by Michelle Weitzel
PhD student in the Politics Department at the New School for Social Research
Speaking at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility on April 21, 2015, Professor Michel Agier (Anthropology, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) sketched a three-part scene that unfolded at the margins of the port zone in Patras, Greece: in the foreground, a heavy, commercial, truck lumbers toward the departures area along a dusty road. It is being chased by a handful of would-be migrants, all young males. As their footfalls cluster in the exhaust, the frontrunners reach out their arms, straining to dislodge the metal clasp and open the cargo container. Their goal, according to Agier, is to climb aboard the moving vehicle, hide among its merchandise and secure themselves a chance of being smuggled out of Greece. Across the median in the roadway, members of the Elliniki Astynomia, or Hellenic police, lean against their parked cars, watching the scene and laughing; although these attempts occur almost daily, the rates of success are overwhelmingly low. In the background, a second set of runners exert themselves—this time in the protected confines of an air-conditioned fitness center on a treadmill. The large, glass windows of the gym put this group in direct line of sight of the running migrants.
This layered image showcases two increasingly differentiated 21st century realities—that of the legal, fixed citizen (running in place, if you like), and that of the enduringly mobile and necessarily flexible category of peoples who are excluded, for widely disparate reasons, from the benefits of a formalized relationship with the state. The thin, transparent, glass of the gym window and the symbolic presence of the state—embodied in this instance by the lackadaisical police—comprise apt metaphors for the borders, institutions, legislation, and politics that cleave these worlds. Taken in toto, the scene also speaks to the core of Agier’s concept of “borderlands” as those interstitial spaces where worlds collide, identities are trafficked, and particular forms of knowledge are produced.
Since the early 2000s, with his publication of Aux Bords de la Monde, le Réfugiés (published in English by Polity Press in 2008 as On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today), Agier has been one of the foremost scholars to examine the relationship between border spaces, like the one described above, and “borderman,” or the men and women who pass through these spaces. Rather than depicting this relationship as simply structural and agentive, Agier’s presentation reveals a co-constituting ecology of becoming—one in which place-making and self-making go hand in hand, accompanied by a constant ethos of mobility and kinesis. As such, the material borderlands of camps and urban ghettos wax and wane in the currents of migration, just as the self and collective understanding of the ancient figure of the wanderer—an unattached nomad seeking her fate, or a dispossessed outcast in search of a new home—fluctuates in accordance with her spatial surround.
Thus, borderlands take hold in ways that defy extant political boundaries or conceptions, springing up in camps, squatter’s quarters, and urban ghettos within global cities, but also in deserts, seas, and such exceptional, or non-state, spaces as ports. In redrawing our understanding of political space, borderlands, even when ephemeral, represent sites of intervention and new “hubs” of social ordering. Agier tells us that for the “Borderman,” these become central nodes in the landscape of immigration—places where strategies are elaborated, intelligence is collected and bartered, and identities are refashioned in response to a multitude of influences. The migrant must know the border in a deep sense—where (and when) he may and may not circulate, how to find food, shelter, and occupation without risking catastrophe.
The theoretical ramifications of his particular formulation of borderland and borderman appear to be twofold for Agier. First, he identifies in these spaces an emergent and particularly migrant cosmopolitanism that derives from everyday experiences of the border. He sees this form of cosmpolitianism as being at odds with formulations that understand the term as designating either the “good life” enjoyed by an elite, global class, or the political project to create a common basis for global citizenship. Instead, Agier’s migrant cosmopolitanism foretells a global identity that is grounded in the generative friction of overlapping worldviews.
Relatedly, Agier gestures toward a paradoxical hardening, or emergent permanence of the Borderland, pointing to the existence of such places as Gaza Hospital, which has served as an unofficial home to refugees, squatters, and undocumented workers in Beirut since 1987. (The hospital, which overlooks the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, ceased functioning in a medical capacity when it was bombed in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.) What flows from this ‘hardening’ of the borderlands is a network of exceptional spaces—a sort of global labyrinth, that traps everyone, migrant or not, in its snare. As they become fixed destinations on the migrant’s journey, marginal spaces such as Gaza Hospital are incorporated into the normal order of things. This lays the ground for a “cosmopolitics” that may be understood in its incipient phase through an examination of such microlevel events as migrants chasing behind a truck in Patras. The question remains, however, whether the cosmopolitics of borderlands in the coming years will tilt toward the sublimation of extraterritoriality, exception, and exclusion—or whether these ideas, which have heretofore characterized the nomad and the camp—will come to define the new normal as citizens and illegals alike are swept into the labyrinth.