The poet Robert Frost argued memorably good fences make good neighbours. It was a quintessential statement of New England values, only slightly removed from the old English original. He was articulating a cultural ethos based on individual identity, the home as personal castle, the concept of respect for personal space refined into a basic cultural concept of individualism. This notion has deep resonance in all aspects of our personal and social behaviour; and has been theorised to reverberate in philosophy, politics and economics. From houses surrounded by fenced in gardens, the progression to laissez faire capitalism and the ethos of individual civic rights is coherent and interconnected. A society where good fences make good neighbours has no difficulty at all in erecting nation states with closed borders. Borders underpin western nationalism, which leads to a natural corollary: societies and cultures exist because they have borders. Hence, identity too is shaped and confined by borders.
Borders have been incredibly useful tools of instrumental rationality to control and contort the reality of the Other. It is anthropology, more than any other discipline, that perpetuated the notion that cultures were bounded wholes, worlds unto themselves. In other words, societies and cultures exist because they have borders. The classical example from which this premise was developed was Tiv wars. The Tiv are an indigenous people of what is today Nigeria. It was observed that Tivs were regularly involved in aggressive wars with their neighbouring cultures to define their territory and cultural identity. However, Tiv wars turned out to be ritualised marches up and down that happened regularly because they cemented on-going peaceful relationships between neighbouring societies. The pattern turns out to be common across the non-West. To coexist, the performance of different identities and the ritual expression of tensions between different identities would seem to be necessary. The only term Europeans had for the encounters was war, which tells us far more about the European mindset than it elucidates about what was going on between non-western cultures. Nevertheless, it became a common plaint of colonial administrators that war was endemic to the worlds of the Other. The Others were as addicted to borders and conceptualising Otherness as the dominant western tradition.
This basic and pervasive concept is in fact the perfect transference of western nationalism visited upon non-western societies. Yet the truth known to practising anthropologists, long unrecorded in their acts of descriptive will, was things were never as simple, neat and tidy as that. Identity, personal and cultural, was more often a fluid continuum than the idealised cast in stone notions essential to theoretical anthropological study. Far from existing in splendid isolation, traditional societies and cultures were surrounded by others with whom they maintained sustained relations. Just as the idealised notions of how these societies and cultures operated within concentrated on observance of rules and neglected the common violation of rules, so their hermetically sealed borders were in fact porous.
Indeed, cultures have never existed in hermetically sealed borders. Consider the relationship between Islam and the West. We are presented with a history of two warring cultures, existing in their splendid isolation, with their horns locked as two aggressive fuming bulls. The Crusades, which lasted over several centuries, are cited as a concluding proof. But the history of Crusades is only part of the story; and small part at that. For over a thousand years, Islam and Christendom, as it was known then, existed in a symbiotic relationship where interaction, entanglement and cross-fertilisation were the norm. Think of Muslim Spain where for eight hundred years Muslims, Christians and Jews existed in a multicultural relationship and produced one of the most culturally vibrant, intellectually productive and spiritually sustaining societies in history. It was also the interaction between Europeans and Muslims in the Middle East that led to the first, twelfth century, Renaissance. And it was the cross-fertilisation between Islam and Christendom that laid the foundation for the second, seventeenth century, Renaissance.
So Islam and the West did not exist with impenetrable borders but collaborated and interacted to shape each others history. For over seven hundred years, between the Battle of Tours and the fall of Constantinople, Islam shaped Europe as an intellectual terrain that we know today. But most of this history of interaction has been rendered invisible. Instead, conventional history defines this period as the Dark Ages: the long gestation of embattled Europe forged by the antipathy that sustained the Crusades. Unwittingly the enemy prompts the rekindling of the flame of civilization when, phoenix like, classicism arises from the fall of Constantinople. The warlike intervention by the Turks permits a flood of Greek manuscripts to come to the West. This inspires the Renaissance obsession with all things classical, permits Europe to recover its Greek roots, invent modernity, discover the rest of the world and recover the destiny of world domination implicit in its Roman ancestry. It is, of course, all a fabulous fabrication.
This historical fiction combined with real fiction, as well as travellers accounts and Orientalist scholarship, to generate a specific picture of the Orient as an unchanging, self-contained world with fixed borders. The term orient, Ros Ballaster tells us in her brilliant study, Fabulous Orients (Oxford University Press, 2006) is often embedded in the adjective oriental, which occurs most frequently in the phrase oriental tale. These tales portray an Orient where unfathomable mysteries dwell and cruel and barbaric scenes are staged, a place that represents all that Europe considers to be evil and depraved, ignorant and stupid, unclean and inferior, monstrous and ugly, fanatic and violent. It is populated by jinns and fairies where young women, trapped in the confining space of a harem, spin endless yarns to save their necks. The literature of Orientalism, which is still alive and thriving, shaped European consciousness towards the cultures and civilisations to the East of the West: Islam, China, India and Japan. It generated a conceptual category, a way of thinking and knowing about these societies and cultures that was rooted in their inalienable Otherness in other words, their bounded and bordered difference. This way of framing and representing Others, as Ballaster argues so well, is based on Europes internal fears and anxieties about heterogeneous non-western cultures.
All the definitions of borders and transitory states in modern and post modern theorising derive from the same source the fear ridden insecurity of western self identity. It provoked the expatriate experience of colonialism; now we witness the reverse process of fear of immigration of ex-colonial subjects into the metropolis. During colonialism the fear of going native, of contamination by closeness to and engagement with Other societies, was the neurosis encouraging emphasis on borders, boundaries, divisions and hierarchies. Ranked stages in scales of civilization were everywhere to provide borders between Us and Them, the conceptual distance that enabled, supported and justified domination, dispossession and despoiling Other ways of life and thought. With the end of colonialism, the reverse process begins. When Others arrive on the metropolitan doorstep they inhabit the transitory world of being required to change as the price of inclusion.
Borders and bounded identities have been idealised in European thought and been made pernicious in the process. But what if, as I am suggesting, plurality and cross-cultural fertilisation are the norms of history? What if we begin to conceive of cultural relations in entirely different ways? What if culture rather than being the dividing line between Us and Them becomes the refining, adaptive mechanism for interrelationship in worlds where art, literature, language, polity, civic relations and governance are all overlapping, interpenetrated ways of being? What if instead of a borderless or bordered world there were many kinds of boundaries applicable at different points of analysis none of which needed or had been coterminous? The world would be different indeed and so many of the current conundrums of national incorporation would cease to exist because they could be seen for the flawed propositions and the chimeras they are.
The heterogeneity of human history has to be reclaimed from the imposition of borders. The failure of borders to sustain peaceful coexistence and cross cultural communication hardly needs to be belaboured. Its apotheosis was the history of the 20th century the most blood soaked and murderous century in human history. And the new century has began with ideological wars, a transition from territorial wars of fixed and closed borders to notions of bounded identity and monolithic politics, that resonate with all the debacles of the last century. The supposed clash of civilizations is not a new motif but the return to an old and enduring nonsense, the nonsense that has consumed all alternate possibilities. The war of ideological border is a response to the pervasive demonic success and excess of nationalism on which modernity has been constructed. The only antidote is to demonstrate the pernicious futility of borders themselves, to unthink and rethink the boxes we have constructed as the sole vessels of markers of identity.
To think beyond borders, to resolve the awful legacy bequeathed by the 20th century, we must being with three basic realisations. First, societies and cultures have seldom being bounded. Identity has largely been a permeable membrane formed by the interpenetration of diversity, the interaction of multiple mutual influences in plural worlds, of multiple conversations or polylogue between cultures. Far from existing in splendid isolation all cultures were surrounded by others with whom they maintained and sustained relations. The apparently hermetically sealed cultural borders, particularly of the Orient, were in fact porous. Second, our discourse has been totally dependent on just one civilisational and historic corpus. We must appreciate that the presumptive universality of our terms of reference are in and of themselves presumptuous, a false imposition on the lived reality of most non-European cultures. Third, much of the terminology we glibly band around is constructed and forged by a single, questionable discourse and now needs to be rethought: zones of transition, inclusion and exclusion, uncertainty, ambiguity and especially hybridity, self and other are all ideas that have to go back into the melting pot of redefinition because they are the imposition of one worldview upon many Others worldviews. We need not only new ways of thinking beyond borders but also a new vocabulary for shaping new discourses. Borders and boundaries are the instruments that generate problems of living in heterogeneous societies. We have to unthink borders as we have known them at all levels of conceptualisation if we are to find paths across the no mans lands we create to enter the domain of plural intermingled worlds.
I relish living in no mans land. As someone who lives across borders, whose identity has been formed by partition and migration, it is the ease of living, the lack of demarcation between all the worlds of which I am heir that is my experience. Nor, on examination, do I find this condition of being new fangled inherently different from and inimical to the experience of people in the past: it is not alien to European genealogy, to my ancestors, or the ancestors of all Others. Problems arise when single bounded definitions are imposed on people who have always had many shifting boundaries and none and who simultaneously saw themselves as borderless. It is this complexity and plurality that we need to grasp in the new century. You might as well start with me!
Borderlines, Hellenic American Union, Athens, 2006