For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is not tabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.
What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
- Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"
The frontier, to Turner, is not a place. It is not even a heterotopia, though the spatial escape it offers suggests that association. The frontier is a process and a mentality, a way of doing things and thinking about things. The frontier is where human endeavor pushes to the limits of the known, ready to surrender itself to the unseen catalytic forces of a not yet phenomenal world; it is the birthplace of danger and of hope, a relentlessly pragmatic confluence of circumstances that pares away all that is not useful, meaningful, or adaptable in the dusty legacies of the old world.
But the frontier has closed, and the logic of endeavor is now more Luhmann-style differentiation than outward expansion. Not only in a spatial sense; though John F. Kennedy tried to open a "final frontier," the effort became irrelevant, because the frontier mentality was gone. The notion of a drive outward--the Transcendentalists discovering the self as Conestoga wagons rumbled west--is no longer a cultural assumption we can even comprehend. No doubt it had its hubris and its fatal flaws, the millions of virgin-soil victims standing as an ineluctable memorial against any such nostalgia. But as our science tweaks our genes, our state tacks on another agency, the global marketing machine comes up with a new brand name, the environment collapses another few notches, it is difficult not to feel a twinge of regret for a world in which aspiration had meaning.
Indulging in these sentiments is pointless. What relevance could some nineteenth century nonsense possibly have for us? After all, we did quite nicely after 1893, what with the cars and the nukes and the computers and all.
Perhaps; but what if the idea that a frontier is a mentalité suggests immediately a history of mentalités? That a frontier implies and entails its own closing? Then we can say that this is not merely an American historical fantasy. Frontiers, indeed, are closing all around us.
Philosophy, and with it historiography itself, might be one of these frontiers. Carl Becker gloomily predicted in the early 20th century that history would soon be organized in "properly dull and documented monographs." We do not share that expectation; still, the ever-expanding ranks of an ever-less-employable professoriate suggest the question of how much original work there is really left to be done. For philosophy, like history, is a process of production, of manufacturing some interesting or coherent thesis from the raw materials of implication, premise, data. The low-hanging fruit has been picked, and every decade the interpretations get more derivative or more implausible. How many ways are there to deny the concept of an a priori subjectivity? Is there anywhere left to go once we have killed off the capital-letter Abstractions of modernity?
Differentiation, not expansion, will soon become recognized as the ruling logic of intellectual thought. This means recombination, in interesting and occasionally even useful ways; it also means an endless resifting of already worked-over sand. No new paradigm or even, god help us, metanarrative has yet emerged to counteract this logic. If no new paradigms are possible--intellectual labor will be every bit the circle-jerk fraud the anti-intellectuals have always accused it of being. If this comes to pass--what choice do we have other than to aestheticize it?