Waking Life and Aesthetics of Liminality

13 minutes to read
Gürhan Camgöz

Cinematic viewing experiences and dream states have a comparable quality. Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life (2001) is an interesting and perplexing film about dreams and the nature of reality. The thematic content of discontinuous scenes which resemble dream-like states, consists of philosophical insights and conversations about dreams, metaphysics, free-will, existentialism, and situationism.

Waking Life

The interpolated rotoscoping animation technique is one of the film’s most salient features, that combines live-action footage and animation. This essay will examine how and through which techniques Waking Life produces an aesthetics of liminality by means of evaluating the visual style of the film. I suggest that the techniques and visual style of the film constitute an aesthetic play with borders and limits that problematizes the common sense subjective and objective demarcations imposed from individual or social levels.

The essay will start out by comparing the animated docuficion Waking Life to documentary modes as conceptualized by Bill Nichols and Stella Bruzzi. There will be a particular focus on demonstrating the divergences of the film from the poetic mode and performative mode. The focus will then turn to how reality is produced stylistically rather than truthfully through a discussion of Roland Barthes’ seminal essay “The Reality Effect” (1986).

Next, the focus will be on the animation techniques of the movie and the aesthetic effects of the Rotoshop software. These effects help clear the grounds for analyzing the visual style that arises as an in-between of animation and photo-real cinema. Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘optical unconscious’ will be discussed to wrap up the discussion. Finally, the essay will analyze how the film creatively engages in providing a platform for the dissolution of conventional perceptions of space, time and identity. The film’s generation of a space in which the notion of life can be transvalued will be linked to the concept of liminality.

Linklater’s Waking Life is a fascinating case study with its portrayal of a realistic way of looking at an "unreality", as Linklater himself puts it. It’s not only a film that employs the emergent technologies but while using them, it produces something more than ‘real’. I would argue that the film does not uncover the false appearances of reality to lay claim to truths. Instead, it renders visible the imperceptible forces which constitute us. Waking Life does not attempt to penetrate the essence of reality to find something, but it expresses the pulsating and rhythmically dancing image of a life that is everywhere.

Documentary Modes and Waking Life

In his book Introduction to Documentary (2010), Bill Nichols defines documentary as “a form of cinema that speaks to us about actual situations and events” (142). Rhodes and Springer (2006), however, discuss the prevalence of hybrid forms in contemporary media culture and propose a new term, docufictions, to account for the middle forms between documentary and fiction. Docufictions are middle forms “in which documentary and fictional materials are intentionally combined, merged, and synthesized” (Rhodes and Springer, 6). Waking Life needs to be characterized as a docufiction, because it combines documentary and fictional material, be it university lectures, conversations with experts in various fields and even, or rather specifically, dreams.

Waking Life portrays actual situations and events. Therefore, it will be helpful to see how the film diverges from the general characteristics of documentary mode and particularly the poetic and performative modes. Nichols characterizes the poetic mode as doing away with continuity and specificity of location in time and space as it “explores associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions” (Nichols, 162). It can be argued to involve a move towards subjective interpretations as it underlines affects and moods, sacrificing rhetorical elements for the sake of expressive quality.

Nichols discusses the performative mode by emphasizing its subjective and affective dimensions related to our knowledge of the world while differentiating it from the poetic domain as the performative mode gives “less emphasis to the self-contained formal rhythms and tones of the film or video’’ (Nichols, 206). Stella Bruzzi, however, comments on Nichols’ conceptual scheme by saying that the performative documentary is a speech act. A speech act both describes and performs an action as it “is the enactment of the notion that a documentary only comes into being as it is performed” (Bruzzi, 186). Bruzzi goes on to say that although the performative aspect can be regarded as intrusive and alienating, it can also be seen in a positive manner as “alternative honesty" (187). This acknowledges the impossibility of representing the real.

Waking Life revolves around Wiley Wiggins as a performative subject. He walks around in discontinuous dream-like states and engages in conversations about reality and dreams. Wiley, in a way, acts out the documentary. However, I suggest that the film is not about Wiley’s life. Maja Manojlovic remarks in the same manner:

“Waking Life doesn’t build or emphasize its signifying momentum by fleshing out Wiley’s individuality or character through narrative continuity. Instead, its discontinuous fragmentary series of vignettes about human encounters ride the force of the present moment and carve out a portrait of a singular life, immanent to Wiley” (186).

A life of immanence, that is everywhere and singular, is conceptualized by Gilles Deleuze in Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life (1991): “One can say of pure immanence that it is A LIFE, and nothing else. It is not immanence to life; rather, immanence that is in nothing is in itself a life. A life is the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence” (29). This direct link suggests that the film is about a singular life and brings with it many implications. Waking Life, in between the constantly shifting lines of animation that is imposed upon live-action footage, provides a space for a life to come forward, a life that cannot be determined by an object or a subject which is able to contain it. It resists our “conventional referential networks of sensation and signification” (Manojlovic, 184). A life as pure immanence embraces a sense that doesn’t need any other referent than its own expression and discovers “syntheses prior to the identities of figure and perception” (Deleuze, 29).

In some aspects, Waking Life converges towards the poetic mode when stressing expressive quality and involving temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions. In other aspects the film converges towards the performative mode, for example when Wiley expresses his uncertainty about whether he is dreaming or awake. But just like Wiley cannot say this with certainty, we cannot say if the film is either poetic or performative. It can best be characterized as docufiction which acts as a catalyst for the process of differentiation (Manojlovic, 186).

Reality Effect and Realism of Waking Life

In his essay “The Reality Effect” (1986), Roland Barthes argues that the minute text details produce effects of reality because “the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced” (148). The minute details Barthes refers to are in Waking Life generated by the interpolated rotoscoping animation technique. With this technique, live action is refigured by animation in a process that is computerized through the Rotoshop software. Paul Ward states that in Waking Life, the “rotoscoped material is ‘more than’ live action; it is in a strange way revealing more of the real than the apparently real photographic imagery that acts as its basis… far from depicting an unreal figure divorced from the real, the rotoscope manages to ‘amplify’ the real person underlying the animated layer.” (164).


Figure 1

As it can be seen in Figure 1, the layers of animation and live action are not easily distinguishable. The constantly shifting, undulating, wobbly lines in animation don’t leave a static material form that is the center of focus. Rather, insistent shifts make the demarcations of subjects and objects problematic, producing an aesthetic play with borders and limits. Ward continues: “The animation is simultaneously ‘smooth’ and somehow ‘jerky’.  The uneasiness felt while viewing such material stems from the uncertain ontological status of the imagery… the imagery itself has a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other status” (168).

Caroline Ruddell, on the use of Rotoshop software in films, argues that Waking Life has “been mediated through several processes of production and arguably cannot be considered in a purely aesthetic sense - the processes involved cannot be separated from the cultural and industrial means of production… On the other hand, the layers of production apparent here do raise the profile of the formal qualities of the films. As noted, form matters and aesthetic operations here do have an effect despite not working in isolation.” (13).

I find it useful here to bring in Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘optical unconscious’ in its relation to camera and film in general. Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1999) explains that although we are more or less familiar with movement in the face of certain actions, we don’t know what really goes on and how action varies with different moods: “This is where camera comes into play, with all its resources for swooping and rising, disrupting and isolating, stretching and compressing a sequence, enlarging or reducing an object. It is through camera we first discover the optical unconscious” (230).

Waking Life does to live-action footage what the camera does to the eye. It renders visible the imperceptible forces, affects and senses that constitute us.

Considering Benjamin’s and Ruddell’s assertions, the use of rotoscoping in Waking Life does to live-action footage what the camera does to the eye. It renders visible the imperceptible forces, affects and senses that constitute us, by creating cracks in the surface of phenomenal experience that allows for differential processes to unfold rather than delving beneath the surface. However, Paul Ward contends what rotoscoping does to live action footage in a different way: “It takes us beneath the phenomenal surface and reveals something of the real relations underpinning things” (169). Opening cracks on the surface and going beneath it seem like incongruent acts, which will take us to a discussion of Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the virtual.

In his book Bergsonism (1991), Gilles Deleuze makes the distinctions between real/possible and virtual/actual. Deleuze argues that these oppositions are different in kind: “While the real is in the image and likeness of the possible that it realizes, the actual, on the other hand does not resemble the virtuality it embodies… the characteristic of virtuality is to exist in such a way that it is actualized by being differentiated and is forced to differentiate itself, to create its lines of differentiation in order to be actualized” (97). It becomes apparent how the dyad of virtual/actual works because of mechanisms of difference and creation whereas in the real/possible dualism, these mechanisms are not at play: “everything is already completely given: all of the real in the image, in the pseudo-actuality of the possible” (98).

Going back to Waking Life and the contention I made above, I would argue that the effects of rotoscoping is not so much a ‘going beneath the surface to reveal the real relations’ but more of an actualization of the virtual by evoking a stage of liminality which is similar to the cracks on the surface of phenomenal experience. Manojlovic also argues in this fashion: “This in-between state is demonstrative that, in the interstices of the visible, operate processes resisting the formation of signification along the established web of references” (196). In the next section I will be explain the concept of liminality and how it relates to the aesthetics of Waking Life.

Aesthetics of Liminality

In the second scene of the movie, Wiley arrives at an airport and looks for a taxi. The driver of a boat car offers a ride to Wiley, which he accepts. As they start driving into an urban dream world, what the driver says evokes the sense of being in a dream:

You want to keep things on an even keel, I guess is what I'm saying. You want to go with the flow. The sea refuses no river. The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving. Saves on introductions and good-byes. The ride does not require an explanation. Just occupants.”

Later the driver asks Wiley where he is going, to which he answers, "Anywhere is fine." The other person in the boat car, played by Linklater, tells the boat driver to “Go up three more streets, take a right, go two more blocks, drop this guy off on the next corner” which is a random spot but one that is “going to determine the rest of your life.” Wiley gets out and sees a note on the ground that says look to your right. When he looks up, he gets hit by a car. He then wakes up.

Figure 2: The idea is to remain in a constant state of departure while always arriving.


Wiley getting hit by a car and then waking up gives the audience a sense of the dream-like state. But also the aesthetic effects of rotoscoping combined with the remarks of the people in the boat set the sense of journey the viewers are embarking on. Throughout discontinuous dream-like scenes of the film, we are, as the driver has put it, in “a constant state of departure while always arriving.”

Another example of a dream-like scene is when Wiley listens to writer Aklilu Gebrewold. Gebrewold argues that we are in a very significant moment in history: “Those moments, those what you might call liminal, limit, frontier, edge zone experiences are actually now becoming the norm. These multiplicities and distinctions and differences that have given great difficulty to the old mind are actually through entering into their very essence, tasting and feeling their uniqueness.” These liminal experiences which makes us perceive multiplicities and differences are in a way linked with visual style of the film.

Liminality is an anthropological concept, which comes from the Latin word līmen meaning threshold. It was developed by Arnold van Gennep and then expanded by Victor Turner. In Turner’s chapter called Liminality and Communitas in his book The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1995), the liminal stage is discussed in the context of rites of passage, which marks a quality of ambiguity in terms of the characteristics of the ritual subject. Turner elaborates: “Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions” (95).

The rotoscoping technique stimulates the virtual by playing with the mechanisms of difference and creation.

One can see Waking Life as evoking a liminal stage for Wiley. However, as argued earlier, the film is not about Wiley, but about a life as pure immanence. The concept of liminality has greater implications about a life as the aesthetics of liminality allows for differential processes to crack the surface of phenomenal experience as well as for transvaluation of life which would acknowledge the differential processes’ constitutive power. In this vein, the rotoscoping technique stimulates the virtual by playing with the mechanisms of difference and creation. Manojlovic also talks about how this animation technique and the differential processes reconfigures our referential networks of sense and signification. She states that Waking Life reveals new potential sets of references: “This new cognitive space, freshly carved out of the interstices of the visible, engages embodied signifying processes that interact with the context of the digital aesthetics of the movie… It is thus difficult for the spectator to find any conventional, common sense grounds to anchor her desire experientially or hermeneutically to assign a stable meaning to any visual element.” (196).

We may indeed be in a significant moment in history and what we are becoming is related with a “radical subjectivity, radical attunement to individuality (which) opens itself to a vast objectivity” as Gebrewold suggests. Waking Life is a fascinating film which dares one to experiment with becoming a dreamer and dares one to affirm life. Kant formulated the motto of the enlightenment as “Sapere Aude, dare to know”. What’s left for us between the false ideals of enlightenment and modernity, and the fragmented, atomized life of postmodernity is a radical, powerful affirmation of a life, affirmation of a singular, non-organized body. I end with this quote from the movie: “The quest is to be liberated from the negative, which is really our own will to nothingness. And once having said yes to the instant, the affirmation is contagious. It bursts into a chain of affirmations that knows no limit. To say yes to one instant is to say yes to all of existence.


Barthes, Roland. “The Reality Effect.” The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986, pp.141-49.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zorn. London, Pimlico, 1999, pp. 211-244

Bruzzi, Stella. “The Performative Documentary” [excerpt]. The New Documentary, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2006, pp.185-206.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Immanence: A Life.” Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life. Trans. Anne Boyman. New York, Zone Books, 2001.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Trans. Hugh Thomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York, Zone Books, 1991.

Manojlovic, Maja. ""Dream Is Destiny": Waking Life and the Digital Aesthetics of the In-between." Discourse, vol. 33 no. 2, 2011, pp. 184-202. 

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Rhodes, Garry Don and John Parris Springer. "Introduction." Docufictions: Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. McFarland, 2006. 1-10.

Ruddell, Caroline. “‘Don’t Box Me In’: Blurred Lines in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly” Animation, vol.7 no.1, 2012, pp.7-23.

Silverman, Jason. “Animating a Waking Life.” Wired. Accessed 10 June 2018.

Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas.” The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Cornell University Press, 1966, pp. 95–113.

Ward, Paul. “‘I was dreaming I was awake, and then I woke up and found myself asleep’: dreaming, spectacle and reality in Waking Life.” The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to Reality TV and Beyond. Bristol: Intellect Press, 2005, pp. 161–171.

Waking Life Movie Transcript, wakinglifemovie.net/. Accessed 11 June 2018. All quotes and images from the movie are taken from this web site.