The border within
Tracing our spatial limitations
»The one who is annoyed by a rat he
cannot catch, burns down his house«
– Paul Valéry –
›What borders make‹, is the question from which this essay arises. ›What borders makes‹, is its adjunct through which I will answer. Putting side by side what appears to be even, it shows that these two phrases point into disparate directions. Alludes the former to the functionality of borders, the latter wants to give reason. Undoubtedly, the border can be understood – she is full of purpose, but few know how to narrate her birth. Our imaginations of borders are inherently fragmentary, covert with fears of loss and dissolved in the alleged imperatives of the present. »The dignity of the border is unimpeachable«, is heard where selfishness drowns the achievements of a paled Europe amid plaudit – an old suasion showing its new colors. The border is one of the last sanctuaries of our eroded modernity. Her right to exist is walled and dismantled at the same time. And from one day to the next her presence became the conditio sine qua non of all those who, facing »the other« and what it might mean for us, feel personally menaced.
Fleeing flickering children’s eyes on our screens and their manifest destiny in our timelines, mirror what some of us believed bygone: We are the people who, in our wish of boundless freedom, won’t overcome our own borders.
This essay will depict how we lost our capacity to question the border. The border is functional. She assuages our deeply ingrained and all too human craving for distance, reveals a seldom understood appetence for remoteness, exclusiveness, and inviolability – we believe ourselves free between borders and are adrift without. Our addiction to them and their failure through us inform our time. Correction is needed.
AT HOME. Our closest borders are given by the span of perspective when walking through the streets of our cities. Facades, trees, squares, ephemeral banners and scaffolds, the urban margins our view and releases us routinely – enacting horizons. All between us ›here‹ and the unfamiliar ›there‹, where our eye is suddenly breaking, appears touchable – all beyond unreachable. Amid buildings whose true dimensions remain enigmatic for the most, authentic perspectives and with them we, their people, are clashing. Our life in the city tells us what it means to encounter. She condenses our social relationships. She compels us to propinquity where we want to remain on our own.
Nowhere else is the friction of the public and the private so sensible, nowhere are borders so mundane and yet necessary. The urban border traces the expansion of our societies. For her we are crossers who, in the wee hours, swim with the stream of those passing by and, once the sun started setting, recurrently seek refuge in a seclusion we refer to as »home«. Our life at home is sacred, embodying a privacy that must be defended. Home is where we uphold an undivided power of disposal. A place where we are what we could never be outside: for us.
The architecture of our urban space is either »consciously formed« or a mere collection of »fortuitous creation«, notes Siegfried Krakauer. For every deliberately sketched blueprint there are countless of whom we have little knowledge and yet they are shaping the human space. They resemble the intuitive, the unscrutinized, the subliminal; imaging our will to distance mediated by walls, doors, windows and fences – our urban borders.
Our craving for distance explains why Dutch houses are often build with large windows facing the street and allowing the look inside whilst elsewhere windows are permanently curtained, always anxious to cover the private.
Beyond wanted transparency every look against privacy resonates what our time has called voyeurism. Not just since we hope for delight by the nudity of two people desiring each other, but because we’ve taken from them what we know is private – even for us. We saw and remained unseen. Our gaze strikes but is volatile, almost unnoticeable and almost unprovable.
Thus, as far as we are trying to isolate ourselves from spectators we show vulnerability and expose which distance suffices to shelter. Few couples need the gaze of others. For the majority »getting caught« in private action is shame, not lust.
In Lower Manhattan the photographer Arne Svenson has captured what we’re all used to: People behind their windows in their private enclaves, separated by the cubist forms of contemporary architecture – puzzling and world-forgotten, some close, some distant, but all endearing and theatrical at once. In his pictures, those who do not sense the alien eye behave differently – live invisibly.
In the urban space the urban border proves our desire to distance. She lets us decide when we want to be visible and when touchable. Her opposite is the panoptic world in which we are sentenced to absolute visual disposability. A state, where subjects are reversed to objects, normalized by involuntary never-ending inspection. Eagerly we thank our borders. They avert what would otherwise be our destiny: a future as publicized persons.
BORDERLINES. The places to which we belong as persons, social humans, taught us that no border just exists. None of them is natural. The mountain which divides his plains and the tiny rivulet that cuts its way through the valley, they are morally unpolluted. The borders we set are normative. That means: They execute a norm, an ordering principle, carrying a notion of rights through membership. And always do they grow along those whose lives they will finally split. Symbolizing the break and the act of breaking. They may be morally integer or indefensible. The intention behind the border is always fading. What remains and what matters are its shape and its reshaping. We imagine her, first, by terms of security and, later, securitization – always uncovering cultural distaste. And yet, we repeatedly fail to conceive her totality.
At the foot of the Chinese or along the former Berlin Wall her length is an attribute of first and foremost touristic value, describing the size of the space they are enclosing. But there is more to say: Who is getting entrance to the rooms she embraces? Does she exclude, allowing only those access who obey to her norm? Or is her nature symbolic, does she merely administers the anatomy of her rooms, revealing where the one ends and the other begins? To what degree and by which means does she deter and defend? Which way does one have to go to cover the 14,300 meters broad Strait of Gibraltar to reach Europe? Which legal conditions are imposed where the border becomes an obstacle to those who seek to cross her? Whom do we have to pay, how far do we have to go, what do we have to leave behind, to enter what the border limits?
The nature of the border, the very moment when we feel her, roots in the distance she effects. At first merely physical, as something which is deep, which is thick, the border as a frontier, entailing the area that surrounds her. Imposing a distance on us as crossers which is seldom linear. Distance in the following sense exceeds its physic dimensions. Distance, then, is the effort that a border demands from their crossers, which lets the world behind the wall appear close to us even though she has always been beyond our reach.
In year 26 of unified Germany we understood that overcoming a distance demands more than a flight ticket, more than money. Recognizing the border via her distance reframes liberty.
Freedom is commonly understood as the amount of potentially realizable opportunities in liaison with the quality of their realization. A spatial concept of liberty might suggest that liberty is not just defined via (I) the amount of accessible rooms and (II) the quality of accessing them, but equally by (III) the power to exclude others. I and II let us cross borders. III equips us with the capacity to hinder others from crossing certain, mostly our, borders. That may seem unfamiliar at first glance but is consequent given our urban histories: Restricting liberty to properties I and II would publicize ourselves in a manner we fight to prevent in our everyday world. The privacy we assert in urbanity functions as a metaphor for the special sovereignty we can only own and exercise in exclusive spaces. There we are for us, in exclusiveness we can safely indulge in desires we cannot live elsewhere. Both, our exclusive rooms and the amount of accessible rooms upgrade our set of opportunities – and, hence, give us another quality of (negative) freedom.
But every spatial acquisition contradicts and eventually diminishes the spatial advantage of others. We say: »Our freedom is the freedom of others.« And mean: Exclusive rooms forfeit their value as soon as other can access them. Liberty, then, is governed through a dialectic of spatial gains and losses. A mundane cycle, visible in witnessing migration and settling, segregation and gentrification, everyday racism and neighborly fence disagreements.
In this fashion, new borders become established, older ones updated or abolished. Our societies are drawn through borderlines: Our capacity to organize space refers to a dissected world in which the borders we design expand and delimit freedom – depending on which side of the wall we’re living and about which rooms we’re speaking.
THE FREE MANQUÉ. In tracing our craving for distance, it appears that it is answered what borders makes. But haven’t we done more than readjusting the angle? Haven’t we done more than shifting our attention to something more general, digging up our urban wishes to see where our borders are rooting; without knowing if that what we found is the only source that nourishes them? In Plato’s Laws security precedes good fortune and higher virtues. The Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli admonishes that »fortresses are generally more harmful than useful«. Apart from the rational longing to exclude others through the will to freedom, a hazy anxiety is deep-seated in our subconscious mind.
In what modernity left over forgotten claims became conspicuous. People cramped between growing cities and the idyll of the past, fearing what the young century might involve. They experience the internationalization of their life-world, fear to fall victim to a global E pluribus unum in which the many become increasingly important and the few – who they identify with (even when say speak differently) – lose their say. Everywhere such people imagine their own societal diminuendo which, first, dampens and eventually fades their frantic voices. They believe to be forced into an emotional diaspora (and force others too), embodying the homo munitus, the one that entrenches himself and proclaims the border as his principal vanishing point. »Don’t built fences around your settlement«, warned the former prime minister of Israel Ariel Sharon his compatriots, »place the fences around the Palestine« was his advice. His immediate successor Ehud Barak declared years later: »Israel is a villa in the jungle«. The conqueror of the jungle believes to keep the jungle out. Truth is, the jungle conquers him. The border he places out of vulnerability is his own.
Precisely where order is waning and identity menaced one wants to be explicit in his borders. Such a person hears the fundamentalist seductions – and follows betimes. They offer for what we crave the most: a good explanation. The comforting fiction that we are safe. But for the foreign who stands at the tip of Morocco and already believes to sense his future freedoms, the border is a barrier he will conquer. She changes ways but seldom wishes.
With those who have good reasons to cross our borders, we feel menaced by what they mean for us: a risk. The unknown seems intangible. Every border against what we do not know is materialized speculation. We cannot calculate the danger it contains. Hence, it is insignificant whether we need our borders. We could.
Especially since we began to internalize the foreign as equal, we know what he is capable of since we are. The borders we set in front of this sorrowful background are palliative and prevention at once. With them we take from others what they might take from us: a future. We want to limit the thinkable through minimizing its potential expressions. Chased by the uncertain we believe the border to be our long-lost horizon which turns our threatening world into a reassuring world picture (again), writes Heidegger. »[A] living can be healthy, strong and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon«, writes Nietzsche. That horizons can deceive, is what he withholds knowingly.
We live under permanent threat to fetishize the border. Defend her unwarrantedly as a guarantee. Unbounded we believe our selves free, sovereign, untouchable and are yet detained. Mechanisms of defense target impulses and affective anxiety, not just mere ideas, notes Anna Freud. In anxiety, liberty perverts and is no longer a positive concept.
The border is the necessary condition of the free, but she also molds the resonance space for all those who, with everything that is imponderable to them, draw another line in their heads. »Our freedom is the freedom of others«, do we say and believe it. But freedom grows only where we shorten distance, where we look farther and live more than before. Freedom wanes where borders conform to false reason, where mankind drifts apart.
 Siegfried Krakauer. »Aus dem Fenster gesehen«. Straßen in Berlin und anderswo. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp,  2009. p. 53.
 Arne Svenson. The Neighbours. New York: Julie Saul Gallery/D.A.P. Exclusive, 2014.
 Focault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977; Jeremy Bentham. The Panopticon Writings. Miran Bozovic (ed.). London: Verso, 2010.
 The shorter the total distance to cover, that means the smaller the effort that needed to be undertaken to access all accessible rooms Yn departing from a certain point X, the higher the quality of access and, hence, the higher one’s liberty.
 Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince. London: Penguin, 2003.
 Lat. »mūniō«: fortify, secure, defend, protect, shelter. A term developed by Greg Eghigian in: »Homo munitus«, in Paul Betts and Katherine Pence (eds.). Socialist Modern. East German Everyday Culture and Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. p. 10.
 Navid Kermani. Wer ist Wir? Deutschland und seine Muslime. München: C. H. Beck, 2009. p. 15.
 Wendy Brown. Walled States, Waning Sovereignity. New York: Zone Books, 2010.
 Martin Heidegger. »Building Dwelling Thinking«, in Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1971. p. 154.
 Friedrich Nietzsche. “Uses and Disadvantages of History in Life,” in Untimely Meditations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. p. 63.
 Anna Freud. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International University Press, 1946. pp. 45–46.
Title picture: A guard observes the Berlin Wall.