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protean borders Arrow vol 7 no1 contents
About borderlands Volume 7 number 1, 2008


Protean Borders and Unsettled Interstices

Vijay Devadas & Jane Mummery
University of Otago & University of Ballarat


The frontier is a wake-up call … At the frontier our liberty is stripped away — we hope temporarily — and we enter the universe of control. Even the freest of free societies is unfree at the edge, where things and people go out and other people and things come in. Here, at the edge, we submit to scrutiny, to inspection, to judgement. These people, guarding these lines, must tell us who we are. We must be passive, docile. To be otherwise is suspect, and at the frontier to come under suspicion is the worst of all possible crimes … The wake-up call of the frontier is also a call to take up arms (Rushdie, 2002: 412-3).

1. We have begun with this quote from Salman Rushdie’s Step Across This Line to frame this issue on borders, their transformations and our crossing and unsettling of them. The space of the frontier that Rushdie evokes is an ambivalent one: it is, on the one hand, a space of regulation and discipline where the operations of power to govern the movement of bodies, lives, ideologies, and goods, are most strikingly evident. On the other, the space of the frontier is also a space that reminds us of the necessity and urgency of rethinking particular concepts, relationships, modes of living, that govern our everyday lives. At the space of the frontier we are reminded of the extremities of particular forms of violences that are enacted in the name of security and well-being — checkpoints, walls, fences, technologies of surveillance and governance. At the space of the frontier we are also reminded of the particularities of borders — territorial, economic, social, religious, disciplinary, intellectual — and of fundamental concepts such as democracy, rights, sovereignty, belonging, that underpin our relationships as social beings. At the space of the frontier we are also, and most crucially, reminded of the necessity ‘to take up arms’, to break the institutionalisation of borders, the setting up of symbolic and real structures of differentiation which block flows, movement, of people, ideas, and productive exchange. We are also reminded of the urgency of rethinking those foundational concepts that underpin our social relationships, to ask for instance whether the notion of sovereignty that underpins the idea of democracy, which has given birth to the institutionalisation of various forms of surveillance and disciplinary mechanisms, is as democratic and open as it claims to be? The space of the frontier is thus both an exciting space and a complex one: it is complex for it marks the terrain of domination, management, regulation as well as the terrain for critique, which makes it exciting because it fosters the possibility of thinking otherwise. In the interstitial space of the frontier we are reminded of other possibilities — a world where borders do not dominate, where movement is not policed and regulated. The space of the frontier thus for us marks that space which reminds us of crossing borders, of transgressing structures, zones and spaces of differentiation.

2. Our call for border crossing is committed to a position which goes against the grain of particular globalization theorists for instance who suggest that the condition of the present which makes it markedly different from the past are the notions of mobility (of people, things, ideas, and so on) and borderlessness. Our position is not necessarily new or unheard of. There is a significant body of literature which argues that the condition of globalization is marked by an increasing pervasiveness of techniques of restrictions on movement (Sassen, 1991, 1988; Bauman, 2002). While mobility across borders might be the privilege of a few, the world’s majority are by and large highly immobile and immobilized. Mobility, while contingent upon class or economic status, is also politically contingent. In that sense mobility is politicized, or more precisely mobility is politics. While this may be so, that contemporary globalization marks the condition of immobility as theorized by the authors cited, there continues, unabated, a trajectory of theorizing globalization as marked by mobility, openness, and fluidity. Notions of network (Held, et al, 1999; Castells, 1996), flows (Appadurai, 1996), and transnationalism (Harvey, 1989; Soja, 1989), are often used to characterise and depict globalization as the seamless flow across national borders, of goods, services, capital, culture, technologies and so on. We are not suggesting that concepts such as flows and networks do not mark the condition of the present; indeed they do, but at the same time, there is also, against this current, other markers of the present: borders, differentiated zones and spaces, and immobility. Following Shamir, we suggest that

the meaning and consequences of globalization are highly contested and, moreover, globalization is now routinely theorized as a highly contradictory set of cultural and normative pressures, involving tensions between capitalism and democracy, the north and the south, the haves and have-nots, empire and multitude (Hardt and Negri 2000), McWorld and Jihad (Barber 1996), as well as between “globalizers” and a variety of so-called anti-globalization movements (Kellner 2002, 1999; de Sousa Santos 2002) (Shamir, 2005: 198).

3. And the task, considering this, is as Fernandez et al argue, is ‘to test the power of the demand “No borders”’ (2006: 466) on the system that precludes certain forms of movement while fostering others; in short the demand to cross borders to address the inequitability of mobility and movement. As they argue in their essay ‘Erasing the Line, or, the Politics of the Border’:

The demand for free movement challenges not only the logic of contemporary economic, but also the operations of the political, which have long been premised on the establishment of zones of inclusion and exclusion, control over the legal status of citizen-subjects, practices of demographic accounting and management, and the mobilization of bodies for use in territorial expansion and war (Fernandez, et al, 2006: 467).

The demand for no borders attacks the sphere of economics, politics, and identity which they suggest operates in and through the logic of borders:

within capitalism borders have carried out specific functions — connected to the processes of domination and exploitation — that have nothing to do with a rationalization of the world. Whereas in the origins of capitalism borders were essential to unify national markets, today they are used primarily to prevent the movements of the multitude … This strategy is directly linked to the bureaucratic forms of identity developed by nation-states to stop the possibility of free movement (passports, declaratsias, visas, etc.). In the post-modern age of information technologies and knowledge economies, borders continue to perform a key role in the capitalist system (Fernandez, et al, 2006: 468).

The neoliberal condition, thus paradoxically, while championing the opening up of borders — political, economic, social and cultural — is simultaneously contingent upon the formation of borders. This is why the authors point out that ‘these discourses [which champion ‘the nomadic dimension of the global-present’] are in contradiction with what is really happening. We have a discourse of movement, but the practice is radically different. There is freedom of movement, but with a clear restriction’ (Fernandez, et al, 2006: 469). It is through this contradiction that we must engage with the global present; and it is this contradiction that can be overcome by a demand for no borders or at least for an expression, exercise of border crossing. What is at stake here is not simply physical movement; rather the call for border crossing seeks the unblocking of ideas, formations of subjectivities, and the shaping of ‘the identities and commitment of those contained by them’ (Fernandez, et al, 2006: 475).

4. What is thus going on in the present is the intensification of borders, or the saturation of the idea of borders as part of our everyday, from the more macro-level instances such as the building of walls, to the more micro-level instances of the proliferation of media texts defining what healthy and good living would entail, what the ideal home might be, or which lifestyle choices we should and should not make. The production of borders in other words is becoming much more acute and much more entrenched. We might even say that borders are a fundamental concept or idea to the operation of the technology of power that Foucault names biopower and to the regime of ‘biopolitical tattooing’ (Agamben, 2004) that animates the present. In other words, biopower, which deals with ‘the population as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem’ (Agamben, 2004) through classifying, calculating, managing and relating the potential flows and relations amongst social beings to ‘maximize and extract forces’ (Foucault, 1997: 246) in the most productive fashion does so through the formation of borders. That is the segmenting of the population into different categories of life, lifestyle, work, class, ethnicities, cultural forms, political orientations such that the management of the population to extract maximum potential and minimize potential threat is made possible. Borders therefore become central to the regulation and management of the population: it allows the segmenting of the population into social, cultural economic and political trajectories or expressions that they are best suited to, to ensure that the best can be extracted and the dangers managed.

5. This demand that we are emphasizing is radically different from the echoes for no borders that we hear from the neoliberal camp. Indeed, as we have argued, one of the foundational axioms through which the neoliberal no borders claim works is in and through a politics of borders. Underpinning the no borders claim thus is, paradoxically, a project of border construction. This is the tension, paradox, through which the neoliberal camp champions, rhetorically, the no borders claim. This tension, for them, need not be resolved; indeed it cannot be resolved in favour of a genuine concerted project of borderlessness, because such a resolution would intervene into the order of global capital, into the life project that neoliberalism is concerned with. Our claim that we cross borders is therefore a much more radical demand because it wishes to do away with the foundational axiom through which the politics of life is orchestrated under neoliberalism. It is thus a demand that we undo the categorizations that we occupy, whether these be disciplinary, political, and economic or any other form of enclosure, and to ask, as Foucault encourages us, what is the cost of such enclosures? What does this enclosure, bordering, cost society? As the papers in this issue demonstrate, the cost is multifaceted: Nick Mansfield for instance asks what are the costs of and for the future if we do not rethink our conceptions of cultural politics to address climate change; Samuel Chambers and Alan Finlayson examine the cost of political liberalism failing to engage with right-wing critique and multidimensional pluralism; Debora Halbert asks what are the costs when mobility in the city of Geneva is highly regulated and access to spaces of power are restricted. Next Michele Acuto interrogates the cost of unthinking the notion of borders and calls for a conception of borders as ‘objects of revision’; while Rachel Weissbrod interrogates the cost of adaptation of Israeli literature to cinema, paying specific attention to the depoliticisation that takes place. In their turn, John Hannaford and Janice Newton together interrogate the cost of the pilgrimage to Gallipoli amongst Australians to our considerations of Australian society, with particular reference to how such pilgrimage might impact on our understandings of the sacred. Finally Anthony Burke closes the issue by bringing these questions of cost even closer to home through his consideration of ‘the value placed on “life” in contemporary western societies’. As he asks, what is the cost of this valuing, of the ‘peculiar and terrible bargains’ it result in.

6. Collectively, therefore these papers interrogate various borders and affirm the power and productivity of border crossing. Nick Mansfield begins the issue with an exploration of the planetary issue that is climate change through the question of adapting cultural politics to the challenges of climate change. More specifically, Mansfield asks ‘Will current re-conceptions of historical time be radical enough to cope with the political challenges climate change is already proposing?’. The answer is a resounding negative, and after outlining some of the limits of current conceptions of historical time to address climate change, the paper goes on to affirm, utilising Derrida’s concept of hauntology, a conception of historical-time ‘in terms of the unpredictability of future events’. The challenge posed, to cross the border of our current conceptions of historical time, is a crucial one in that it opens a relationship to climate change that is founded upon undecidability and offers grounds for a new politics to be fostered. As Mansfield points out:

What ‘hauntology’ offers is a politics of the event-to-come. It imagines this event as wholly disjunctive, a shock, the radically new, but only as it returns from a known, if unresolved past. Hauntology offers us the logic by which we can re-consider the coincidence of the inevitable unfolding and the unforeseeable interruption, of history as simultaneously fulfilment and shock. I have tried to argue that this spectrality is above all material, the material politics that will mediate climate change. It is clear from the example of New Orleans that the politics of the Absolute Other will subsume, re-invigorate and re-make the politics of difference, the politics of the other of the other. The politics of climate change will be experienced differentially, as determined by race, religion, wealth, nationality and locality.

What Mansfield encourages is a thinking on climate change that is beyond current conceptions, one that crosses the borders of our present approaches, that is premised or built upon the notion of ‘event-to-come’ to engender a new politics to tackle what is the most pressing concern that confronts humanity.

7. Also concerned with the need for our political thinking to respond transformatively to current challenges, Samuel Chambers and Alan Finlayson consider the ways contemporary liberal political theory engages, in the U.S., with right-wing critique (which they gloss as ‘Coulterism’ after the ‘right-wing political pundit and commentator Ann Coulter’) and with the demands of a multidimensional pluralism. They contend provocatively that liberalism’s (non) attempts to engage with these issues show that it has in fact reached its internal limit, that it ‘finds itself on the horns of a dilemma’, caught between meaningless and illiberalism. These challenges, however, are not underpinning a call by Chambers and Finlayson for liberalism to simply ‘come up with clearer or stronger answers’ per se. Rather they use their analysis to make the point that what is needed is far more radical. Far from another revision of liberalism what is actually needed is the development and practice of a ‘different kind of theory’. This would be a political theory ‘whose goal’ would be to ‘promote or encourage a new form of democratic politics’, which would be in turn a ‘democracy de-linked from liberalism’. This is no less than a call for a complete rethinking of the aims and borders of political theory to the point that it does more than seek the rules for maintaining the given order — and thereby focus on fitting new political formations and objects into this order — but starts to discover new rules, formations and objects.

8. Debora Halbert in ‘A Political Geography of Geneva’ addresses the issue of crossing and the impossibility of crossing borders and boundaries in the city of Geneva, widely regarded as a quintessentially global city as it hosts numerous international organizations such as the United Nations and the Red Cross, and is also the city where the Geneva Conventions were signed. Halbert’s walk through the city, in the shadow of Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, seeks to ‘uncover the possibilities of a relatively privileged academic to penetrate the international institutions that constitute the developing global civil society’. The travelogue reveals the image of Geneva ‘as the success of globalization conceals and helps to render invisible the dark side of globalization – the terrorism, poverty, desperation, environmental destruction and ethnic tension that constitutes the living conditions for many people in the world’. It also reveals, more particularly, when Halbert is unable to gain access to institutions of globalisation, the functioning of borders and the relationship that is encountered at the material frontier of globalization to lager questions of access to the spaces of power of globalisation for those who are much more impoverished than Halbert is. The trip through Geneva and the reading of Geneva and the institutions of power of globalization as engaged in border policing also tells us of how such structuring of power determines ‘the types of politics made possible’. What is urgently required, Halbert argues in an interesting parallel to Chambers and Finlayson, is a reordering of power, one that can be possible if we first move away from a top-down model of access to one that opens up ‘grass-roots points of entry’ such that ‘the goals, desires and intents of the multitude are heard within the walls of international institutions’. In other words, what is required is a rethinking of the structural formation of global institutions of power as well as the practices of these institutions. In short, what is called for is an attempt to cross the border of current configurations and open up other models of access that are not bound by institutional and governmental borders.

9. Conversely Michele Acuto examines the scholarship on globalisation to argue that while there is a general consensus about a de-territorialised world, borders still do matter ‘for many across the globe as they construct the international system and orient movement of individuals, populations and assets’. Writing against such a consensus Acuto then goes on to ask ‘how do borders function, and what happens when they relate to intrastate conflict?’ Taking us across various geo-political spaces that animate our present, ‘from concrete walls in the West Bank, to invisible lines on the Pyrenees, to minefields in Eastern Myanmar’, to enforce the centrality of border to globalisation and to amplify that borders functions powerfully, particularly in intrastate conflict, Acuto makes the point that borders function differently in intrastate conflict: ‘as walls, as permeable ideal lines and as borderlands’. It is such a multifaceted view of borders the author champions:

scholars and practitioners must broaden their insights on borders to all the three aspects described … , instead of assuming that one in particular has to be more relevant than the others. If a three-fold analysis is taken into account, a multifaceted concept as the one of border can be better understood. For example, in the case of Israel, it would be misleading to see the frontiers solely as walls, as these also constitute a set of borderlands throughout the whole country, and affect the social interactions of a great part of the population. Likewise, it would also be simplistic to limit the comprehension of borders to movements of peoples, as the extent of what moves across frontiers is certainly higher, with goods, as well as representations and knowledge, constantly moving across boundaries.

Indeed, as the author concludes, ‘borders should be objects of revision’, calling on us to cross the borders of our thinking about borders, particularly ‘as the societies that live with them grow more and more interdependent, and the need for concrete hindrances can be overcome by alternative means’.

10. Continuing with an interrogation of borders and frontiers, Rachel Weissbrod in ‘Israeli Literature and Cinema in a Web of Intercultural Relations’ explores the adaptation of literature to cinema in relation to the notion of intercultural relations. More specifically, Weissbrod examines ‘three adaptations in which Israeli culture is involved: Lost Lover … based on Avraham B. Yehoshua’s The Lover …; The Island on Bird Street … based on a novel by Uri Orlev …; and Saint Clara … based on The Ideas of Saint Clara … by the Czechs Jelena Masínová and Pavel Kohout’ to argue that the crossing of Israeli literature and culture into the cinematic form depoliticizes the force of the literary form. Focusing on the cinematic treatment of historical, ideological and political issues that circulate in the literary texts, the authors argues that the depoliticisation that accompanies the crossing over, particularly ‘the treatment of Zionist ideology and history which the films prefer to marginalize or evade rather than criticize or endorse’ must be conceptualised as part of the larger transnational flow of capital. In other words, the depoliticisation is part of the larger current of transnational media and its attempt to appeal to a larger audience. The depoliticisation that accompanies the border crossing is driven by the material, capital logic of transnational media. The specificity of Weissbrod’s interrogation must also be seen as contributing to the discussion for interdisplinarity, planetarity (Spivak), or transdisciplinarity, because here the border crossing operation — literature to cinema — serves to depoliticise the issue at hand.

11. John Hannaford and Janice Newton continue the theme of border and border crossing by exploring the behaviour and experiences of travellers to Anzac commemorations at Gallipoli and the attendant movement of memories, imaginaries, flora, fauna, and other practices between and across these two spaces. Situating their contribution alongside debates ‘currently taking place on the issue of the authenticity of the experience of those … who travel to Gallipoli … and on the validity of using the term “pilgrimage” to describe this experience’, Hannaford and Newton draw from their participant-observation of the movement of Australians to Gallipoli to argue that the ‘massed Anzac Day Gallipoli pilgrimage is a spiritual phenomenon and, indeed, a true pilgrimage, indicative of general movements in Australia towards the episodic spiritual and the memorialisation of death’. The argument that is made here resonates very closely with the argument put forward by Karner and Aldridge in their study ‘Theorising Religion in a Globalized World’. Drawing on the work of key globalization theorists Karner and Aldridge argue that the conditions of late capitalism have produced a new form of social polarization separating a global business elite, comprising ‘frequent-flier executives, financiers, bureaucrats, professionals and media moguls’ who control the nodes of the network society, from the many localities where job insecurity and existential uncertainty turn into chronic anxiety (2004: 11). The condition of chronic anxiety, produced by the unequal web and flows of globalization, they continue, returns us ‘to a founding theme in the sociology of religion. However, the explanatory direction of the Weberian paradigm is now inverted: In place of the economic consequences of doctrinally induced “salvation anxiety” during early capitalism, we are now confronted with economically induced “survival anxiety,” for which religions appear capable of offering some form of antidote’ (2004: 11). This hypothesis — religion as antidote to survival anxiety — is then explored through an empirical survey of religious revivalism since the 1970s, at the time of the rise of the network society. What the authors found is that ‘empirical record strongly suggests that the connection between socioeconomic polarization/marginalization and anxiety on the one hand, and a widely documented contemporary religious revivalism on the other, is not merely conjectural. What we appear to be witnessing is a “de-privatization” of religion, a global “desecularization of the world,” an increase in antisecular movements and discourses disenchanted with the project of modernity and insistent on the political potential and public role of religious beliefs and practices’ (2004: 11-12). The Australian case, as exemplified by Hannaford and Newton, can be thus be seen as part of a larger phenomenon of religious revivalism, but, as they point out, a revivalism that is not necessarily church-bound: ‘The Gallipoli phenomenon may exemplify a current Australian trend towards re-sacralisation, embodying forms of spirituality beyond the institutional church’. And this is a key point to bear in mind insofar as Hannaford and Newton suggest that this re-sacralisation is intimately connected with a search for a ‘cultural centre’.

12. Finally Anthony Burke, in his narrative prose essay ‘Life in the Hall of Smashed Mirrors: Biopolitics and Terror Today’, also picks up on some of our disenchantment and anxiety with regards to the biopolitical functionings of our contemporary world. Here, through a close interweaving of ‘personal and geopolitical experiences’, Burke interrogates the way our various discourses and machineries concerned with ‘life’ — a key value in our, indeed any, society — coexist with and/or cross imperceptibly into those that deal death. We are, as such, invited here to follow the path of Burke’s musings as he tries to connect the dots of our capacity to care intensely for the start and sustenance of our (own) life existing simultaneously with our total disregard for it. Or, better, for our capacity to justify the use and taking of life in the name of security, or threat, or our way of life. This is the puzzle that Burke quotes Foucault, among a diverse range of others, on: ‘the coexistence in our political structures of large destructive mechanisms and institutions oriented towards the care of individual life is something puzzling and needs investigation … life insurance is connected with a death command’ (2002: 405). Burke does not presume to have an answer for this puzzle, for this unsettled border between life and death and for how our discourses and machinery move almost imperceptibly between the two. However, by allowing the ‘implications of [his] narrative to develop allusively’, Burke hopes that we might start to imagine a ‘more humane and sustainable (geo)politics’.

13. The range of papers in this issue collectively describe, explore and critique the idea of borders, affirm the need to rethink borders and the project of border crossing, in the more conceptual sense and in the more material sense. They collectively explore the cost of specific disciplinary, intellectual, political, social, cultural and economic forms of enclosure and seek to rethink and extend means of border crossings, conceptions that cross the borders of our current thinking of such matters. Finally, on behalf of our editorial team, we hope this first issue for 2008 would encourage further discussions and engender other specific border crossings. This issue owes many thanks to the rest of the team and to all the authors and referees for the on-going work and support for making borderlands a space for thinkings at the frontier.


Vijay Devadas works at the University of Otago and is co-editor of the forthcoming special issue of the journal Sites: A Journal of Social Anthropology & Cultural Studies (June 2008) and has published a number of articles on postcolonial theory, Tamil cinema, and most recently on terror, security and policing in Aotearoa.

Jane Mummery is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ballarat, Australia. The author of The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-Metaphysical Ethics (Peter Lang 2005), she has published several papers on the ethico-political facets of continental theory.


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© borderlands ejournal 2008



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