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Towards a theory of borders

Florian Schneider

A border is always a matter of imagination. It appears as a feign condition that is supposed to limit mobility for a certain people and in a certain situation. Allegedly, a border marks a distinction: it may be visible to some, and to others not. It may be considered artless or genuine if seen from one perspective but rather critical or bogus from another.

What seems like a commonplace at the first glance, is precisely the reason that makes it so difficult to speak about borders, let alone acting on them. In order not to be rendered useless, a border needs to refuse any attempt to abstract from its latent ambiguity in pratical terms.

Borders are ambigrams: Illusionary images, that depict two mutually exclusive motives. For instance, it becomes evident at specific locations of the Mediterranean Sea where the two different mobility regimes of wealthy tourism and clandestine migration overlap and holiday ressorts are situated next to detention camps while not disturbing each others presences at all.

It does not come as a surprise that the inherently uncertain meaning of borders has turned out as both, the subject matter and the structuring device of great narratives and mythologies of migrations: From the splitting of the red sea that saved the lifes of the Hebrews and destroyed the army of Egyptians to "Star Trek" which was originally marketed as a "Wagon Train to the Stars", across a new frontier of outer space; from the "Underground Railroad", a secret network of safe houses and clandestines routes that helped slaves to escape to the free states in the north of the US and to Canada, to the metaphorical belittlement of the EU border regime as "Fortress Europe".

To leave one's country behind, to flee from persecution, to seek happiness or at least a better life somewhere else -- if not sanctified or bureaucratically approved beforehand, the crossing of a border implies in the first place a collision with or at least the change of a regime of mobility that in very specific terms constitutes a certain notion of freedom of movement.

Rather than enclosure, rather than confinement to a country or any other disciplinary regime, the postmodern border regime is characterized by a deregulation of mobility that increasingly becomes subject to ad-hoc management: Temporarily granted in real time it can get revoked as quickly as it got accorded -- without any need for further mediation. It is enforced by a system of control that is no longer limited to specific checkpoints or focus areas; it is in place virtually everywhere.

Borders fold and shift inwards or outwards, they are advanced into third states and expanded into the hinterland. Controls are no longer limited to the margins of a nation states but cover the inner cities' traffic junctions and supra-regional traffic routes to the same extent as they are extended into semi-public or private spheres.

There is an ubiquity of control. The drawing up of borderlines is becoming virtual and its repressive character is hardly generalisable any more: it could happen here as well as there, for this reason or another, and with a series of different consequences.

Yet, the discourse on borders is still ruled by the predominance of a somewhat outdated kind of liberal ideology that operates through the patterns of inclusion and exclusion. Regardless of its intentions, no matter whether it is used in favor of migrants or at the service of xenophobic resentments, the dichotomies of inclusion and exclusion trace back to the core concept of the modern nation state as the unique reference point: The idea of a homogenized and unified people as collective agency and the resulting need of a high degree of cohesion through identity.

In the last instance any understanding of borders as a device that regulates inclusion or exclusion affirms a sieve principle that is supposed to act as a filter. It reduces the complexities of migratory movements to a single plot that switches between the alternate binaries of either "in" or "out". The more it feeds the fiction of the nation state, the less it is capable of grasping the paradoxical, but increasingly relevant realities of transnational mobility and immobility.

The illusion of a governmentality that would be able to restrict the freedom of movement on a global scale, the as naive as popular set of beliefs as if politics would be able to reduce migration to "zero-migration" claims to be considered as a matter of course. In fact, it lacks any empirical basis and it is mere propaganda that has been spreading out only most recently.

It has come along with apocalyptic scenarios of a massive influx of so-called illegal immigrants towards Europe and North America; it was accompagnied by the fable that misery and poverty were causing movements of people at a scale so far unseen; and it generated a number of related mythologies, such as the notorious "brain drain", unproductive money remittances, or failed integration, just to name a few and most popular rumors.

Fact is that borders are beyond control (1). But if it cannot prevent what it promises to hold off, what is then the function of the border? Obbviously, the illegalization of migration creates the conditions for the over-exploitation of migrant labor force on the informal markets of late capitalism.

And those who are crossing the border without the necessary paperwork, may experience the passage from one regime of mobility into another as the nullification of any remaining subjectivity. It is an extreme process of desubjectivation -- oftenly characterized by living in ways that are almost unliveable.

As soon as the border is crossed, engineers turn into cleaners, academics into sex workers, professors into casual farm laborers or domestic workers. Pushed beyond the conditions and limits of what is often described as "human", their experiences become a sort of negative freedom.

On a regular basis mainstream media is providing the footage that illustrates what is supposed to be going on out there at the border: Reckless fortune seekers who try to make it across the borders against overwhelming odds. It is a scandal in the truest sense of the word (2): In order to enter countries like Spain, Italy or Greece, they are climbing fences, squeezing into overcrowded boats, hiding under trucks or trains.

The border does not only justify itself by a scandal, it is performed through a scandal. The grammar of its performativity consists of scandalization: a continuos loop of images and imaginaries that are widely publicized in order to produce allegations of wrong-doing or disgrace. In that respect, the postmodern border regime appears as a global soap opera that reiterates what anyhow anybody seems to know. Its looping plot is solely based on the implicitness of unuttered laws which regulate that which is permitted to some and not permitted to others.

There is no point in exposing this scheme, since any further critique on a practical level runs danger to increase the efficiency of its performance. Scandalization transforms an otherwise ignorable event to solicit a moral outrage whose purpose is nothing but the reaffirmation of the border —- a border that may otherwise be invisible, disputed or disbelieved.

As the product of a mixture of both real and imaginary incidents it suppresses any distinction between certain degrees of documentary value and what needs to be considered as fiction. The result of this blend is a single-purpose device: The scandal affirms that the border is still there, still true.

Its conceptual homogenization of real and unreal, documentary and fictitous elements reassures a collective identity that is thrown into crisis due to the fading power of nation states. In a perfectly postmodern fashion it allows to enjoy and to cooperate with a regime that relies on the frail and ineffectual facts on the ground as long as they provide the illusion of a border that can be controlled. Then, one can even worry about its excesses and moderately criticize its violent character.

But the other side of the coin is no less irritating. The scandalization of the border comes along with concurrent strategies of victimization. First of all it is the illegalized migrant that is deprived of any agency and turned into a victim. At the mercy of human traffickers, kidnapped and abducted, they are reduced to human beings that only deserve sympathy.

Left wing and human rights activism often falls into the same trap, when it reduces migration to misery and calamity and understands it as a logical result of the movements of capital, as its unsavory aftereffect or appendix.

Even contemporary right-wing populism can be conceived as a set of mirroring strategies that double the victimization of migrants. In the aftermath of multiculturalism, right-wing populism mobilizes the desire of a non-migrant, anti-urban mentality for becoming a minority itself, it inverts the patterns of vicitimization. It reverse engineers virtues that were formerly known as progressive. It recacles and reads against the grain the ideology of inclusion and exclusion, the morals of participation.

Blaming right wing populism as racist or xenophobic is missing the crucial point: White, male, middle-class or heterosexual subjectivities that have usually been rather identified as perpetrators and that are gradually loosing their privileged positions -- all the sudden they manage to seize the opportunity to frame themselves as victims, as an endangered species, or as a native population that will soon be overrun by heinous invaders.

As far as it concerns a certain need to treat the fading certitude of western supremacy in the sunset years of its world domination, both the scandalization of borders and the subsequent victimization of migrants may have turned out as a quite successful therapy of the collective psyche. But its pain relieving and alleviating effect is only temporary and there is even no great must to unmask it.

Instead there is an urgent need for a theory of borders that rejects the permanent temptation to remain descriptive and illustrative, to act in an ultimatevily affirmative sense and to provide a decoration of the border by indulging in returning tropes of charity and compassion, nostalgia and resentment.

As soon as the border becomes actual and concrete, every sign is subjected to a wide range of possible interpretations due to ever changing perspectives. The imaginary character of the border is not only constituted by the deficiencies of laws and a lack of interpretive authority; first and foremost it manifests itself in an indiscernibility of real and unreal, an undecidability of true and false.

The phenomenona of borders result from the experiences that the distinctions between these terms keep changing round. The constant exchange of meaning renders almost impossible any form of independent let alone subversive thinking.

The only way out is a radically different approach. A theory of contemporary borders has to dare a maximum degree of abstraction as the only possibility to undo the picture puzzle. It needs to take into account a series of hypothesises.

First, the border is not the limit but the differentiator of mobility. In its postmodern condition it does not narrow freedom of movement as such, but it modulates it. As soon as it is seen from a global perspective, a border appears as a circuit rather than as a line.

The border regime operates as an amplifier. In all its paradoxity it marks the shift from actuality to potentiality. But it acts in a sense that always contains within it its own the potential to not be. What is at stake at the border is a very specific notion of impossibility.

It is a border that manages its violations rather than ignoring, let alone preventing them from happening. It is subject to permanent experimentation in a vast laboratory that is set up to prove under varying circumstances that there is no absolute freedom of movement, only a relative one.

Nevertheless, the concept of freedom of movement needs to be understood as the derivative of both, a desire for autonomy as well as its limitless postponement in societies of control, amidst ever convoluted regimes of communication and mobility.

A notion of "transnationality" could be the vanishing point in the distorted view of such a theory of borders. Somewhere out of the field, beyond the borders of framed reality, outside of homogenized space and time, it anticipates something that is neither seen nor understood, but nevertheless perfectly present within the everyday life of both, a mobile livelihood as well as social movements.

Transnationality is a radically different form of organizing and unorganizing which transcends the idea of the nation state as the only reference of different degrees of mobility. Instead, it dares to imagine the fragments of an absolute freedom of movement.


(1) In 2001, the EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, António Vitorino, acknowledged that Europe had lost its battle against clandestine migration. "Europe must avoid repeating the zero immigration mistakes of the past," he said, concluding with surprising precision, "restrictive laws have done nothing to halt the flow of clandestine migrants." On the contrary, “the ability to control migration has shrunk as the desire to do so has increased. Borders are largely beyond control and little can be done to really cut down on immigration”, as the economist Jagdish N. Bhagwati argued in 2003.

(2) Scandal derives from the Latin 'scandere,' to climb. But there is yet another, no less compelling, etymological perspective: the border as 'skandalon,' which is the ancient Greek word for a stumbling block.

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