Holger Pötzsch’s article “The emergence of iBorder: bordering bodies, networks, and machines” appears in issue 1 of the 2015 volume of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Extending the insights of that piece, he and Chiara Brambilla discuss a range of theoretical and methodological issues in border research in the conversation that follows.

Holger Pötzsch: In the article on iBorder published in Society and Space, I argue that contemporary borders and regimes of bordering are dislocated, dispersed, and increasingly attach themselves to individual bodies. I move from a description of the socio-technological apparatus of management and control centered upon biometrics, dataveillance, and automation through which these processes are facilitated to questions of the practices through which the varying potentials for individualized in- and exclusion are actualized. I term this transition a movement of attention from iBorder to the contingent practices of iBordering. Would you say that this resonates with your recent demand, made in the article “Exploring the Critical Potential of the Borderscapes Concept” in Geopolitics, for a re-introduction of a phenomenological perspective into border research?

Chiara Brambilla: Yes, it definitely does. The shift from technology to cultural technique, proposed in your article, is required, indeed, to comprehend that a phenomenological perspective first and foremost demands a humanization of borders, even in the era of iBorders. As you put it, humans are not transformed into border cyborgs in the era of iBorders, but cultural techniques of bordering influence the formation of subjectivities and co-constitute contingent, rather than simply process given, subjectivities and frames for practices.

HP: To re-introduce a phenomenological perspective into border research, you turn to the concept of the borderscape…

CB: Yes. I argue that the borderscape concept can help us to move towards a phenomenological perspective by bringing together experiences and representations. Following Kenneth Olwig (2008) we can distinguish between two potential meanings of the suffix “-scape”. The first meaning reduces the term to a perspective: the artistic representation of a specified type of view or a scene. The second is concerned instead with the sense of creative work – “shaping and carving”. Therefore, as its etymological evolution reveals, the term borderscape expresses the representation of borders as well as individual and collective practices of border-making highlighting the ways in which the borderscapes concept affords certain sets of reproductive practices and shapes political subjectivities in a particular manner.

HP: I think we agree that rather than determining subjects by simply enforcing particular performances and preventing others, borders resemble contingent frames that systematically encourage certain reproductive practices and discourage others. This means any border regime can be, and in fact always is, resisted and challenged. Both forms of bordering – dominant enactments as well as subversions and resistances – are realized at the level of everyday practice. This entails a movement away from static, state-centric notions of borders towards frameworks that enable attention to everyday practices and the inherently aesthetic nature of borders and regimes of bordering.

CB: And it brings us back to the concept of the borderscape. Differently from boundaries of nation-states that, according to the modern territorialist geopolitical imaginary, are invented as lines on the flat and two-dimensional surface of the map, borderscapes are multidimensional and mobile constructions that are inhabited by Michel de Certeau’s “spatial practices” (1984). De Certeau’s concept tells us about geographies of actions and stories of the border as place as well as about the mobile subjects that cross it. In the borderscape, representations and practices produce a multiplicity of interrelations that call into question modern state-centric geographies and politics of identity. The ability of the borderscape to bring together experiences and representations helps to develop a performative approach to borders. The borderscape concept allows us to move beyond the often-criticized gap between practices and representations and enables us to abandon the essentialization of borders as divisive lines on modern political maps, moving instead towards an understanding of contemporary borders as continually performed and (re)composed by sets of contingent performances revealing their dynamic character.

HP: These bordering performances, which include both top-down and bottom-up practices, are framed or predisposed by contingent socio-political, historical, cultural, economic, juridical, technological, and other contexts. Adopting this heuristic distinction into different fields or spheres – you talk about multiple dimensionalities -, bordering practices can be approached through a description of static frames – in my case the socio-technical apparatus of iBorder – or through an investigation of the practices through which the reproductive potentials inherent in these frames are constantly negotiated, actualized, or subverted and through which contingent subjectivities are co-constituted – in my case the contingent and predisposed practices of iBordering. To provide a few examples for this, as Rita Raley (2013) argues digital technologies not only process given, but co-constitute contingent subjectivities. She writes that “data is […] performative: the composition of flecks and bits of data into a profile of a terror suspect, the re-grounding of abstract data in the targeting of an actual life, will have the effect of producing that life, that body, as a terror suspect” (128). On a different account, Marieke De Goede, Stephanie Simon, and Marijn Hoijtink (2014) argue that security measures are inherently performative in that they essentially “produce the effects that they name” (416), while Williams Walters (2011) illustrates how the mundane technological work of border control – practices of scanning, inspecting, profiling, investigating – frames subjectivities and predisposes practices along normative lines implied by a socio-technical apparatus.

CB: In my case, I adopt the borderscape as an analytical angle to inquire into the border and migration nexus at and across the Mediterranean, specifically considering what I term as Euro/African borderscapes. I think that the borderscape is a good lens to capture the multilevel complexity of this nexus – from the geopolitical level to the level of social practices and cultural productions. As the borderscape notion highlights, rather than characterize the Mediterranean as the southern border of “fortress Europe” we should strive for more nuanced interpretations. While there is no doubt that we are dealing with an unjust European border regime, what is needed is a more careful analysis of how exactly it operates. Conceptualizing the frontier-like character of the Mediterranean in terms of borderscapes, it is possible to reveal a situation in which processes of border-crossing meet those of reinforcement and blocking. This shows that the border as a social institution and migration as a social force are both agents in co-producing the borderscape. In this context, I deploy the borderscape notion for taking my distance from the widespread reading of contemporary borders only in terms of exclusion as conveyed by the use of metaphors such as fortress Europe. These metaphors can effectively entrench the idea of a clear-cut division between the inside and the outside as well as the sense of a faultless integration of the inside, thereby paradoxically reinforcing the ‘spectacle of the border’ that characterizes hegemonic EU(ropean) border and migration regimes. Nevertheless, moving beyond fortress Europe does not mean to diminish the criticism of the epistemic and political violence of the EU border regime. Rather, taking the borderscape as an analytical angle to inquire into Mediterranean Euro/African border-migration nexus means to grasp the opportunity to advance complementary perspectives, capable of highlighting the dialogic nature of bordering processes and imaginaries as well as the tension between institutional formal modes of political agency and social non-formal modes of agency that co-constitute the borderscape. The borderscape concept allows for a critical inquiry into the (geo)political and epistemic multidimensionality of borders that, on the one hand, enables an understanding of the border’s normative dimension (hegemonic borderscapes) and, on the other hand, points to the fact that borders involve discourses and practices of resistance and struggle against regimes and practices of control (counter-hegemonic borderscapes).

HP: This brings us back to bordering performances and the fact that they include both top-down and bottom-up practices. Each of them can function – as I suggest in my study on the socio-technological frame of iBorder and predisposed practices of iBordering – in a hegemonic or counter-hegemonic manner, i.e. both top-down and bottom-up practices can either reinforce, or challenge and undermine, established discourses, positions, and configurations of power. This leads over to the issue of power, how it is exercised both from above and from below, how it impacts upon the agency of subjects, and this way co-constitutes subjectivities and practices. Foucault has conceptualized the transition of politico-juridical regimes of power that are maintained through the punishment and ultimately eradication of perpetrators breaking the law, to disciplinary techniques that rely upon techniques of surveillance and aim at correcting transgressive behavior and at reinstituting former villains as productive members of society. According to Foucault, both these forms of power are part of an anatomo-politics that is inherently centered upon the individual human body. With the advances of statistics and new means of measuring and predicting, however, he argues, a new form of power is brought to emerge that disregards individual cases and instead regulates populations at the level of abstracted risk assessments and cost-benefit ratios. This massifying trajectory of security apparatuses has today reached unprecedented proportions through a combination of massive dataveillance with data mining techniques and big data predictive analytics that allow for an increasingly sophisticated prediction of patterns of behavior and association at population level. In these processes, that according to Deleuze mark a transition from disciplinary societies to societies of control, power not any longer becomes productive of docile individual bodies alone, but also of digitized data-doubles, so-called dividuals in Deleuze’s idiom, whose contingent identity potentials entail performative socio-political effects that feed back into the bodies, subjectivities, and agencies they originated from. Such co-constitutive relations between technologies, agents, and operations lie at the heart of what I mean by the notion of bordering as a fundamental cultural technique. The techniques and technologies underlying contemporary late-modern border regimes emerge as performative and as productive of the very distinctions and divisions they allegedly merely process.

CB: Also the borderscape approach favours such a performative viewpoint on borders and, in addition, brings together the concept of performance and the notion of performativity. In the borderscape, practices of bordering are not just performed, but are also revealed to be performative of particular socio-cultural, economic and political realities and subject-positions. In this way, performativity highlights the political implications of performances and connects these to a critical reflection on the exercise of power. The connection between performance and performativity is also at stake in Mark Salter’s reflection (2011) on borders where he looks at the tensions between three registers of border performances – ‘formal’, ‘practical’ and ‘popular’. Enmeshed in dynamic spatial and temporal relations, formal, practical, and popular performances of sovereignty co-produce hegemonic borderscapes and, at the same time, negotiate, resist, and potentially subvert these in and through counter-hegemonic bordering practices enacted by a plurality of actors beyond the sovereign state. As you explained above, also your conceptualization of practices of iBordering uses the vocabulary of performance and performativity to explain that the practice of bordering as a cultural technique brings to light forms of power that are not only hegemonic and oppressive but productively operate on the agency of subjects and consequently co-constitute both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic subjectivities. I think both our approaches constitute a crucial step beyond what seems to me a core epistemological blind-spot at the heart of border research, as currently configured.

HP: I think border research too often ends up with either condemning borders as inherently exclusive and repressive, or by reiterating them as a priori givens and/or necessary tools to order and disambiguate complex and contradictory socio-political and conceptual terrains. To me it is quite apparent that borders do both. Without borders or boundaries order would be impossible. However, precisely through this ordering function borders also always exclude and oppress what has been defined as the implicitly constitutive outside of an, ultimately arbitrarily defined, inside. Techniques of bordering operate at a juridical, disciplinary, and biopolitical register at once, and frame both reproductive and subversive practices. To account for this, I think the idea of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic borderscapes comes in very handy.

CB: I agree. The idea of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic borderscapes offers us the opportunity to highlight the constitutive role that borders in modernity have played in the production of political subjectivity, thereby showing the potential of the borderscape to also constitute a space for liberating political imagination while opening up spaces within which the organization of new forms of the political and the social become possible. To put it differently, the borderscapes concept opens for a critical border research that embraces ethical and normative issues of in/exclusion with which border research has been rather ill-equipped to handle until now. This way, borderscapes widen the bordering viewpoint by highlighting the tensions between different actors, localities, and modalities that are involved in border-making. As argued by Prem Kumar Rajaram and Carl Grundy-Warr (2007), borderscapes show that every society is in a state of becoming, every political system is always contingent and the boundary between belonging and exclusion is floating and continually contested. As a consequence, the concept of the borderscape enables an understanding of the transition from a “politics of being” to a “politics of becoming”; and the critical potential of borders can be accounted for in their double-function as both markers of belonging and places of becoming. This requires a nuanced and critical re–reading and understanding of the border not as an entity taken for grated, but as a resource in terms of the construction of novel (geo)political imaginations, social and spatial imaginaries and cultural images. Not only should this approach into border research be developed at the theoretical and conceptual level (as it has been doing since the “processual shift” of the late 1980s and early 1990s), but also a methodological outlook in terms of practical methodological agenda-setting deserves deeper attention. The question is how could this methodological approach actually be carried out?

HP: Here we approach the theme of an article we currently work on together and where we set out to develop a methodology for border research based on the concepts of borderscapes, borderscaping, and bordering as a cultural technique. iBorder/iBordering, for instance, operates at a socio-technical level. I explain how recent technological advances afford new regimes and practices of in/exclusion that at once dislocate the border and render it potentially ubiquitous through its attachment to individual bodies and networked devices. At the same time, however, these technologies not only afford new forms of management, coercion, and control, but always also entail possibilities for unprecedented practices of resistance and subversion. In another article, that is currently forthcoming in the Journal for Borderlands Studies, on the other hand, I direct attention to a cultural register and show how cultural expressions play into bordering practices by either reiterating or challenging tacit perceptual, cognitive, and performative schemata and frames. In both cases attention is directed to both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic practices and articulations. In our planned article we set out to systematize these processes and interconnect the various spheres across which they play out. So far, these issues have only been addressed in a partial and incremental manner.

CB: To understand how a methodological approach based on these considerations can be carried out, we need to direct attention to a political side of method. Taking up what Sandro Mezzadra and Bret Neilson argue in their recent book Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labour (2013):

“… for us the question of border as method is something more than methodological. It is above all a question of politics, about the kinds of social worlds and subjectivities produced at the border and the ways that thought and knowledge can intervene in these processes of production” (17).

That is, the assumption that “method is as much about acting on the world as it is about knowing it” (17). Hence, moving towards this particular methodological approach involves a shift from a fixed form of knowledge to a notion of knowledge as inherently contingent and the constantly evolving, temporary result of complex negotiations and struggles – the border as “a site of struggle” not only over practices and frames of in/exclusion but also about the very knoweldges and processes of knowledge formation underlying these. By highlighting the role of borders as sites of struggle where the right to become can be expressed, this methodology for border research opens a space of political possibilities capable of overcoming the modern territorialist (geo)political imaginary and moving towards a new politics of becoming based on a pluritopical and plurivocal interpretation of borders. This would offer an analytical understanding of a variety of complex processes and practices of borderscaping that can be explaining thinking of borders and acting on them in order to operationalize their heuristic potential through different analytical dimensions, such as politics and policies, practices, representations, perceptions, and interpretations. Differently said, this methodological approach gives us the chance to relate the somewhat abstract level of conceptual change in border research with actualborderscaping as practices through which fluctuating borders are imagined, materially established, experienced, lived as well as reinforced and blocked but also crossed, traversed and inhabited.

HP: This implies a move from the borderscape as a concept to borderscaping as a method. Whereas in your article in Geopolitics you investigate the critical potential of borderscapes from a conceptual viewpoint, in the article we are now developing we attempt to push the reflection one step further by focusing on the methodological implications of borderscapes by reflecting on diverse dynamics and spheres of borderscaping. So far, I think we agree that a heuristic distinction between various dimensions or registers (such as society, politics, economics, technology, culture, …), where both top-down and bottom-up processes and practices of bordering take place, is possible. Processes of borderscaping happen at the level of “vernacular” day-to-day practices and through articulations and performances emanating from “formal institutional positions of power”. This understanding of a double-nature of borders and practices and processes of iBordering or borderscaping taking place on a multiplicity of registers at once, and entailing contingent effects and results, can help us to critically explore the complexities of these processes as well as the way in which they operate both spatially and temporally.

CB: I think that these reflections on a possible method of borderscaping bring us back to the urgency to develop alternative approaches to borders along the ontological and epistemological axes of reflection as well. Borderscaping implies a processual ontology of borders that recognizes the contingent, evolving, and constantly emerging nature of reality and that recognizes that borders are both markers of belonging and places of becoming. Along the epistemological axis, borderscaping suggests moving towards a multi-sited epistemological approach, capable of expressing the “multiperspectival view” advocated by Chris Rumford (2012) as being central in critical border studies and defined as “seeing like a border” as an alternative to “see like a state”. It is an epistemology and a methodological gaze that, just like the lens of a kaleidoscope, is able to convey complementary and dialogical perspectives grasping the interaction between political visions and everyday socio-cultural practices as well as social representations and artistic imaginaries. It is also a double gaze able to grasp the configurations assumed by the border on a small and large scale, globally and locally, and taking into account not only the ‘big stories’ of the nation-state construction, but also the ‘small stories’ that come from experiencing the border in day-to-day life. Not only offers this approach a kaleidoscopic outlook to borders but it also gives us the opportunity to develop a complex standpointon borders, which is more than a mere combination of approaches significantly contributing to explain the epistemological, spatial and temporal multidimensionality of b/ordering processes and practices. As the etymology of the adjective “complex” reveals, the term comes from the Latin “complexus”, or that which is woven together: prefix “com-“ [“with”] + the verb “plectere” [“to weave, braid, twine, entwine”]. That which is woven together cannot be torn apart without losing the overall pattern, without losing the connection, the interrelationships, the interactions.

HP: We’ll try and explore these complexities and systematize their constitutive elements in a productive manner without loosing sight of this whole. As such, any conceptual distinction we make will be heuristic – a pragmatic attempt to highlight certain elements for particular analytical purposes, without claiming the ability to objectively describe what ultimately emerges as a contingent and constantly emergent reality.

CB: Let’s try then to navigate these complexities through borderscaping. 


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