Becoming Matter/Becoming Mother Monique Tschofen

Becoming Matter/Becoming Mother: Wilding in Ali Abbasi’s Border (Gräns)

Monique Tschofen
This paper provides an analysis of Ali Abbasi’s film Border through a feminist new materialist approach that centers what I call “wilding”—a process of worlding that challenges binary and rigid structures of thought that dichotomize existence into fixed categories through the cultivation of bewilderment, a state of openness to not-knowing which requires the unlearning of anthropocentric epistemologies. Paying attention to the etymological roots of the word “matter” (as body, wood, mother/nourishment, and place), the paper shows how the film displaces the dominion of sight with an emphasis on symbiosis that foregrounds the sense of touch
Cet article propose une analyse du film Border d'Ali Abbasi à travers d’une approche matérialiste féministe qui centre ce que j'appelle « wilding » — un processus de mondialisation qui remet en question les structures de pensée binaires et rigides qui divisent l'existence en catégories fixes, et qui cultive plutôt la perplexité, un état d’ouverture au non-savoir qui nécessite le désapprentissage des épistémologies anthropocentriques. En prêtant attention aux racines étymologiques du mot « matière » (comme corps, bois, mère/nourriture et lieu), l’article montre comment le film déplace la domination de la vue et met au premier plan le sens du toucher.

Iranian-Swedish filmmaker Ali Abbasi’s 2018 genre-bending film Border (Gräns) takes the form of a politico-philosophical study of the body as medium and as matter. The film tells the story of a border agent, Tina, whose extraordinary sense of smell has been put to use by the police for sniffing out fear, anxiety, and lies told by people whose deceits range from smuggling alcohol to dealing child pornography. This paper centres the overlapping concepts of materiality that subtend the conceptual ecosystem of the film in order to trace the patterns made by movements of the film’s bodies, their adjacencies and points of contact, their insides and outsides, porosities and boundaries, and in so doing, teases out the grounding of both the film’s politics and ethics.

The story knits together a number of genres. It retrieves European folk traditions about disruptive figures outside of the social order, such as trolls, wild women, and changelings. It is a narrative of identity: Tina learns that she is a troll, saved through forced adoption from the genocide of her kin. It is a romance: a story about how two social outcasts, Tina and her doppelgänger Vore (Eero Milonoff), find and lose each other, leaving Tina to mother their child. It is a crime story: Tina investigates a pedophilic kidnapping ring. And perhaps most importantly, it is a story about adjacencies between bodies: about foxes and fungi and forests; stones and cold water.

Critics and reviewers often approach Abbasi’s film as an allegory about “minorities” (Rappold, Slater-Williams), immigrants and others (Jenkins; Mazaj; Szianowski), linking the director’s own story of migration from Iran to Sweden to Denmark to his protagonist’s position as a border guard. It is curious, then, that Abbasi himself has rejected readings of the film that see Tina’s outsider status as an allegory for political border-crossings:

“Je reste prudent sur le fait de voir des allégories dans les films. Certains voient dans Border une histoire sur la crise des migrants. Non. Si j’avais voulu faire un film sur les migrants, j’aurais fait un film sur des migrants et non sur des trolls.” (Abbasi)

Border, Abbasi insists, is a film about trolls—mythical beings who in folk and fairy tale traditions dwell in forests, are afraid of lightning, and switch human babies with their own. Trollness is the film’s connector to primordial, elemental, powerful, and vibrant things on the one hand and a matrix of generative storying on the other.

Abbasi’s trolls need to be considered as what Donna Haraway would call Chthonic ones. In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway seeks to cut the bonds that tie us to the Anthropocene and Capitalocene using conceptual tools from science and speculative feminism. Haraway retrieves the ancient stories of monsters whose position outside of human time generates a time of beginnings (kainos) “full of inheritances, of remembering, and full of comings, of nurturing what might still be” (2):

“Chthonic ones are monsters in the best sense; they demonstrate and perform the material meaningfulness of earth processes and critters. They also demonstrate and perform consequences. Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth. They make and unmake; they are made and unmade. They are who are.” (2)

Abbasi’s trolls do offer an effective stand-in for those whose physical and social otherness along axes of gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and race are consistently excluded, subjected to pain and vulnerability or annihilated (Lykke 26), but trollness is always more-than. Trollness operates as a conduit or taproot to the more-than-human world where other models of kinship and epistemologies are available that hold great power to grow worlds (Meyers) and weather droughts, tapping into sensational, tentacular thinking and sharing networks (Cunningham-Rogers).

In “Trolling Humanism: New Materialist Performativity in Border,” Rebecca Pulsifer brings Abbasi’s film into dialogue with feminist new materialism, starting from Karen Barad’s provocation that “matter matters.” Pulsifer draws from disability studies, affect theory, ecological humanities, and feminist and queer theory to examine what the film teaches about the “entanglement of technoscience and naturecultures” (Pulsifer 7). New materialists’ attention to matter, she explains, “calls into question familiar divisions between culture and nature, human and nonhuman, body and mind, and animate and inanimate at the level of ontology,” divisions that overlook “how matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly, or otherwise ‘wrong’ animates cultural life in important ways” (Chen 2 qtd. in Pulsifer 8). Pulsifer outlines some of the presuppositions of “new materialist paradigm[s]”: First, that “matter is not passive residue or background; it is the medium through which interactions occur.” Second, that there is a need “for discourses, ethics, and politics that attend to more-than-human worlds” (Pulsifer 8). And last, that it is necessary to interrogate the humanist presupposition that humans are autonomous agents and therefore have the right to dominate nature (Pulsifer 8).

Following in Pulsifer’s footsteps, bringing feminist new materialist frameworks to the film, I show how Abbasi works with complexity models through pairs and chiasms, overlapping and inverting domains, histories, fictions and realities, through a matrix of organizing questions derived from different definitions of the word “matter”—as body (matrix, womb) as wood and as transformation (hyle); as mother (mater, mother); and as place (chora) (Malpas 67). These questions centre matter as a condition of possibility through a process of worlding I would call wilding.

Worlding is a term that for Heidegger refers to the intertwined processes through which existence and the world mutually shape and reveal each other. It has been taken up in a wide range of disciplinary contexts, from postcolonial studies (Spivak), globalization (Wilson), and world literature (Cheah), to international relations (Ozkaleli), always underlining with the gerundive the active, ongoing, and often contested processes of world-making. Worlds are not merely backdrop settings but are active productions, continuously shaped and reshaped by human and non-human actors, stories, practices, and relations. For Helen Palmer and Vickie Hunter, for example, worlding “removes the boundaries between subject and environment” and thus “affords the opportunity for the cessation of habitual temporalities and modes of being.” What I see in Abbasi’s film that I call “wilding” can be conceived as a transformative process that combines the nuances of “worlding”—the constant unfolding and re-shaping of the world through interrelated narratives and practices—with the substance of “mattering”—the recognition of the vital and dynamic agency of matter in the constitution of reality and construction of meanings “across and through human and nonhuman bodies” (Jones 245). In Abbasi’s film, wilding is a radical palliative that refuses the civilization-wilderness divide as it restores the materiality of bodies-in-relation. Wilding grows viable worlds by signaling the fluid, ever-changing relationships and boundaries between entities, challenging binary and rigid structures of thought that dichotomize existence into fixed categories, through the cultivation of bewilderment, a state of openness to not-knowing which requires the unlearning of anthropocentric epistemologies.

The film’s title might suggest that it is about boundaries, separations, limits, and exclusions. However, for Abbasi, borders also signal contiguities and porosities. Abbasi deploys the chiasm, a rhetorical figure which, for Merleau-Ponty, describes a “unique space which separates and reunites, which sustains every cohesion” (Merleau-Ponty 187). The chiasm represents the intertwining or overlapping of the body and the world, the perceiver and the perceived, the touching and the touched.

An understanding of the film’s study of materiality and wilding must start with the film’s most commented-upon element: Tina’s body. Tina is a figure whose interiorities and exteriorities trouble. Played by Eva Melander, who wore extensive prosthetics for the role, Tina is heavyset and masculine. She has a thick brow ridge, too much hair on her body and not enough hair on her head, and she has a mysterious scar on her tailbone. These exterior morphological features have been medicalized; she recounts how she was told she has a gene defect. Her interiorities are similarly deemed pathological; Tina explains that she has troubles “down there” which seem primarily to involve pain upon penetrative intercourse and infertility. She also suffers from the experience of being an outsider in her social worlds.