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Between Border and Dwelling. The Divisibility of the Line in Frozen River and Welcome

I do not think of the notion of the “border” as an empirical quantity or a fixed denomination, or indeed in the spatial sense of the term. Borders are always within, inside social space, which is not smooth, but is multi-linear, discontinuous and punctured (troue).

—Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions

The idea of a boundary or of traits, with an inside and an outside, a here and a there, seems insufficient. It is the space in-between which imposes itself as a reception place for differences at play.

—Ann-Belinda Steen Preis, “Seeking Place”

In his encyclopedic Natural History 36, 19-20, Pliny tells the anecdote of two Greek painters, the established and admired Apelles and a younger and promising Protogenes of Rhodes. Hearing of this great artist, Apelles went to Rhodes to visit his studio and found Protogenes absent but a large empty panel waiting on his easel. The elderly lady custodian asked whom she should say had paid him a visit. Apelles then picked up a brush, said “By this person,” and proceeded to paint a narrow, very straight line across the canvas. When Protogenes later returned and was shown the line, he instantly recognized the famous, steady hand of Apelles. He then took another color and carefully painted an even finer line within the borders of the first one. Secreting himself away, he awaited Apelles’s reaction upon his return. Apelles, taxed to his utmost, then split the previous two lines by a third extremely finely applied line, upon which Protogones appeared and admitted defeat. This simple painting, Pliny concludes, was famous even among the most accomplished works of antiquity.

This anecdote of professional rivalry and mastery provides a visual image of the tracing of the border, a fine line that divides a territory just like the straight brush cuts across the canvas, splitting the space into two. The resulting line is actually multidimensional, and divides itself according to the painter’s expertise. What the final painting reveals is a line within a line within a line. These series of Borges-like bifurcations in space have an uncanny continuity with Derrida’s vision of the border in Aporias. The border is an indivisible line, “and one always assumes the institution of such indivisibility” (Derrida 1993, 11). “Customs, police, visa or passport, passenger identification,” the different elements that constitute the wrappings of border crossing, are established upon what Derrida terms “this institution of the indivisible” (ibid.). Its indivisibility, however, is threatened from its initial drawing, for “this tracing can only institute the line by dividing it intrinsically into two sides” (ibid.). This conceptual two-dimensionality is akin to Protogenes’s superimposition of a finer line onto the previous one, and the final correction of the master and his definite line. One may question, however, where the ultimate line is. Where is the one that shows the most consummate act of mastery, with the steady hand splitting the former line into two? As we superimpose these verbal and visual layers it becomes apparent that there is no one border, for its oneness harbors an inner line, and “its intrinsic division divides the relation to itself of the border and therefore divides the being-one-self of anything” (ibid.).

This chapter dissects the spatial and conceptual divisibility of the border in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River and Philippe Lioret’s Welcome. The two liquid lines the movies portray refract and reflect multiple divisions that correlate with the divisibility of the self. The oneness of the border, like the oneness of the self as defined on either side of the boundary, becomes an ontological impossibility; oneness is already an a priori twoness. The premise that the border doubles itself in an endless division allows us to introduce the Levinasian discussion of self and Other in the creation of identity. There is an echo of Levinas’s articulation of the self and the encounter with the Other in Derrida’s insistence on the intrinsic division of the being-one- self of anything. There is, in turn, a distant echo of Apelles’s inscription of a finer line on the presumed one-dimensionality of the line. The ultimate expression of this endless divisibility, according to Levinas in Totality and Infinity, is the notion that subjectivity equals welcoming the Other; subjectivity becomes a form of hospitality.

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