Frontier as metaphor

The concept of the border is wired, figuratively speaking, into the human brain.

Related concepts include the dividing line, the frontier, and the borderland.

Kees van der Pijl (2007) argues that, historically, the frontier has always been a zone of adaptation, learning, and innovation.

He speaks in this context of the what he calls the subterranean attraction of the frontier as the place where the barbarian lurks.

This attraction, according to the author, lends ambivalence to imperialism, “which works,” as he explains, “to absorb the barbarian counterpart into the dominant culture, producing hybrid identities and split loyalties. Civilisation, in the sense given to it by Elias (1987) of a domestication of the instincts, indeed presupposes and creates the barbarian opposite.”

Rethinking the Great White North (2011)

Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada (2011) similarly addresses the concept of the frontier.

The book’s final chapter, by Sherene H. Razack, is entiteld “Colonization: The good, the bad and the ugly.”

The author notes (p. 270) that “Hearne, Grey Owl, Flanagan, and Alcantara are anti-conquest men par excellence, undertaking the colonial mission not as conquistadors but as men of science, believing deeply in the innocence of the scientific and travel narrativs they construct. To know the land is to claim it, and if knowing cannot come from having occupied the land for generations, it must come from science.”

To put it in other terms, the author adds, “Eternal bricoleurs, or handymen, who possess only intuition and experience (Indigenous knowledge) rather than the science possessed by engineers (Lévi-Strauss’ 1966 division of human intellectual activity into two unequal ways of knowing), Indigenous peoples reside permanently in the pre-modern, destined to be dominated by those who make maps, classify plants,a nd offer neo-liberal economic solutions. The ingene, Radhica Mohanram (1999, 14) argues, remains “immobile against the repeated onslaught of the settler.”

Razack asks whether the white desire to re-examine the North itself is a story that reinstalls white dominance, and adds that it would be useful in future to have a discussion which includes the views of Indigenous scholars.

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