Borders 2.0: Future, Tense

By Angela Mitropoulos and Bryan Finoki, 12 August 2008

Angela Mitropoulos and Bryan Finoki present an incursion, in text and image, into the contemporary borderlands

Arrayed beyond and around the obvious walls of migration control, the architectures and technologies of the border proliferate. These technologies seek to sort, expunge, confine and delay; to sift potential value from non-value; to fix the border inside and round both states and selves; to foreclose the future to versions of an infinitely stuttering present. Just as new instruments of financial debt and the offshore internment facility were exported from their post-colonial laboratories situated beyond Europe and the United States, so ‘civil’, metropolitan spaces have, in turn, been restructured by devices once reserved for those declared to be ‘uncivil’. The partitioning of ‘third’ and ‘first’ worlds, colony and empire, the zoning of regular, waged work and that of precariousness and slavery – these are some of the divisions that have been shaken by the unprecedented movements of people around the world since the late 20th century. Flows shifted course, reversed, the (ex-)colonised moved toward the colonisers. And so there is the militarisation of policing, the amplification of the prison lockdown as urban crowd control, preemptive surveillance and simulated warfare; a diffused fear and suspicion no longer confined to the ‘margins’. To be sure, these expanding technologies often multiply death and suffering in an attempt to re-impose the ways in which misery was previously displaced to others, elsewhere – that is, the marginalised. They aim to reinstall the borders, to fine tune the ramparts of wealth and its extraction, sometimes by new means, often as retrofits. Yet, as such, this expansion indicates the failure of the walls to hold firm against a future which is contingent upon movements that cannot be identified before they occur.


Superfluidity is surplus motion at the limit of recognition. It prompts the legal limbo of the detention facility, shapes the condition of the stateless, of those who indefinitely dwell in airports and border camps managed by the UN, squatter camps and those who are homeless, those evacuated under the emergency edicts of the naturalised disaster, those who labour under the constant threat of deportation and its growing collection of visa classifications and bonded-labour stipulations. Superfluidity is movement contained and channelled at the same time, excess suspended and made captive for selection. It is the horizon of surplus value and its derivation. And, between those described as ‘floating populations’ (such as the vast numbers of ‘internal migrants’ in China) and those rendered superfluous through calculations of their possible cash redemption and regeneration, there is the internment ship, anchored just off the coastline of citizenship.


As with the return of the prison hulk, so with the recourse to shifting, just-in-time legal and economic boundaries. Extraterritoriality is neither wholly legal nor quite illegal. It is the legally established non-space in which anything becomes possible; constituted by law and selectively applicable of its clauses. It is the architecture of moral ambiguity and an overpowering righteousness, a spatial camouflage; the typology of the technically non-existent and the minutely surveilled. It is what programmes superfluidity, codes it into landscape – fragments of territorialism de-territorialised so as to reinstate territorial limits and proper passages. It is the offshore migrant processing facility trialled by the Australian Government in the Pacific and exported to Libya via the EU, the shadow state and private armies, the practices of rendition and subcontracting of torture, the export processing zone and maquiladora regions, the USA’s Guantanamo Bay positioned on the edge of Cuba, the excision of ‘migration territories’ which retrospectively cancels refugee and migrant laws and conventions after borders have been crossed, the DMZ’s (demilitarised zones) and the growing number of ‘airport liaison officers’ from Europe, Australia and Canada situated around the globe who conduct preemptive passport checks. Extraterritoriality is the border made transportable because the significant variable to be contained and harnessed is the movements of bodies.


Where extraterritoriality took shape around migratory movements and discovered a magnifying capacity in 9/11, the technologies of the protest zone have been directed toward movements as these have been more conventionally defined. Their use signals a concurrent faltering and persistence of the very definition of what a movement is. The series of anti-summit and no border protests that began at the close of the 20th century precipitated a series of innovations in crowd control; the cordoning off of cities and regions, making them minutely available to combined police-military operations of surveillance, management, and ongoing research in civil policing/warfare exercises. Distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ protesters, legitimated protest has increasingly meant dissent at an inconsequential distance and in disciplined corridors. These threshold measures echo and deploy the mechanics of superfluidity and extraterritoriality, as well as recalling the jail and passport check, cattle corral and traffic management, all designed to work from vantages of detachment that can be plugged into the larger legal infrastructure as required. They sieve, steward, and preemptively intern, for the length of declared protests. They arrest (social) movements by becoming as moving and fleeting as they are. They are as internalised to the sense of proper political action as they are brought to bear from the outside as police directive. They rise up around areas transformed into gated communities for business executives and government representatives; supplement the offshoring of migrant internment facilities with buffer zones that divide no border movements from migratory movements. Threshold technologies are, above all, about reassembling the border of what will pass for politics as such. What activates and distributes these particular sets of measures is the conventional announcement of a protest action, its punctuated duration and specific location, that part of politics which adheres to the politically customary rather than the experimental.


Biometric and surveillance technologies make everyone a suspect of no specific charge. They are the principles of measure and classification applied to skin contours, eye, bone, gait, voice, affect, comportment. They are the border guard’s question of ‘Halt, who goes there?’ – the interrogative which seeks identification as the condition of crossing – multiplied and (post)industrialised. Recognition technologies surmount Orwell’s cherished distinction between public and private spaces, all the way down into the body, internalising the citizen’s yearning for that distinction’s resurrection, as the re-privatisation of dissent and difference. They are supposed to make one long to pass, to belong, as a good citizen might. Even so, as the high-tech offspring of phrenology and eugenics, bundled as security doctrine, the most notable features of biometrics and surveillance are the scandals of (sometimes lethal) misrecognition, their cost, and their remarkable failure. Certain identification is recurrently disoriented by movement. Someone grimaces, another turns around, or moves just a little, runs too fast, speaks through the fog of a blocked nose, fidgets nervously, walks on. Racial profiling, for all its aggressive materiality, remains a discretionary and actuarial operation. Movements can only be captured as data or image after they occur. What makes bodies unlike things is where the technologies of recognition falter.


The world’s largest police training ground is situated among the green and pleasantries of Gravesend, Kent. Around 1000 square miles of the Californian desert is given over to modelling the warzones of the Middle East. Here, as with other police/military training environments, they tackle calamity in an amusement park of unrest, insurgency and its abatement; architectures both detailed and artful, designed solely for the purposes of being conquered and reconquered. As the accessories of the doctrine of preemption, these spaces are accompanied by a growing number of university research laboratories which engineer preliminary superstructures suspended in conjectural disaster, or simulate emergency landings and training flight paths under fake duress, or teach of non-linear dynamics and Deleuzo-Guattarian war machines. These arcade-labs of war prepare for conflict under the principle of continuous adaptation, train flexible military units moving not only to protect boundary lines but through terrains marked by the threat of catastrophe. These are instructional handbooks of preemption made manifest as simulated cities, malls and oilfields, aiming to transform soldiers from grunts to self-managed risk-assessors, to move the border with them through chaotic environments. Seeking to relocate warfare within the paradoxical condition of preempting the emergence of the unpredictable, they, as with recognition technologies, are elaborately armed and lethal signals of failure.


Debt seeks to preempt the future, to make of it an impregnable variation of the present, unperturbed by the threat that the future might be otherwise. The securing of this world is accomplished not by military action and walls alone but by instruments of indebtedness that seek to reshape space, time and selves, through proliferating borders of a more intimate kind. The risk that the future might be different from the present is, with debt, transformed into a question of the measurable. Difference becomes reduced to quantitative difference, risk becomes calculable speculation – the present indifferent, or so it is wagered, to the incomparable difference of the future. IMF loans and micro-credit, student loans and mortgages, credit ratings both personal and national induce whole moral economies of success, failure and their demarcations, geographies and self-assessments of value and superfluity. The ostensible normality of ‘first’ world, Fordist regularity was built upon the possibility of seemingly endless debt renewal, leveraged by the gendered, racialised boundaries of ‘third’ world and unpaid labours. Now, tweaked by sub-prime loans and derivatives tested in Latin America, these geographies of impoverishment and the ‘at risk’, in both metropolitan and postcolonial spaces, have become revisioned as the prospect of new frontiers, spaces that might be re-conquered for capital’s theoretically boundless expansion. It is debt which splices together an increasingly correctional welfare system with humanitarian warfare to arrive at regeneration and reconstruction projects; new rounds for the extraction of money and labour from the world’s poor. Through debt, everyone can aspire to be a property owner, at the very least by looking upon one’s self as an asset. Debt unfolds as the imaginary utopia of a citizen-calculator, who carries this barrier against a qualitatively different future with them across an eternalised present and through smoothed out spaces. Less utopically, the increasing personalisation of debt promotes the internalisation of command and self-management, alongside the socialisation of risk and the dissemination of anxiety over exchange and interest rates.


Over the last twenty years, tunnels have been carved out under the two most prominent of the world’s borders. Since the launch of Operation Gatekeeper in the US, around seventy tunnels have been discovered along the US/Mexico border, one a mile long. Underneath Gaza there are hundreds of separate tunnels along the borders with Israel and Egypt, new ones revealed on an almost weekly basis. Where there have been borders, people have found ways to go around, over, through and under them. What is in excess of measure overflows, seeps down through cracks, makes them wider, creates new ones. Here, experiment is key. In border crossing, what is effective outflanks that which is established, and the most effective overall strategy is that which is circumstantially tactical. Neither seeking to claim territory as with the counter-hegemonial, nor hinged around visibility and recognition as with citizenship and value, the very act of border crossing occurs as it is able to. Borders 2.0 are to politically subsurface movements what web 2.0 is to the undercommons. The transformations and proliferations of border technologies are attempts to become adequate to this experimentation, to preempt it by miming its inclination, to circumscribe and re-route it. Seeking to reimpose the present retrospectively and indefinitely, they are the architectural, technological tracings of movements already underway and often long gone. One can stand in awe of their complexity or be enraged by their enthusiastic attachment to suffering and fear. But simply because what gives rise to them is not always recognisable – often taking place literally underground – does not mean they are where power, or the future, is. The future, then, remains tense. Neither hope nor despair; but experiment.

Bryan Finoki is the author of the blog Subtopia: A Field Guide to Military Urbanism ( ), featured in the popular New York City gallery event Postopolis! at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in ‘07. Living in San Francisco, he is a senior editor for Archinect and contributes his writing on borders and the politics of space to various publications

Angela Mitropoulos lives in London. Some of her more recent writings are 'The Materialisation of Race in Multiculture', in Darkmatter – Race/Matter, 2, February 2008 ; 'Notes on the Frontiers and Borders of the Postcolony', Sarai Reader 2007: Frontiers ; and 'The Social Softwar', Mute,