Thoughts on borders

For reasons both of a peripatetic existence, of the places in which that has taken place, and a growing concern in the relationship between power and the capacity to make definitions, topographic and otherwise, I have been thinking about borders, and what Greek and Roman antiquity might contribute to such a contested concept.

  1. The ubiquity of borders

Borders and boundaries have been ubiquitous.  We have seen the moment when the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall exceeded the time of its existence.  The most contentious remaining element of the current negotiations between the UK and Europe revolves around a border we thought we had almost eradicated.  Boundaries from picket lines to barbed wire lines to threatened walls have etched their cartographic existence into geographic memory, whilst metaphoric red lines and hostile environments have contributed to devastating psychological and physical damage.
A world without borders is barely conceivable in our present circumstances; and borders are often seen as justifiable mechanisms of control and order, the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ argument which has evident truth and immense capacity for perversion, as Frost’s poem makes clear.  Bruno Macaes recalls a cartoon from the time of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe in which a car of refuges is stopped by a European official, who constructs a fence; the refugees scramble with huge difficulty over the fence to be greeted by the same official with the words ‘Welcome to Europe.’[1]  What then is a border?

  1. What constitutes a border

At least part of our challenge is to understand what borders do.  Roman historians can point to many different kinds of borders.  The ‘original’ border is the least tangible.  It is often said that Romulus, Rome’s first king, drew the border of Rome, the pomerium, driving an ox and plough around the city.  This primordial act of foundation was then replicated in subsequent foundations of cities which Rome founded.  Nor was he the only monarch to have acted in this way – Queen Dido at Carthage cleverly made an ox skin stretch to delineate the limits of Carthage.

The pomerium was connected to, but not identical with, the Roman wall, and the two separated over time.  Rather than being an obstacle, the pomerium may well have been a highly notional concept, and one of its critical functions was to mark the space into which the Roman army could not enter, save in triumph when by definition there was no enemy at hand.  It constructed the civic arena.

Other Roman boundaries were similarly notional.  It is not unreasonable to see the Roman imperial frontier as a deep space across which lay a spectrum of closeness to the imperial centre.  Even the great monumental frontiers such as Hadrian’s Wall were, it seems, porous and also projections of power – less the limit of Roman control than the physical expression of Roman control visible over distance.  This latter rhetoric of walls is especially relevant to some modern examples.  They were to some extent a mark of crisis rather than of strength, and for all their powerful projection, reflected the precariousness of the world.

As Stuart Elden argued, we have to understand the notion of territory within its historical evolution.[2]  The advanced modern concept of territory, ‘a bounded space under the control of a group of people, usually a state,’ is on Elden’s reading something we owe to Leibniz. It is the historical product of many different concepts, cartographic, military, religious, and above all political. It is part of an argument about sovereignty.  Carl Schmitt (who was deeply interested in notions of space) famously identified the sovereign as the one who defines the exception; to an extent this is compatible with and part of the way sovereignty came to be about who is inside, who is outside and who can pass from one to the other.  It is striking that the UK’s present position on Brexit is so profoundly bound up with this kind of definition, from trade to immigration.  Whatever the merits or demerits of the choice made in the referendum, it was not entirely inevitable for control of borders to be both the lightning rod of the campaign and the litmus test of success.

What is surprising about this choice is that borders are so often places of friction.  It is exceptionally difficult to understand a border as a place which does not require energy of one sort or another to be maintained and surmounted, even legally.  One might well ask the question as to how to define the success of a border, but one might equally ask the extent to which a border mitigates the failure that required its existence in the first place.  The focus on process demands sophistication as to what is being excluded and what is being included, and how effectively this is done.  But under any description, a border is a place which exemplifies the failure of consensus.

  1. Living without borders

The idea that borders might be undesirable but at least as yet insurmountable is fascinatingly exemplified in Bruno Macaes’ book The Dawn of EurasiacoverOne of the paradoxes at the heart of the argument is that Europe, on Macaes’ account, is stuck in highly national conceptions of boundaries, whilst Russia and China in different ways look to create much more substantial territorial blocs, within which trade and competition may take place.  Sovereignty is less about rules than about market share within such a world.  At the moment it is difficult to see how Eurasia can come about; whilst Macaes brilliantly shows the scale and extent of the reinvention of a broader notion of the world than one confined to ‘the West,’ the practicalities of reducing friction and especially where competition is so substantial seem daunting.

Yet once we notice that the world of the west with its bounded territories and strange notions of sovereignty are historically constructed, and of relatively recent coinage, it becomes easier to understand Macaes’ argument that Eurasia is to a degree a return to earlier notions of the world, from Herodotus on, in which Europe could not exist without and was to some extent an extension of Asia.

It is impossible then on this account to locate a hard border between Europe and Asia, either in time or space, before perhaps the sack of Constantinople in 1453; we witness instead the flow of ideas back and forth, processes whereby oppositions and stereotypes are created, leading only at a late stage to the forging of the concept of Europe, which then washed back a notion of Asia.

This highly conceptual idea of the absence of west and east as bounded concepts, whilst it then has interesting consequences for geopolitics, is some distance from the lived experience of our bounded territories and selves.  Another way of reconsidering the border is to associate it more vividly with a biopolitical rather than a geopolitical notion.  Twenty years ago now, Etienne Balibar wrote that ‘borders are no longer at the border’; his concept of the vacillation of borders relates in part to the way borders are increasingly invisible, internalised and insidious.  At an extreme and simplified level, one arrives at Agamben’s homo sacer, whose bare life is all that remains, since he is beyond all borders.[3]

This notion is notably Roman.  The idea of someone or thing put exceptionally into the hands of the gods, and beyond the community is extrapolated from an archaic Roman concept, which may already appear on one of the oldest Latin inscriptions, that below the Lapis Niger in the forum, which also refers to a king and an assembly.  Agamben takes the idea much further, and claims that this has become our universal condition.  The exception has become the norm.

  1. Internal borders – the problem of sociality

One consequence of this set of ideas is that it raises the question of the borders between individuals and within individuals.  If the force of a biopolitical conception of power is to force disciplinary practices to ever more internalized levels, the consequence is to focus increasingly on the individual as well as the complexities of collective power and agency.

Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote movingly and brilliantly of the increasing move towards the sovereign self, which she identifies as denying reciprocity and sociality; she associates the territorially bounded state and the psychologically bounded individual.[4]   436339However the idea of someone who is closed to and from others is one which was of deep concern to the ancient Greeks and Romans; one of the problems of the hero is that his radical transcendence can lead to a potential incapacity to relate to others.

This is often seen as a kind of violence, or through violence – through self-destruction or divine destruction.  There is a point where impermeability becomes destructive – it is the moment when communication fails.  This ancient awareness that being closed to others is potentially damaging has returned to us in the tragedy of the border.

  1. Impermeability and violence

Reece Jones’ powerful account of the damage caused by the hardening of borders relates to many of the ideas above. 9781784784744-bfb5ee87468aec138c98eecde72f85dfIf borders are signs of the failure of consensus, and relate step by step through the emergence of national sovereignty to a tragic failure of sociality, it is unsurprising that the harder they are, the more damaging.  By itself, this argument is too simplistic and assumes the capacity of scaling up and down from state to individual, but a more careful outlining could I think correlate theories of political sovereignty with metaphors of individual isolation.[5]

Amongst the many arguments such an account would need to address is the problem of duality itself.  The border is intrinsically dualist, it defines an inside and an outside.  One can try to make this more problematic, just as structuralism as a methodology founded on opposites fell to the complexities of deconstruction.  Discursive borders which are the product of our constantly evolving choices would at least offer alternatives, and remind us that plurality can be better than coerced unity.

The Romans I would argue were aware of these choices.  From the first myth of the asylum, into which Romulus invited a motley band to create his city, Rome is an exemplar of controlled openness, an experiment in forcible unification.[6]

Yet the cost of this is not difficult to identify.  Alba Longa was the town allegedly founded by Aeneas when he arrived from Troy.  It was from Alba Longa that Romulus and Remus came to Rome.  There was a deep affinity between the two cities but as Rome’s superiority grew, one Alban leader Mettius Fufetius betrayed the Romans.  His punishment was to be torn apart by horses; Alba Longa’s fate was to be incorporated into Rome.  Partition and incorporation; the division of the body of the traitor, the annulment of the difference of an enemy.

Could we say that the paradox of the border is that it defends the annulment of identity, whilst poisoning the roots of that identity?  Identity should be the product of openness and sociality, an acceptance of others as others; the border limits the capacity to conceive of ourselves and others as multiplicities and enforces dualities.  The more complete and violent that limitation, the more significant the damage to all concerned, leading ultimately to the annihilation of one party; the dismemberment of Mettius Fufetius is the negative multiplicity which denies the positive co-existence of Alba Longa and Rome.

[1] B. Macaes, The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.

[2] S. Elden, The Birth of Territory.

[3] E. Balibar, “The borders of Europe” in Cheah, P. and Robbins, B. (eds) Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, Minneapolis, 1998; G. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Satanford 1998; N. Vaughan-Williams, Border Politics: The Limits of Sovereign Power, Edinburgh 2009.

[4] J. B. Elshtain, Sovereignty, God, State and Self, Philadelphia 2008.

[5] R. Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, London 2016. See also the powerful analysis in T. Nail, Theory of the Border, Oxford 2016.

[6] See the brilliant and nuanced account by E. Dench, Romulus’ Asylum: Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Hadrian, Oxford 2004.


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