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Between the Limit and the Boundary: Undoing the Line

Nothing is complete (leleion) which has no end (telos); and the end is a limit.

Aristotle, Physics

When do the new walls become more like the confining walls of a prison, rather than the comforting walls of a house? When does the fortress become a penitentiary?

—Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

In Aristotelian physics, a limit, like a shape, belongs primarily to what is limited or contained; conversely, a boundary encloses and surrounds and pertains to the container (Casey 1998, 63). This differentiation seems to be at the crux of internment, for while propaganda emphasized the autonomy of the communities, that is, the limit pertaining naturally to their nature, the photographs, the sketches, and the art created during internment emphasizes the boundary, the imposed limit, and how it fashioned the way the internees envisioned the idea of place and home. Okubo’s Map of the City of Topaz, one of her drawings for Trek magazine,22 shows the camp as a self-contained city, suspended between two signs, “California” and “To Delta,” the nearest “free” city. As if to clarify the difference between limit and boundary, the artist surrounds the perimeter of the map with barbed wire. Modeled on the government’s plot plans of the internment site (Horiuchi 2008, 124), Okubo’s map offers an autotopography of personal and communal spatial practices, including satirical notes, such as a couple of people blocking their noses near the septic tank. Significantly, the artist incorporates the barbed wire within the legend of the map and in this way repossesses the enclosure, its limiting power mediated through artistic appropriation. Thus the perimeter is put on the same level as the other signs, such as the church or the preschool. Verticality and its investment in power are leveled down and situated on the Cartesian plane.

The black-and-white, two-dimensional map seems to be cast in 3-D in Barracks, an oil-on-canvas painting by Taneyuki Dan Harada. The bareness of the setting and the mantle of dusk create a desolate landscape, and an outsourced Hopper-like quality permeates the desert landscape. The barracks have no apparent location; they could be situated in Manzanar or any other of the internment camps of the interior. This lack of specific spatial coordinates adds to their indistinctive quality.23 More significantly, the inhabitants of this ghost city are nowhere to be seen. The barracks appear depopulated, and their ghostly quality bespeaks a question: who is the observer or painter? The painter is not observing the curfew that established the time-perimeter in the camps. The painting creates a landscape of uniformity and bareness, an urban space outside the urban. The mood of this relocated city appears repeatedly in Okubo’s narration: “A feeling of uncertainty hung over the camp; we were worried about the future. Plans were made and remade, as we tried to decide what to do. Some were ready to risk anything to get away. Others feared to leave the protection of the camp” (139). Similarly, Dorothea Lange comments in the caption to one of her photos taken at Tanforan: “Many evacuees suffer from lack of their accustomed activity. The attitude of the man shown in this photograph is typical of the residents in assembly centers, and because there is not much to do and not enough work available, they mill around, they visit, they stroll and they linger to while away the hours” (Gordon and Okohiro 2006, 150). The mood of the camp-city is that of total stasis.

The productivity of the boundary permeates other aspects of the camp-city, such as the meaning of home. What happens when the home is deprived of its defining qualities and participates in the economy of anonymity? What are the new coordinates of home? The sketch on page 139 shows a variety of groups in a crowded room. It might look like a social gathering with different simultaneous scenes: reading, drinking, or talking. Okubo’s character directly addresses the gaze of the viewer with her back to the scene, as if unable to find a place among the different social circles. The space of the home does not shelter the dreamer, who may have to go into the open spaces to look for it, as the next illustration shows. The open spaces, however, are not open, for the watchtowers and barbed wire show the unequivocal presence of the policed premises. Erica Harth, a Caucasian student at Manzanar, claims that when children played house at Manzanar, they pretended to stand in line at a mess hall. The make-believe implicit in the children’s play foregrounds one of the main routines at camp as a striated space that intertwines the horizontal lines that structure camp life and the vertical plane of the watchtower.

Even if for children a home could only be reconstructed outside the barracks, the idea of home was evoked through the school curriculum, as the “home unit” prescribed for first graders in Manzanar illustrates. The different topics covered in the unit—family, food, garden, animals, neighboring helpers, communication, or transportation—are held in suspense behind the barbed wire, as if the Dick and Jane portrayal of the model American family had entered the nightmarish quality of the run-on narrative Toni Morrison portrays in the different sections of The Bluest Eye. The ideal household, like the ideal democracy, fell outside the sequestered premises of the camp, separated by that continuum of panoptic control made up of watchtowers, armed soldiers, and barbed wire. The imposed boundary becomes the axis of a mirage of democracy that is paradoxically consistent with American values. In a poignant painting entitled Boys with Kite (1944), Estelle Ishigo presents the crucible of barbed wire and kite string, internment and freedom, and how, to return to Austerlitz, one is inextricably linked to the other. Two children are trying to disentangle the string, caught in the wire. The wire actualizes the omnipresent lines of the camp as well as its status as striated and panoptic space. Impossibly entangled, the string seems to be now part of the mesh of post and wire fence. Threaded through the wire, the string creates a pattern in between, a new calligraphy of entanglement within the lines of enclosure. Poised upon the pole, one of the boys is situated at the confluence of multiple vectors. His position is liminal, for he places himself at the crux of the outer boundary of the camp and the line of flight of the painting.

Okubo’s graphic memoir, like the works of so many artists, signifies the body between the lines, as well as those lines in between, the crafted calligraphy of entanglement that is part of those spiky lines of the nation that bounded the Other. There was democracy, as the authorities repeated over and over again, and the inhabitants were fully “in charge” of the cities, yet, as they have been commonly called, the camps were “barbed-wire democracies” (Fryer 2008, 87). The camps could only be abandoned in case of emergency or death, and only immediate members of the family could attend the burial services, always under the gaze of armed guards; a curfew was imposed, and roll call was held every day morning and evening. The camps dealt out their own level of violence, as the shooting of an internee, James Wakasa, showed. Wakasa was reportedly taking a stroll near the fence when he was shot. For him the fence was no limit but rather a boundary pertaining to the container. Thus split between limit and boundary, the barbed wire speaks with a double voice, for if it marks the mirage of democracy within the camps, it also signifies a similar mirage outside the camps. Like the border, the mirage of a free community cuts both ways.

Although exceptions to the state of exception and its concomitant internment were made almost as soon as camp life began,24 by early 1943 it became clear to the WRA that camps were anything but pioneer communities or safe havens. After a year of operation, officials concluded that “relocation centers were for many reasons not socially sound or healthy communities [and] that there was little chance of any danger being done to the war effort by any of the evacuees.” Furthermore they “were convinced that much was to be gained in behalf of the war effort by bringing the evacuees out of centers and into normal communities where they could make a real contribution” (in Fryer 2008, 89-90). Officials issued warnings that if the industrious Japanese were left to languish in the camps, they could fall into the dependency that plagued the once self-sufficient Native American tribes who had inhabited the area (Fryer 2008, 90). In short, the WRA becomes wary of a transformation American authorities had witnessed before: the homo sacer easily mutes into homo sucker (cf. Zizek 2002, 83-111), the subject that has been dispossessed by the American government and now survives on government subsidies. This change in policy explains why the boundary of the camp becomes increasingly permeable. Temporary leaves were granted to volunteer seasonal workers, who were the first to be allowed to leave the project, Okubo writes (186). Later on, block shopping was introduced, whereby one resident of each block was allowed to shop in the nearby town of Delta for the rest of the block. Many other residents went outside the fence to gather vegetation and small stones for their gardens. Other men went fishing in irrigation ditches. Relocation programs followed these small-scale gestures. Students led the way as they continued their education in colleges and universities; others volunteered for the army. Another term appears in Okubo’s vocabulary: “relocatees,” a category that still casts distrust and is routinely “checked and double checked and rechecked” (205). Those who were deemed disloyal, or those who gave unsatisfactory answers to questions 27 and 28 on the “Application for Leave Clearance” questionnaire (February 1943), were sent to Tule Lake, the chosen center to harbor the disloyal.25

The entry back into citizenship is closely watched, Okubo writes and implies swearing allegiance to the U.S. and being checked by the War Relocation offices. Sketch 205 shows Okubo holding a stack of forms as she is fingerprinted. Part of the plowing through red tape involves having her picture taken. Posed as if looking into a mirror in front of her, the fleeting moment carries a barely visible number, 44367. From Citizen 13660 Okubo becomes relocatee 44367,26 another number that grants her passage through another version of Ellis/Angel Island prior to reentry. Okubo attends forums such as “How to Make Friends” and “How to Behave in the Outside World,” as if she were a newcomer, an immigrant going through the process of acculturation. After passing through the Administration Office, Okubo hurries to the gate, where she lines up for the last time to be checked by the WRA and the army. Once outside, Okubo looks back before getting into a vehicle. It is a parallel image to her leaving her home on page 23. Okubo marks the similarities with a similar disposition of characters and settings. A diagonal line separates Okubo not from her home and the distinctive features of a neighborhood, but from the camp itself. The line is the gate secured by armed soldiers. Behind it a group of people, the very old or very young, stay back in the generic geography of the camp barracks. “My God!” Okubo exclaims. “How do they expect those poor people to leave the one place they can call home” (209). Her comment echoes Althusser’s words that it is impossible to leave a closed space by taking a position outside of it, for the outside may be the repetition of the enclosed space and may be traversed, to recall Obata’s words, by similar lines of division. There was nothing after Terezin, as most of its internees were “relocated” to the extermination camps of the east. There was only “the desert,” Okubo writes, as she goes through the gates of Topaz and the barracks fade away into the distance. Or, to borrow from Morpheus’s salute to Neo in The Matrix: there is only “the desert of the real” (Wachowski Brothers 1999). This uncertain expanse is undercut by similar geographical strata, that of effective visible or invisible incarceration. Like Sebald, Okubo introduces her readers to the placid surface of Europe and the U.S. before puncturing the surface and disrupting it. What they discover is not the end result of buried stories, but of stories being made.

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