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On the Frontier, Again

From 1772–75, Reinhold and Georg Forster, a father and son team of German naturalists, accompanied Captain James Cook on his second Pacific expedition. The voyage sought to map the unknown reaches of the South Pacific, and to discover the imagined Great Southern Continent. While anchored in the Melanesian archipelago (now New Caledonia), Third Lieutenant Richard Pickersgill encountered the social body of the ship’s map-making. The Forsters’s journal records the following scene in the course of their disembarking:

Mr. Pickersgill found it advisable to draw lines on the sand in order to secure the clothes of his people. The natives very readily came into his proposal, and never crossed the lines. One of them, however, seemed to be more surprised than all the rest at this contrivance, and with a great deal of humor drew a circle round about himself, on the ground, with a stick; and intimated, by many ludicrous gestures, that everybody present should keep at a distance from him.

Like the stick pulled through sand to create a line, the frontier marks the point at which the soaring ideals of modernity touch ground. In this morphology of contact, the frontier concerns how the “outside” is produced, exploited, and policed. Today the frontier is marked by its troubling persistence; the pan-European “Frontex” recalls the brute politics of Europe’s imperial era; the cyber security industry hails news forms of lawlessness across the “digital frontier,” and technological advancement offers new extractive possibilities both at territorial extremes (offshore drilling) and underneath urbanized lands (fracking).

What follows is a set of five departures from the Forsters’s tale, each of which works toward a concept-image of the persistent presence of the frontier within the globalizing era. The move to recover the frontier as a critical tool turns again toward the clash between enlightenment ideals such as “justice” and “equality” and the obdurate violence of the world those ideas must inhabit. The lens of the frontier shifts the point of view to the margins, reframing these ideals as encounters with the violence of the world they create.

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