Reading time: 16 minutes
When the concept of the frontier touches down at the border between Mexico and the US.
In 1768, the Marquis de Rubí—following an inspection that took him two years and three thousand leagues—sent Viceroy Croix a proposal to solve defense, provisioning, and corruption problems at New Spain’s northern frontier. In the document, the marquis proposed for the first time the idea that the North’s defense required a line; that the border must not be thought of as an amorphous, open area but rather as fixed, straight, and regular. And that, therefore, presidios—i.e. fortresses used to defend those limits—must be relocated to “form a cordon,” rather than remain in their current irregular and poorly connected grid.
Just a few decades earlier, the controversy with regard to the leveling of the land had been resolved. A rectification of latitudes and longitudes was in process, and for the first time it was possible to precisely represent the location of any point in space. Armed with these certainties, the Marquis de Rubí decided to link the projected line of defense with a line of latitude. He writes: “Let us suppose there is a line that runs along the 30th parallel North and that it connects the Presidio de Altar with the mouth of the Guadalupe River at the Gulf of Mexico. The real line of defense ought to follow that imaginary line as closely as possible.” That line of defense, the marquis declares, encloses the Crown’s real possessions; the territories that lie beyond are in fact imaginary domains whose defense, even in passing, the marquis considers an unjustified expense.
Thus in Mexico began the tradition that understands the border exclusively as a line and not a state of the territory or some unfinished form of domain. The word frontier and the Spanish-language frontera are false etymological cognates. In Spanish, frontera almost exclusively refers to the precise line that separates two nations. However, frontier in English designates what lies beyond civilization, the confines of the known world, and a horizon for conquest. Frontera suggests containment; frontier, an overflowing, like sand that creeps onto a highway or water that spills over. A line traced appropriates a determined space, measures and fixes it. Flowing over, on the other hand, while implying a demarcation, also hides it.
The Marquis de Rubí’s insistence on setting the presidios along a “cordon of defense,” in addition to separating the de facto domains from the imaginary ones, marks the end of the derrotero literary genre. More like a logbook than a map, a derrotero describes a meandering journey through unknown, polymorphous lands. It opens a gap at the same time that it transcribes movement. A good example is Pedro de Rivera’s 1736 El diario y derrotero de lo caminado, visto y observado, which he wrote on his journey to the northern presidios. Pedro de Rivera’s route weaves a net of comings-and-goings, whose nodes are places with known names where travelers may take refuge from the indistinct nature of those surroundings:
Pedro de Rivera’s writing is a foundational act: it inaugurates and opens space for something to happen. Although the derrotero record the act of founding, it is an open and diffuse process: in it, any social practice can develop and the law has yet to come in to regulate things. The narration announces the land’s action-possibilities, but at the same time establishes its boundaries. The ability to move out of the established grid and get lost inland also has the paradoxical effect of establishing the new space’s boundaries and translating matter into value.
The journeys traced out in derroteros seem to have no route, but all these wanderings could be organized along two vectors. The first is prospecting for mineral wealth: “the entire surroundings of the mentioned province are an uninterrupted deposit of Gold and Silver,” de Rivera speculates. The second is the reduction and “pacification” of indigenous settlers in revolt. In addition to being foundational in the sense that it constitutes an inaugural representation, derrotero writing describes and puts in place foundational political acts. The following passage from de Rivera’s Diario could be read as a peripheral variation of the notion of the social contract that framed European political philosophy of the era:
It is significant that what de Rivera understands as the shift from a natural state to political life is described as an asymmetrical gift exchange. The Suma, exhausted from so much armed suffering, submitted in exchange for peace that was vouchsafed them. With it, they received other gifts that put an end to their movements, such as provisions, tools, and parcels for cultivation. Therefore, achieving peace and becoming a part of political life implies not just renouncing the nomadic existence but also becoming indebted to the empire, becoming a subject. It could be said the Suma paid for those parcels with the territory they ceded, and with their liberty paid for “the quietude of the surrounding area” that de Rivera so urgently desired. But the deep asymmetry of this exchange lies precisely in the fact that the side that lost more is the side that ends up being represented as the recipient of a gift and as such is the obliged, indebted side.
That asymmetry derives from the right of conquest, but also from the fact that the space surrounding the settlements is seen as empty (given that circulating in a territory is not considered a form of property ownership). One of the words that appears most frequently in Pedro de Rivera’s derrotero is “uninhabited.” It could be said a frontier is born when the space beyond a certain threshold is declared empty. The illusion of virgin lands always underlies frontier writing and announces extermination’s real violence.
That same territory would be defined as “uninhabited” or empty, on multiple occasions in successive centuries. In this context, “uninhabited” works as a kind of state apparatus that prepares the ground for intervention from a far-off center more than a descriptive term.
The empire inaugurates a frontier by describing it as an empty space available for fresh settlement, but it also seeks to close it, declaring it to be full. In 1890, for example, one year following the Oklahoma Land Rush, the US Census Bureau Director declared the frontier had been closed—free land had run out. The census demonstrated there was no longer a line beyond which population density was less than two persons per square mile. If the inauguration is blind, the closure is premature. Both ignore the primacy of the space itself, its enormity, independence, and infinite folds. The empire gets around on highways and railroads, it constructs a fixed and increasingly dense network, but the same means that allow it to shorten distances also restrict it to a single channel. Outside those channels, a space open to digression—a frontier—remains.
Frontier is a critical concept that designates a territory’s liminal state, neither inside nor outside, not yet and no longer. It simultaneously indicates two sides of an asymmetrical relationship: a space on the verge of being conquered and the small threshold of unfinished expansion, of the illegible, an intermediate state between foundation and movement.
The very fact that there is no exact translation of frontier into today’s Spanish suggests a particular relationship to territory and its control at the time of the conquest. The subtle linguistic difference between frontera and frontier is somehow symptomatic of the United States-Mexico relationship. Seen from one perspective, the limit is a line, from another, a domain for expansion. The line is unilateral, the stronger party draws it and maintains it; its vocation is not to contain the expansion of what lies within but to prevent invasion from what
The party that builds barricades enunciates its power and hangs back, waiting for the barbarians to rise on an as-yet open horizon—the “imaginary domains” that extend beyond the Marquis de Rubí’s cordon of defense, for example. On the contrary, the gaze of those who see barricades being raised fixates on and gets consumed by the line which closes off their horizon, and which almost absolutely distinguishes their without from their within. At the same time, the certainty of the border as a line has served to support the artifice of the Mexican nation, creating an illusion of the interior as a solid, known figure, with no cracks or exceptions, ever the more compact in its nationalism, the more expansive the empire above it becomes.
The primacy of the line has led to an obsession with crossing, hybridization, rupture, and bi-national pastiche as the northern border’s central attributes. Whether as fault line or contact area, the line has appropriated all questions and answers. It even dictates the most common mode of critique, which, predictably, has sought to erase that line, to intervene, returning it to a previous location or denouncing its arbitrary, artificial nature. In short, to endorse an illusion of natural or cultural continuity the line interrupted, as if it were possible to speak of a nature previous or external to the conceptual history of the natural. It is specifically the history of that series of distinctions—between nature and artifice, civilization and barbarism, the human and the animal—that is contained in the term frontier and that merits a critical rethinking.
* * *
One of the most emblematic figures of the frontier is the solitary gold prospector, known as a gambusino in Spanish. We do not know the word’s origin with certainty; it has been suggested it could be a typical frontier deformation of “gamble-business” in English. It may also have derived from the archaic Spanish-language term gamusino, i.e., “imaginary animal, whose name is used to play jokes on neophyte hunters.” The gambusino is one of those mythic figures motivated by an irrepressible yen for chimerical searches or hunting.
Their search only makes sense because—in a civilization’s reserve—gold is the repository of abstract value. Nevertheless, the fact that their desire presents as fever suggests intervention on the part of forces of another nature, perhaps closer to madness or mysticism. Fever is a passion in the original sense, an ailment that affects the organism from without. In contrast to the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, fever is not an inflammation of will but the will’s submission. The gambusino prospector does not exist except when afflicted with fever, a gold-fever that is at the same time real and illusory in its relation to foundation: rarely does he acquire the riches appropriate to the intensity of his passion, yet gold’s promise is enough to drive his wanderings.
This prospector’s solitary search replicates the territorial movements that have led to hidden as well as exposed deposits: veins and placers. Mineral placers originate in alluvial systems. The ancient flows that carried minerals feature interstices where movement stopped, thus forming sand deposits on the edges of the current. Only minerals of the greatest surface hardness resist erosion and generate sediments. Prospectors look for this combination of conditions and use a sieve or “pan” to filter impurities from the excavated sand. Panning is a filtration and classification process that winnows out sand grains through a network of holes and mesh. Through repeated circular movement, the desired mineral remains on the surface.
Today’s prospector sifts through soil excavated long ago, in search of gold flecks that slipped through erstwhile miners’ filters. He’s more an archaeologist than a geologist, digging through the ruins and remains of a previous time. As he walks along, he creates a space of enunciation, a geography of fortuitous discoveries for which narration and memory are absolutely required:
Prospectors operate outside the law and avoid jeopardizing their discoveries by making their way through open territory. They bet on technical progress that lets them pan more precisely, but above all, they bet on mistakes, since what they gather is specifically gold left over from past extractions.
The gambusino prospector becomes as such when he accumulates a series of tunnels he can visit. Collecting dirt piles is a way to capitalize: only by creating a tissue of hillocks with potential value is it possible to hold on to the promise of gold. These small mounds of excavated dirt are like precarious fortresses of what has already been rooted through, panned, and appropriated, but those ruins are also a sort of opaque speculation: they have to be there, but neither their true value nor their duration is known. Far from indicating exhaustion, this random collection of hillocks has an effect of unfolding the territory and opening a new frontier, a margin of undefined potential within the fenced-in polygon of private property.
Rhythms and tempos that are different from that of technique, like fever and luck, flourish in that space—moments of uncertainty and instability that shirk precaution and control. The prospector’s time is defined by the arrhythmia of chance, which by definition is unmerited and disproportionate—“gold is for layabouts.” It is precisely this time made up of fevers, euphorias, and temporary campgrounds that corresponds to this territory of being outside. Luck’s timing safeguards abundance; prospectors’ gold never runs out, fate doles it out. The myth of the West in the United States recognizes luck and fever as primordial frontier forces, but only to the degree that these have been previously captured and contained in simulacra like casinos or Westerns. These frontier dioramas do not hide the violence, but they do deactivate its productive or foundational capacities.
The prospector and miner occupy contiguous spaces, but they create different times and geographies. While one picks through barely visible solids, the other dynamites mountains and erodes tons of material. The difference is not only one of scale, but also of spirit and the way the surface they perforate is understood. To delimit the land, mining undertakes a geographical analysis and leverages a concession; that is, it makes use of technology and the law. Limited in that way, space is understood as fixed; concessions are granted for specific areas and lodes. Mining does not create a space of enunciation because there is not a space in which to generate as much: everything has been hoarded. That everything means the land acquired, backed by legal concession, and the guarantee to the lode granted by geological research and annual projections of the minerals to be extracted. A place of enunciation is only possible when something is missing.
Mines operate on a countdown to the mineral’s total exhaustion. “They reduced that red hill to rubble, they did away with it, then they stopped,” the prospector says. The only thing that can extend a mine’s productive life is future technological development. Mine tailings are mountains of mineral waste that mining companies hold on to, hoping at some point technical innovation will make their exploitation profitable.
These mountains of slag end up looking natural thanks to wind erosion, at the same time their contours are covered in cast-off dust that has not clung to the surface and that clouds the horizon with a brown patina.
Mining can be understood as an intensive classification mechanism that separates matter with value from matter lacking attributes; i.e. the earth’s very resources. But sometimes it seems we lose sight of the fact that the difference between these two terms is symbolic rather than physical, fictitious and therefore unstable: the same particle can change categories. In reality, tailings expose the absurd limits of a classification system that mixes material and symbolic qualities, value and matter. The same distinction between matter with value and matter lacking attributes sustains the legal difference between land ownership and the right to exploit the resources it contains, which the law defines as “all minerals or substances that in lodes, strata, masses or reserves constitute deposits whose nature may be distinct to those lands’ components” (Mexican Constitution, Article 27). The legal fiction that disassociates land from resources also allows us—once again—to think of the land as empty and in that way, opens a new form of frontier in a now populated space. From the point of view of mining cartography, national territory is “open” as long as it is not claimed by a preexisting license for exploitation.
The ease of acquiring concessions to expand into and occupy space derives from the fact that it is a right that is understood as distinct and independent from the surface occupation of a property. The right to exploitation is granted over a solid of indefinite depth limited by vertical planes; mining concessions work from the surface into the earth’s interior, but everything that remains at the surface is overridden by underground exploration and extraction. This fictitious distinction between area and volume is what lends the concession a character of not belonging to the surface, and as such, the environment of life. Even though the concession cannot be moved or separated from the place to which it corresponds because it is intimately linked to the soil, its usufruct happens on a plane that has already been conceptually disassociated from the exploited land and all that live there.
The possibility of inaugurating new frontiers in an already occupied space exists because territories are made of folds. The frontier is the permanent possibility of folding and unfolding what is given, mixing from within and without. In derrotero chronicles and the language of the prospector, narration cannot be dissociated from physical movement in space; their capacity to activate certain folds lies in that apparently trivial fact. The breaking point shouldn’t be understood as a limit but rather the pin in a hinge that allows for a double game of showing and hiding through a shift in surfaces. Movement only happens thanks to a small space around the pin, the empty cylinder into which it is inserted.
The urgency with which the line is considered today hides a fact of greater consequence: the reduction of all territory to the frontier’s most static form—an uninhabited space open for extraction.
Originally published on Blog de Crítica on June 15th, 2017.