I’ve been thinking a lot about The Wall: what might make a project of such gargantuan and disruptive scale so appealing to many Americans, and how to think and work in the face of this ambition. In this vein, I’ve found the recent book Up Against the Wall: Reimagining the U.S.–Mexico Border (2014) quite illuminating and insightful. Written together by the highly regarded philosopher of place Edward Casey and the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the book takes readers between firsthand accounts of literal walls and fences along the border and metaphorical walls between neighbors and peoples. The authors work against what they describe as “the dehumanizing tide of American racism,” weaving together historical accounts of colonization and settlement in the American West, philosophical reflections on forms of social and personal division, and encounters with residents, officials, environmentalists, and others living along the border. “The wall at the border snakes itself into our communities, dividing schools and classrooms, hospitals, and neighborhoods,” they observe. “Those dining in the front of our restaurants are cut off from those working in the rear; those riding in cars rarely meet those on buses and bikes.”

Describing artistic interventions on the actual surface of border walls on the Mexican side and activist efforts to bring American citizens face to face with the migrants their country walls out, the authors put forward an ethical project of learning to live the border otherwise, as a permeable and mutable boundary of interchange rather than an impervious and airtight wall. “This activity has given us the hope to continue studying what is otherwise a tragic chapter in the life of the United States,” they explain. This strikes me as one of the most crucial prospects raised by the book: that we can learn to imagine a time beyond the looming walls of this moment, to look ahead to another chapter to come, to think back from the vantage of that imagined future to the gaps yet open in this one. “If La Frontera is any indication,” Casey and Watkins observe, “borders seem to contain the seeds of their own undoing.”