Elements for a Theory of the Frontier

I had planned on discussing some texts on what I like to call “actually existing primitive accumulation,” but due to the exigencies of something I’m writing, I’m first going to plow through some stuff on frontiers—slippery little things.

Raffestin, Claude. 1986. “Elements for a Theory of the Frontier.” Diogenes 34(134): 1-18.

Raffestin’s elements for a theory of a frontier are much more formal and objective than how I’m thinking about frontiers. I wonder if this is partly to due with “frontier” in French; in Spanish, frontera is the same word for border and frontier. He also talks about limits, which can be used similarly in Spanish as a synonym for “bordering” (Brazil limita with Venezuela). But Raffestin uses “limit” to emphasize difference, the frontier then becomes “limited” as something defined mostly as the bifurcation of one space into two. In this sense, frontier remains something much more within (or related to) the world of formal borders and their linearity.

Raffestin wants to integrate those observations with a more psycho-biological propensity for territoriality. “Every ‘mesh’ is the expression of a project, and limits constitute an information structuring the territory. We reencounter Laborit here: he writes, ‘It seems then that there is no longer an innate instinct for property. There is only a nervous system acting within space that is satisfying because it is occupied by objects and beings allowing satisfaction’ (Laborit, 1979, p. 94)” (3). And he adds, “In all earthly species, from animals to man, we may observe the appearance of semic systems that allow marking, division and delimitation: in a word, differentiation (Ardrey, 1966)” (3).

He surveys some of the general kinds of frontiers in history and their strong relationship to maps, but showing “their relational, and thus not arbitrary, nature of a frontier realized only through relationships that a subject, individual or collective, establishes with space. The frontier is at the same time experience and knowledge of a territorial reality in a given place and time” (7). He makes brief comments on how the application of similar notions of definition, delimitation, and demarcation to sea space and air space presented problems.

But he gets into much more interesting terrain when he examines the notion of a “frontier zone”:

The marche or frange pionnière is characteristic of perhaps rudimentary, or in any case, unfinished, socio-political relations, since they continue to integrate territories through successive oscillations or fluctuations. On the other hand, the frontier is the sign of societies having already reached an advanced degree of political and juridical maturity. The frontier is controlled from the center and obeys the positive law (Kristof, 1967).

The frontier zone (marche or frange pionnière) reveals a society in movement, more or less marginal, aggressive at the level of beings and things, often conquering, sometimes on the defensive (Turner, 1963). The frontier line expresses the limits beyond which a State may with sovereignty use coercive force. Thus, the first idea is better defined by the exercise of a factual power, while the second is based on a formal juridical power. It is tempting to say that historically one precedes the other, but this is not the case. They may be simultaneous and contemporary and characterize the same territory at different places and times. (4)

Frontiers are always functional in some respects, says Raffestin, since a defucntionalized one has very little reason to exist. “The frontier’s functions are defined with regard to men and objects whose mobility is controlled, restricted or entirely excluded. The frontier is a veritable instrument at the disposal of political collectivities and may be classified with semic systems” (11).

We have seen that the systems of limits and frontiers, whether they are actuarized or not, horizontal or vertical, are invariably necessary. Limits and frontiers take many different forms, delimit fabrics of dimension that are equally variable but none the less always present, whether between States or within them. The territorial network is one of the numerous manifestations of power. Territorial delimitation indicates on the one hand the power that determined its scope and on the other the intentions of this same power. (14)

In defining his own elements of a frontier, Raffestin writes: “Translation [or interpretation], regulation, differentiation and relationships are the principles that will always be found in a boundary or frontier” (17).

Translation: “The boundary is the translation of an intention, a will, an exercised power, a mobilization, etc. The boundary is first of all a tracing-out, an indication, and later on sign and even signal” (15).

Regulation: “The boundary is at the same time a political, economic, social and cultural regulation: it marks off the areas relative to the interior where experiences and knowledge, instruments and codes, are in accord with collective projects” (16).

Difference is more self-explanatory (between what’s here and there, and against transgressing those differences).

Relations: “Finally, a limit is a relationship through the proximity it postulates. It juxtaposes different territories and durations, it allows them to confront each other, to compare, to discover each other through the societies they have developed. The relationship may be of exchange, of collaboration or of opposition; the nature of the boundary itself will reflect and be conditioned by it” (17).

From this list, it’s easy to see how Raffestin collapses border and frontier—again, I suspect this is partly a product of the word in French. It also has a strong does of state-centrism, for understandable reasons. It’s not that he does not leave room for a slightly broader notion of frontier—I think he does. The problem is that equating frontier to “limit” or “border” reduces how the frontier as an imagined-material space has been put to work historically and had meaning for peoples lives and states beyond the notion of a border—even that which supposedly divides civilization and barbarism.

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