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The strange allure of borders

Why are we drawn to what divides us?

the strange allure of borders Emily Thomas metaphysics realism idealism

Borders are strange and unique entities, mind-dependent but realised in mind-independent geography. It is this oddness that gives them their allure, drawing us to them. 

Hadrian’s Wall. The Berlin Wall. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between South Korea and North Korea. The ‘Golden Triangle‘ between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The ‘Four Corners’ between Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. All these borders are tourist attractions, drawing large numbers of visitors every year. Some of them, such as the Berlin Wall, are not even borders today - they mark historical borders. Why do tourists visit them? Why is ‘border tourism’ so popular? Part of the fascination we have for borders lies in what they are: peculiar, mind-dependent things.

Geographical borders exist, but not in an ordinary way. The OED defines such borders as a ‘boundary line which separates one country from another’ . Borders clearly exist: it is a geo-political fact that France borders Germany, that South Korea touches the North. Nations use borders to mark the limits of their sovereignty, to define territories, to monitor or control the flow of people and ideas.

If borders are mind-dependent, we are idealists about them. They are created by human minds, and depend on minds for their existence.

Yet they don’t exist in the way that trees or rocks do. These things exist, and they are accessible to our senses: we can see trees, touch rocks. In contrast, borders need not be accessible to our senses. Anthropologist Tim Ingold makes this point by describing borders as ‘ghostly lines’:

I came across one such line while herding reindeer along the border between Finland and Russia… The border was marked by a clear-cut strip of forest, down the mid-line of which the actual frontier was supposed to run. It was marked in no other way save by occasional posts. Had I attempted to cross it, however, I would have been shot at from one of the many observation towers on the Soviet side.

Some borders trace ordinary things. The Danube river separates Hungary from Slovakia. The Pyrenees mountain range divides France from Spain. But borders are not identical with rivers or mountains: if the Detroit River dried up, the Canada-USA border would remain.

Given this strangeness, what is a border? Ingold’s 2007 Lines: A Brief History describes borders and other ghost lines, such as air-space partitions and time-zones, as ‘imaginary’. When we consider longitudes and latitudes, it is ‘as if’ we stretched a taut string between points. Philosopher Barry Smith describes them as ‘abstract’. "The border of Colorado", he writes, "is an abstract mathematical line… corresponding to no underlying physical reality". Other abstract objects include concepts like ‘justice’ or the number ‘four’ - these are also things we cannot see or touch.

These divides are ‘intriguing’ because they are human constructs, reflecting socio-political realities.

The same basic idea underlies these proposals: borders are mind-dependent. When considering a thing, you can ask whether its existence depends on minds. Realism holds things exist independently of minds. I am a realist about hills, houses, and moons. If conscious beings disappeared from the universe, I believe these things would continue to exist. Idealism, by contrast, holds the existence of things depends on minds. You can be an idealist about all kinds of things. For example, a philosopher of mind might be an idealist about emotion: without minds, there cannot be ‘joy’ or ‘despair’. A philosopher of perception might be an idealist about colour: the world has only light rays and particles, our brain creates reds and blues.

If borders are mind-dependent, we are idealists about them. They are created by human minds, and depend on minds for their existence. China Miéville’s novel The City and the City plays with this notion, describing two cities that share the same space yet ignore each other. The citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma are mentally conditioned to ‘unsee’ their neighbours, their streets separated by borders of the mind. Further evidence that borders depend on human minds lies in the way people can disagree over them. Nations don’t disagree over the locations of rivers but they often disagree over the locations of borders. I think the mind-dependent nature of borders can help us understand their appeal.

Many writers have discussed the pull of borders. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams argues that an allure of the Arctic is the ‘very impression of its borders’: how the land’s flat topography becomes part of the winter frozen sea. Philosopher W.V. Quine’s biography describes persuading Yugoslavian guards to allow him to step, briefly, across the ‘hostile’ border with Albania - just to indulge his ‘passion’ for borders. Jan Morris’ Trieste affectionately writes of border crossings: ‘brought to a halt by a striped barrier… you feel yourself on the brink of somewhere unknown and possibly perilous’. She is not alone: magazines appeal to ‘border spotters’ with articles such as “22 Eye-Opening International Borders From Around The World".

Mike Parker’s Map Addict explains his ‘fascination’ for these ‘hallucinogenic divides’. He argues we love ‘odd and anomalous’ boundaries most, and devotes several pages to Baarle, a city whose ‘mad borders’ straddle Belgium and the Netherlands. An article on Baarle explains it even contains divided buildings. Historically, as Dutch businesses closed earlier, this meant for some Baarle restaurants that at ‘closing time’ customers would simply switch to a Belgian table. Like the concept of ‘justice’ or ‘law’, borders are mind-dependent things boasting great power.

Why are borders so attractive? Some scholars argue travellers cross borders for the feeling of ‘going beyond’, crossing into a different political, social, or economic realm. Others claim travellers desire the ‘sense of passing from one world to another’, via just a few feet. Specific borders can have specific meanings. One theorist suggests that, at Israeli borders, tourists can sense the danger of past battles or hope for future peace. Given the role borders can play in conflict, I suspect border tourism can sometimes be a form of ‘dark tourism’: tourism associated with places of death or destruction. Perhaps part of the allure in herding reindeer down the Finland-Russia border lies in being close, but not too close, to Russian snipers.

As mind-dependent beings, borders are ideal, silent and invisible. Yet unlike many other mind-dependent beings, such as the concept of ‘justice’ or the number ‘four’, they have a geographical location.

But I want to draw out another reason borders are attractive, suggested by a geographer who wonders if these divides are ‘intriguing’ because they are human constructs, reflecting socio-political realities. I think there is more to be said here - humans adore the peculiar. Parker was onto something when he noted that we love the oddest borders most. The success of travel site Atlas Obscura illustrates travelers’ thirst for the strange: we are drawn to the curious, the wonderful. Their website points tourists to a secret apartment atop the Eiffel Tower, bridges built out of living roots, and fruits that taste like chocolate pudding.

Humans love the peculiar and, if borders depend on our minds, they are very peculiar. As mind-dependent beings, borders are ideal, silent and invisible. Yet unlike many other mind-dependent beings, such as the concept of ‘justice’ or the number ‘four’, they have a geographical location. This means we can capture them, mark them, using walls, fenceposts, or signs. They are ideal creatures that we can render sensible. Mind-dependent things that we can mark with mind-independent things. We can’t mark the concept of ‘justice’ in the same way. If this is right, then the allure of borders lies in their peculiar nature. Borders are mind-dependent lines that we have created, and their continuing existence depends on our continuing existence. Yet we can mark them in a mind-independent way, on the earth.



[1]

References

2]

Gelbman, Alon  (2008) Border Tourism in Israel: Conflict, Peace, Fear and Hope, Tourism Geographies.

[3] Ingold, Tim (2007). Lines: A Brief History. Routledge: London.

Leimgruber, W. (1989). “The perception of boundaries: barriers or invitation to interaction?” Regio Basiliensis 30: 49-59.

[4]

[8] Ryden, K. C. (1993). Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing and the Sense of Place. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City.

Smith, Barry (2003). ‘The Construction of Social Reality: An Exchange’. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 62: 285–309.[5]

Smith, Barry (2003). ‘The Construction of Social Reality: An Exchange’. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 62: 285–309.[5][9][10]

Timothy, Dallen J. 1998. “Collecting Places: Geodetic Lines in Tourist Space”. Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing 7: 123-9.

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