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How Border Walls Defend and Define with Professor Miriam Ticktin

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When I started this column “Browning America,” I intended to grapple with how individuals negotiate the bounds of their citizenship, and to a greater extent their being, with sovereign power. I examined the aesthetic encounters between the socially and politically disempowered other and the sovereign in an attempt to reject meta-narratives of the “othered experience.”

Due to increased global flows over wide geographic ranges, we are departing from the normative Westphalian statehoods. This threat of waning sovereignty has prompted states to reclaim the nation-state by undertaking efforts to limit scales of mobility. These technologies of containment, such as border walls and boundaries, do more than just regulate human movement, however.

The performance of bordering and bounding has been central to my discussions in this column— reordering the boundaries of the citizen, the human, and the body based on locale and positionality. It was fitting, then, that Professor Osman Balkan of my Borders and Boundaries course recommended that our class attend Professor Miriam Ticktin’s talk “Border Walls and the Politics of Becoming Non-Human.”

On April 21, Ticktin visited Swarthmore to address the global industry of borderwork. In this lecture, she was concerned with how the technologies and auxiliaries of borderwork are transnational spaces with transnational techniques to refigure ontologies of being, i.e. determining who is human and who is nonhuman.

Her argument is that “border walls come not simply to defend (i.e. certain territories) but to define — that is, to reshape or alter categories of natural and human kinds,” according to her synopsis of the lecture.

Ticktin, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Co-Director of the Zolberg Institute for Migration and Mobility at the New School, rethinks the aesthetics of affective and effective counter-politics in much of her scholarship. Her most recent article, “Thinking Beyond Humanitarian Borders,” reacts against humanitarian borderwork as an effective political maneuver to animate change because it is limited by our individual compassions and sensibilities.

As a skeptic of the viability of the nation-state as a viable global agenda, I asked Professor Ticktin if the humanitarian enterprise is compatible with the nation-state project.

“It’s when the nation-state breaks down that humanitarianism comes in as a different form of government — it supplements what the nation-state does,” she said in our interview.

The nation-state is a welfare-state, and humanitarian aid fills its legislative voids.

“Are they incompatible? Yes. If the nation-state were doing everything it was supposed to do, we wouldn’t need humanitarianism,” she explains.

The impotence of the nation-state materializes in state efforts to wall and to border — per Wendy Brown, walling and bordering is not just a means of territorializing space, but territorializing people in a desperate performance of sovereignty and viability. Sovereignty is something to be enacted and performed. And with the securitization of the nation-state through robust walling and bordering, the humanitarian impulse erodes the sovereign project of the nation-state.

While Ticktin does acknowledge walling as manifestations of nation-state sovereignty, she argues that our global border regime is more than just a nation-state project, but a transnational project.

One test case she presented in her talk was the advent of “container camps” for refugee housing as an aid market for humanitarian technologies that view people as goods with commercial value. Container camps, typically located at the site of the border wall or auxiliary, are collections of modular shipping units that are used for housing refugees.

While an ethical, humanitarian response to the failure of the state to provide adequate housing for migrants, these containment spaces reduce the humans they contain into commodities. While this example could be a testament to the dehumanizing effects of nation-state negligence and fallacy of liberal individualism, Ticktin believes this relates to a larger global dialectic surrounding the ordering of human kinds.

“Walls are ways of sorting human beings into humans and nonhumans — they are ways to classify, to sort, to let some people move and to let others not,” she says. “It’s a much bigger project than just the nation-state, it’s about rendering certain type of beings, certain types of beings.”

In my interview with her, I posited how the prospect of an open-border policy could ameliorate the issue of sorting. She challenged the romanticized vision for a borderless world and proposed a means of playing with the aesthetics of borders as an effective counter-political move.

“There are already some projects that have broken down nation-states and to some extent borders, but to have a complete borderless world in that way is somewhat utopian,” she explains.

Instead, she claims we should redesign the aesthetics of borders: “What can we do to make them different? Make them welcoming? Reconceive of a border as a welcome-lounge or a flyaway?”

Rather than a speculative design, this approach would entail working within the border infrastructures already implemented rather than completing reimagining the regime.

If we can conceive of borders in alternate designs, forms and temporalities, perhaps we can stop the conjoinment of buffer zones and border zones that so violently determine who is killable and who is not.

With the recent resurgence in rightwing nationalism, apartheid regimes and soft authoritarians with isolationist motivations will continue to enact borders and perform sovereignty. How do we render the bodies at the border, the political others, visible and sensible without reiterating the logos of the current oppressive border regime?

An open border policy, while speculative in its design, wouldn’t be a means of ameliorating othership, but it would serve as an indication of the tangibility of a more egalitarian global order. For now, then, Ticktin’s reconceptualization of borderwork and border aesthetics could satisfy the need for humanitarian apparatuses external to the state and deconstruct the hierarchies of humanity the border regime so effortlessly proliferates.

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