities which also surface in current cultural theories, such as multiple identities, third spaces, third sex and third gender, cultural mobility, postindustrialism, postnationalism, transnationalism, and postethnicity.
This conference will address both the generic liminality of the short story and the moral transgressions, heterotopic orders and forms of self-reflection negotiated within its confines. It will feature papers on the Liminality of the Short Story as well as on Liminality in the Short Story.