The Politics of the Threshold: Power, motility, and endless ‘passing’

by Joanna Latimer and Rolland Munro

ABSTRACT

This short paper makes a start to rethinking the threshold as a space of power. Whereas Agamben (1998, 2005), among others, explores the trope of walls and fences (a focus intensified by Trump), the nature and ubiquity of thresholds in society looks to be under-researched. Unlike other points of crossing, say across a border that marks off one country from another, thresholds are also about “passing”. A threshold creates a passage through which the arrival state “undergoes” a transformation in identity – a liquid becoming a gas or a stranger let in as a friend. Imagining thresholds as socio-material assemblages, for example that protect a home or sequestrate a field of expertise, our argument is that these may have as much to say about processes of inclusion and exclusion as do walls and fences. This is particularly the case over the more “hidden” kind of threshold that manifestly acts as a “stop” one moment but is invisible the next. In our view the liminal act of “entering” a threshold excites a moment of latent power. Consequently, thresholds can be theorized either as existing everywhere, or understood to spring up potentially anytime: surprising in their everyday potency as well as occurring widely in defined institutional spaces.

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The range of possible and potential thresholds is vast. What usually marks a threshold out for particular attention are its visible forms, for example: being over the age of consent, university entry requirements, admission to hospital, qualifications for employment or promotion, and of course money to pay for food, clothing, shelter and entertainment. If for the most part such thresholds are defined by specific rules or legal requirements, others operate as Mary Douglas’ work would suggest through classificatory systems and the “betwixt and between” of rites and rituals, (see also Victor Turner 1967, drawing on Van Gennep).

Importantly, thresholds may also, as we now discuss, take on more amorphous forms in which persons seeking access, to one form of inclusion or another, have also to undergo unspecified or unscripted rites de passage. The kind of thresholds that particularly interests us, as researchers, are those forming “passages” through which entry gets facilitated, slowed down or denied. Such a threshold may incorporate hard materials in the form of a permanent structure, such as a doorway, but may also form themselves out of more temporary and transitive fabrications, both virtual and material. Critically any of these assemblages are likely also to incorporate persons who hold the discretion, either directly or remotely, to deny or permit entry. So, too, when messages can be “passed on” or held up, those at a post (Lyotard 1984) may act as a threshold.

What we wish to draw attention to here is that more is going on in everyday conversation and institutional exchanges than general notions of surveillance explain. Our surmise is that society is not only awash with visible thresholds. Rather, we are drawing attention to a proliferation of thresholds taking place in everyday life. And, further, are pointing to the existential potency of these liminal spaces becoming pervasive and invasive. Indeed we question, are thresholds all humanity is ever in? One moment “at the post”, guardians of entry, the next in the liminal, seeking passage.

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Our argument is the ways people audit each other today over what they say and do is a public secret (Taussig, 1999). For the most part, the daily work of “passing” persons (Garfinkel 1967) is handled “in passing”. It may seldom extrude; and is likely conducted almost unwittingly and with tact. This may be because to call someone to account – to “check” what they are saying (or act as a “stop” on them saying something) can be taken as an affront. For example, in Garfinkel’s breaching experiments, the latecomer explodes when his excuse of a “flat tire” is refused (being put back to him for further explanation).

Here we are privileging the idea that persons get wittingly or unwittingly involved in the exercise of power. Power, as Foucault argued, may well run through the capillaries, but in this investigation we follow Latour and Callon in assuming the everyday exercise of power can be macro-structured up through a variety of devices. In particular, we would expect thresholds to exist or be deployed: 1) to ensure the continuation of asymmetries in the distribution of resources; 2) to enable the inculcation and circulation of elitist discourse of one form or another; and 3) reflect the confluence of unlikely allies. Drawing on this perspective, we hope thereby to avoid disputes that equate power solely to domination or see power as emanating simply through signification alone.

Access to inclusion – whether it be classifications that designate each of us as “modern”, “up to speed”, “reconstructed”, “friend” or “one of us” – can be as endless as it is vital. Yet proof for such a conclusion can never be firm, due to the clandestine manner with which thresholds “pop up” and are enacted, often unexpectantly and infrequently, in otherwise “normal” everyday conduct. Nevertheless some evidence of their presence and absence comes not only from our own experience as ethnographers. Garfinkel’s students also come a cropper in the somewhat reverse situation when they assume the role of a lodger. For example, their seeking permission to do things any member of the family usually takes for granted, such as asking if they may take a drink from the fridge, soon generated an explosion with the rest of the family.

hotel-hall-101634_960_720It is unsurprising, in the light of these remarks, how much stress Goffman put on identity being a performance, albeit a continuous and varied one. What he highlights is the nature of “strategic conduct”, whereby would-be participants draw on a convention from everyday life but then convert its “passage” to their own different ends. This kind of identity work also opens up opportunities for resistance. Alongside the sheer proliferation of thresholds at any moment, it is also the case that time within the threshold may also be being elongated beyond chronological measures of duration, bringing stress, alienation and distress to all of us.

In summary, when power is associated with stable structures and fields of domination, everyday forms of power such as the threshold can get overlooked. This is to argue that, while the concepts of purity and danger are surely as relevant today as ever, their manifestation in terms of thresholds is far from transparent. Specifically, our project is to draw attention to how persons, materials and accounts are held in a proliferation of thresholds in ways that are transformative, turning identity into an endless project, subject to reversals and set-backs, and thus intensifying the precarity of belonging. It is an irony how emplacement today involves a motility of being called to the post one moment, as guardians of entry, and in the next, has us liminally, in a threshold, seeking passage for ourselves.

Joanna Latimer and Rolland Munro, University of York

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