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Bordering Identities

To pit one narrative against another, that is the way of human life. Imagine all the people, living life as one – but people do not live lives as one. They live lives deeply embedded in spaces – space and orientation, Ordnung und Ortung, or perhaps rather a dis-orientating orientation through ordered space.

Institutionalised politics is the most widely known form of how human beings deal with power and the distribution of power. The distribution of power has vast effects on how we see and deal with reality. The proliferation of nation states and nation state borders in the 20th century was a shaky ride, but the solidification of borders as national and the subsequent post War ordering and orienting of politics based on the assumption of the reality of these borders gave rise to a new geopolitical reality. The response in Europe was premised on the assumption  that, to prevent the 20th century atrocities  in the future, the possibility for warfare should be minimised.

Integration and cooperation were seen as the best bet. Given recent history in western Europe, they were quite probably right. Yet the European Union, despite populist talk of faceless bureaucrats and a ‘loss of control’, is itself premised on the reality of nation states. The legal constructions that allow for free travel of people, goods, services and capital throughout many EU countries is created in response to having to take borders not as a spatial reality, but at least as one that bears a cultural-political expression that cannot be denied.

In what follows, I discuss the nature of borders, the symbolic aspect of bordering through physical as well as mental representations, their relation and bearing on spatial constructions of identity and lay out some of the consequences of exporting political ideologies in the recent past. In the concluding paragraphs I briefly outline the major implications.


Bordering is filtering

The real nature of a border is a farce. Even the mightiest, and perhaps oldest, symbols of bordering – the construction of walls –  find most of their power in a symbolic, fictive display of stability. Such impressive symbolic powers have stifled through from popular imagination into political discourse (if it were ever absent there). Even in historical themes central to Western thought and identity construction – the onset of philosophy, the age of the Greek  – walls come to set the stage. The stage – order and orientation: The walls of Troy, but also how it was passed and hence surpassed. In the digital world walls have equally come to occupy our imagination. The Great Wall of China became the Great Firewall, and like of old, filtering is its purpose. And although the symbolic power and place of walls in our thinking is perhaps stronger than ever, it is hardly a coincidence that the symbolic power of the Trojan Horse has accompanied the concept of the wall throughout history.

Borders always have to be created and maintained in order to be real. Not merely physically. Physically, the imagination only needs to be stirred briefly to think of borders as real. From feeble fence work to billion dollar concrete walls equipped with cameras, barbed wire and mines that attempt to settle any doubt as to its real nature. I  remember well the holidays to Germany as a kid and how upon approaching the border, the attention of my parents, sister and me would immediately be drawn to our surroundings. How that space was ordered would simply draw your attention. And you would orientate yourself, wouldn’t you? Signs telling the remaining distance to Germany; the different colours, brands and striping of police cars; the concrete booths with thick, protective glass and the boom barriers. It just so happened that with the booths unoccupied and the border police standing with carefully maintained stern, but rather forlorn expressions, it was always quite an odd impression. More than anything, it made me feel that borders – that which separates where I live from where others live – were becoming a thing of the past.


Bordering an identity

National language and identity are compellingly persuasive as complementary political arguments in the construction of a territorial history that belongs to a nation state. Such history is normative. It is premised on the belief in national borders as stable, whereas they never have been. The ordering and orientation of borders has only ever changed. Our thinking on these matters – often the result of an emotional, much more than a rational response – has been shaped by many forces. One of these is a striking resemblance to religion: Were you to be born in France, your nationality would be French. If you are born in a predominantly Christian region, you would most likely become Christian too. This is not to say that it cannot be any other way, only that  identity is a spatial concern. Spatial concerns enter our thinking from a young age. At primary school, the first maps of this world – with stable lines and given names – start to shape your perspective. It is nothing short of learning a rendered version of geography based on ideological cartography that is existentially tied to a state. This coupling of language, identity and territory determines the scope of the discourse-framework of political sovereignty, but sadly also often that of political participation.

It is almost amusing to think how far this can go. I am not a nationalist. I’d almost be offended if you thought I were. Yet this does not mean that nationalism has no effect upon me. For me, even as a football fan , this year’s European Cup was always going to be boring with the absence of the Netherlands. Now I’m not talking about the football being dreadful – it was, we’ve all seen it – but about the experience of enjoyment,  emotional bondage and passion. There was no narrative I have grown up to relate to, not in an environment where nothing other than national identity is decisive. So suddenly nationality becomes a factor in terms of whom I do or do not support. Persuasion comes at the end of reasoning, when all else ceases to be an argument, not because the argument to support the best playing team has no value in terms of sports-value or entertainment-value, but simply because it is not persuasive. I have already been persuaded to support Holland. A long time ago.

This is odd, to say the least. And with odd I do not mean explanatory evasive, but odd because of my natural habitat. Despite the geographical closeness to Germany of the region where I was born, the cartographic representation of the Netherland determined the orientation. Dutch language made up the world – literally. And it did so effectively, because to this day, I often refer to the Netherlands as Holland – effectively the centre of its economic activities, now and historically – even though it is not. To this day, I support the Dutch football team. To this day, I remember the song about Piet Hein, celebrating the sinking of the Spanish Silver Fleet. Narratives of nationality are pitted against one another. If there is no ‘them’, there is no ‘us’. This is not the same as saying that narratives always exclude other narratives, but that there is always a struggle of recognition. The cartographic map must first be drawn, before there is territory to be recognised in the first place. Between Spain and France this works quite well, but between Spain and Catalonia things are not quite so simple. The construction of political reality has followed this principle of recognition – of sovereign recognition of sovereignty, the founding myth of the state. Think only of the League of Nations, the European Union or any other collection of states.

What’s in a map?

What modern maps primarily show are economic zones. These economic zones are within states, but it is an illusion to think that all that dwells within these zones is subject(ed) to sovereign law. The reality of economic life is that it has to act in response to the ordering of space as national, but this also means it can profitably adapt to any shortcomings of such an ideology. Here one could think of migrating flows of money through tax havens – effectively using one recognised national order to avoid the financial consequences of another – but also of infamous ghost companies, where both the economic  and legal complexity in and among states have granted creative accounting a realm of its own.

The colonial heritage is that a commonplace approach towards the global market is fashioned in neo-liberal outfits, developed, produced and reproduced in the US and EC/EEC. Through international institutions – the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, etc – the global economy has been ordered and oriented around vested interests, and as a result political norms that shape our judgement of what constitutes a correct political response are heavily biased. This influence reaches far and goes deep. In the 1980’s, for instance, the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Policies demanded structural cuts from governments without exempting health care and education. If governments would not agree, no loans would be provided. In that same decade, the World Bank, WHO and UNICEF suddenly came to envision healthcare with similar ideological charge. Only a couple of years after the famous Alma Ata healthcare conference on universal primary healthcare, selective primary health care became a trending topic: Investing only where significant gains could be expected, while expressing metrically and in the jargon of finances where results would make political sense.

The world is dealing with this legacy. The cartographic drawings determined the political order and orientation in Africa and the ‘Middle-East’ were drawn and solidified in our thinking in the aftermath of colonialism. Many states’ border lines have created divisions where there were none before, through geopolitical decisions based on the political interests of those who were drawing the lines on the map. Only narrow (and often economic) depictions of what modern states are – and modern nominally, not as the equivalent of the developed-developing dichotomy – depend on the popular belief in national borders. This is a phenomenon that can easily be observed. The influx of migrants into Europe has upset political status quo in a few years’ time.

Control issues: in denial

What has happened since? States have vehemently tried to reshape landscapes. They have created borderscapes, frontiers and god knows what else, but they have always done this somewhere. Somewhere is essential. No politics without a place. Migrant detainee camps have become political tools in gathering round everyone that has not passed European border-filtering practices. To too many a passport means that you shall not pass, or – if you do – at least a political attempt will have been made to make it difficult. Attempts at isolating groups happen, but in Western European countries, in a time with more information and research available to critically assess the development of political discourse, it is striking to see how states’ political spheres mimic the type of order and orientation that is based on a fictional, narrow and normative history of demarcated and supposedly sovereignly controlled territory.

It was only ever to be expected that the horrors that have taken place in Europe in the 20th century would fade from memory. The reality of war has become a reality of other spaces. Terrorism has already questioned the naïve but popular perception of a walled world where whole populations can be isolated at will, if only we tried. No politics without space. We have built and most likely will continue to build walls, create borderscapes and filter at hubs near popular routes in accordance with a set of norms, just to prove the reality of an internally ordered space. To prove the difference between the there and here, or perhaps to create it.  So in order to solve European political concern, politics is simply relocated to other places. Turkey, Libya or Lebanon – if the problem is not on our property, the problem must be someone else’s, so the question of responsibility becomes one of international relations, where a different order allows for a different orientation.  So long as peace and serenity at ‘home’ continue, we may yet succeed in keeping the fiction of a bordered world alive, but what inflated price tag will come with it?



Should you be interested in topics that relate to states and borders, be sure to read Wendy Brown’s ‘States of Injury’. To explore border enforcement from a conceptual point of view, Brown’s book ‘Waning Sovereignty, Walled Democracies’ is an excellent, accessible introduction. Also, have a look at some of the articles published by the Guardian on walls. Simply googling ‘walls the guardian’ will get you there.  

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