Border as method – Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson
Fog and dirt, violence and magic have surrounded the tracing and institution of borders since late antiquity. Sources from around the world tell us wonderful and frightening stories about the tracing of demarcation lines between the sacred and the profane, good and evil, private and public, inside and outside. From the liminal experiences of ritual societies to the delimitation of land as private property, from the fratricide of Remus by Romulus at the mythological foundation of Rome to the expansion of the imperial limes, these stories speak of the productive power of the border—of the strategic role it plays in the fabrication of the world.
They also convey, in a glimpse, an idea of the deep heterogeneity of the semantic field of the border, of its complex symbolic and material implications. The modern cartographical representation and institutional arrangement of the border as a line—first in Europe and then globalized through the whirlwind of colonialism, imperialism, and anticolonial struggles—has somehow obscured this complexity and led us to consider the border as literally marginal. Today, we are witnessing a deep change in this regard.
As many scholars have noted, the border has inscribed itself at the center of contemporary experience. We are confronted not only with a multiplication of different types of borders but also with the reemergence of the deep heterogeneity of the semantic field of the border. Symbolic, linguistic, cultural, and urban boundaries are no longer articulated in fixed ways by the geopolitical border. Rather, they overlap, connect, and disconnect in often unpredictable ways, contributing to shaping new forms of domination and exploitation.
Violence undeniably shapes lives and relations that are played out on and across borders worldwide. Think of the often unreported deaths of migrants challenging borders in the deserts between Mexico and the United States or in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea. New and old forms of war continue to target vast borderlands. Think of Waziristan, Kashmir, Palestine. This book was born out of indignation and struggles, particularly migrants’ struggles, against such violence and war at the border. As our research and writing proceeded, we also learned (once again, particularly from migrants) to valorize the capacities, skills, and experiences of border crossing, of organizing life across borders. Literal and metaphorical practices of translation have come to be more associated in our minds with the proliferation of borders and border struggles in the contemporary world.
Although this proliferation of borders, as we have stressed, is deeply implicated in the operation of old and new devices of dispossession and exploitation, we contend that it is precisely from this point of view that struggles revolving around borders and practices of translation crisscrossing them can play a key role in fostering the debate on the politics of the common.
This book can be partially read as a contribution to this debate, in which we see some of the most promising conditions for the reinvention of a project of liberation in the global present.
In the past few years, we have become increasingly uncomfortable with the fixation in many critical border studies as well as activist circles on the image of the wall. This does not mean we do not recognize the importance of the worldwide spread of walls just a few decades after the celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall. But independent of the fact that many walls are far less rigid than they pretend to be, taking the wall as the paradigmatic icon of contemporary borders leads to a unilateral focus on the border’s capacity to exclude. This can paradoxically reinforce the spectacle of the border, which
is to say the ritualized display of violence and expulsion that characterizes many border interventions.
The image of the wall can also entrench the idea of a clear-cut division between the inside and the outside as well as the desire for a perfect integration of the inside. As we show in this book, taking the border not only as a research ‘‘object’’ but also as an ‘‘epistemic’’ angle (this is basically what we mean by ‘‘border as method’’) provides productive insights on the tensions and conflicts that blur the line between inclusion and exclusion, as well as on the profoundly changing code of social inclusion in the present. At the same time, when we speak of the importance of border crossing, we are aware that this moment in the operation of borders is important not just from the point of view of subjects in transit. The same is true for states, global political actors, agencies of governance, and capital.
Sorting and filtering flows, commodities, labor, and information that happens at borders are crucial for the operation of these actors. Again, taking the border as an epistemic angle opens up new and particularly productive perspectives on the transformations currently reshaping power and capital —for instance, shedding light on the intermingling of sovereignty and governmentality and on the logistical operations underlying global circuits of accumulation.
Our work on borders is to be read in this sense as a contribution to the critical investigation of actually existing global processes. Gone are the days in which a book like
The Borderless World, published in 1990 by Japanese management guru Kenichi Omae, could set the agenda for the discussion on globalization and borders. The idea presented there of a zero-sum game between globalization and borders (insofar as globalization progresses, the relevance of borders will be diminished) has been very influential but has been rapidly displaced by evidence of the increasing presence of borders in our present. Although our work charts this process of multiplication of borders, our argument is not that the nation-state has been untouched by globalization. We concur with many thinkers who have argued that the nation-state has been reorganized and reformatted in the contemporary world. This leads us to focus not only on traditional international borders but also on other lines of social, cultural, political, and economic demarcation. For instance, we investigate the boundaries circumscribing the ‘‘special economic zones’’ that proliferate within formally united political spaces in many parts of the world.
To repeat, one of our central theses is that borders, far from serving merely to block or obstruct global passages of people, money, or objects, have become central devices for their articulation. Borders play a key role in the production of the heterogeneous time and space of contemporary global and postcolonial capitalism. This focus on the deep heterogeneity of the global is one of the distinguishing points we make, in a constant dialogue with many anthropological and ethnographic works as well as with social
and political thinkers. Subjects in motion and their experiences of the border provide a kind of thread that runs through the nine chapters of the volume. We analyze the evolving shape of border and migration regimes in different parts of the world, looking at the way these regimes concur in the production of labor power as a commodity. At the same time we focus on the long-term problem of relations between the expanding frontiers of capital and territorial demarcations within the history of modern capitalism,
conceived of as a world system since its inception.
We are convinced that in the current global transition, under the pressure of capital’s financialization, there is a need to test some of the most cherished notions and theoretical paradigms produced by political economy and social sciences to come to grips with that problem—from the international division of labor to center and periphery. Again, taking the point of view of the border, we propose a new concept—the multiplication of labor—and we attempt to map the very geographical disruption that lies at the core of capitalist globalization.
Border as Method can therefore also be read as an attempt to contribute to the ongoing discussion on the evolving shape of the world order and disorder.
Our emphasis on heterogeneity is also important for the analysis of what we call with Karl Marx the composition of contemporary living labor, which is more and more crisscrossed, divided, and multiplied by practices of mobility and the operation of borders. To gain an analytical purchase on these processes we interlace multiple gazes and voices, crossing and challenging the North–South divide. While we stress the relevance of migration experiences and control regimes from the point of view of the transformations of labor in the Euro-Atlantic world, intervening in the discussion on care and affective labor as well as precarity, we also focus, to make a couple of examples, on the hukou system of household registration in contemporary China and the complex systems of bordering that internally divide the Indian labor market. We are aware of many differences that must be taken into account in doing this. We do not propose a comparative analysis of these and other instances. We are interested in another kind of knowledge production, one that starts from concepts and works on the (often unexpected) resonances and dissonances produced by the encounters and clashes between these concepts and a materiality that can be very distant from the one within
which they were originally formulated.
This is part and parcel of what we call border as method. In the case of the composition of living labor, it points to the strategic relevance of heterogeneity (of, for example, figures, skills, legal and social statuses) across diverse geographical scales. Nowadays, multiplicity is the necessary point of departure for any investigation of the composition of labor, and Border as Method attempts to provide some tools for identifying the points of more intense conflict and friction where such an investigation can focus. Although multiplicity and heterogeneity are cut and divided by devices of control and hierarchization, it is no less true today that unity is strength (to use words that marked an epoch in the history of class struggle). But the conditions of this unity have to be fully reimagined against the background of a multiplicity and heterogeneity that must be turned from an element of weakness into an element of strength.
It will not be surprising that our work on borders leads us to engage in a discussion with some of the most influential elaborations on the topic of political subjectivity circulating in current critical debates. Borders in modernity have played a constitutive role in the modes of production and organization of political subjectivity. Citizenship is probably the best example of this, and it is only necessary to reflect on the important connection between citizenship and labor in the twentieth century to grasp the ways the movements of the dyadic figure of the citizen-worker have been inscribed within the national confines of the state. Working through citizenship studies, labor studies, as well as more philosophical debates on political subjectivity, we map the tensions and ruptures that crisscross the contemporary figures of both the citizen and the worker.
The borders circumscribing these figures have become blurred and unstable, and, to reference a slogan of Latinos in the United States (‘‘we did not cross the border, the border crossed us’’), they are themselves increasingly crossed and cut, more than circumscribed, by borders. Around these borders, although often far away from the literal border, some of the most crucial struggles of the present are fought. Liberating political imagination from the burden of the citizen-worker and the state is particularly urgent to open up spaces within which the organization of new forms of political subjectivity becomes possible. Here, again, our work on borders encounters current debates on translation and the common.
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