In this episode, Fulbright Austria alumna Astrid M. Fellner and EUR Diversity Coordinator Susanne Hamscha talk about European and US borderlands, the symbolic power of borders, and borders in times of Covid-19.
Astrid M. Fellner is professor for North American Literary and Cultural Studies at Saarland University, Germany. She received a Fulbright grant to study at the University of Texas at Austin (1991-92). Astrid's research focuses on Border Studies and U.S. Latino/a literature.
Susanne Hamscha 0:06
"Borders are the scars of history," Robert Schuman, French statesman and one of the founders of the European Union once said.
Hi, and welcome to this episode of Diversity Conversations, the Fulbright podcast dedicated to diversity and inclusion. My name is Susanne Hamscha, and I'm the Regional Diversity Coordinator for Fulbright in Europe/Eurasia.
What do borders have to do with diversity? Borders are lines of separation, they create a here and there, they draw a line between "us" and "them." They demarcate nations, territories, communities that others may not enter without permission. This is what Schuman alludes to when he calls borders "scars of history." When we talk about diversity and the inclusion of marginalized and minoritized groups of people, we need to address the practices that marginalize and minoritized these people in the first place. The drawing of borders, of imaginary and at the same time very real lines of separation, is one of these practices.
But there's also a different side to borders and diversity which is worthwhile looking into. Borders are also lines of connection, and they give rise to new identities.
With me today is Astrid Fellner, Professor of North American Studies at Saarland University in Germany, project leader at Saarland University of the EU-funded interreg project Center for Border Studies of the University of the Greater Region, and Astrid is also a Fulbright Austria alumna.
Astrid, can you tell us more about the Center for Border Studies and the research projects you and your colleagues are working on?
Astrid Fellner 1:37
Well, our Center for Border Studies is actually a truly cross-border center. We are located at six different universities in four countries in the so called greater region, which is a geopolitical Euro region, smack in the middle of Europe, which was created in order to promote economic, cultural and social development and cooperation. And it consists of Saarland, the Rhineland Palatinate in Germany, Lorraine in France and Luxembourg, and Valonia and the rest of the French community of Belgium as well as the German speaking community of Belgium. And it is within a university network between six universities in this region called the University of the Greater Region that we have developed a research network called the University of the Greater Region Center for Border Studies. And we're about 80 scholars in our six universities who work together in the field of Border Studies. We have a master's program, a tri-national and tri-lingual master in Border Studies, which I helped co-fund.
Now, maybe I can say a little bit about Border Studies, which is an interdisciplinary field of research that focuses on borders and different meanings and various processes that are called de- and re-bordering. It's interdisciplinary, as I've said, with different perspectives coming from geography, politics, sociology, and increasingly, also from cultural studies, literary studies and linguistics. And as a research field Border Studies has developed on the promise - or on the premise, actually, that territorial borders are neither essentialist nor given, they actually are the product of processes. And within this growing field of studies, it is actually the US-Mexican border which remains the so called iconic border.
Border Studies, you could say, basically developed in the United States, and is very closely related to at least within the humanities and social sciences, to US-Latino/Latina studies, particularly Chicano/Chicano Studies. But this is basically what we focus on in our Center for Border Studies. We have, as I said, an MA program, but we also of course engage in research. We are, for instance, in the process of creating a tri-national online glossary, which would constitute a comprehensive and interdisciplinary research database of definitions and explanations of key concepts.
But apart from research, we also work very hard to develop a productive dialogue between researchers and the socio-economical institutional players in the greater region. So we offer a series of podium discussions which form an interface, so to speak, between the fields of science, administration, politics, and citizens, really, and deal with current challenges of the greater region.
Susanne Hamscha 4:55
So you've lived and worked in this border region for almost 10 years now, if I'm not mistaken. But Border Sudies was already your main research area before you move to Saarland, as you said, How did you become interested in border studies? And what is it about borders that fascinates you?
Astrid Fellner 5:12
Well, I studied at the University of Vienna, and I have been interested in Chicano/Chicana Studies since my MA studies, really, in the early 90s. However, when I wanted to write my MA thesis on Chicano literature, at that time there was no one there who could supervise a thesis and no one had heard of Chicano Studies, which is the reason why I decided to apply for a Fulbright, and this is how I ended up at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s. And this is where I came across border studies. And I was there at the at the right time, because Border Studies was just on the rise, and I wrote my thesis on Texas-Mexican border literature. And then later on for my PhD, I worked on issues of identity construction in Chicana literature.
My interest, really, and this is something that I found out actually, when I was a Fulbright in, in Texas, my interest in borders really also had to do with the fact that I grew up in a border area in Austria, very close to the Czech border. And I grew up there in the 70s and 80s, and I very much felt that this was a border area, a Borderlands area, because it you know, I still remember the iron curtain, and this area of the so called "wood quarters" in Lower Austria were really considered kind of the end of the world. And when I then moved to Texas, and when I went to school at UT Austin and people talked about the valley, the southern tip of Texas, the border area, with Mexico, I could relate. And when I read Gloria Anzaldua's book Borderlands - La Frontera, which to this day remains one of the most important works in in Border Studies, I could also relate. And when I read her definition of the Texas-Mexican border, as she calls or refers to the border as "an open wound, where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds," and when these two come together, she says, the lifeblood of two worlds merge to form a third space, a third country, a border culture.
And and this is what I still basically work on these days. Now, I do what I call comparative Border Studies, which means that I work on the - continue to work, I should say, on the US-Mexican border compared with the US-Canadian border, which has also become very important. And I also compare it with other border regions, like, for example, the greater region, the area where I now live and do my research.
Susanne Hamscha 8:01
When you were a child, as you just said the Austrian border demarcated an important faultline, it separated Western from Eastern Europe. I grew up in an Austria that is part of the Schengen area, which is an area of 26 European countries that have abolished all passport and border controls at their mutual borders. But in the last five years, we have seen borders and border checks reintroduced due to the "migration crisis." But also, more recently, due to COVID-19 we've seen border checks reintroduced in political discourse, we often hear that our borders need to be protected. Can you talk about the symbolic power of borders? What effect do borders have on how we craft our own identity and on how we perceive others?
Astrid Fellner 8:54
When I came across Gloria Anzaldua's book which I just mentioned, it's called Borderlands - La Frontera, and this was really the first time that I heard talk about the symbolic power of borders. Anzaldua has a lot to do with this notion of symbolic borders. According to her, border and border theory really emerges from the historical specificity, in her case the US and Mexican border. But the notion of Borderlands also refers to shifting sites of transition and movement, where space is contested and negotiated, where we have defying - where we have notions of "us" versus "them" that are being defied.
We have the creation of new identities, of the rise of an in-between consciousness, all of these processes that ultimately also break down binaries are something that can happen in Borderlands spaces. So a border can be defined geographically, of course, but the border can also be thought as a cultural space that cuts across nation states, cities, city borders, and so on. And which are present, really, whenever - and this is, if I may quote from her work "there present whenever two or more cultures edge each other, when people of different racial groups occupy the same territory, when," as she says, "under, lower, middle and upper classes touch where the space between two individuals shrink with intimacy." So, this is a quote from from Anzaldua and I think this shows very well this symbolic power, really, that borders have or exert, and it is precisely this symbolic power, I think that we study in what is called cultural Borders Studies, or Border Studies as it's being conducted in the humanities, where we focus on these spaces of the in-between, liminal spaces of intercultural contact, of multilingualism where two languages meet, of hybridization where new identities are being created, new political allegiances are being formed.
So these are all you could say, the central concerns of border and borderland identities. Now, what's interesting, I think, is that this is also something that when I studied this, when I came across it in the 1990s, was very much of course aligned with the dominant notions of multiculturalism at that time, and also postmodernism. And if you look at border art, for instance, the work of Guillermo Gomez Pena, for instance, in San Diego, and in Tijuana, you see that borderline identities, this hybridity, was really being celebrated, you could say, in borderland spaces.
This is something, however, that I think has changed, this celebration has kind of gone away, you could say, as we have moved into a period of borders, securitization and border surveillance, you know, something that basically has happened since 911, where now the focus is on border conflicts. And I think this is a global trend, you could say, which you also see in border art, which has changed from what I just described as a postmodern hype to a more kind of mundane or steer focus on on border service surveillance. So we live I think, in times of renewed re-bordering processes, as we call them in Border Studies. And this, of course, has an effect on our identities. A new focus now on a "we" against the "other," and the "other" usually being referred to as the foreigner or the outside or the refugee, all of these subject positions. have, you know, been put into this category. They're all border crossers.
Susanne Hamscha 13:09
I would like to come back to the symbolism of borders and the formation of identity, again. From your professional perspective, but also speaking from your experience of having lived in the US and in different European countries, would you say that the border figures differently in the US versus Germany, for instance, but also other European countries? And would you say that the border has a different meaning in the self-definition of the US than it does in Europe?
Astrid Fellner 13:37
Well, absolutely, yes. On a very mundane, on a very kind of everyday basis. I think that for most Americans, when they hear border, they think of the US-Mexican border, which of course has received a lot of attention in the past couple of years. And then you probably associate borders with illegal migration, smuggling and the building of the wall. This I think is different in Germany and most other European countries. But there you have to make a difference between generations. For young people like you, you've just said this, the idea of a borderless world, starting with the fall of the iron curtain, you know, still rings a bell, and that I think is the most important thing you know, you said this earlier what the EU is all about: free movement, right, of goods and people. But recently, we have become aware of borders, so called re-bordering processes again. Now, my students in the greater region who grew up with absolutely no border control between Germany and France or Germany and Luxembourg, they now for the very first time experienced borders - well, the border was closed, there was not even border checkpoints and this was something that really shocked them. You know, that this is something that could could happen again.
And of course now with a so called migration crisis and the the notion of fortress Europe, you know, lines of separation have become important again in Europe and borders are on the news all the time. Think of Brexit for instance, right, which is also, of course, all about borders. But as I said, this is something which is relatively recent again, and something new for the millennial generation, for sure.
And on an academic level, or should we say, historically speaking, if I may add that, I also think that the border figures differently in the US, and in Germany. In Europe, really, you could say, the modern understanding of borders is something that goes back to the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. This is when basically the territorial state was established as the basis for the modern state system. And this, you know, led to the creation of international borders as legal, territorial boundaries. And it is this kind of understanding of borders, that was then exported, you could say, into the rest of the world, exerting imperial power, and also translating this concept, this understanding of borders as basically lines that contained or were supposed to contain culture.
Now, most recently, as we've just said, it has changed. I mean, in the 90s, with the EU, we talked about de-bordering, this was, of course, that time when in Europe borders were being taken down. And now as I said, we speak of re-bordering again, which is something I think that we're right in the middle of.
And in the United States, the border is, I would say, more important or even more important in the self-definition of the United States. And it's probably not so much the the concept of border which is so important, but the notion of the frontier...Frontier in westerns, or frontier land in Disney World, right...so it reigns very highly, I think, in the public imagination. And this has something to do - a lot has been said about this - with the notion of the frontier, which was basically a framework that, you know, an important historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, actually mentioned as kind of like the key factor how American identity was actually produced. You know, Frederick Jackson Turner said, at the end of the 19th century, when the frontier was closed, that it was actually on the frontier, on the borderline, so to speak, between wilderness and civilization, as he called it, that the American, this new man was being produced. So as you can see, the border is a very important concept in the self understanding of the United States. And and this makes it different because this is not the case, this is not the case at all in Europe, where the border does not....well, it doesn't leave kind of its traces on the identity formation.
Susanne Hamscha 18:20
Let's talk about Europe again, and look at more recent developments perhaps. We already talked about borders having been reintroduced in the last five years due to increased migration. But just earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic even led to a complete shutdown of borders, as you mentioned earlier, and, you know, things that we have been, that we've become used to and accustomed to, such as free travel within Europe is suddenly something that is immensely difficult to do, right. So how would you assess the COVID-19 pandemic from a Border Studies perspective? Can border theory help us in any way to analyze and understand this very unusual time better?
Astrid Fellner 19:08
Well, yes, let's hope so. The current pandemic, I think, has exposed deep social divisions in our societies and it certainly has drawn the attention to the many challenges of marginalized communities and not only has it created new borders, namely borders between home and the outside, or between the inside and outside, but it has also reinforced borders between "us" and "them" and now you know, kind of drawing new borders between the healthy and the sick, for instance. Or it has also reinforced the digital divide, widening, you could say, the the gap now between those who have access to necessary means of communication and those who are left behind. Gender divisions, core/periphery relation, so all sorts of new borders really have become prominent.
I think that Border Studies can help analyze the current situation, it can provide us with the necessary tools and also necessary vocabulary in order to, you know, make sense of what's going on. And then we also know that of course, the pandemic right now knows no borders, we see that it's impossible to solve this current crisis within national paradigms. So it is clear, it seems to me, that countries have to come together and work with each other across borders. And it's precisely these kind of cross border activities and how cross border collaboration in you know - when it comes to health insurance, when it comes to hospitals, when it comes to are ambulances allowed to cross the border, and so on and so forth. Now, these are all issues, you know, that we study in Border Studies and we try to give answers to, and where we also have all to work together with organizations, with stakeholders, and so on to make that happen. So, yes, I think Border Studies can definitely help.
Susanne Hamscha 21:12
This has been such an informative conversation, Astrid, thank you so much for giving us a glimpse into your research. I have one final question for you. A world without borders? Is that the utopia we should be striving for?
Astrid Fellner 21:25
Hmm, that's a difficult question. I think a lot of people, you know, thought that in the 1990s. That's when kind of this idea of a borderless world was something that people thought was worthwhile striving for, right. But I don't think a world without borders is possible. And maybe, you know, it's not something we should strive for, because borders are important. We need borders, because otherwise, we couldn't construct our identities. So even bordering processes are important, you know, for meaning making in general. Borders are, you know, a philosophical category, really also, as well as fundamental social phenomena. So I don't think we should do away with borders. But of course, if you refer to territorial borders, then yes, I strive for a rethinking of borders. Or, you know, maybe I should say, I strive for an understanding of borders that doesn't connect territorial state borders to such a container model of culture. Because we know that cultures, people, ethnic groups cannot be contained with borders. I think that cultural Border Studies, with its focus on cultural and symbolic religious and identitarian borders can do a lot of work to counterbalance the focus on states and territories, and the notion that borders are physical outcomes of political, social and economic processes.
Susanne Hamscha 22:57
Borders have been called "scars of history" and "bleeding wounds." They exert power and are mechanisms of imposing order, as Astrid said, but they also help us to make sense of the world and construct our identities. While a world without borders may remain a utopian vision, global crises can only be solved in a unified effort across borders and nation states.
This concludes our first episode of diversity conversations. I hope you enjoyed it, and you will tune in again next time.