Border Crossings

NOTE: This piece was originally published last spring, almost one year ago. Because of its relevance to what is happening in this country this very day, I am publishing it again here now.

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Borders are things that are meant to be crossed. Otherwise, they cease to be borders, and become barriers instead. Then they restrain crossings, rather than making them possible, as genuine borders do. Borders expose to contact, and permit exchanges. Barriers break contact, and inhibit exchanges. They enclose, walling in, whereas borders disclose, opening out. Borders are thresholds between different worlds, granting passage from one to the other and back again. They are frontiers, where strangers face one another, and become friends.

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Borders are boundaries, which permit boardings. It is not accidental that all three words—border, boundary, and board—come from the same root. In Middle and Old English bord meant a plank or flat surface. In Old French the same word meant the side of a ship, what one had to climb or cross over to “come aboard.” The only way to come aboard is by crossing a border.

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            A frontier is a confrontation of two things with one another. It’s where the two come together (Latin con-, with or together) front to front (from Latin frons, forehead). A frontier is where, face to face, front to front, we are in contact with one another, and can give and receive from one another—unless one turns one’s back on the other, building barriers against contact, walling oneself in (maybe even making the other pay for the wall). 

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             The oldest definition of the human being that has been handed down in the philosophical tradition going back to the ancient Greeks is that the human being is the animal with the capacity to think. To think, however, is to cross borders, confronting one thing with another, putting things in contact with one another, letting them interact, but being careful all the while not to confuse one thing with another, careful to respect the boundaries of each, letting each come forth in its own unique face. To think is thus to open the place where many different worlds can meet face to face, the place where it is possible to build “a world of many worlds,” as Zapatista Sub-Commandante Marcos once put it. And if to be human is to think, then to be human is to be at home only in such a place. It is to be at home nowhere save in a world of many worlds, where border crossings are always facilitated, and never blocked.

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            Art is the building of such a world, such a truly human home. Art is not just the building of some single, insolated world—if any such thing can be at all, and not just become a world-less, ever-expanding global desert of commodities and consumers—but of a world of worlds. An artist is a builder of border crossings, where diverse peoples can dwell together face to face, without anyone at all having to lose face in order to be allowed to cross. What is more, the ongoing growth of the arts themselves occurs when artists cross the borders between the various arts, freely and generously mixing and exchanging between the various arts from architecture to dance to drama to music to painting to sculpture and beyond. It occurs as well when artists within a given art-form give and receive freely and mix generously across the borders of the form’s sub-forms, as when musicians cross and mix blues with classical, hip-hop, metal, pop, rap, or rock.

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It is only in the free crossing of borders that we can ever build a proper world, which can only be a world of worlds. Only such a world of worlds, in turn, can ever be a truly human home, which must always be a home for all human beings, those border crossers, with no exceptions.