Metaxis and liminality

“In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey”

Just as I began to write this blog I experienced an excellent example of Metaxis – I’m sitting in the local car servicing garage, in the waiting room, but absorbed in what I’m doing. My sense of presence is removed from my immediate surroundings, my mind is entirely within the online environment, and then Beck (Loser) starts playing on the radio. Straight away I’m pulled out of what I’m doing and (3-2-1) I’m back in the room. It’s that good a song. And appropriately the garage is called In ‘n’ Out. And now it’s Guns and Roses (Sweet Child of Mine). This will take a while.

Liminality is a word that’s banded around a lot, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure people have a grip on what it is. It’s a word that starts in discussions of the theatre and has been adopted more generally by anthropologists, and has made its way into education. The limen is the edge of the stage, it’s the threshold that separates the world of the performers and the world of the audience. Liminality is then the experience of transition between two spaces. In a theatre the edge between make-believe and reality is an obvious one; there’s also an important transition between outside and inside the theatre.

“Where do we go now?”

It’s different from an interstitial space however. Interstitial is between two other spaces, true, and is unallocated, so opens up a range of possibilities. The BLTC conference is largely constructed around interstitial spaces. Corridors, bridges, studio workspaces, dining rooms, without the rules of regular spaces, other things can happen.

The learning commons type of learning environments work like interstitial spaces, they’re neither formal nor informal spaces, they’re institutional but also personal. In Oldenberg’s typology they’re both second and third places – so two-and-a-halfth spaces.

Liminal spaces describe something different than just this interstiality … interstitialness … interstitial nature. The world of the stage isn’t like the regular world. It has a narrative.

damn the Stones are on … there will be another intermission

The people on it are supposed to be people other than who they appear to be. They’re not the two actors off the X-Men movies, they’re Estragon and Vladimir, for example. To engage properly with the space requires a willing suspension of disbelief, or rather (I’d suggest) an engagement of belief.

“I saw her today at the reception”

It’s not just theatre and it’s not just space either. We’ve seen in this blog entry how music can create a separate world within another one. There can be a moment of liminality, a transition from one world to another, anywhere. I can be sitting in a room but not aware of it because the background sound is some bland pop music, and it lulls the senses. I become absorbed in the world of what I’m doing online, it’s just me and you, my audience, and then some familiar strains of a rock track starts up on the radio and I’m pulled out of the world I’m creating, and pulled into the world that the musicians create. I suppose you might not like the Rolling Stones, or Beck, or Guns and Roses (if that’s the case, you might want to check your pulse) and it might not have the same effect. You might be able to sit in the audience of a play and not get drawn into the action because Beckett’s not your thing. Engagement of belief is key.

Other spaces have the same requirement. Ritual spaces, game spaces, sports arenas. Other media create the same transition within a space, books, TV, (with narrative media it’s called the diegetic effect). You cross that limen and you’re somewhere else.

Except you’re not entirely. That’s where metaxis comes in. Your sense of location and presence is a zero sum. The more you leave one world, the more you enter the other, but you can be split between the two to various extents. Sirs Ian and Patrick might be great, but you’re aware of the pressure of the seat in front of you on your knees; you’re absorbed in the stuff you’re writing, but aware that the Cranberries have just started. Or you’re getting wound up because you’ve just landed on Yavin IV for the third time in a row, but it’s only Monopoly so doesn’t *really matter. Not really. Honest.

Virtual worlds depend on engagement of belief to be fully effective as learning environments. For students so located within the physical world, they can’t lose their sense of their surroundings, and so can’t fully engage in the belief in the virtual. I think imagination has something to do with it too. Carrie Heeter calls it the Peter Pan effect, which sums it up nicely.

So why do it if it disadvantages some students? Well one reason is that for those who can experience these liminal spaces as they are meant to be experienced, it can open up new opportunities for interaction, for expression and engagement. If you can stand on the steps of the Theatre of Dionysus, as it was in ancient Greece, and actually feel it, that’s qualitatively different from just looking at a picture. And from personal experience I’d say conveys something more than standing on those steps as it is now (though that’s impressive too).

But also liminality isn’t just about the experience of presence in those spaces, it’s also about all the other things that transform when we’re in those imagination-dependent spaces (which I call 4th places for short – extending Oldenberg’s typlogy by one more). Identity, roles, rules of behaviour, community, all are transfigured by stepping over that limen. Some people would argue that the rationale for creating those spaces is that those things are transformed. Turner talked about the sense of communitas in a theatrical experience, fellowship and agápē are often words to describe the feeling of ritual spaces. Bernard Suits suggested that attending sporting events isn’t really about whether your team scores a goal or not, it’s about that feeling of camaraderie that occurs when the goal is scored. Because metaxis-wise there’s always the small voice at the back of your head that says this God doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t really matter whether my team wins, those two guys aren’t really waiting for Godot, the actual world outside the 4th places  intrudes to some extent but is suppressed to make the space you’re in work properly.

As far as education goes, these spaces can be enormously valuable, but I’d say that we’re still working out how they work, and what they mean. Looking for commonalities between them can also be instructive. They can also be difficult spaces to set up and support, but you know, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need.

 

 

 

 

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Interstitial and liminal spaces

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the BLTC planning and the themes identified, have coincided with an online discussion group that I’ve recently joined on the subject of inbetween spaces. It’s been mainly an email discussion group, but we’ve also met up online in a Google circle. The video of that first meeting is here:

 

You can see here evidence of the strength of the written word over spoken in my case. A combination of lack of sleep (insomnia could be an upcoming blog post) and the mania that comes with being exposed to a mass of interesting ideas from interesting people rendered me almost unintelligible at moments, but I think the others make plenty of sense, so the video is well worth watching.

Liminal spaces is one of the themes of Making Sense of Space; a book I worked on with my friend Iryna Kuksa. The book proposal was hers, and she invited me to contribute to it. I was stuck for what to contribute, then decided to rework a proposal I’d made for a Marie Curie Fellowship, which had fallen through. It was an excellent complementarity between Iryna’s work and mine; she’d got a monograph on design of spaces in virtual worlds, I’d got my stuff on the experience of spaces in virtual worlds, we put them together and co-wrote an introduction and conclusion. I’d also got a couple of chapters’ worth of work that was on work I’d collaborated on in both education and performance in virtual worlds, and it all fitted together really well – after Iryna had honed out many of my off-topic musings (I managed to persuade her to leave some in).

One thing that helped me pull my bit together was a model I’d come up with a few years earlier, which is an extended version of Activity Theory. Activity Theory has evolved over the years; starting with Vygotsky, then reformulated by Leont’ev and extended by Engestrom. To that illustrious list you can now add Childs :-p

I like activity theory as a description of what goes on when activities take place. It’s pretty simple to get hold of once you realise it’s not really a theory. It simplifies quite a complicated process by breaking it into its component parts, and enables you to singly consider the connections between those parts. It usually gets represented as a triangle, like this:

 

Obviously it’s just a representation – reality is what Adams once described as a WSOGMM (whole sort of general mish-mash) – but that’s too messy to really get a handle on.

The problem with activity theory is that it misses out two factors that a elemental in understanding activities and that is the participants’ sense of presence, with the space and with each other, and their identity, as learners, teachers, whatever. Now it’s fair to say that identity is probably already in there, it only makes sense in terms of community, or in the roles that we’re assigned, or I’d say it’s actually a tool we use in interaction. But anything that’s smeared across so many other categories just adds to the messiness of the analysis, so it’s simpler to just add it as another category.

What we then get is a triangle with identity and presence on either side – which actually looks like this when made a bit more regular:

activity theory

These eight categories then give a useful way of breaking down the specific characteristics of liminal spaces.

That’s a lot to go into here (plus, you know, buy the book) but I’ll talk about just one of these, in the next post; presence.

 

Mental Space

The Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference site is live http://bltc16.ocsld.org/. I’m not going to be able to make it due to a prior commitment (an Iron Maiden + Ghost gig in Wroclaw – already booked when the conference dates were announced). It’s frustrating that two things I really want to go to are on at the same time – not least because I wrote most of the copy for the conference themes so I feel like I’ve shaped it a bit. That’s not to say they were my idea, we’d already agreed to include the three conceptualisations of space from the a recent project led by Kirsti Lonka (the keynote speaker) called 3 spaces http://www.3tilaa.fi/in-english/ i.e. mental, digital and physical, and the idea of liminal spaces had been bouncing round for a while in the discussions. All I did was pull them together and add some discussion points.

Since I won’t be there, I thought I’d do a series of blogs about the themes, so at least I’m making a contribution somewhere.

The discussion points for the theme of mental space are:”How do we address the mental space of students? Do we push students out of their comfort zone, and how far? Are embodiment, presence and identity important for learning? Are HEIs spaces without emotional conflict?” These were really prompted by a discussion I’d had with George Roberts, triggered by his blog a while back, http://rworld2.brookesblogs.net/2016/01/07/what-to-do-about-rhodes-and-other-evils/

It’s also a train of thought that was started by Warwick Students Union banning Maryam Namazie http://freethoughtblogs.com/maryamnamazie/ Though they backtracked once the media outcry started, it still doesn’t change the fact that a group of students, or at least one student acting on their own, thought that was OK. It raises all sorts of alarm bells about freedom of speech, and about how it is being undermined in the name of creating a safe space for students. What was even more worrying is that at Goldsmiths when there was a protest against her visit, the university’s feminist and LGBTQ+ societies wrote in support of the protestors, two groups that I’d have expected to stand for free speech.

On the other hand, I’m not totally in favour of free speech irrespective of the consequences. Inciting hatred of people can be threatening for those on the receiving end of the hatred. Inviting people who will then rail against particular ethnicities, or homosexuality, or particular individuals is something we should protect students against. There’s a tendency everywhere for people to say the most ridiculous or objectionable things and then follow up any criticism with “well that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to have one as much as you do”. I spend too much time looking at the bottom half of the Internet. It doesn’t do much for your opinion of humanity.

Well, you probably are entitled to any opinion you wish to hold, but I’d add the caveat, and usually do when I get drawn into these discussions, that you’re only entitled to share it if you can back it up with a credible argument, and some evidence. You have an opinion that America is the best country in the world? Well the UN Human Development Index says that it’s the 8th, so which study are you referring to? You’re citing the Bible or Koran as your supporting evidence? Then you’ll need to prove the existence of God for that one to count as a credible argument. Over to you.

So if someone wants to speak at your university, they need to have some academic credibility in order to get a platform to express their ideas. Where’s their study? What’s their evidence? Without that, then what are they doing there anyway? And why would we want to encourage our students to buy into unsupported dialogues?

If your students still feel threatened by what a speaker has to say, then we really need to start addressing why they’re so lacking in resilience. You are entitled to feel personally safe, free from the potential from harm, emotional and physical. Verbal and physical threats and assaults, or anything that might lead to them, shouldn’t be countenanced. But having your ideas, opinions and sensibilities threatened, that should be part of the normal daily existence of all of us. We should be encouraging our students to welcome those challenges, not shielding them from them. If something challenges your way of thinking, come up with an argument as to why they’re wrong, though preferably after you’ve given them due consideration as to whether they could be right. If that’s too much work, then learn to ignore them. Above all don’t take a discussion of ideas personally. Because then you become no better than a politician.

Where to draw the line about what is fair game for criticism is a tricky one. I’d originally thought that a good place to draw it is between ideas and people. Criticise ideas all you like, but lay off people. Then I heard Ricky Gervais’s interview with Conan O’Brien, just before the Golden Globes this year. Gervais said that for him the division is between what people do, and who they are. Make fun of what they do, but accept who they are. His routine at the Golden Globes ceremony about Caitlin Jenner is a perfect example of this. He refers to her pre-transition as Bruce Jenner, perfectly and chronologically accurate. He admires her for courage in transitioning, also laudable. Then makes a dig at the vehicular manslaughter she was accused of. ie what she did, not who she is. He walked that line spot on. That’s the line as universities we should be walking. Everything open to criticism, except when we’re talking about who someone is. Ethnicity, sex, sexuality. They’re not choices, they’re out of bounds for criticism. Religion, politics, economics; they’re choices and are fair game, providing you’ve got the evidence to back it up.