How might we wrap our heads around the concept of borders today, when seemingly, the whole world is on the move? What new understandings are possible to grasp an entity as old as human civilization and as fresh as the past hour, when somewhere in the globe, a new wall is being constructed? Borders, it seems, raise endless questions. Here are three passages, picked at random from countless others, that testify to the intractability as well as the mystique of borders. The first is taken from the renowned Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuschinski, who wrote:
“I wondered what one experiences when one crosses the border. What does one feel? What does one think? It must be a moment of great emotion, agitation, tension. What is it like on the other side? It must certainly be—different. But what does “different” mean? What does it look like? What does it resemble? Maybe it resembles nothing that I know, and thus is inconceivable, unimaginable? And so my greatest desire, which gave me no peace, which tormented and tantalized me, was actually quite modest: I wanted one thing only—the moment, the act, the simple fact of crossing the border. To cross it and come right back—that, I thought, would be entirely sufficient, would satisfy my quite inexplicable yet acute psychological hunger.” (Travels with Herodotus 2004: 9).
In a 2016 Guardian review of his top ten favorite books on borders, the author Marcus Sedgwick wrote: “A border is a question. In fact, a border poses a whole series of implied questions; such as “can you cross me?”, “will you cross me?”, “what am I doing here in the first place?” and maybe most importantly: “Will you be someone else on the other side?””
And a RadioDiaries podcast from 2017 asks, “What happens when, instead of people crossing the border, the border crosses the people?” As these questions suggest, borders are increasingly seen as much more than physical structures; rather, they must be reckoned with as spatial actors and agents, generating ways of living and feeling, and evoking strong reactions and emotions.
The vocabulary of borders reflects this expanded range of usage, as scholars in recent years have tried to engage with the aesthetic and imaginative as well as the material dimensions of these phenomena. Terms like “borderscapes” address representations which shape people’s experiences of inhabiting “borderlands” of all kinds. Perhaps the most ambitious in terms of border theory is Thomas Nail’s notion of “limology.” He links borders to a theory of social motion or “kinopolitics,” arguing that borders play a paradoxical role in society: the more borders seek to control movement, the more they increase it. Nail’s historical terminology takes us through the fence, the wall, the cell, and the checkpoint, each with incredible variations of form and meaning. Michel Aiger, an anthropologist, advances the notion of the “other-subject” to establish the global ubiquity and banality of a new identity formation — that of the border-crosser. He urges a move away from an ethnicity-based sense of identity to a more contingency-based notion of subject. Roger Waldinger assesses the economic and emotional costs of building transborder connections while rejecting theories that see the act of movement itself as definitive. Rather, he sees borders as necessarily places of transit and traffic, bringing goods, people, and cultures into contact.
Borders have become abundantly generative for filmmakers, tv producers, and digital artists as well. Playing off of geopolitical realities, border-centered narratives have tended to be driven by violence — in action and characterization. These film and television dramas are too numerous to mention, so a few examples will have to suffice. Some noteworthy ones are the Macedonian film, Before the Rain (1994), the Palestinian film, Omar (2012), and the American film, Frozen River (2008). Bridges and tunnels have been used as symbolic freight to examine political corruption, bi-national tensions, crime, and drug smuggling in Swedish, British, and American dramas. And a recent podcast on NPR’s This American Life (March 18, 2018), gives us the sobering report that walls to keep out strangers exist, or are being planned, in Hungary, Turkey, India, Kenya, Morocco, Norway, Ireland, and a host of other countries. Borders, it seems, have become the governing metaphor of our time.
In putting out our call for this issue of Immediacy, therefore, we hoped to spark critical reflections and creative renditions of what it means to see, imagine, and cross borders, their enabling as well as dis-abling functions. The essays and projects featured here use the term to examine forms of separation and categorization in society and the arts, forms of reaction and resilience that borders engender, and the extension of borders in the multiple domains of individual and social life. Pedro Augusto explains what is at stake for the Brazilian military in orchestrating an elaborate ritual in the Amazon region to signify their role in border protection. Emilia Yang, Rogelio Lopez, and others create a multimedia experience for “community responses to and alternative imaginations of a landscape of images, ideas, and stories about the border wall” between the U.S. and Mexico. Eda Ozyesilpinar provides a reading of “the cartographic narrativity” of Israel’s national atlas as a way to understand the basis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Christian Sancto offers us a vision of the artist Francis Alÿs’s The Green Line as a way to problematize the idea of “disregarding borders.”
James Elrod examines how interworld travel and encounters with the Other in fantasy and science fiction films might have progressive potential in crossing the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, and other social divides. Hyunjin Kim considers the arbitrary distinctions set up between commercial and art films, wondering how cinematic borders affect our experience of certain films. Matthew Elfenbein notes the presence of failed masculinity in the millennial musical, as an aesthetics of fragmentation marks the romantic couple. The juxtaposing of fantasy and gritty realism becomes the means to suggest shifting gender ideologies and their “fatalistic” ending.
The topic of borders and memory is the subject of Rituparna Rana’s fieldwork in which she spoke with survivors of the partition of India into two separate nations in 1947. Her aim is to counterpose personal memory of everyday life as recalled by her subjects with official narratives of the event from which these experiential dimensions are missing. Finally, Valtertei Borges de Araujo discusses the form of poetry known as “tanka” that the poet Raimundo Gadelha composed as a way to bridge the cultural divides between his native Brazil and the language and artistic traditions of Japan.
Through this issue, we wish to tap into some of the creative and conceptual challenges facing us today as we think about borders in regional and global contexts. As the charged currency of our time, borders define who we are but push us towards what we want to become.