Rebecca Solnit on transgression—in language, in the landscape, and in the art of Mona Hatoum.
To transgress means to break a law or custom, to go beyond the boundaries or limits, says the dictionary, and then it says that the word traveled from Latin through French to reach English, a nomad word whose original meaning was only to step across or carry across. Borders are forever being crossed; to draw a border is to just demarcate the line across which we will carry dreams, wounds, meanings, bundles of goods, ideas, children. Even the threshold of a doorway is a liminal space between public and private, between mine and ours; even liminal means a sensory threshold, often in the sense of hovering between states rather than crossing over from one to another.
Transgression is sometimes spatial, but sometimes an act is carried across rules or ideas or assumptions rather than across literal lines and spaces. We have, after all, pain thresholds and ethical boundaries. Sometimes a chair has a little triangle of pubic hair on it as though some portion of a sitter had been left behind, as a reminder that clothed people are nevertheless transporting their erogenous zones with them as they sip tea or wait for an appointment or draw up a plan, as we all do, as we pretend we don’t, as we carry on as though we did not carry over, as though our lives were not continual transgressions.
Sometimes assumptions become transgressions, of at least the truth and sometimes the complexity; sometimes people walk across a landscape on which the lines we know have not yet been drawn. The Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is often described as one of the first white men to reach Texas when he and his companions landed on makeshift barges and boats made of horsehide near Houston on the Gulf Coast, after a disaster. Though the histories might as well describe that moment in 1528 as when the first black man reached Texas, since Cabeza de Vaca traveled with a Moroccan man described as negro in the Spanish narrative. That man is remembered as Estevanico, though that was not his original name, which has been lost to history.
Estevanico was supposed to be Catholic, like all the Spaniards on the expedition that had landed in Florida and stumbled into calamity after calamity, but it is unlikely his conversion came of his own volition (slaves brought to the New World at that time had to be Christians; the religion was, so to speak, the visa they traveled under). Estevanico: a black man, an African, enslaved, most likely raised as Muslim, officially regarded as a convert to Christianity, sent to the Americas, lost on the North American continent, across which he walked for almost a decade. The moment of whiteness and Christianity arriving in Texas was also a moment of blackness and possibly of Islam arriving in a land where both Estevanico and Cabeza de Vaca would be strangers, enslaved, adapt, become healers and holy men as they walked across what was not yet conceived of as Texas on a continent centuries before the United States would be declared, almost three hundred years before anyone would imagine the Rio Grande as a division between nations rather than what a river usually is, a place of convergence, of waters, and of drinkers of water.
Estevanico’s life was a long series of transgressions, against him and by him, as he crossed through dozens of indigenous territories on his ten-year peregrination through North America. A year or two before the Narváez expedition had landed in Florida, a map of the world as Europe then knew it was drawn up by the cartographer Nuño García de Torena in Seville; it shows a reasonably accurate eastern coast of North and South America studded with a fine, dense lineup of names like pins or fur, but there is nothing inland, no Pacific coast, just a long coastline undulating inward at Central America’s narrow waist and then blankness. It is a drawing that depicts that nothing was known to Europe beyond that Atlantic coast. Looking at it now, it’s a reminder that the current arrangements—the Europeanization of the Americas, the maps of the world, the assumptions about what belongs where, the places the lines are drawn to delineate borders—arose after this map, that these things are the products of particular conditions, and that conditions will shift again. The truest lines on the map are those between land and water, though with climate change, those are due to shift. Sea-level rise will outdate all the atlases made from García de Torena’s time to ours; the other lines on the map are arbitrary and have changed many times and will change again.
The word Texas is, like place names across this continent from Denali to the Yucatán, indigenous, but it wasn’t originally the name of a place. It was the word for friends or allies and part of a greeting: hello, ally. The Handbook of Texas Online gives its variations as “tejas, tayshas, texias, thecas?, techan, teysas, techas?” The word got lost in translation, lost its friendship and its greeting, and was attached to a place, though some portion of it lives on in the Spanish-speaking Texans long known as Tejanas and Tejanos and in Tejano music. Auia was the indigenous name Cabeza de Vaca recorded for what is now known as Galveston, after Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez y Madrid.
He and his companions were the very opposite of conquistadors, for the land and people conquered and transformed them. They were lost; they had little idea of where they were; they had no knowledge of the plants and animals, of the languages and customs; they were about as foreign as it was possible to be without leaving the planet, more removed from the familiar than almost anyone can be nowadays. They stepped across, they carried across, they wandered, and they were transformed as they morphed into something other than the men who had landed. The account Cabeza de Vaca wrote uses the hybrid Spanish-indigenous word tassajar, to dry long strips of meat in the sun, which was what one among them named Esquivel did with another expedition member named Sotomayor, and then Sotomayor was carried across the terra incognita as food. At another stage of their arduous journey, they quenched their thirst with the juice of prickly pears squeezed into a hole in the ground.
Sometimes two teacups become one, a sort of Möbius strip of china that you could sip from only by tipping the other cup’s tea into your lap or across the channel between two vessels or if you very carefully arranged to drink with your lips close together and your movements aligned, though you can drink ideas of fellowship and awkwardness without touching the cup that is perhaps two cups or neither two nor one, like a cell midway through mitosis or a face pressed to a mirror. Can we drink together? Does something always spill over?
The word metaphor is more like the word transgress than one might think: it traveled from Greece, where it literally means a transfer or a carrying over; it’s a word sometimes nowadays written on buses and moving vans there, I’ve been told. Writing it now makes me think of Syrian refugees sailing to Greece in fragile boats that sometimes sink, of this attempt to carry over from a war zone to an arrival without welcome across the Mediterranean. The word refugee comes from, of course, refuge, something that refugees don’t always find. Metaphors are transgressive in that they make unalike things alike: a crib is like a prison because it also has bars. Bars are like test tubes when they are made of glass. A crib becomes an experimental zone when it’s a cage of test tubes; without a baby inside, it can be filled with imaginings, which may grow up to be ideas.
Metaphors are not how we define territories; they are how we travel across thresholds between categories. They are bridges across difference. Through them, we connect the abstract and the concrete, the small and the large, the live and the inanimate, the human and the nonhuman. Sometimes the metaphors are built so deeply into language we hardly notice the bodily anatomy that gives mountains foothills, rivers headwaters and mouths (curiously, at opposite ends), needles eyes, vases necks, chairs arms, and tables legs. We think through our bodies, and that includes seeing bodies elsewhere, making bodies the terms of understanding how animate and inanimate, tiny and huge objects and systems work. Both needles and storms have eyes. Metaphor is the process of relating things that are alike in some fashion, to some degree, and the literal-minded object on the grounds of those differences while the metaphorically minded understand the limits of similarity.
Country, says the Oxford English Dictionary, derives from “Anglo-Norman contré, countré, cuntré, Anglo-Norman and Old French cuntree,” and one of its roots—for we describe words as having the roots we know from plants, which suggests they’re stable but living—is contra, against, opposite, as in contrary and contradict. In another round of metaphors, a living body is like a country because a free and equal individual has sovereignty over her body, because both are imagined as clearly defined distinct and separate things, though my body may walk away from yours and the United States cannot walk away from Mexico any more than Egypt can take a hike from Libya. Bodies are real, while nations are in some sense fictions of separateness, made by drawing fictitious lines on continents (and lines on a few islands, notably Hispaniola, now divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and then pretending that they are demarcations of true separateness and independence, as though the birds do not fly across the Rio Grande, where it is supposed to be an international boundary, as readily as they do when it is only the line of muddy water running down the center of New Mexico, as though your arms could declare independence from your chest.
Under patriarchy, the ideal body has been imagined as an isolationist nation, an island unto itself, in total control, which makes the female body—or any body whose orifices and interchanges, whose penetrability and vulnerability are acknowledged—troublesome. Of course every body is open and porous; five minutes without inhaling the air around you and you’re dead; a week without water and you’re a mummy; but it’s sexual penetration and penetrability and ideas of openness as erotic and social possibilities that seem to be the source of animosity and anxiety for the men who imagine themselves as island fortresses. The many thresholds of women’s bodies and what crosses those boundaries have made them endlessly subject to measures to contain and control, or rather to contain and control the anxiety of a patriarchal society. Patrilinearity—the descent of the male line—has also begotten a fury to control women’s sexuality, and that fury has for millennia begotten clothing, laws, customs, punishments, architectures, and rules governing public space to regulate women’s bodies to preserve male powers and lineages and privileges of access.
Invade, from the Latin for walking in, connects the word to transgress and to metaphor. Rape is an act of war, an invasion of an unwilling body to demonstrate power over and to subjugate and punish. There are acts on the scale of nations that impact bodies and on bodies that impact lives on the scales of nations. Rape has been a common, overt tool of war in the past few decades, in Rwanda, in Sudan, and currently in Syria, where the invasion of women’s and girls’ bodies becomes a reason that families leave the country; the threat of individual invasion contributes to the plight of mass exile. Occupied territory is a term that can also be applied to bodies; bodies go into exile to avoid hostile occupation. You become a refugee because your body is not a refuge.
In the United States, an inverse oppression has arisen with the intensified insistence that some residents here are invaders who should be expelled. The idea of illegal immigrants arises from the nation as a body whose purity is defiled by foreign bodies and from borders as something that can and should be sealed. There is a dream of a nation that is autonomous, uncontaminated, a sort of solid block of impenetrable matter, a dream that defies the reality of circulating air, water, goods, migratory animals, and histories in which other borders or no borders existed, in which most of us crossed many borders to arrive here. It’s a fantasy of safety in which distinctions between self and other are absolute and the other can be successfully repelled, one that begs and refuses the questions of who us is and who they are. Isolationism works on both scales.
Isolate, from insulatus or insula, island. Isolation pretends that parts of the whole are instead autonomous islands, and of course islands themselves are often not isolated at all: they are trading centers, nesting sites for migratory birds, places of coming and going, middle children in archipelagoes. The rise in pursuit and prosecution of undocumented immigrants has forced many to disappear from public spaces and services. The Houston Chronicle reported this summer that there is a 42 percent decline in the number of Hispanics reporting being raped in Houston compared with the year before. The victims dare not report being sexually invaded for fear of being punished as invaders, here in this nation where 97 percent of rapists already evade conviction in a court of law. Harper’s Magazine reports that after immigration raids in Las Cruces in southern New Mexico, elementary-school absences skyrocketed by 150 percent over the usual levels, with thousands staying away from their education. Students in other school districts around the country have similarly withdrawn from education and public life.
Newsweek reported that a pregnant Houston woman, a refugee who arrived long ago fleeing violence in El Salvador, was making plans to give birth at home for fear of being arrested if she went to a hospital. Hers is a status from which she or her child may die in childbirth. The fantasy of securing the U.S.-Mexico border and of separating the native-born from the immigrant, the white from the nonwhite, is part of a platform that also includes denying women reproductive rights, which is to say sovereignty over our own bodies.
You might think that fantasies of inviolable borders would do the opposite and affirm women’s jurisdiction over their own bodies, but in the battles over reproductive rights, the conservative alignment protects men’s prerogatives by undermining women’s freedom. It’s an ideology in which nation must be inviolable, its borders secured; the women must be violated, their borders transgressed. Texas now has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, a rate that doubled between 2010 and 2014 (five times California’s maternal mortality rate). The causes include shutting down family-planning clinics around the state.
Cell, from the Latin for a small room, is in English both the chamber that holds a monastic or a prisoner and the fundamental unit of life, as in single-celled organism. Metaphors often work by shifts in scale. Words are artworks, representations that model analogies and affinities across scales from the cosmological to the microscopic. We grow used to the relationships built into terms like Milky Way and cease to see them. There is an art of making things unfamiliar again. “Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time … So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it,” Georgia O’Keeffe once declared.
Much of the work in this Mona Hatoum exhibition operates by shifts of scale that render the familiar unfamiliar; cities, the whole planet are reduced to the scale of small two-dimensional cartographic representations, to maps; domestic objects become menacing when they are enlarged to the size of furniture; furniture becomes unfamiliar, as a wheelchair becomes destabilizing, possibly damaging, the seats of swings are embossed with maps of cities, various beds become objects of discomfort or even torture; hair becomes an ethereal mat, a series of spheres, estranged from the body that produced it.
Scale is a form of orientation; changing it generates disorientations that reawaken the eyes and mind. Seeing these works, your own body wakes up to itself; they are visual art, taken in through the eyes, but suggesting possibilities and disruptions of body in proximity to them, marbles on the floor to trip on, a grater of a bed that could shred your flesh, cages, swings. You could do things with these artworks; they could do things to you; they place the body in question and sometimes in jeopardy.
Alienate: “To transfer or surrender ownership of (property rights); to make over to another owner … to cause (a person) to feel estranged, hostile, or unsympathetic.” Alien: “Latin aliēnus (adjective) of or belonging to others, unnatural, unusual, unconnected, separate, of another country, foreign, unrelated, of a different variety or species, unfamiliar, strange, unfriendly, unsympathetic, unfavourable, inappropriate, incompatible, distasteful, repugnant.” The wavering lines of coastlines in maps and of hair on bodies and separated from bodies conflict with the artworks’ orderly grids. In these works, bars and grids separate and contain some things; others meld and meander and migrate.
Everything in this work is estranged, displaced, uprooted from the habitats of scale and context that make us stop looking; maybe, as O’Keeffe noted, displacement and attention are related, maybe paying attention is first of all an endeavor to survive and adapt when the unfamiliar arises, startles us out of our habits, carries us over some border into the unexpected. The subtle troubles here are not quite threats but more than ordinary questions. They alert us to our condition, our embodiment, our geography, alert us to our own borders and boundaries and what crosses over there and the ways meaning is always migrant.
Attention, from the French attendre, to wait. WAITING IS FORBIDDEN says an enameled metal plaque in the exhibition, in Arabic and English. Attention attends, but meaning migrates; wandering and remaining are the measures out of which our lives are made and unmade.
Rebecca Solnit is an author, historian, and activist.
© 2018 by Rebecca Solnit. Reprinted from Terra Infirma: Mona Hatoum, by Michelle White et al., published by the Menil Collection, Houston, and distributed by Yale University Press.