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Editorial: Border Struggles: Epistemologies, Ontologies, and Politics

by Oliver Belcher, Lauren Martin and Martina Tazzioli
5 Oct 2015 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Border Struggles [12] | Editorial

Beyond Translation

Borders require layers of discipline, repetition, representation, enforcement and disruption. Whether a border is a line struck in the desert, a buoy careening on the open seas, a barricaded cement checkpoint, a biometric device, or a border guard’s skeptical gaze, borders are a struggle to erect, maintain, cross, and transgress. Over the past twenty years, an ideological discourse extolling the virtues of a “borderless” world for economies and people—usually in that order—became conventional food-for-thought in educated circles across the global North. During that time, however, borders were quietly being reinforced all over the world as an apparatus for social control. Now borders across the globe have come under crisis.

Consider Europe and the United States. At the time of this writing (June 2015), it is estimated that over 1,200 people escaping the catastrophic aftermath of America’s wars in the Middle East and North Africa have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea in pursuit of better living conditions in countries across Europe.[1] FRONTEX, the European Union border agency, reported that there were 278,000 unauthorized land and sea crossings into Europe in 2014. That same year in the United States, over 100,000 unaccompanied children and families arrived at the southern border with asylum claims to escape gang violence and state repression in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[2] The U.S. responded by detaining tens of thousands of asylum-seekers and forcing them into terrible prison-like conditions, putting families under incredible stress. Of course, such measures are occurring beyond Europe and the U.S. Border walls and fences have been erected by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as by India along its border with Bangladesh.[3] Australia has arguably implemented some of the most stringent border policing measures in the world against asylum-seekers, with boats being forced to turn to Nauru and Manus Islands or Indonesia. Walter Benjamin’s eighth thesis that an emergency situation has become the condition of the oppressed is echoed in the approach taken by border enforcement agencies in so-called “destination” states.[4]

A common condition for those crossing borders under duress is the lack of a place to stay and live. Often migrants end up homeless or in makeshift camps, and spend their time trying to survive and evade the police or nationalist vigilantes. The response by destination states like the US, Italy, and Greece has been harsh, with various tactics used to govern mobility and push people back who are trying to get in. Expedited legal procedures, detention, and other deterrence measures are used with the intention of preventing people from arriving and claiming asylums, and agreements are forged between destination states and their neighbors to help in policing migration in exchange for aid, relaxed visas for their citizens, and police and border guard training. In transit countries such as Tunisia and Libya, people preparing to make the journey often wait in a long limbo, staving off boredom and anxiety while arranging the final precarious portions of their trips to countries where the possibility of being detained, deported, and returned is likely.[5] All this is to say that borders are struggles, spatial struggles, for mobile people who are making the effort to live.

The authors in this special issue argue that borders do not simply block, filter, and contain those seeking sanctuary or better livelihoods; borders do more than simply mark territorial margins. The basic position taken in this issue is that borders are epistemological and material sites with the power to shape subjectivities, differentiate and produce categories of “citizen” and “migrant,” and trace inclusive and exclusive fields of possibilities, as well as limits. Borders and border crises are enacted through spatial practices of representation that unfold through an array of tactics, such as enumeration, mappings, media imagery and tropes.[6] Borders necessarily imply state forms of recognition, which means that reflection on border struggles must address the politics of translation as its central question. There cannot be struggles at and over a border without a movement of translation, since translations are often at the core of the struggle itself. As Mezzadra and Sakai put it:

…translation can be productive or destructive, by inscribing, erasing or redrawing borders; it is a process, political par excellence, which creates social relations and establishes new modes of discrimination […] Put simply, translation always cuts both ways: at once a mechanism of domination and liberation, clarification and obfuscation, commerce and exploitation, opening up to the “other” and appropriation.[7]

Consider the politics of counting (“so many crossing… so many dying…”). On one level, numbers are important for critical analysts as they help to underscore the magnitude of a crisis such as the one in the Mediterranean. Thousands have died, and those numbers should be conveyed. But, the politics of numbers, which is a politics of translation, can have insidious effects as well, especially since the inherent effect of numbering is to abstract and measure. State agencies agglomerate disparate movements into massive sets for purposes of measuring, comparing, and analyzing towards policy ends. In the act of making the body count, the migrant is depoliticized and shaped into the raw material of statistics. Numbers become a powerful technique and mechanism of power. States are not only key producers of migration statistics, with statistical data typically gathered according to legal categories enshrined in immigration law, statistics are in turn used to shape law, as they can inform the legislative process. In this way, number as a bordering mechanism comes to structure, in its contextual heterogeneity, a space of governmentality “that acts upon […] actions: an action upon an action, on possible or actual future or present actions.”[8] The use of numbers is just one of the ways in which we are made to know human mobility as migration, as a mass phenomenon,[9] and political possibilities are circumscribed when those doing the moving are de-personalized through numerical translation.

The use of statistics is just one of the ways in which borders should be understood as performative acts of translation. In recent years, border studies scholarship has shifted the focus on borders away from merely the lines bounding and separating nation-states to an analysis of bordering as a social practice.[10] It is our contention, following the philosopher Theodore Schatzki, that bordering practices are fundamental sites where “understanding is structure and intelligibility articulated.”[11] This ontological claim is important. Reframing the analysis in terms of bordering brings into sharp relief the ways in which subjectivities and categories are fabricated (e.g., “migrant”/“citizen”, “us”/“them”, “illegal”/“legal”) in and through the struggles over borders. “Borderlands” and specific sites remain important, but bordering captures a certain Gestalt, or the active, multi-sited and heterogenous embodied activities which are not confined to any particular place. For example, the building of checkpoints or erecting fences is not a practice confined to any special place or “culture.” Moreover, migration studies has broadened the scope of analysis beyond demographics and studies of generational integration to include international and hybrid identities, multiple migrations, and the mutual constitution of home and receiving countries. There has been a call for research that takes human mobility, rather than state-borders, as the object of analysis. Precarious mobility can thus be viewed an autonomous process that states attempt to discipline, corral, contain, and deter. We should not forget that the category of “migration” itself is a state-centered fabrication, one that understands mobility as movement from one location to another, from one territory to another, and towards a location in which non-citizens can make claims on the state.

This is all to say that if borders are spatialized to some degree through territorial bounding, they also become embodied through multifarious categorization practices—borders instantiate partitions which shape—in advance—subjects’ fields of possibilities. Because categorization and language are so important to border struggles’ field of power, we must also interrogate the limits of translatability and recognize what remains untranslatable. Indeed, state border regimes code practices and movements in order to appropriate the meaning of emergent practices, to capture undisciplined movements, or to trace new partitions, making them accessible to the dominant epistemic categories or to define them as unassimilable. Thus, translation is a bordering practice that acts upon the possible actions of the others.

We also require translation to open up collective practices and spaces from within and against those border struggles that shape the field of action and traced its limits. Judith Revel (this issue) interrogates border struggles on precisely this point, on the “composition of differences” as differences: how can we produce a “we” starting from the differences and the partitions instantiated by borders? And how do we challenge the existing borders of the “we” of the nation as well as of exclusionary communities? And for Parvan (this issue), through what forms of mediation can social mediated events produce transnational, anti-racist alliances?

In this issue, Sossi interrogates the issue of the “we” in relation to the theme of borders, and she does this starting from the space between the southern shore and the northern shore of the Mediterranean. In this case it is a question of a “we” of capture because it is a “we” that emerges from the images that the powers of migration policies produced after the infinite migrants’ deaths, most of all after the shipwrecks of the 3 and of the 11 of October 2013. As Etienne Balibar argues, borders produce and divide space and are the material devices for making the world representable.[12] However, taking stock of border struggles that do not conform to nation-state language and norms, or of the space of citizenship, requires drawing attention to movements that escape the order of representation and mapping (Tazzioli, this issue). In fact, to think of border struggles through the prism of a translation and on the margins of untranslatability means conceiving border struggles not only as practices that resist borders but also as constitutive movements, interruptions that open up to new spaces without yielding to the existing codes of the political. Thus, the authors collected in this special issue point to the discordant practices and new spaces that the interruptions of the border working could produce.

Border struggles are not limited to direct confrontations taking place at formal borders. Struggles over borders can often pass unnoticed or be read, in Povinelli’s terms, as ”quasi-events,”[13] because they do not conform to the morphology of political action as a resistance against or as a “deliberate” agency. This is to say that borders are neither delimited to the most visible border-sites, nor to particular moments of subversion, apprehension, or clash. Borders operate through elastic geographies (Weizman’s phrase) and malleable fields of power that constantly alter, recalibrate, and transform.[14] New partitions emerge, while old ones crumble or change. Borders always function within a mosaic of built environments, and therefore it is impossible to think of borders without situating them in configurations of power embedded within built environments, although they are never contained there. And it is by virtue of the very heterogeneity of built environments across the globe that practices emerge which can either disrupt or take hold of lives in emancipatory or (more often) violent ways. It is this very ambiguity at the heart of bordering which makes borders an anticipatory field of virtual possibilities.

Struggles Beyond the Scene of the Political

This special issue brings together diverse attempts to write our way through, to recuperate disruptions without fetishizing them, and to find a common vocabulary for honouring our differences. Mobilizing the notion of ‘border’ comes with certain risks, namely the invocation of a geopolitical imaginary that fixes in advance the form that political struggles can take. We risk engaging with border struggles imagined only in terms of contested border crossing and the exclusion of many other forms of borders and bordering mechanisms. Instead, it is precisely by assuming the heterogeneity of bordering mechanisms and their irreducibility to a common ‘form’ and functioning that it becomes possible to recognize struggles over borders.[15] Often, border mechanisms are neither visible nor perceived as borders. At the same time, borders should not be associated exclusively with migrants: borders do not ‘produce’ only migrants, but are fundamental to any differentiation and exclusionary mechanisms of identity-production. Politicizing borders entails challenging the disciplinary and academic boundaries of migration studies, and refuses to posit ‘migrants’ as objects of study. Instead, conceptualizing border struggles de-essentializes and situates the ‘migrant condition’ in a broader framework of borders and bordering mechanisms in which subjects are entangled – as processes of racialization, gender issues or the precarity of life’s condition.

Certainly, borders implemented for selecting and blocking migrants are among the bordering mechanisms that divide the world population between subjects legitimate to move and stay and others who need to provide supplementary proof to become authorized presences in space. However, as the essays of this special issue show, the government conducts populations through policies that “migrantize” some people—that produce and govern them as ‘migrants’—diffuses far beyond geopolitical and national borders or visible frontiers.

By talking about heterogenous border struggles, we would also like to reposition the concept of “struggle” beyond deliberate challenges against the border regime, or of rights-claims: in fact, the spectrum of struggles and of the way in which subjects interrupt or disrupt the border-working is not narrowed to traditional forms of political engagement, nor to subjects that lay claim demanding to be recognized or counted within the space of citizenship. Border struggles begin from what Nicholas De Genova has named “politics of incorrigibility”, namely “a politics that defied and rejected all of the normative categories of state sovereignty and its immigration regime.”[16] These are struggles for movement,[17] strategies of existence,[18] and forms of strategic appropriation and twisting of visibility which migrants enact; and sometimes, beyond being mere acts of resistance, they are not captured or encoded by the translation regime and bordering mechanisms put in place.

However, at the same time, marginalized groups, abandoned by citizenship’s protections from police violence, can occupy space and demand visibility through “contagious events” (Parvan this issue). Emerging forms of affinity politics, along with diffuse mobilities escape the traditional struggle-form, understood as demands addressed to the state and deliberate challenges/resistances of borders. Reading border struggles in this way, we would be ascribing them to the state’s categories and “in the normative status of the state-form.” Therefore, far from bordering and narrowing struggles to a question of ‘form’, we should turn the question around and take practices that cannot be read through the lens of the claims to citizenship into account.[19] The ‘price’ many migrants pay for becoming visible on the public scene and the position from which they can make a political claim, make the paradigm of the “scene” – namely the political space in which subjects claim for recognition -  deeply inadequate to account for border struggles.

Looking at border struggles beyond the paradigm of representation and the scene of the political does not mean to get rid of the issue of political subjectivity. Rather, it is a question of bringing attention to struggles that force us to challenge the exclusionary borders of the political and of what a political subject is, since they might remain under the threshold of visibility and might not consist in forms of ‘claim’ or ‘address to’. Against the law of the political as an exclusionary space, Foucault suggests that we “look closely, a bit beneath history, at what cleaves it and stirs it, and keep watch, a bit behind politics, over what must unconditionally limit it.”[20] It means paying attention to struggles that are discordant to the codes and the language of state’s politics as well as to the norms of citizenship that disrupt the ‘hold’ borders have over people’s lives and open up new political spaces of subjectivation.

Far from being merely in ‘friction’ with powers, struggles over borders do involve the will not to be governed anymore by those borders, and the refusal to accept their intolerable subjection: “It is necessary that people invent what they can and want to struggle against; and, at the same time, they must invent how to transform their uprising and its direction. This is something to reinvent endlessly.” Practices and movements that are discordant with statist politics “struggle for freedom on their own terms” without that their level of liberty or subjection could be judged by others;[21] not yielding their practices of freedom to a frame of existing claims—which signals, perhaps, a movement beyond the political.


1. International Organization for Migration, Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration. (Geneva:  International Organization for Migration, 2014). [↑]

2. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE Enforcement and Removals Report Fiscal Year 2014. (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Homeland Security, 2014); Roque Planas, “Family Detention Center in Texas Is ‘Utterly Unnecessary,’ Says Immigration Attorney.” Huffington Post 14 January, 2014. [↑]

3. Reece Jones, Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India, and Israel (New York: Zed Books, 2012). [↑]

4. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940 (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392. [↑]

5. Ruben Andersson. 2014. “Time and the Migrant  Other: European Border Controls and the Temporal Economics of Illegality.” American Anthropologist 116(4): 795-809. Griffiths, Melanie. 2014. “Out of Time: The Temporal Uncertainties of Refused Asylum Seekers and Immigration Detainees.” Journal of Ethnographic and Migration Studies. forthcoming. [↑]

6. Alison Mountz and Nancy Hiemstra, “Chaos and Crisis: Dissecting the Spatiotemporal Logics of Contemporary Migrations and State Practices.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104.2 (2014): 382-390. [↑]

7. Sandro Mezzadra and Naoki Sakai, ”Introduction.” Translation 4(2014): 9-29. [↑]

8. Michel Foucault. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979: Lectures at the College De France, 1978-1979 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) p. 340. [↑]

9. Indeed, the condition of possibility for statistics is the translation of populations into a mass, into a data set. See Ian Hacking, “Biopower and the Avalanche of Numbers.” Humanities in Society, 5 (1982): 279-295. [↑]

10. David Newman and Anssi Paasi, “Fences and Neighbours in the Postmodern World: Boundary Narratives in Political Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 22 .2 1998): 186–207. [↑]

11. Theodore Schatzki, Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 12. [↑]

12. Etienne Balibar, ”At the Borders of Europe: from Cosmopolitanism to Cosmopolitics.” Translation 4(2014): 83-103. [↑]

13. Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). [↑]

14. Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso Books, 2007). [↑]

15. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). [↑]

16. Nicholas De Genova, “Queer Politics of Migration: Reflections on ‘Illegality’ and Incorrigibility” Studies in Social Justice 4.2 (2010), 105. [↑]

17. By ‘struggles for movement’ we mean the strategies enacted by migrants for going on in their journey. [↑]

18. Federica Sossi , Migrare. Strategie di esistenza e spazi di confinamento (Milano: IlSaggiatore, 2007). [↑]

19. Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 49. [↑]

20. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978. (New York: PalgraveMcMillan, 2009), 449. [↑]

21. Coulthard, 2014: 49. [↑]

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Oliver Belcher is a Postdoctoral Researcher with the RELATE Centre of Excellence in the Department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland. His research brings together critical human geography and science and technology studies to explore war, visualization, experience, and technology. He completed his PhD, “The Afterlives of Counterinsurgency: Postcolonialism, Military Social Science, and Afghanistan, 2006-2013,” in Human Geography at University of British Columbia in 2013.
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Lauren Martin is an Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oulu, Finland. She holds a PhD and MA in Geography and a Certificate in Gender and Women's Studies from the University of Kentucky. Her doctoral thesis analysed US noncitizen family detention policy from 2001 to 2010, and she is currently researching the commercialization of border enforcement in the US and EU.
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Martina Tazzioli has a PhD in Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. After being postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oulu, she is currently at University of Aix-Marseille, LAMES, LabexMed and Queen Mary, University of London. She is in the editorial board of the journal Materialifoucaultiani and she is the author of Spaces of Governmentality. Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015) and co-editor of Foucault and the History of our Present (2015) and of Spaces in Migration. Postcards of a Revolution, (2013). She is member of Materialifoucaultiani editorial board (
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