If each of us can accept that we are the strangers, then there are no
strangers — only others like ourselves. — Richard Kearney
An invisible border is a visible ruse, cloaked in idealistic and wishful thinking that the future will be nothing less than a seamless continuation of the present order of things. Put differently; as Fintan O’Toole wrote in a recent Guardian piece, the governments plans for a seamless, invisible border are little more than a “hymn to the way things are now. We don't have a hard border, and we wont after Brexit…the position paper takes existing realities and repositions them as a distant mirage, a fantastical possibility: less emerald isle, more Emerald City.” There will be no invisible border.
The idea of an invisible border is just that: an Idea. The Idea of an invisible border is symbolic; a representation of an idea that things are ‘quite fine as they are thank you very much, and we’d rather not talk at all about the real underlying issues that the border itself presents.’ The meanings of the border are many, and beneath the Idea of an invisible border, there is, what Roland Barthes called, a “second-order semiological system”.
Perhaps Barthes’ most famous example of this, in his book Mythologies, is that of a young black solider pictured on the cover of a magazine looking proudly towards the french flag (125). He suggests that at a surface level the meaning of this image can be easily decoded. “On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on the fold of the tricolour” (125). But beyond this denotive level of meaning a mythological meaning emerges. Barthes suggests that something else is signified and that something is the empire of France,
that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve
under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of
an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving
his so-called oppressors (125).
Barthes analysis breaks meaning out of the image and its referent systems and connects it with the political, historical and ideological modes of meaning operative in society. In short; Barthes analysis offers up the potential of a reading of images which tap into the ideological systems which they may be supporting — the message that France is a racially inclusive empire, to the point that a young black man is prepared to fight for his country.
The question is: what ideological systems of thought are expressed in the idea of an invisible border, and who do they serve?
There may be, we hope, a border without physical expressions — other than the existing road markings and miles changing into kilometres — but this absence will itself denote a presence; the presence of the ‘other’. There may be, we hope not, physical manifestations — checkpoints, barriers, searches and such like; but this presence will be a signifier of deeper, longstanding ideological undercurrents. Invisible, visible, electronic, physical, whatever kind of border we end up with there will continue to be a ‘them’; the ‘others’; monsters scapegoated on the altars of our deepest fears.
Either way; there will be no invisible border; there will simply be a border. And this border, for many, is a comforting thing indeed. It marks out their world, gives them their territory, reinforces their identity — there is a ‘them’ and there is an ‘us’. For others it acts as a reminder; that things are not the way they want them to be — it divides and it cuts. Either way; the question really is, not what the physical manifestation of the post-Brexit border will be, but rather, what images, ideas and ideologies — like the Wizard of Oz, with his levers, smoke and fire — does it mask.