Embracing Liminality and "Staying with the Trouble" on (and off) Screen




How to Cite

Lewis, T., Markham, A., & Holcombe-James, I. (2021). Embracing Liminality and "Staying with the Trouble" on (and off) Screen. M/C Journal, 24(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2781
Vol. 24 No. 3 (2021): zoom
Published 2021-06-21

Setting the Mood 

Weirdly, everything feels the same. There’s absolutely no distinction for me between news, work, walking, gaming, Netflix, rock collecting, scrolling, messaging. I don’t know how this happened, but everything has simply blurred together. There’s a dreadful and yet soothing sameness to it, scrolling through images on Instagram, scrolling Netflix, walking the dog, scrolling the news, time scrolling by as I watch face after face appear or disappear on my screen, all saying something, yet saying nothing. Is this the rhythm of crisis in a slow apocalypse? Really, would it be possible for humans to just bore themselves into oblivion? Because in the middle of a pandemic, boredom feels in my body the same as doom ... just another swell that passes, like my chest as it rises and falls with my breath.

This opening anecdote comes from combining narratives in two studies we conducted online during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: a global study, Massive and Microscopic Sensemaking: Autoethnographic Accounts of Lived Experience in Times of Global Trauma; and an Australian project, The Shut-In Worker: Working from Home and Digitally-Enabled Labour Practices.

The Shut-In Worker project aimed to investigate the thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of Australian knowledge workers working from home during lockdown. From June to October 2020, we recruited twelve households across two Australian states. While the sample included households with diverse incomes and living arrangements—from metropolitan single person apartment dwellers to regional families in free standing households—the majority were relatively privileged. The households included in this study were predominantly Anglo-Australian and highly educated. Critically, unlike many during COVID-19, these householders had maintained their salaried work. Participating households took part in an initial interview via Zoom or Microsoft Teams during which they took us on workplace tours, showing us where and how the domestic had been requisitioned for salaried labour. Householders subsequently kept digital diaries of their working days ahead of follow up interviews in which we got them to reflect on their past few weeks working from home with reference to the textual and photographic diaries they had shared with us.

In contrast to the tight geographic focus of The Shut-In Worker project and its fairly conventional methodology, the Massive and Microscopic Sensemaking project was envisaged as a global project and driven by an experimental participant-led approach. Involving more than 150 people from 26 countries during 2020, the project was grounded in autoethnography practice and critical pedagogy. Over 21 days, we offered self-guided prompts for ourselves and the other participants—a wide range of creative practitioners, scholar activists, and researchers—to explore their own lived experience. Participants with varying degrees of experience with qualitative methods and/or autoethnography started working with the research questions we had posed in our call; some independently, some in collaboration. The autoethnographic lens used in our study encouraged contributors to document their experience from and through their bodies, their situated daily routines, and their relations with embedded, embodied, and ubiquitous digital technologies. The lens enabled deep exploration and evocation of many of the complexities, profound paradoxes, fears, and hopes that characterise the human and machinic entanglements that bring us together and separate the planetary “us” in this moment (Markham et al. 2020).

In this essay we draw on anecdotes and narratives from both studies that speak to the “Zoom experience” during COVID-19. That is, we use Zoom as a socio-technical pivot point to think about how the experience of liminality—of being on/off screen and ambiently in between—is operating to shift both our micro practices and macro structures as we experience and struggle within the rupture, “event”, and conjuncture that marks the global pandemic. What we will see is that many of those narratives depict disjointed, blurry, or confusing experiences, atmospheres, and affects. These liminal experiences are entangled in complex ways with the distinctive forms of commercial infrastructure and software that scaffold video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. Part of what is both enabling and troubling about the key proprietary platforms that increasingly host “public” participation and conversation online (and that came to play a dominant role during COVID19) in the context of what Tarleton Gillespie calls “the internet of platforms” is a sense of the hidden logics behind such platforms.

The constant sense of potential dis/connection—with home computers becoming ambient portals to external others—also saw a wider experience of boundarylessness evoked by participants. Across our studies there was a sense of a complete breakdown between many pre-existing boundaries (or at least dotted lines) around work, school, play, leisure and fitness, public and media engagement, and home life. At the same time, the vocabulary of confinement and lockdown emerged from the imposition of physical boundaries or distancing between the self and others, between home and the outside world. During the “connected confinement” of COVID-19, study participants commonly expressed an affective sensation of dysphoria, with this new state of in betweenness or disorientation on and off screen, in and out of Zoom meetings, that characterises the COVID-19 experience seen by many as a temporary, unpleasant disruption to sociality as usual. Our contention is that, as disturbing as many of our experiences are and have been during lockdown, there is an important, ethically and politically generative dimension to our global experiences of liminality, and we should hold on to this state of de-normalisation. Much ink has been spilled on the generalised, global experience of videoconferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. A line of argument within this commentary speaks to the mental challenge and exhaustion—or zoom fatigue as it is now popularly termed—that many have been experiencing in attempting to work, learn, and live collectively via interactive screen technologies. We suggest zoom fatigue stands in for a much larger set of global social challenges—a complex conjuncture of microscopic ruptures, decisions within many critical junctures or turning points, and slow shifts in how we see and make sense of the world around us. If culture is habit writ large, what should we make of the new habits we are building, or the revelations that our prior ways of being in the world might not suit our present planetary needs, and maybe never did?

Thus, we counter the current dominant narrative that people, regions, and countries should move on, pivot, or do whatever else it takes to transition to a “new normal”. Instead, drawing on the work of Haraway and others interested in more than human, post-anthropocenic thinking about the future, this essay contends that—on a dying planet facing major global challenges—we need to be embracing liminality and “staying with the trouble” if we are to hope to work together to imagine and create better worlds. This is not necessarily an easy step but we explore liminality and the affective components of Zoom fatigue here to challenge the assumption that stability and certainty is what we now need as a global community. If the comfort experienced by a chosen few in pre-COVID-19 times was bought at the cost of many “others” (human and more than human), how can we use the discomfort of liminality to imagine global futures that have radically transformative possibilities?

On Liminality

Because liminality is deeply affective and experienced both individually and collectively, it is a difficult feeling or state to put into words, much less generalised terms. It marks the uncanny or unstable experience of existing between. Being in a liminal state is marked by a profound disruption of one’s sense of self, one’s phenomenological being in the world, and in relation to others. Zoom, in and of itself, provokes a liminal experience. As this participant says:

Zoom is so disorienting. I mean this literally; in that I cannot find a solid orientation toward other people. What’s worse is that I realize everyone has a different view, so we can’t even be sure of what other people might be seeing on their screen. In a real room this would not be an issue at all.

The concept of liminality originally came out of attempts to capture the sense of flux and transition, rather than stasis, that shapes culture and community, exemplified during rites of passage. First developed in the early twentieth century by ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep, it was later taken up and expanded upon by British anthropologist Victor Turner. Turner, best known for his work on cultural rituals and rites of passage, describes liminality as the sense of “in betweenness” experienced as one moves from one status (say that of a child) to another (formal recognition of adulthood). For Turner, community life and the formation of societies more broadly involves periods of transition, threshold moments in which both structures and anti-structures become apparent.

Bringing liminality into the contemporary digital moment, Zizi Papacharissi discusses the concept in collective terms as pertaining to the affective states of networked publics, particularly visible in the development of new social and political formations through wide scale social media responses to the Arab Spring. Liminality in this context describes the “not yet”, a state of “pre-emergence” or “emergence” of unformed potentiality. In this usage, Papacharissi builds on Turner’s description of liminality as “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (97).

The pandemic has sparked another moment of liminality. Here, we conceptualise liminality as a continuous dialectical process of being pushed and pulled in various directions, which does not necessarily resolve into a stable state or position. Shifting one’s entire lifeworld into and onto computer screens and the micro screens of Zoom, as experienced by many around the world, collapses the usual functioning norms that maintain some degree of distinction between the social, intimate, political, and work spheres of everyday life. But this shift also creates new boundaries and new rules of engagement. As a result, people in our studies often talked about experiencing competing realities about “where” they are, and/or a feeling of being tugged by contradictory or competing forces that, because they cannot be easily resolved, keep us in an unsettled, uncomfortable state of being in the world.

Here the dysphoric experiences associated not just with digital liminality but with the broader COVID-19 epidemiological-socio-political conjuncture are illustrated by Sianne Ngai’s work on the politics of affect and “ugly feelings” in the context of capitalism’s relentlessly affirmative culture. Rather than dismissing the vague feelings of unease that, for many of us, go hand in hand with late modern life, Ngai suggests that such generalised and dispersed affective states are important markers of and guides to the big social and cultural problems of our time—the injustices, inequalities, and alienating effects of late capitalism. While critical attention tends to be paid to more powerful emotions such as anger and fear, Ngai argues that softer and more nebulous forms of negative affect—from envy and anxiety to paranoia—can tell us much about the structures, institutions, and practices that frame social action.

These enabling and constraining processes occur at different and intersecting levels. At the micro level of the screen interface, jarring experiences can set us to wondering about where we are (on or off screen, in place and space), how we appear to others, and whether or not we should showcase and highlight our “presence”. We have been struck by how people in our studies expressed the sense of being handled or managed by the interfaces of Zoom or Microsoft Teams, which frame people in grid layouts, yet can shift and alter these frames in unanticipated ways.

I hate Zoom. Everything about it. Sometimes I see a giant person, shoved to the front of the meeting in “speaker view” to appear larger than anyone else on the screen. People constantly appear and disappear, popping in and out. Sometimes, Zoom just rearranges people seemingly randomly.

People commonly experience themselves or others being resized, frozen, or “glitched”, muted, accidentally unmuted, suddenly disconnected, or relegated to the second or third “page” of attendees. Those of us who attend many meetings as a part of work or education may enjoy the anonymity of appearing at a meeting without our faces or bodies, only appearing to others as a nearly blank square or circle, perhaps with a notation of our name and whether or not we are muted. Being on the third page of participants means we are out of sight, for better or worse. For some, being less visible is a choice, even a tactic. For others, it is not a choice, but based on lack of access to a fast or stable Internet connection. The experience and impact of these micro elements of presence within the digital moment differs, depending on where you appear to others in the interface, how much power you have over the shape or flow of the interaction or interface settings, or what your role is.

Moving beyond the experience of the interface and turning to the middle range between micro and macro worlds, participants speak of attempting to manage blurred or completely collapsed boundaries between “here” and “there”. Being neither completely at work or school nor completely at home means finding new ways of negotiating the intimate and the formal, the domestic and the public. This delineation is for many not a matter of carving out specific times or spaces for each, but rather a process of shifting back and forth between makeshift boundaries that may be temporal or spatial, depending on various aspects of one’s situation. Many of us most likely could see the traces of this continuous shifting back and forth via what Susan Leigh Star called “boundary objects”. While she may not have intended this concept in such concrete terms, we could see these literally, in the often humorous but significantly disruptive introduction of various domestic actants during school or work, such as pets, children, partners, laundry baskets, beds, distinctive home decor, ambient noise, etc.

Other trends highlight the difficulty of maintaining zones of work and school when these overlap with the rest of the physical household. One might place Post-it Notes on the kitchen wall saying “I’m in a Zoom meeting so don’t come into the living room” or blur one’s screen background to obscure one’s domestic location. These are all strategies of maintaining ontological security in an otherwise chaotic process of being both here and there, and neither here nor there. Yet even with these strategies, there is a constant dialectical liminality at play. In none of these examples do participants feel like they are either at home or at work; instead, they are constantly shifting in between, trying to balance, or straddling physical and virtual, public and private, in terms of social “roles” and “locations”. These negotiations highlight the “ongoingness” of and the labour involved in maintaining some semblance of balance within what is inherently an unbalanced dialectical process. Participants talked about and showed in their diaries and pictures developed for the research projects the ways they act through, work with, or sometimes just try to ignore these opposing states. 

The rise of home-based videoconferencing and associated boundary management practices have also highlighted what has been marginalised or forgotten and conversely, prioritised or valorised in prior sociotechnical assemblages that were simply taken for granted. Take for example the everyday practices of being in a work versus domestic lifeworld; deciding how to handle the labor of cleaning cups and dishes used by the “employees” and “students” in the family throughout the day, the tasks of enforcing school attendance by children attending classes in the family home etc. This increased consciousness—at both a household and more public level—of a previously often invisible and feminised care economy speaks to larger questions raised by the lockdown experience. At the same time as people in our studies were negotiating the glitches of screen presence and the weird boundarylessness of home-leisure-domestic-school-work life, many expressed an awareness of a troubling bigger picture.

First, we had just the COVID lockdowns, you know, that time where many of us were seemingly “all together” in this, at home watching Tiger King, putting neighborly messages in our windows, or sharing sourdough recipes on social media. Then Black Lives Matters movements happened. Suddenly attention is shifted to the fact that we’re not all in this together. In Melbourne, people in social housing towers got abruptly locked down without even the chance to go to the store for food first, and yet somehow the wealthy or celebrity types are not under this heavy surveillance; they can just skip the mandatory quarantine. ... We can’t just go on with things as usual ... there are so many considerations now.

Narratives like these suggest that while 2020 might have begun with the pandemic, the year raised multiple other issues. As many things have been destabilised, the nature or practice of everyday life is shifting under our feet. Around the world, people are learning how to remain more distanced from each other, and the rhythms of temporal and geographic movement are adapting to an era of the pandemic. Simultaneously, many people talk about an endlessly arriving (but never quite here) moment when things will be back to normal, implying not only that this feeling of uncertainty will fade, but also that the zone of comfort is in what was known and experienced previously, rather than in a state of something radically different. This sentiment is strong despite the general agreement that “we will never [be able to] go back to how it was, but [must] proceed to some ‘new normal’”. Still, as the participant above suggests, the pandemic has also offered a much broader challenge to wider, taken-for-granted social, political, and economic structures that underpin late capitalist nations in particular. The question then becomes: How do we imagine “moving on” from the pandemic, while learning from the disruptive yet critical moment it has offered us as a global community?

Learning from Liminality

I don’t want us to go back to “normal”, if that means we are just all commuting in our carbon spitting cars to work and back or traveling endlessly and without a care for the planet.

COVID has made my life better. Not having to drive an hour each way to work every day—that’s a massive benefit. While it’s been a struggle, the tradeoff is spending more time with loved ones—it’s a better quality of life, we have to rethink the place of work.

I can’t believe how much more I’ve been involved in huge discussions about politics and society and the planet. None of this would have been on my radar pre-COVID.

What would it mean then to live with as well as learn from the reflexive sense of being and experience associated with the dis-comforts of living on and off screen, a Zoom liminality, if you will? These statements from participants speak precisely to the budding consciousness of new potential ways of being in a post-COVID-19 world. They come from a place of discomfort and represent dialectic tensions that perhaps should not be shrugged off or too easily resolved. Indeed, how might we consider this as the preferred state, rather than being simply a “rite of passage” that implies some pathway toward more stable identities and structured ways of being?

The varied concepts of “becoming”, “not quite yet”, “boundary work”, or “staying with the trouble”, elaborated by Karen Barad, Andrew Pickering, Susan Leigh Star, and Donna Haraway respectively, all point to ways of being, acting, and thinking through and with liminality. All these thinkers are linked by their championing of murky and mangled conceptions of experience and more than human relations. Challenging notions of the bounded individual of rational humanism, these post-human scholars offer an often-uncomfortable picture of being in and through multiplicity, of modes of agency born out of a slippage between the one and the many. While, as we noted above, this experience of in betweenness and entanglement is often linked to emotions we perceive as negative, “ugly feelings”, for Barad et al., such liminal moments offer fundamentally productive and experimental modalities that enable possibilities for new configurations of being and doing the social in the anthropocene. Further, liminality as a concept potentially becomes radically progressive when it is seen as both critically appraising the constructed and conventional nature of prior patterns of living and offering a range of reflexive alternatives.

People in our studies spoke of the pandemic moment as offering tantalizing glimpses of what kinder, more caring, and egalitarian futures might look like. At the same time, many were also surprised by (and skeptical of) the banality and randomness of the rise of commercial platforms like Zoom as a “choice” for being with others in this current lifeworld, emerging as it did as an ad hoc, quick solution that met the demands of the moment. Zoom fatigue then also suggests a discomfort about somehow being expected to fully incorporate proprietary platforms like Zoom and their algorithmic logics as a core way of living and being in the post-COVID-19 world. In this sense the fact that a specific platform has become a branded eponym for the experience of online public communicative fatigue is telling indeed. The unease around the centrality of video conferencing to everyday life during COVID-19 can in part be seen as a marker of anxieties about the growing role of decentralized, private platforms in “replacing or merging with public infrastructure, [thereby] creating new social effects” (Lee). Further, jokes and off-hand comments by study participants about their messy domestic interiors being publicized via social media or their boss monitoring when they are on and offline speak to larger concerns around surveillance and privacy in online spaces, particularly communicative environments where unregulated private platforms rather than public infrastructures are becoming the default norm.   

But just as people are both accepting of and troubled by a growing sense of inevitability about Zoom, we also saw them experimenting with a range of other ways of being with others, from online cocktail parties to experimenting with more playful and creative apps and platforms. What these participants have shown us is the need to “stay with the trouble” or remain in this liminal space as long as possible. While we do not have the space to discuss this possibility in this short provocation, Haraway sees this experimental mode of being as involving multiple actants, human and nonhuman, and as constituting important work in terms of speculating and figuring with various “what if” scenarios to generate new possible futures. As Haraway puts it, this process of speculative figuring is one

of giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads, and so mostly failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand, digit upon digit, attachment site upon attachment site, to craft conditions for flourishing in terran worlding.

This struggle of course takes us far beyond decisions about Zoom, specifically. This deliberately troubling liminality is a process of recognizing old habits, building new ones, doing the hard work of reconsidering broader social formations in a future that promises more trouble. Governments, institutions, corporate entities, and even social movements like Transition Towns or #BuildBackBetter all seem to be calling for getting out of this liminal zone, whether this is to “bounce back” by returning to hyper-consumerist, wasteful, profit-driven modes of life or the opposite, to “bounce forward” to radically rethink globalization and build intensely localized personal and social formations. Perhaps a third alternative is to embrace this very transitional experience itself and consider whether life on a troubled, perhaps dying planet might require our discomfort, unease, and in-betweenness, including acknowledging and sometimes embracing “glitches” and failures (Nunes).

Transitionality, or more broadly liminality, has the potential to enhance our understanding of who and what “we” are, or perhaps more crucially who “we” might become, by encompassing a kind of dialectic in relation to the experiences of others, both intimate and distant. As many critical commentators before us have suggested, this necessarily involves working in conjunction with a rich ecology of planetary agents from First People’s actors and knowledge systems--a range of social agents who already know what it is to be liminal to landscapes and other species--through and with the enabling affordances of digital technologies. This is an important, and exhausting, process of change. And perhaps this trouble is something to hang on to as long as possible, as it preoccupies us with wondering about what is happening in the lines between our faces, the lines of the technologies underpinning our interactions, the taken for granted structures on and off screen that have been visibilized. We are fatigued, not by the time we spend online, although there is that, too, but by the recognition that the world is changing.


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Author Biographies

Tania Lewis, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

Tania Lewis co-directs the Digital Ethnography Research Centre with Annette Markham and is a Professor of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She has a long-term interest in the politics of lifestyle and in the shifting dynamics and role of domesticity within late capitalism. She is currently conducting research on the future of work in a Post-Covid era. 

Annette Markham, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

Annette Markham is a digital communication researcher focused on how people experience and make sense of themselves, their identity, others, and their lifeworlds as these entities are mediated and modulated by digital technologies. She also has a strong interest in building innovative and ethical practices around digital research and technology design. Annette is currently conducting research on the lived experience of digital saturation in a COVID era.