Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Defining Boundaries

In a few weeks, I will deliver a presentation about boundaries to the Southern Humanities Conference convening this year in Savannah, GA. The conference topic, Boundaries: Real and Imagined, was chosen at last year's conference, and I have come to think about boundaries often this year as I have read deeper into complexity theory. It seems to me now that boundaries are much more than the lines (real or imagined) that separate things (real or imagined).

As I've thought about boundaries, I've come to realize that I have most often used the term to signify a line which divides one space, entity, or idea from other spaces, entities, and ideas, separating and distinguishing among them. I also use boundary to talk about the line that marks the outer limits or extension of a space, entity, or idea. (You can see these usages in my blog posts as early as 20072008, and 2009 and then later in 2011 and 2012). All the stuff within the boundary belongs to and is identifiable as that space or entity. All the stuff outside the boundary belongs to some other space or entity. Boundaries, according to my old usage, are the boxes that hold and define a thing—inside the boundary is the thing, outside the boundary is everything else. This view, of course, involves me in the issues with definition that I've been struggling with in this blog, and to my mind, boundary—as I've been using it—is an aspect of our reductionist and essentialist habits of mind, especially mine.

Humph! And all this time I've been imagining myself a post-structuralist. Oh, well. Let's see if we can weed this bit of neo-fascism out of my heart. Or, more likely, weave it into my heart with a slightly different thread. Given the rhizomatic nature of thoughts, I have no hope of weeding any idea from my head or heart.

I think my usage of boundary began to trouble me as long ago as 2010 when I started referencing Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall as I struggled to understand Deleuze and Guattari's concept of asignifying ruptures and the rhizome. As I understand it, asignifying ruptures are those flights of deterritorializations and reterritorializations of entities that unhinge our neat little definitions of reality, which has a nasty habit of regularly escaping the little boxes (significations) that we try to put it into. As Frost famously says in his poem, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." That something is Reality, or the Rhizome. It doesn't like being boxed in, and I was delighted to find in Frost an early proponent of post-structuralism.

Or so I thought. I was forgetting the other repeated mantra in that poem: "Good fences make good neighbors." Hmm … something else there is, then, that does love a wall. But I argued with myself, clearly the poem, if not Frost himself, favors breaking down the walls that separate us, doesn't it? Near the end of the poem, after the narrator has stated his case against walls, he paints an uncomplimentary picture of his neighbor and his neighbor's point of view:
    … I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Isn't Frost suggesting that people who like clear, firm boundaries are stone-age simpletons who can't understand the value of tearing down the Walls, a firm value in this post-structural age and which I believe is the only point of agreement one can find between Pink Floyd and Ronald Reagan? Perhaps Forst is not so facile. I'll think about this more tomorrow.
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