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Next Stop: Int’l Border

Written By: daveski on April 29, 2009 10 Comments

I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week now, after coming back from the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in San Diego (mentioned in my previous post here). More on that in a bit.

And as other people have said on FIT many times but in different ways (here, here, here, here, where else?), blogging itself is a struggle. How does one find one’s voice, and the audacity to assume that what one has to say is worth writing, occupying the top slot of a group and institutional blog (& how are these 2 different?), if only for a few hours?

But the headlines that have started to emerge over the weekend and through the early part of this week seemed to demand that something be said, and cast new light on a little side-trip I took to San Ysidro on the last day at AERA. You’ve probably seen headlines like these: “With Swine Flu Cases Rising, Borders Are Tightened”, “WHO: Americans May Be Transmitting Swine Flu”, “Airline stocks tumble as swine flu cases rise”, “Video: Anxiety High at World’s Busiest Port of Entry”. Talk about the so-called “swine flu” has seemed itself become a fast-moving global virus, but clings on to the discourse of citizens addressed by national health agencies (the Center for Disease Control maintains up-to-date statistics on “U.S. Human Cases of Swine Flu Infection”, presidential decrees (Barack Obama says Americans should be informed, but not panicked) and talk of state borders (should ‘we’ close our borders? What would the impact be on the movement of goods? On tourism? On the economy as a whole? And, oh yes, on all those with family members ‘on the other side’?).

Behind it all, I can’t help but sense a veiled but visceral desire in the discourse that I’m privy to in my day-to-day informational life—on the UC Berkeley campus, in my news-feed on Facebook, in my little corner of California, with my mini-network on Twitter, a drop in the sea of the U.S., on the front page of the NY Times online Global Edition—to somehow, with the very words that we speak, draw comfort from distance by drawing lines around danger, separating, segregating, othering. And, in a word that came up again and again in my mind during the conference at AERA….


To read between the lines of news reports confirming that while over 100 people have died of swine flu-related illness in Mexico, ‘we’ in the U.S. were able to draw some comfort until today that, not only were there fewer cases ‘here’, but cases in the U.S. somehow “seemed to be less severe“. Until today, that is—now, we read that the “first U.S. death” has taken place: a 22-month-old boy who had been brought from Mexico to visit his family has died in Texas, a fatality that came “as public fears over the swine flu continue to grow” and as a flight originating in Baltimore was quarantined over fears that a passenger might have the flu. (hat tip: Usree on FB!)

Disconcerting news? Certainly. Yet why should we be struck so much more by this story than those of the 159+ others who have already died of this flu, the gripe porcina? We know that flows of people, products, and information are defining traits of our age, and that distance and time have both been radically changed by media, travel, and trade yet, somehow, borders remain. And not only do they remain, we erect them in times of crisis, when the very fiction of the idea of the border becomes too great a threat.

These thoughts came to me (again) last week, in the conference rooms at AERA and on the red trains that follow the Blue Line from downtown San Diego to San Ysidro, a place that is at once the first stop, the next stop, and the last stop, a place where 40,000 people every day are confronted with the criminalities and practical necessities of being both here and there, a place that seems to be the very definition of the im(?)possible negotiation of non-negotiable meanings.


To be continued…

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10 Responses to “Next Stop: Int’l Border”

  1. Youki on: 29 April 2009 at 3:55 pm

    yeah it’s fascinating to see how language is used to shape how we understand ourselves and/with/through/in others. Have you caught any cases where the language of bordering has shifted?

    In a NYT article I read the following quote by Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO:

    “It is really all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic,” Dr. Chan said. “We do not have all the answers right now. But we will get them.”

    which is an interesting contrast to the ways in which bordering is framed in your examples. Of course, there is still a border, but this time the border is between humanity and the threat [of swine flu].

  2. daveski on: 29 April 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Yeah, that’s an interesting example. There’s so much complexity in every text, and of course in online news sources you always have a bunch of “related articles” that help to situate the one that you’re currently reading.

    In the story that you link to, it jumped out at me that Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, is quoted saying “All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans. Countries should remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia.” While this intuitively makes a lot of sense given what the WHO is (which I actually know very little about–would love to be enlightened :), the discourse here is one of “countries” and not “communities” or “regions” etc.; it seems that nation-states, and the implicit divisions between them, get reified in times like this.

    I also think it’s interesting to see which pictures are chosen to ‘tell the story’ of the Stage 5 almost-pandemic. While the text of the story overall seems to take most of its examples from the U.S., the image on top is from Mexico City. Who’s interviewing them? W.H.O.?

  3. aaminahm on: 30 April 2009 at 8:59 am

    The other morning I watched Ted Rollins of CNN as he interviewed Mexicans about swine flu. He remarked that it was surprising that none of them believed it originated in Mexico. One man said that the United States wants to blame Mexico for everything. Drugs in the US, blame it on Mexico. Swine flu outbreak, blame it on Mexico. Don’t got milk, blame it on Mexico.

  4. Usree Bhattacharya on: 1 May 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Very nice and provocative post.

    These lines stood out for me:

    “We know that flows of people, products, and information are defining traits of our age, and that distance and time have both been radically changed by media, travel, and trade yet, somehow, borders remain. And not only do they remain, we erect them in times of crisis, when the very fiction of the idea of the border becomes too great a threat.”

    Hmmm…it’s interesting to me that you, in those lines, draw a border around yourself/us. “Our age”…is your “age” the same as that of others? Who is this “we” you index? These are, I would argue, defining characteristics of a very localized space…not necessarily the reality of the world at large-though probably much of it (however you define much). Where are these “flows” located? Your prose indicates they’re everywhere-though I don’t think they are. The idea of flows makes me think of Appadurai (in Modernity in Large) where he postulates “global flows.” Hmmm. In Prof. Kramsch’s Language and Identity class last year, I expressed my dissatisfaction with the notion that globalization-the fluid bordercrossing of peoples, ideas, etc-as a fiction in at least some ways. I think there was some talk that the “global” citizen, the “we” I feel indexed in your post-is another term for the global elite. Borders are not so porous, except perhaps in the minds of those for whom the borders are (does that make sense?). Yes, and those of us immersed in the “global flows” erect them, resurrect them in times of crisis, and the borders become more easily delineated because it helps to know that we CAN draw borders around us. I’d argue that the imagined borders are always there-they exist as more subtle bordering-and reappear in the “strong form” particularly when we need to keep out the undesirable other. I don’t really know where I am going with this, but this is my contribution to the conversation: some VERY loosely held together random thoughts…

    To be continued…

  5. daveski on: 2 May 2009 at 11:51 am

    Interesting comments…maybe you know or have heard of some sources talking about the origin of the flu? A friend of mine was mentioning she’d heard that a U.S. corporation might be involved. It’s certainly not a surprise that there should be a lot of scapegoating going on, intentional and more on a subconscious level…

    @Usr– wait, not @
    Usree, I agree with you that it’s easy to confuse the “we” of a uniformly imagined ‘community’ of participants in “global flows”, with a “we” that is designed as (at least partly) a discursive position meant to quote, to paraphrase, to parrot the voice of a particular ideological position (like the implicit “we” that underlies lots of news coverage), a position that the author (I) is/am trying to point out. I was going for the latter, as I tried to indicate by putting ‘we’ in scare quotes in the paragraph immediately before the one where you say I’ve “drawn a border around myself/us” by the use of that very pronoun. I may not have been totally successful on that count, for sure.

    As I read over my post, and then the “we”s in your comment, it strikes me that it’d be an interesting exercise to map the ‘flow’ or movement in referents that are indexed by these pronouns as they are used repeatedly across a given text. What does the first “we” mean? What does the second “we” mean? And the third? Is the animation of a voice half mine and half someone else’s successfully maintained across successive uses, or does the attempt cave in under the pressure of normative assumptions about pronoun use?

    Well, maybe that wouldn’t be an ‘interesting’ exercise, but it might be worthwhile! It’s an ongoing challenge to find discursive ground to speak from when no ground appears to be solid…

  6. Usree Bhattacharya on: 2 May 2009 at 12:31 pm

    How do we define “meaning,” anyway? Not only is it a question of how the animator conceives of the borders that are erected, but of how those borderings are received. My point was that your “we” was not necessarily my “we,” and so if we were to unpack and unravel the “we”s, we would be looking at how you saw them, I saw them, how others “we’d” saw them, and those who were not “we’d.” And those suspended in some kind of liminal, indexical limbo. And revisiting those “we’s” would be problematic in that you’re no longer the same “author” revisiting them, are you, now that the indexical ground has been problematized/compromised? I think you’re getting to that in your comment, obviously.

    What is half yours and half someone else’s? Why the dichotomy? Or is that a figure of speech? My comment was precisely to subvert the whole notion of some kind of normative understanding in your “we”…, even if it WAS a “we” that was meant to be “scare quoted” (in case there’s any doubt, I am agreeing with you here).

    I think indexicality is a very interesting thing…I kind of go there here and in other places-Youki would know. The beauty of indexing is that it DOES defy concretization-it’s (e.g. pronouns) kinda like…err, gaseous matter, taking the shape of whatever it is forced within, conforming to the roles it is made to occupy. Does that mean the roles the speaker intends it to occupy are necessarily recognized in the shape they were intended? I doubt it. Oh well.

  7. Usree Bhattacharya on: 2 May 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Another way of thinking about it, I guess, would be to think that indexed objects are like gaseous matters, and they occupy the empty indexical units like pronouns. There are different theoretical implications in either case…I think indexical units are how I imagined them in the second comment…I don’t know. Thoughts?

  8. aaminahm on: 2 May 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Just wanted to add in an observation here, yesterday MSNBC announced that the swine flu may have originated in Southern California rather than Mexico. Does that make “us” “them”?

  9. daveski on: 7 May 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Hi Aaminah! Yeah, I think that does make “us” “them”. Do you have any references, news story links on that?

    Hi Usree! Wow I don’t think I’ve thought of indexicals or any other kind of word as a gaseous entity filling containers…hmm. Today I’ve been thinking about a piece we read for Claire’s Language & Power class, the 1993 Nobel literature prize acceptance speech by Toni Morrison, where she talks about how words “arc towards” but never reach their meaning as long as language is alive. What if the “object” doesn’t in fact exist in the world, but is a collaborative achievement of linguistic and human agency, contingent, in the moment?

  10. Usree Bhattacharya on: 7 May 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Hmm, I didn’t mean to concretize the things indexed by using the word “objects,” but of course it’s a loaded term, historically laminated by the millions of instantiations of its use, and can’t and won’t escape my attempt to uproot, disentangle, or disengage it from particular kinds of usages. The “object” that you mention-what it is that’s indexed-is imagined (my take on what you mean by “doesn’t in fact exist in the world”), sure…that is not in doubt, at least in the context in which we’re discussing. Anderson, anyone?

    The next question would be, if it is collaborative, how would power play into this? In any collaboration, there would be power imbalances, and isn’t that at the heart of what’s at issue here?

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