Defining Lines

Credit: By Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedi

While “border” is the specific concept of a delineating, separating, and adjacency-creating edge, there’s a fundamental sense in which every concept has edges that help distinguish it from every other. Some of those other concepts will be similar to it but not identical, most will be incommensurable, and a few will be diametrically opposed. Thus, the concept of border is similar but not identical to “periphery” and “margin,” incommensurable with “forest” or “justice” or “appetite,” and diametrically opposed to “the center” on the one side and “unboundedness” on the other. Linguistic distinctions, in short, are made by drawing conceptual and hence mental dividing lines between x and y that also relate the entities they distinguish in different ways.

In turn, individual persons and even whole cultures can exhibit different attitudes toward categorical borders, including the borders between concepts that appear to be oppositional pairs, such as the “I” and the “you,” the permitted and the forbidden, believers and unbelievers, men and women. At one end of that attitudinal range, categorical borders are taken to be clear-cut, fixed, and intrinsic to an objective order of things. At the other end, they are taken to be shifting, porous, and historically contingent rather than indicative of essential or eternal truths. These polar attitudes hint at polar emotional responses to ambiguity: a repudiation of ambiguity as disturbing, monstrous, or sinful versus an affirmation of ambiguity as an ineliminable feature of life, and even as a source of life’s greatest surprises and delights.

Territorial borders can be viewed in an analogous way to conceptual borders, as contingent or sacred, and as ever shifting or fixed. They can incite analogously opposite emotional reactions: an insistence on the unambiguous, permanent, and essential truth of the landed entity enclosed by borders and anxiety at border breaches; versus a belief in the open-ended and fluid make-up of that entity and an ease with border permeability. Territorial borders, however, are also distinguishable from linguistic borders in important respects.

Most obviously, territorial borders are not just conceptual and mental but also material. They denote not only a distinction between the idea of the U.S. and the idea of Mexico but also a seam where the geographical space of the U.S. ends and the geographical space of Mexico begins. Because of the physical proximity to one another of people and landscapes on each side of that seam, those living near a territorial border often resemble each other more closely than the rest of the two countries’ populations do, and sometimes even more than they resemble the people in the rest of their own country. The concept of “borderlands” captures the relative ambiguity of culture and social identity that one sees in many border spaces, as long as the opportunities for border crossings aren’t inhibited by natural or artificial obstacles, as they are when a territorial border follows the contours of a break in the landscape such as a sea or mountain range, or when a wall is erected by a political authority to prevent intermingling across borderlines.

This brings us to the second distinguishing feature of territorial borders in the modern age, which is that they mark the distinction between one nation-state and another. Unlike ancient empires, which were so much not obsessed with boundary lines that they frequently would expand to sweep inside the empire that which had been outside, modern states view the integrity and sanctity of their borders as a sign and condition of their sovereign power and autonomy. This is not to say that nation-states can’t be expansionary, but rather that endless expansion not only would undo their own individual raisons d’être to govern a particular people in a particular space but also would undo the stability of the established international system of nation-states.

Perhaps the weirdest feature of nation-state borders (a phrase that is something of a misnomer, given how many nation-states enfold more than one “nationality”) is that they can be said to serve multiple and partly contradictory functions, each of which can be celebrated or excoriated with equal persuasive force. To get a sense of this sign of the ethical ambiguity inherent in separating an outside from an inside of political society, one need only note the clashing ways in which borders have been interpreted within canonical Western political thought, post-colonial theory, and nationalist ideology. Yet these three disparate sources of ideas about the purpose of borders are nonetheless connected by both a chronological and a thematic thread, for while the modern nation-state emerged as a Western invention, it later spread to much of the rest of the world when anti-colonial movements rebelled against Western colonial penetration in the name of national independence, and when ethno-national movements rebelled against continental multinational empires in the name of the national self-determination of minority peoples.

Whether they are championed or condemned, the functions of territorial borders can be clumped into three sub-types. The first sub-type concerns the spatial organization of ruler/ruled relationships across the globe; the second concerns the delineation and geographical separation of peoples, and the third concerns the distinction between, to use a metaphor from rhetoric, politically “accented” or “stressed” and “unaccented” or “unstressed” human beings: that is, the distinction between citizens and aliens inside nation-states, and between citizens and stateless populations across nation-states.

With respect to the first sub-type, borders force humanity to obey government dictations by assigning as many people as possible to one sovereign authority or another. In this way the world’s teeming population can be more effectively and efficiently controlled than it would be if there were either a single world state or no state at all. Borders aid this managerial effort by marking off the geographical limits of the reach of any particular ruler or government while ensuring that every subset of the human race is covered by legitimate force and law.

With respect to the second sub-type, borders provide people who see themselves as sharing a single line of descent, language, religion, set of traditions and customs, etc., with a territorial space for their cultural flourishing. Alternatively, borders enclose in a space all those who agree to live by certain principles and under the umbrella of the same political institutions. In both the ethno- and the civic-national cases, borders divide land that is “ours” from land that is “theirs.” They also divide friends from potential enemies, decreasing the chances for hostility among those who become “friends” if increasing the same chances in relations between the national “us” and “them.”

Thus, for example, the American founding fathers argued for a United States of America partly on the grounds that a federal union would prevent continental conflicts that were bound to arise over territory and other issues among independent and only loosely confederated states. Yet, as the history of the United States also makes clear, smaller divisions can arise within the borders of the territorial nation-states not merely between one sub-national region and another, but between different sectors of the population, which, while it may appear to be relatively homogeneous when looked at from abroad, is always internally heterogeneous to a greater or lesser degree. Such internal divisions may be externally marked by their own mini-walls – as we see in gated communities for the wealthy, ghettos for despised ethnic or racial minorities, prisons for disobedient or abject subjects, and households for keeping women inside the domestic realm and under the control of men.

With respect to the third sub-type of border function, national borders broadcast the elevation of citizens with their full complement of whatever rights their government accords them above aliens who do not enjoy those same rights within those borders. Some aliens, being members of their own nation-states, enjoy whatever rights their own governments accord their peoples when they return home. Other aliens – stateless populations, refugees, exiles, and forcibly denaturalized individuals – are effectively or literally citizens of nowhere. They do not enjoy any state’s protection of their right to have rights and are forced to rely for a bare modicum of protection on the largesse of international human rights organizations. But in differentiating citizens from both kinds of aliens, the border is as much a mental as a physical phenomenon. For example, aliens who are citizens elsewhere may live inside the physical borders of a foreign nation-state without enjoying citizen rights there, and aliens who are citizens nowhere may move across the border dividing one nation-state from another without moving from the stateless to the citizen position. 

As almost everyone in the world knows, borders are a great question mark today, as their capacity to help manage populations, delineate so-called separate peoples, and favor citizens over aliens has been seriously challenged by myriad forces and aspects of globalization. These include the transnational movement of capital, and its ability to call the shots for national economies with increasing dexterity and power; the geographical intermingling of populations of former colonizers and colonized in global metropolitan centers; increased migration of masses across borders due to political violence, economic misery, and environmental collapse; terrorism instigated by a-national or anti-national movements whose members can turn up anywhere; global communication networks, transportation webs, and trafficking organizations that join people across national divides; global climate change; and scouring searches for natural resources by international capital, rich countries, and developing nation-states. One disorienting result has been a dramatic asymmetry between the so-called popular sovereignty of national citizen bodies and the world-straddling determinants of their conditions of existence. 

Thus far we have seen three kinds of responses to this disorientation, each corrosive of humanity in its own way. First, there have been frantic attempts by states to mask real limitations to their sovereign power by means of theatrical performances of sovereign inviolability, most notably by building and militarizing border walls. Second, there have been attempts of members of multi-national federations and organizations such as the EU and NATO to withdraw into their own national fortresses, at the very moment that the strongest forces attacking those fortresses do not obey inside/outside distinctions and cannot be decommissioned at the national level. Third, there has been the rise of right-wing populist movements calling for borders to be tightly sealed against all those deemed alien to the nation, effectively refusing millions of people fleeing various horrors the right to live anywhere on earth.    

The world’s current “border crisis” can be said to pivot on two stubborn contradictions. The philosophical contradiction concerns the tension between the particular and the universal, in this case between an attachment to a particular place and people and solidarity with the world at large. Both poles of this tension have great positive value but also explosive negative potential. Together, they raise the question of how humanity might enjoy the pleasures of one pole without having to forfeit the pleasures of the other. The political contradiction concerns the disjuncture between the nation-state form and new global social, economic, cultural and environmental realities. Once again, it would be a mistake to assign positive value to national political societies and negative value to global realities, or vice versa. The fact that we have seen strange bedfellows emerge on each side of the divide – oppressed peoples and racist xenophobes on the side of national sovereignty, left humanitarians and neo-liberal profit-seekers on the side of globalization – should warn us against that Manichaean error.

These philosophical and political contradictions are obviously related. Together they point to the desirability of new political forms with particularistic and universalistic dimensions. On the one hand, such forms must support, at the most intimate and local level of social community, every individual’s political agency and voice and capacity to thrive in a concrete place somewhere on earth, as well as the capacity to thrive in their local habitats of other species that do not have a language to represent their needs to us. On the other hand, the same forms must be able to respond to problems and possibilities on the scale of what one philosophical physicist has recently dubbed “Earthland.” Divining more capacious forms of society than the ones we have now and defanging the interests that would block their actualization is one imperative for our precarious planet today.



Do you think the closing and tightening of borders has an effect on national identities? What sort of long-term impact might this have?

I think that border closure has a narrowing effect on national identity and an impoverishing impact on social life. This is especially true if the aim of that closure is to create a culturally and/or ethnically homogeneous population and to prevent outside influences from “infecting” it.

At the same time, efforts to protect the “inside” of national identity from the “outside” by beefing up national borders are hardly fail-safe. This is not just because of the global reach of communication technology. As Elizabeth Vallet notes, moves to tighten borders often incite ingenious strategies to transgress them. Then, too, one country’s border-fetishism can encourage other countries to take a more relaxed stance towards both geographical borders and national identity. We see this today as Mexico, China, and Canada attempt to counter or at least take advantage of Trumpian nativism by welcoming refugees and/or foreign workers to their own countries. Weirdly enough, isolationism in one country, if that country has been a hegemonic power, might actually open the space for the free flourishing and spontaneous intermixing of other modes of social life elsewhere, thereby enhancing the heterogeneity and hybridity of human experience on a world scale. However, what we are witnessing today in the U. S. is not genuine isolationism but something more dangerous for others: the rise of a trans-national white (and Christian, Western, and male) supremacist movement in nationalist garb.

Interestingly, your border/identity question also can and should be posed in reverse. Does the closing and tightening of national identities have an impact on borders? Here, too, my answer is yes. When national identities become rigidified in the minds of their members, we can expect a more obsessive fixation on the porosity of borders around nation-states and more strident calls for their fortification, as well as for the fortification of social and cultural borders inside nation-states. A few examples of such calls in the U. S. are the demand for an impenetrable wall on the Mexican border, the battle for English-only education, and attempts to ban the construction of neighborhood mosques.

So, the key question becomes: what conditions prompt people to conceive of national identity in hyper-exclusivist terms and to see outsiders at an existential threat to their well-being? To do full justice to this question, we would have to probe the deep and complex psychological sources of racism. But I agree with Michael Forman that one condition conducive to national hyper-exclusivity is an increase in the economic precariousness of national majority groups and all the gnawing material anxieties that come with it. As the right-wing Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky once put it in explaining structural (as opposed to personal) anti-Semitism: in times of economic distress, “it’s either my son, or the Jew’s son, for there’s only one loaf.” Under pinched circumstances, not just the hostility toward ethnic strangers but also the stake in distinguishing between natives and strangers becomes more intense. Jabotinsky’s response was to agitate for a national identity for diasporic Jews and to fight for their majority status in a new Jewish state. Of course, this response to the plight of the ethnic minority paves the way for a new instance of national hyper-exclusivity and so re-creates the problem it was designed to solve.  

For a brief moment in time, it seemed (particularly in Europe) that there was movement toward a more cosmopolitan ideal of borders.  Do you see a return to this in the future? What would it take for that shift to occur?

Like all other central political concepts, “cosmopolitanism” is multi-layered and essentially contested. In modern history it has meant three quite different things. First, it has signified identification with the whole of humanity and a refusal to favor one’s own ethnic tribe or national culture over the rest. Cosmopolitanism in this ethical-philosophical sense usually has been spearheaded by intellectuals who had achieved a critical distance from their own native societies. Second, it has signified an ease with border-crossing on the part of wealthy elites (aristocrats in the old days, capitalists and their families today), who are more at home with their class counterparts in other countries than with their own native masses, who own property in a variety of countries, and whose privilege and money have given them access to exclusive venues and experiences across the globe. Third, the anti-Semitic right has used “cosmopolitanism” as a code word for the Jewish diaspora, whose members are held to be world-wide conspirators, international rather than national in their loyalties, rootless merchants and bankers at odds with the agrarian salt of the earth, carriers of the opposite diseases of trans-national capitalism and communism, , etc. etc. After being banished to the basement of Western culture more than half a century ago, this third connotation of cosmopolitanism recently has come back into circulation with a vengeance.

Regardless of the hopes of anti-Semites and other xenophobes, cosmopolitanism in all three meanings of the term is bound to increase over time. That is, we will almost certainly see, in the future, a multiplication of ties of identification across nation-state lines, an increase in the global interests of privileged elites, and an uptick in the diasporic condition for a widening variety of groups.  The only thing that could put an end to the resulting de-parochialization of the world is an ecological catastrophe or nuclear war that catapults the human race back to a dark age of isolated communities of desperation. So – the political struggle for all critical cosmopolitans must be two-pronged: a struggle for human connection within and across national boundaries against dystopic and solipsistic separation; and a struggle for an egalitarian form of cosmopolitanism against cosmopolitanism in the service of elites.

Do you have any additional comments for our other Roundtable participants?

I see our three commentaries as highly complementary. I’ve already mentioned two points of agreement between myself and the other members of this round-table. In addition, I especially appreciate Elizabeth’s description of border walls as “a sort of asymmetrical membrane that filters flows in a highly integrated, interdependent economy.” I also appreciate Michael’s opening, perhaps because I recently took the train from Copenhagen through Malmo to Växjö, Sweden and back again, although with no police checks either way. En route, I had the pleasure of visiting the Växjö House of Emigrants Museum, which provided a miniature model of democratic cosmopolitanism by coupling a photography exhibit of recent immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East to Sweden with its permanent exhibit on 19th century Swedish emigration to the United States.

As Michael notes, “the world system has become truly planetary” – partly because, to steal a phrase from Hegel, the spectacle of extravagance and want now has cascading effects across the globe, not only on the human race but also on almost every other life species. Michael also is right that while popular sovereignty lifts the common people to the level of a ruling class, it also pits each national “people” against the stranger, the foreigner, the exile, the alien. How can the world transcend the native/stranger antinomy without giving up on the ideal of democracy?  This is one of the many conundrums vexing critical cosmopolitans today.

As a political theorist, Joan Cocks is interested in clashing conceptions of the good life and the ideal society, including the ways people understand and fight over the meaning of freedom, power, equality, nationality, justice, and property. Her new book, On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions, reveals the seductive promise and danger to self and others of sovereign freedom as a political ideal.