Sunday, January 25, 2009

Towards a Nomadic Fortress [Refuge/Refugee]

One, if not the only, concept I’ve been exploring and trying to articulate in my own verbosely infected terms here on Subtopia is what you’ve heard me refer to (too many times by now) as the nomadic fortress, or what I see as pervasive border space today. No longer just a question of contested territory, hard boundary lines, and stricter border enforcement between two nations, but a space that functions more ubiquitously on several paradoxes around global mobility and a rise in detention markets, detention politics, national security as the new global architecture.
Rather than a single structure, the nomadic fortress is a whole syntax of control spaces linked across multiple landscapes that constitute perhaps the world’s first universal border fence, loosely connected across continents through a kind of geopolitical geometry that super-imposes a border just as much as enforces one between the First World and the Global South. It is, you might say, the Great Wall of Globalization.
This space has no regard for borders any more as we traditionally understand them, no respect for national territory; it hovers over and slips between those definitions, goes around and under them when it needs to, ultimately passing through border fixity as it sees fit. It is in some way the final border, a border that is never at rest but is always modifying itself for greater tactical vantage; a kind of flexible mock-hydrological regime that deploys and aligns other sub-border levers and valves below it to secure the conduits of neoliberal capitalism and the flows of people who are captives of them in one way or another. A structure that utilizes an entire atlas of border fences with a range of satellite technologies, web-based border vigilantes and extra-territorial floating prisons, to feed the border as a kind of geopolitical gutter space that siphons the subjects of migration off into a swollen infrastructure of detention where billions of dollars and are spent on their bounty.
It is a fully transitional geography of unsettled coordinates, excessive legality and perpetual legal suspension. This border doesn’t take the defensive posture that borders traditionally have in the past, but instead is on the move and on the hunt for a new class of would-be border crossers who’ve been bound together in a dangerously wide-cast surveillance net that is incapable of distinguishing the refugee from the enemy combatant, the migrant from the smuggler, laborer from insurgent. It is the border as the worst kind of political blur space. It is as immovable as it is fluid, like a sea of transparent blast walls crashing on the shores of geopolitical exile.

Anyway, I’ve written a chapter for a book recently put out by Chain, a publication that dedicates each edition to an artistic and literary exploration of a given topic. The editors just launched a new books series Chain Links that is intended to expand the depth of these topics further.

[Image: REFUGE / REFUGEE (CHAINLINKS), Jena Osman, Ed., Dec., 5 2008 - Small Press Distribution.]

Their first book Refuge/Refugee is a look at the nature of “refuge” and what it means to be a “refugee.” This concept has evolved dramatically in some ways over time, yet has remained impervious to change in other ways that has allowed refuge to become a space for something else, something maybe even counter to the very notion of its origin.
Jena Osman, the book’s editor, writes in her intro:

By definition, a refuge is a safe place for those in danger: a nature refuge shelters wildlife from over-hunting and habitat loss, a refugee camp protects innocent civilians from perilous warring forces. But the closer one looks at these spaces of protection, the more permeable their borders, the more complex the acts of isolation they require.
The fearful rhetoric of “homeland security” dominated American domestic and foreign policy for most of the eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration. Once considered a refuge for the tired, poor, and huddled masses, the United States became a protectorate of the muscular ideals of xenophobic nationalism. The trope of the “melting pot” was replaced by the material realities of border walls, surveillance devices, and other spatial controls, all in the name of security.
The etymology of the word “secure” comes from the Latin securus, se meaning “apart from” or “without” and cure meaning “pains” or “care.” In order for a refuge to keep its contents safe, contained, and “carefree,” it must maintain a radical separation from that which exists outside of its frame. Such detachment is impossible; inevitably, the exterior seeps through to the interior (and vice versa) in a network of complex, yet mappable, relations. The four pieces in this book call attention to the fact that a “safe place” can never achieve complete autonomy from its threats.


In this climate, a place of refuge (be it for birds, for natural resources, or for people) seems less possible than ever. Typical conceptions of refuge attempt to stabilize (paralyze?) a constantly changing and often volatile situation inside of a detached and enclosed space, separate from the world that surrounds it. In other words, the imperatives of verbs (escape! run! refuse!) are forced to submit to the stasis of nouns (shelter. tent. detention center.) The essays included here suggest that the verb is crucial; the criss-crossing pathways, the teeming flyways, the pipelines of migratory networks, all work to enable a necessary flow through the circulatory system of an environment, a nation, an infrastructure.

My essay Towards a Nomadic Fortress is a survey of the infrastructure of a border industrial complex, if you will, that is cashing in on creating and enforcing this new bordering, tracking down and detaining transients, unconscionably blurring the lines between immigration and national security to the point of total human rights devolution. It collects a lot of what readers have seen here on Subtopia, but organizes it all a bit more thoughtfully, I hope.
I’ve mentioned this publication before briefly in this earlier post on the border floods that were created along the US/Mexico border as a result of the Border Patrol’s irresponsible barricades. If you missed that one it might be worth checking out, since I elaborate more there on the concept of the border fence as a techno-militaristic form of irrigation control for the fluidity of global migration.
However, below, is an extract from the chapter I wrote as well:

* * *

Capital is fencing you in . . .
or out, depending on where you stand. Either way, the spread of wealth trumpeted by free trade has divided the world essentially into two camps. On one hand there is a ubiquitous and symbolic gated community that insulates the world’s elite behind exclusive neighborhood enclaves. On the other hand, capital is devising an unprecedented perimeter that encircles the global south through a flexible and strategic militarization of cross-border flows and refugee internment. Even though neoliberalism has expanded the free market across borders, boasting a hyper-fluidity of movement and global exchange, the migrating laborers themselves are cordoned off by a frenzied new trend in border fence construction. As Mike Davis has suggested in his essay “The Great Wall of Capital,”(1) the smashing of the Berlin Wall not only spread the hope of a future era of transnational freedom, but also donned a new generation of partition monstrosities, from simple razor wire barricades to 40 foot high concrete blast walls topped with sniper posts, 360 degree panoramic video cameras, sensor-activated stadium lights, apocalyptic sirens, and ominous CCTV surveillance trees that see just as well—if not better—at night. For every piece of the Berlin Wall that gathers dust on some tourist’s bookshelf there is a new rampart, a new bulwark, a new checkpoint or chain-linked fence, a new parapet or palisade planted in some subdivided corner of the world, mounting another front against the desperate waves of global migration hurling themselves at the gates of a forbidden first world Eden.
Crucial to the mobility of capitalism today is a systemic architectural complicity that plays into this bisection of global urbanism. Currently, the two fastest growing trends in global housing are gated communities and informal settlements like squatter communities and refugee encampments. Architecture not only exercises a role in the design of gated communities (often referred to by critics as the “architecture of fear”), but also helps plan their counterparts—refugee camps (which usually end up becoming permanent ghetto spaces) and migration zones.
Architecture is fundamentally engaged in the politics and production of space. Its definition (in rudimentary terms) can be boiled down to either providing a basic form of shelter, or organizing a corresponding set or system of walls that either blocks or enables human mobility in some fashion. Since mobility and the right to movement are inherently political (perhaps even the most essential of human liberties) the concept of a border fence is as much about architecture as the design of a public square. For that matter, so is the detention center, the underground smuggler tunnel, and the prison hulk. Crude as they may be, entire landscapes of official and unofficial spaces huddle in the shadows of constructed nation-state dividers. As these politically-charged and ambiguous spaces become more and more pervasive, the role of spatial planners is called into question – can architecture more actively and conscientiously engage these spaces to help mitigate their impact on those who inhabit them?

Between the gated community and the refugee/squatter settlement (or, between the first world and the third) the expansion of border fences serves as a contiguous spatial membrane through which dislocated polyps of territory, extra-territory, and various lairs of state and illicit power materialize. In this loose sense, architecture is a political practice, facilitating what Giorgio Agamben has referred to as “spaces of exception.”(2) These exceptional spaces are reflected on both sides of the fence, where concepts of refuge and detention are ambiguously blurred and incorporated into the border by a more pervasive logic of national security.
Since commerce, goods, and information now flow freely within a kind of liquid society of transnational interplay, the substrata of cross-border migration has become more of a parched landscape where liquidity and fluidity (in terms of movement) have been extremely deprived. Instead, the nomadic routes of migrants and refugees are dictated by tactical arrangements of concrete embankments, unsurpassable berms, dangerous ditches, trenches, and other deployed dikes and levees strictly designed to prevent the north from being flooded by the populations of the south. We can think of these floodgates as goliath mechanisms of bio-political hydrology, re-flooding certain labor zones and reservoirs with migrants ripe for exploitation while drying up other labor wetlands altogether where manufacturing industries have evaporated or moved on to different regions. Today’s border fences are less about stopping the flows of mass migration than they are about engineering a whole taxonomy of barriers that can identify and redirect them, informally outsourcing the pools of global labor from one geography to another. And while some routes are pushed deeper underground by all of this, other subterranean passages are merely forced to the surface. This massive border hydrology is shifting human resettlement patterns for generations to come.
To look at the migration paths fingering upwards from Africa towards Europe, (like the Trans-Saharan migration zone, for example), or the sea voyages along the coastal peripheries of Spain and throughout the Mediterranean Sea, or the veins of movement that tendril northbound from South America up through Mexico to eventually split in multiple fractions across the US/Mexico border—we cannot help but draw comparisons to the great alluvial landscape patterns of the world’s riverbeds and streams and long winding natural water movements that have contoured the planet’s topography for centuries. Metaphorically speaking, the refugee is ultimately the captive of a kind of mock-hydrologic system of exclusion and containment—a military hydrology of border control—where national peripheries no longer spill into one another but become more hardened by structures of institutionalized violence and friction. This is a new kind of political architecture.
In opposition to the hydrologic sprawl, we can also think of architecture as the spatial libation of capital, and how capital is distributed through the landscape. Here, the architectural legacy of globalization is most epitomized by a networked infrastructure of fortified skyscrapers that preside over the global cities of the world. Towering over everything in their coordinated constellation of financial supremacy, the global city is the strategic beacon for the distributed power of transnational lordship. These magnificent high-rises have become the medieval castles of the 21st century, the postmodern fortresses that buttress a new era of corporate sovereignty, peering down from an elevated landscape several-hundred floors above the scope of any public scrutiny. Virtually untouchable and beyond oversight, this overarching sanctum of steel lattice and impenetrable glass is the apotheosis of what Thomas Barnett has more broadly named the “functioning core” of globalization; it is the celestial corporate headquarters governing over the rest of the world(3). The towers are the sheer verticality of uneven capitalist development in physical form. At their apex, the world’s skies are emblazoned with executive secrecy and runaway finanscapes, where mysterious hierarchies and enterprising collusion take cover in soaring crowns of architectural majesty cloaked only by nature’s foreboding clouds.
These restricted stratums form a kind of aerial cross-section of global capital’s abstract infrastructure—from top-floor transnational boardrooms to unmarked airborne jetliners, from presidential suites to panoptic control rooms, from sunken server storage bunkers to classified bases of retreat, and from diplomatic safe-havens to ungodly moneyed tourist nests that hang over embassies abroad like royal frill clinging to the pearly gates of the free world. Posing as some sort of meta-nation-state, these global cities are tethered by stacks and stacks of office towers that seem to pop up almost overnight in places like Dubai and Shanghai. These towers are the new monolithic pistons for this post-world-war borderless capitalism and are what turn the globe today. If such built forms are any indication, however, then in essence the pre-eminent spheres of neoliberalism are marked by what Evan McKenzie refers to as a vast floating “privatopia” that tends to loom over the globe in their own suspended state of governance.(4)
While this particular landscape of globalization is vastly nomadic, in that it is subservient to the absolute mobility of capital (think transit villages, global hotel chains, networked financial institutions, widespread commuter infrastructure, city-like airports and the aerotropolis, outsourced factories, etc.), the nomadic landscape of the developing world is becoming all the more stationary and enclosed. In terms of the urbanization of migration, the architectural remains of globalization’s legacy amount to a broken intercontinental chain of border fences and security walls, dismal refugee camps, overcrowded detention centers, peripheral squatter settlements, dangerous inner-city homeless shelters, jail cells, and seats on a deportation-class airplane. For all intents and purposes these “spatial products,” as Keller Easterling might choose to call them(5), create a vast reciprocal infrastructure—a kind of global “subtopia,” to use Ian Nairn’s term.(6) And even though the subtopia is not officially recognized as being connected by any singular interlocking physical form, the sum of its scattered parts loosely constitutes its own sort of whole: a mammoth informal hydrology of migration control, or what I call a “nomadic fortress.”
In the wake of devastating natural disasters, civil wars, campaigns of genocide, and intolerable economic pressures that cause millions to seek new livelihoods abroad, a dispersed mass of refugee warehousing has taken shape around the world. The overall geography of this reveals a complex and extended global border interwoven by spaces of refuge and detention. Together they form a strategically linked and unprecedented militarized stopgap between the developed and undeveloped world.
Given the spatial dimensions of military power today, the transit zones of migration are becoming increasingly controlled by constructs of displacement that are more or less plugged in to this evolving hydro-like model, conducting the flows and currents of global nomads into a turbulent system of dehumanizing channels and estuaries that extend all over the world through lesser known deltas and canals towards a hidden geography of inevitable round-up and detention. With the escalation of the “Global War on Terror” the planet is (in a less visible and less linear sense) being carved by a Herculean dam that attempts to regulate the passageways for a whole spectrum of floating populations. To visualize the nomadic fortress is to expose the creeping dimension of exceptional space that is quietly consuming the map. As Agamben has noted, earlier forms of internment such as the concentration camp are perhaps even more constitutive of the contemporary political space governing our lives today. Lines between the “place of refuge” and the “space of detention” have grown alarmingly blurred while immigration law has been distorted by the security discourse of terrorism prevention and a political hubris which threatens to undo human rights laws set in stone since modern democracy’s inception. The physical borders between nation-states act as secret economic turbines that run on the uncontrollable tides of cheap exploitable labor that can be selectively imported as easily as exported. While cities in the developing world are treated as “feral” incubators for terrorism, refugee camps continue to hatch in the developed world with their own disastrous results. Meanwhile, the pathway to citizenship lurking in the shadows of globalization has become a space of intense political conflict rather than a streamlined process of international cooperation, further darkening the line between the opposite camps of the neoliberalized gated community and the “untamed” global favela.

* * *

It's long, typically, and from there goes on to break down the nomadic fortress for its consituent parts: border fences, surveillance technologies, detention archipelagos, border automation, etc., and then concludes with a rant on the border-industrial complex's production of exceptional space, and what if any role architecture has in countering it.
There are three other contributors as well that probably make the book more worth the purchase than my own piece (but as usual, I am a pitiful self-promoter!). Emily Adendroth wrote a very interesting “poetic essay” on the the paradoxes of the Lake Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge, observing at times, among many things, an inauspicious absence of wildlife amidst the Navy’s logic for wanting to build a massive airstrip nearby to land its F/A-18 Super Hornets.
Amze Emmons, an artist who practices deriving meaning from the everyday by stripping our visual elements down to a kind of bareness of perception in order to reveal what is more hidden, applies his de-censorializing technique to a Camp Management Toolkit compiled by the Norwegian Refugee Council back in 2004 for assembling refugee architecture. Rereading certain passages of it, with large portions omitted by Emmons, helps to see more clearly the pretense of its operational prose that almost nonchalantly implies a certain order could be constructed out of a wretched conditions of chaos. It’s a cool deconstruction of the manual’s language and what it suggests about the authors’ own perceptions of disaster response.
The Documentary Project has worked with refugee teens over the years to enable them to narrate their own stories of struggle and survival, and the book includes a powerful series of interviews with many of these children which brings the book down to earth in a very vivid way.
And, as I’ve already mentioned, Jena Osman’s introduction provides a short journey through the historic development of the nature refuge and how as a concept it’s evolved into a far more integral and vulnerable network of movement patterns and relations that bind the world and forces us to question what it means to protect, whom are the true beneficiaries of refuge, and how is the concept being held hostage today by subjugation rather than sanctuary.
Anyway, I am happy to have contributed to it, and if you are interested you can purchase it here through Small Press Distribution.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome, Bryan.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

thanks mister nam!

10:08 PM  
Blogger Marco said...

I just discovered the blog, and I am reading some older posts to deepen a bit into your subjects; anyway your concept of "nomadic fortress" is stunning.

I also added a link to subtopia in the blog I am just starting to "propel" ( I hope it is not a problem for you...

11:33 AM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

thanks a lot Marco - your blog looks good, if only i spoke italian and could read it all!
keep in touch. /b

7:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home