Borders Matter

by Arjo Klamer



The following is the text of the Socrates lecture that I gave on December 10, 2001 in Utrecht under the title "In Holland Stands a House," a well-known Dutch song. In this English translation I changed the title to "Borders Matter" as the allusion to the song would have been lost.


These boxes serve as references to and amplification of the lecture. I wrote the text not only to be spoken aloud but also to be read with musical interaction. An alto violinist (Esther Apituley) and a cellist (Bart van Rosmalen) were my "discussants." Together we wanted to explore the possibilities of an interaction between text and music. I saw a connection with the subject, i.e., the role of borders. Is it possible to communicate across the borders that separate the textual from the non-textual, to communicate from a lecture to the music? Can music communicate to a lecture? If so, what kind of communication is that?

Our preparation was minimal; the more spontaneous the better, we thought. Apituley and van Rosmalen would begin the evening by playing; I would step in and start reading the text (which they also had on their lecterns). They would interrupt as they saw fit, and did so at various moments during the reading. I anticipated that the real dialogue with music would occur in the second part of the lecture.

In the beginning I did not have a clue as to what would happen and whether I would be able to stand on my own with the text. The chance of the music taking over appeared significant.

Apituley and van Rosmalen are playing an improvisation partly based on Luto Slawski.

I begin:

"Music... Music is not only intangible — it seems also untouchable and invulnerable. It has something of the sacred, something that transcends the here and the now. Words are so prosaic, especially where their meanings are concerned. I dread breaking in. By beginning to talk I feel like I am intruding and interrupting. Even so, I begin talking now. Why? Because we agreed I would. I am now acting in accordance with a social agreement. Consequently, I am changing the conversation, but not after promising that I will return to the conversation with music."

About conversation

I am using the concept of conversation with emphasis and insistence. It denotes a way of interacting that is distinct. Economics, my discipline, is a conversation, or rather it is a bunch of conversations. Economists, after all, walk in different schools and each school constitutes a distinct conversation. If you want to be "in the economic conversation" you have to adhere to its practices; that is, you have to respect its borders. The same applies to the conversations of music, as there are many different ones: classical, jazz, pop — within which there are variations in themes, each of which has its own practices, rules and norms, as our creative musician Esther Apituley knows all too well.

"The disadvantage of using "conversation" within a scientific discipline is its colloquial connotations. What comes to mind is purposeless chatter, or the conversation of mere happenstance. To avoid those connotations we can speak of "discursive practices," the term that Foucault, Habermas and so many others use. It has a more serious flavour about it, and therefore appears to match better the practice of a science. But like Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) I prefer "conversation." I like its etymology.1 I also like using "conversation" because it does not conjure up something hermetic. A conversation is fluid, and if it is bounded, the boundaries are fuzzy. A conversation may be a practice and then it may not. And anyone can be in different conversations.

Conversation actually means "intercourse..." "manner of life..." "frequent abode in a place..." Conversation has been used to connote the action of living or dwelling in a place and, more interestingly, the action of associating with or having dealings with others. Among its definitions, the Oxford English Dictionary cites Thomas Shelton's "You know a man by the conversation he keeps." In this usage, conversation is a synonym for company, like in Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep (1988). "To be in conversation" implies to be in company with a certain group of people. At least that is what I intend it to mean.

Conversation also denotes "occupation or association with an object of study, in the sense of close acquaintance." Francis Bacon wrote of the "conversation in books." That meaning fits nicely as well — conversation does not only refer to someone's talking but also to someone's reading.

Conversation can also mean "sexual intercourse." I must say that I did not expect that and do not think that it has application to what normally goes on in the conversation of economists.

The final entry refers to the more colloquial meanings of conversation: "oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, ideas." It can also mean a meeting or assembly. Although there is a great deal of chatter going on in the world of economists, this is the not meaning relevant to this lecture. Accordingly, I want to bring you back to the earlier meanings of conversation — the association with certain company, the conversations within a group, the exchanges between those of close acquaintance — for the metaphor to work in this argument.

The implied concern is how we, humans, can be in sustainable conversations together. I base this on the work of sociologists like Randal Collins (1999), which shows how new philosophical ways of thinking come about in pretty much self-contained conversations. Consequently, they often come about in a clash between two or, at most, three of such conversations.

"The lecture will consist of three parts. The emphasis of the first part is on the spoken text. That is where I can tell my story. In the second part we, Esther Apituley, Bart van Rosmalen and I, will explore the possibility of a conversation between the text and their music. In the third part their music takes over. Tonight, music has the final say."

Do I belong in a world that is universal?

"Like music, discourse needs a theme. This one is about borders. The message (I am telling you upfront so you have no need to speculate) is simple: borders matter. That may seem obvious when put so plainly. But it is not. The thesis that borders matter, these days, is problematic and controversial. Someone who propagates the importance of borders risks condemnation as a nationalist, racist, sexist, conservative, creep or, more blandly, someone who is simply out of touch. How can one think else wise? The world must be without borders, they say. Borders separate one group of people from another and inevitably evolve to exclude one group or another. Why, isn't everyone alike in nature and individual by his or her own dignity? Every individual should be a citizen of the world! ...Or so we are taught to believe."

On having to be brief

Constrained by the time that is reserved for a lecture (and the patience of the audience) I had to condense my characterization of this borderless way of thinking about the world. I might have referred to all kinds of universalising movements that are directed at crossing and erasing borders, like religion, communism, socialism, humanism, human rights, the arts (and elements thereof), sciences, (neo-)liberalism and the like. In all those movements, those who participate are induced to think across borders, and to see borders as an impediment to the realization of explicit ideals like equal human rights, a world government with world citizenship, free markets the world over, one God and universal church, and so on).

"I recall from my youth the little notebooks we all came to have somehow: on the cover was a depiction of paper-cut children in various colors — blue, red, white, black — hand in hand, in a circle, all equal. We probably got them to support the cause of UNICEF or UNESCO. The picture was meant to symbolize a world in which borders do not matter. Recently I read a government report on education that propagated the same: the prioritisation of borderless thinking, that is, thinking as if borders do not matter. It spoke to notions such as multiculturalism, pluralism, multi-ethnicity, cosmopolitism, universalism, globalism, internationalism, digitalisation, and individualization.

"In this borderless world we are nomads who are at home anywhere and everywhere. The metaphor that rules is that of the journey. We are on a journey, on our way, searching and exploring. Who am I? A nomad. A traveller.

"After having inhabited such a borderless world for many years, I ceased to feel at home. I felt uprooted. "Where do I belong?" I wondered. The question was sudden and startling. At the time I was living a comfortable academic existence in a small university town in the Midwestern United States. At the moment of this discovery I was in a café with the company of academics from various internationalities. A Cuban colleague told us that she had lost a sense of self and thought of going into a monastery or something similarly extreme to "find" herself. While we all were ready to support her in her decision, a colleague from religion leaned toward her and posed gently: "Instead of asking yourself who you are, why not try asking yourself to whom do I belong?" I do not know what she did with that suggestion at that time (she later did go back to Cuba to find out about her roots, married and had a child), but I was taken aback. To whom do I belong? Where do I belong? Had I become a nomad who belongs everywhere and nowhere?

"That prospect, once a dream, suddenly seemed a nightmare. I was tired of the wandering. Airports — once places of inspiration for me because everyone is on their way to somewhere else — became depressing for that very reason. Airports were places for transience, not for belonging. I decided to return to my father's county, the Netherlands, and dedicate myself to that which is Dutch, my oikos, my home. I began to call myself a neo-traditionalist because I found myself pleading for a re-appraisal of traditions and for the importance of the work that communities do and require. I added the 'neo' because I had to acknowledge the modern insights into the changeability of traditions, the constructing and reconstructing of them. Nothing is fixed, everything flows; traditions evolve yet they exist and are important to recognize and respect.

"I realized then too well how uprooted I had become in that international world that fashions its talk without borders, in which Dutchness (or Spanish-ness or Polish-ness) is terribly over (as a prominent Dutch politician suggested to me emphatically and enthusiastically) and in which the family is a hopelessly old-fashioned institution (as I heard in discussions with post-modernist friends). "You tread dangerously," some intimates warned. "You're moralizing." After all, the consensus was, borders need to be crossed, transgressed, and erased. This is called multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in intellectual circles. Let's get rid of the walls, the divides. As long as something is multi-this, plural-that, and post-so, it is right. Neo-traditionalism? No, no, no. You're going backwards. Keep working toward the borderless world! Avanti!

"But why? Tell me why. The arguments that had once seemed so obvious ceased to please me. I kept questioning why. Why do we need to advance? In the end what matters is what we accomplish in our immediate circle. Our children and friends will be our judges when we lie in our graves. Why then the getting lost in that enormous, endless world? Why not use the native country as the base for one's identity, as a civilisation for oneself, and the family a cradle of that same civilization? The boundless thinking: isn't it the case that humanism is boundless in principle? And freedom is boundless, the principle of human dignity is boundless. Universal human rights — need I say more?

"The economy as imagined in economics, my science, is also boundless. Markets have no borders. Borders, from an economic view, are merely impediments to unfettered trade, and with that, impediments to the improvement of efficiency and human welfare.

"I now realize that I bent the stick too far. At this occasion I will try to straighten it again. This is part of an endless search for balance."

Here Esther Apituley interrupted me with an improvisation.

Testing and exploring our borders

"What do you think? Does music reach further; does it go deeper than words? Can I, with words, compete with music? Do I risk being upset by inviting Bart and Esther to comment and interrupt with their music?

"As in every argument, every conversation, every meeting, I face the challenge of conveying my intentions and intended meanings. I have to cope with the noise that occurs in every communication, the ennui of not being moved, the despair of not being heard, the obligate words that come after. What are we doing here? Are we in a conversation? Or are we just passing time?

"I do not know whether you and I are in conversation. We shall see. Whichever the case, I would like to exploit the opportunity (that was so generously offered) to investigate the possibility of being in conversation with a world that is foreign to me, i.e., the world of music. With respect to borders, it appears that there is a true divide between my world of the sciences and the one of music. That divide exists undoubtedly for good reasons. But, as I will argue, border traffic is crucial in order to realize the value of one's own territory. Presently we will see — and hopefully hear — what happens when spoken text and music are in conversation. What does music add? Does music alter the meanings of the words? Does something happen with you, with the cognitive processes that you would otherwise use? Can we manage without words? Without music? Like music, words are sounds. Like music, they can touch and stir the soul. When that happens, it is hard to say precisely why, just as in the case of when music touches and stirs our souls."

An aside for readers

Granted, this part is self-indulgent. I would not have written this if the words were meant to be printed only. Spoken texts are different. An important difference is that when speaking I tend to be more conscious of those I am speaking to, or speaking with. As a consequence I make more of a conscious effort to establish my ethos, as the rhetoricians would call it, and to search for openings that we all can enter.

"In the Jewish tradition, but also in the Scottish Enlightenment, knowledge implies feeling, passion. "Knowing emphatically," it is called, or Verstehen. The moment of truth is a moment; the experience of truth is short-lived. Truth comes time and time again, nothing more than a moment's short-lived experience, again and again each time. Experiencing it requires a capability: one person understands better than or different from the other — something like music, or science.

"Knowledge has differences. There is knowledge that serves a purpose, knowledge that is instrumental (knowing how) and knowledge that is pure (knowledge for its own sake). The latter reveals itself with the sense of "Yes, this must be the case"; you feel it somewhere in your body — in my case it manifests in the belly or thereabouts. When that happens, it is as if the body is lifted; I feel light-headed. At times the experience is erotic.

"We want to investigate borders, see what they mean to us. Like the border between the muse and science. I am a scientist. My weapon is the word, the text. Esther and Bart are musicians above all. We speak a totally different language, so to say, and practice totally different disciplines. We do not know about a real dialogue between music and science - that is, not the scientific monologue about music or the music that is an intermezzo in a scientific discourse, but a real intercourse between music and science.

"I wonder whether Esther and Bart can tell me something with their music, whether they can clarify something over and beyond what I can say with my text. What do they expect, I wonder? Do we have something to say to each other. Will we find a way of being in conversation with each other? I am very curious."

Why borders matter

"My thesis is that without borders we are nowhere. Even archetypal nomads draw borders. They need them to allow for a distinction between thine and mine, to point at and shape social values. [Their borders may be imaginary as they are drawn in the sand, but just try to cross them and you know how real they are.] Even so, each border has something arbitrary and intervenes in the flow of human interactions. Every border violates something. Border traffic makes us aware of borders; border crossings can cause the dynamics of life within borders and can lead to a shift in the borders.

"The economy is borderless. I am thinking of the economics of the textbooks: demand and supply, the rational individual, homo economicus. Standard economics looks at individuals choosing what is best for them. Whether they are Chinese, American, Dutch, black, white, native or alien does not matter. What counts in the market is the best deal. If one person wants to favour another, it is their business. They alone are paying the price for discrimination. Markets have the tendency to cross borders. Capital seeks the path of the least resistance. Day after day, billions of dollars flow across the globe as if borders do not exist. Open markets and free trade are presented as the condition for maximal welfare. Countries who open their borders for foreign trade do generally better. Globalisation, the world market, the network society, the multi- or transnational — these rule the economic imagination."

Borders Matter (Part 2)