A border is like your skin

In 1967, American psychiatrist Dr. Charles Socarides asserted that the homosexual male ‘does not know the boundary of his own body … [h]e does not know where his body ends and spaces begins.’ Nearly forty years later, in a 2005 interview, Craig Britt of the self-professed vigilante group the Minutemen announced:

We have a heightened awareness of the fact that the border is a sham. It’s dysfunctional. A border is like your skin. There’s got to be a place where you stop and something else begins. A nation can’t exist without a border for too long.

In bringing these two statements together, I want to emphasise how a certain ordering of the body is partially responsible for the ways in which national space is produced and regulated. Socarides conveys a particular sense of bodily order that presumes its closure and impermeability against the space around it: penetration outside of a heterosexual exchange comes to actually indicate a failed grasp on the totality of the male body as a closed and distinct unit. The circulation of impermeability as a bodily aspiration, in turn, becomes the logic from which the appeal to the closure of national space can draw its affective charge. Britt’s expression of the ‘failure’ of the border is coded precisely in terms of this understanding of the body and, in turn, transgressions of national borders may be felt as threats on a deeply personal level.

If this is the case, then the current frenzy surrounding border securitisation, militarisation and walling may actually partially address these anxieties around embodiment on a psychic level. In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Wendy Brown urges us to think about the proliferation of border walling in terms of the affective and symbolic links between states and subjects/citizens. The spectacle that accompanies the policing of the margins of national territory attempts to resolve, on a public scale, anxieties around bodily purity.

Feminist and psychoanalytic theory has done a lot to unsettle such understandings of the body. In explaining his concept of the mirror stage, for example, Jacques Lacan suggests that, confronting an organic insufficiency of the body, we are compelled early on to identify with the ‘orthopedic form of its totality’ captured in its reflected image, an identification always negotiated through aggression and narcissism. Put simply, we navigate our anxieties around bodily completeness by identifying with an external, totalised form. What Lacan calls the I formation is actually figured in dreams as a fortified camp or stadium, making the crossover between a bodily sense of totality and the establishment of defined and defendable territory an even more insistent correspondence.

Julia Kristeva’s explanation of the abject elaborates further on the ways in which bodily margins are always troubled and uncertain. For Kristeva, the abject refers to the inevitable waste that the body produces, which comes to unsettle the sense of order, unity or cleanliness on which dominant accounts of corporeality tend to hinge. That which falls away from our body, in this regard, becomes what we define ourselves against through a repulsion to it, and yet the persistence of its emergence makes the aspiration toward impermeability and totality both incomplete and ongoing. Completeness, purity and order begin to collapse in the face of the abject, which simultaneously becomes central to the establishment of an identity and that which constantly threatens its stability.

It’s not my aim here to make the reductive suggestion that the body equals the nation, or that border-crossing equals penetration. I simply want to point to possible ways of understanding and undermining dominant articulations of embodiment, and to unsettle the common sense arguments that come to justify the current frenzy toward ‘sealing the border’ from a murky array of perceived threats. By foregrounding the dynamic between bodily order and national space, the two can be seen as intricately linked in a way where neither one simply determines the other, and they emerge instead as being in constant and complex dialogue. The popular imagination is currently clearly enmeshed in fantasies of control and order which, when projected between body and state, compel the most punitive forms of governmental cleanliness and purifying violence.

Just a few months before being elected, Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister responsible for some of the most inhumane policies around national security and immigration this country has seen, responded to Liz Hayes asking how he felt about homosexuality by stating, nervously, ‘I’d probably feel a little threatened.’ Heteronormativity and a dangerous masculinism, when this is the affect of the man-in-charge, becomes systemic and institutionalised at the level of policy. Across the terrains of bodily order and national space, the insidious effects of anxieties like these can be felt today.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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James Clarke is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

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  1. I think we should let asylum seekers in through the mouth (A2M) and send ex-pats out through the pooper.

  2. when and if it comes to it (the unconscious) all space is indefensible – whether of body / politic

  3. A beautifully written piece–succinct and elegant– that puts Kristeva’s theory of the abject to work on some pointy current questions

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