Were we to imagine an earlier iteration of this keywords project—one published around, say, 1989—“border” would most likely have been left off the list entirely, though “margin” or maybe “minor” might well have been included. In the intervening years, as violent border conflicts erupted across the world and as the US government heavily militarized its border with Mexico, the term has become prominent in academic work. Accounting for this shift—understanding the concept’s fortunes, as it were—entails movement among academic concerns, theoretical conversations, and sociopolitical and economic developments over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. To be sure, a loosely defined field of “border studies” has been around in some form or another since Frederick Jackson Turner ( 1920) argued for the significance of the frontier and Herbert Eugene Bolton (1921) published The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest and certainly since the end of World War II, when regional area studies began to receive sustained governmental support. During this period, the most prominent borders were located between East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, and the officially segregated US South and the unofficially segregated US North. By the mid-1980s, however, the United States had failed in its effort to maintain the border between North and South Vietnam, segregation had been rendered illegal if not eliminated in practice, and efforts to dismantle the border between East and West Germany were gaining momentum. At the same time, philosophers, artists, novelists, and scholars who had been meditating on the less prominent international border between Mexico and the United States began to gain broad attention and to publish significant new work.
That new work emerged along with the effort to create a North American Free Trade Zone, the subsequent Zapatista revolutionary response, the acceleration of other globalizing forces, and the attendant anxieties these forces generated among citizenry of various nations. These tendencies led to political and grassroots efforts to further militarize national borders, to narrow access to citizenship, and to withdraw humane support for workers without papers. Borders were very much in the news because of the ongoing violence of national borders around the world, particularly in regions immediately affected by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the continuing impact of anticolonial struggles, and regional economic recessions. Furthermore, during this period, capital accelerated its transition from its base in the nation-state to a new global scale that entailed more flexible modes of accumulation and citizenship. Under a series of new trade agreements, national borders no longer contained national economies as they had in prior decades. This economic shift accelerated a broad new series of global flows of capital, resources, jobs, and people across national and regional borders. Alongside these developments, researchers in African American and postcolonial studies, feminist theory, poststructuralism, and the cultural studies of the Birmingham school, attuned to the experiences of exile and diaspora, drew attention to the manner in which various kinds of borders are made and unmade (C. Fox 1999; Derrida 1993). Thus scholars became particularly interested in the theoretical analyses of Chicano and Chicana intellectuals who connected the study of ethnicity, racialization, and immigration to empire building, imperialism, and international relations (Paredes 1958; Gutiérrez-Jones 1995; Saldívar 1997).
Perhaps most significant among these new border theorists was the late philosopher Gloria Anzaldúa. Already well known among feminists of color as co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981), Anzaldúa, in Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), mapped the violence of US colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism by exploring some historical aspects of the Texas-Mexico border. In doing so, Anzaldúa drew attention to the violent history of anti-Mexican racism, noting the borderland rapes, murders, land grabs, and police detentions largely ignored in standard US histories. At the same time, she roundly critiqued what she saw as misogynist and homophobic practices prevalent in both Anglo and Mexican cultures (Saldívar-Hull 2000). In a brilliant act of reappropriation, she mined the term “border,” unveiling its metaphoricity in an effort to envision the impact of the material border in less degrading and more sustainable ways. In keeping with the critical theoretical work of other feminists of color, Anzaldúa questioned the production and maintenance of binaries, their exclusionary force, and the maxims that suggest that living with contradiction necessarily entails psychosis. Instead, she mobilized a second spatial metaphor—that of the borderlands or la frontera—to insist that one can embrace multiple contradictions and refuse the impossible effort to synthesize them fully, thus turning apparent oppositions into sources of insight and personal strength.
Rapidly disseminated in the United States and elsewhere, this concept of the borderlands or la frontera enabled other writers to consider culture not through a dominant narrative of synthesis but from a more subaltern perspective of heterogeneity and messiness. “The borderlands are physically present,” Anzaldúa (1987, 19) writes, “wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.” This deliberately universalizing turn provided a language for discussing differences while invoking an imaginary geography. It allowed other scholars and performance artists to build on Anzaldúa’s insights, focusing particularly on the conceptual possibilities contained in metaphors of borders, border crossings, and borderlands. Some, such as Guillermo Gómez-Peña (1990), Néstor García Canclini (1995), and Homi K. Bhabha (1994), found much to celebrate in the hybridizing effects of borders. They too argued for the latent power and innovative possibilities of conflictive regions and binaries and suggested that working with contradictions—drawing humor and insight from them rather than repressing or resolving them—would challenge an epistemological structure that enabled economic oppression, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
“Border” subsequently became a common analytical tool and reference point for scholars working across the fields of American studies, romanticism, medieval history, and cultural studies more generally (Aparicio 2003). Prominent journals of critical theory and philosophy organized special issues around the theme of “borders.” At the same time, global corporate elites celebrated the arrival of a world in which national borders appeared no longer to prohibit the movement of people and material. Since these celebrations of a borderless world often occurred at the very moment when nations enacted economic blockades and restricted the informal movements of poor people across national borders, the contradictory function of borders could not be ignored. These contradictions highlighted the extent to which militarized borders have become crucial to capital management—they serve as revenue producers for states, as wage depressers for corporations, and as mechanisms for tying bodies to state power. In short, geopolitical borders have become both abjection machines and state-sponsored aesthetic projects in which states authorize and decorate their own sovereignty (M. Brady 2000, 2002; P. Villa 2003; De Genova 2002; Salter 2006).
Within academic research in particular, the term “border” began to do some very peculiar work. Because of its simultaneous material and metaphoric resonances, “border” could be used to locate an argument by apparently materializing it while often dislocating it from any historically specific geopolitical referents. Such a function might not have been so available had borders not been regularly the subject of news reports. Because of the unending violence of many geopolitical borders, including the thousands of people who have died attempting to cross the Mexico-US border, scholars could use the term and implicitly invoke its violence without documenting or narrating that violence with any real precision (Berestein 2005). Beginning with a geopolitical term, border theorists have developed an epistemological approach equally cognizant of “real” borders and of their fantastic, fantastically violent effects.
And yet it must be noted that the sociopolitical transformations of the first decade of the twenty-first century have added still further nuance to the keyword. Technological and regulatory changes have shifted state power such that the border that Anzaldúa so famously characterized as an “open wound” no longer exists (Schmidt Camacho 2008). It is mobile; it follows us around. Or as Gilberto Rosas (2006) argues, the border has “thickened.” In order to accommodate the deterritorialization of capital and wealth, the border’s traditional work as an instantiation of sovereignty over a territory and citizenry has been irrevocably dislocated, unmoored from its Cartesian coordinates through practices that combine policing and emergency services, schooling, and banking with immigration law enforcement. The border is now a process far more than a place. This rescaling of “border” challenges its tocaya, or twin term—“citizen”—at the very moment when activists and scholars have begun to question the viability of the pact between state and subject that “citizen” articulates and that borders instantiate (Schmidt Camacho 2010; Boyce Davies and M’Bow 2007; Otiono 2011; Sassen 2009; Waligora-Davis 2011). Should such efforts succeed in dismantling the structures of national citizenship and establishing a global citizenry with universal rights, the border in many of its manifestations will be drained of its power.