conceptualizations of the border while avoiding the clichéd themes of geopolitical border studies [. . .] This is an agenda-setting book, both in terms of
demonstrating how new and challenging ideas can be incorporated into border
studies, and more importantly, in leading the way in thinking the problem of the
border afresh in order to understand the diversity of bordering strategies which
exist in world politics.'
ABS Book Awards 2011, Association for Borderlands Studies
Virginie Mamadouh, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
'An urgently needed book.'
The author uses critical resources found in poststructural thought to think in new ways about the
relationship between borders, security, and sovereign power, drawing on a range of thinkers
including Agamben, Derrida, and Foucault. He highlights the necessity of a more pluralised and
radicalised view of what borders are and where they might be found, and uses the problem of
borders to critically explore the innovations and limits of poststructural scholarship.
Nick Vaughan-Williams is Associate Professor of International Security at the University of
Warwick, UK. He is co-author of Critical Security Studies: An Introduction (2010) and co-editor
of Critical Theorists and International Relations (2009) and Terrorism and the Politics of Response
Nick Vaughan-Williams
Nick Vaughan-Williams
This book presents a distinctive theoretical approach to the problem of borders in the study of
global politics. It turns from current debates about the presence or absence of borders between
states to consider the possibility that the concept of the border of the state is being reconfigured
in contemporary political life.
The Limits of Sovereign Power
Josef Lapid, New Mexico State University
The Limits of Sovereign Power
'Provide[s] insightful points of departure for those aspiring to contribute to this exciting
research agenda and formulate[s] thought-provoking puzzles and moral dilemmas for
all of us.'
'Border Politics is a wonderfully ambitious book, which outlines alternative
Cover design by Henning Lindahl /
ISBN 978-0-7486-4485-8
9 780748 644858
Gold Winner, Association for Borderlands Studies Past Presidents’ Book Award
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The Limits of Sovereign Power
Nick Vaughan-Williams
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For Ning
© Nick Vaughan-Williams, 2009, 2012
First published in hardback in 2009 by
Edinburgh University Press Ltd
22 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LF
This paperback edition 2012
Typeset in Palatino Light by
Norman Tilley Graphics Ltd, Northampton,
and printed and bound in Great Britain by
CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY
A CIP record for this book is available from the
British Library
ISBN 978 0 7486 4485 8 (paperback)
The right of Nick Vaughan-Williams to be identified
as author of this work has been asserted in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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The concept of the border of the state in contemporary
political life
A blind spot in International Relations theory?
The vacillation of borders
The quest for alternative border imaginaries
Map of the book
1 Borders are Not What or Where They are Supposed to Be:
Security, Territory, Law
Borders and security: the United Kingdom’s ‘new’ border
Borders and territory: the European Union and the rise
of Frontex
Borders and law: the United States’ naval base in
Guantánamo Bay
The need to rethink what and where borders are
2 The Study of Borders in Global Politics: From Geopolitics
to Biopolitics
Limology: a brief history and current ‘state of the art’
Assuming the concept of the border of the state
Acknowledging the concept of the border of the state
Further problematising the concept of the border of the
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3 Violence, Territory and the Borders of Juridical–Political
Order: Problematising the Limits of Sovereign Power
Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida: cartographies
of violence
Carl Schmitt: sovereignty, territory, limits
Michel Foucault: the ‘how’ of power
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: the smooth space of
4 The Generalised Biopolitical Border: Security as the Normal
Technique of Government
Politics, life, and sovereign power
Reconceptualising the limits of sovereign power
Generalised border politics: the case of the shooting of
Jean Charles de Menezes
5 Alternative Border Imaginaries: The Politics of Framing
Thinking in terms of the generalised biopolitical border
Ethical–political implications of the generalised biopolitical
The politics of framing
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First, I would like to express my gratitude to the Higher Education
Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) Centre for Border Studies at the
University of Glamorgan for the Research Studentship that funded the
PhD thesis on which this book is based; the Department of International Politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth
University), and the Department of Political Science, University of
Copenhagen, for providing an intellectually challenging yet supportive
environment in which to work on the original thesis; and more
recently the Department of Politics, University of Exeter, for enabling
me to complete the project in final book form.
Additionally, I wish to acknowledge the following colleagues,
mentors and friends. At Aberystwyth I enjoyed four years as both a
doctoral student and temporary Lecturer in International Theory and
Security. I would like to thank: Jenny Edkins, for belief in me and the
thesis, inimitable good humour and company, and outstanding
qualities as a supervisor, mentor, and confidante; Hidemi Suganami,
for taking me on as a supervisee somewhat late in the day, and never
ceasing to challenge and provoke (and talk about causation); Colin
McInnes, for supervisory support in the formative stages of the thesis
and professional advice and encouragement as Head of Department;
Andrew Linklater, who acted as my internal examiner and provided
helpful feedback and advice; Tom Lundborg, for valued discussions
and friendship in Aber and for introducing me to the ‘dark precursor’;
Cian O’Driscoll for promenade-based pursuits and engaging, though
usually just-war-based, conversation; and Columba Peoples for showing us all how it should be done. Outside Aberystwyth, I owe a huge
debt to: R. B. J. Walker, for his comments on my thesis as external
examiner and intellectual and professional generosity since the viva;
Maja Zehfuss, for introducing me to Jacques Derrida, inspiring me to
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pursue doctoral research, and persuading me that life in West Wales
wouldn’t be that bad; Noel Parker, for friendship and intellectual
comradeship in Copenhagen and beyond; and James Brassett, Dan
Bulley, Angharad Closs Stephens, Debbie Lisle, Luis Lobo-Guerrero,
Andrew Neal, Mustapha K. Pasha, Rens van Munster, and Chris
Rumford for their ideas, collegiality, and friendship. Most recently, I
have been exceptionally lucky to have found some excellent colleagues
at the University of Exeter, who offer an enviable intellectual context
and a lively social scene in equal measure. Particular thanks are
extended to: Tim Cooper, Michael Delashmutt, Tim Dunne, Robin
Durie, Jonathan Githens-Mazer, John Heathershaw, Bice Maiguashca,
Alex Murray, Andy Schaap, Dan Stevens, and Colin Wight. Also, I
must express my appreciation to Rory Carson, Ollie Deakin, and
Owen Rawlings for reminding me from time to time that life does
exist beyond academia.
The transition to academic life over the past ten years would not
have been possible without the unstinting support of my family.
Thanks are due to my mother and father, and especially to my
grandmother to whom this book is dedicated, for their unconditional
love: they are my backbone and I suspect they do not know how much
I value them. I especially want to thank Madeleine for her patience
and understanding while I was working on the book, her compassionate and intelligent companionship, and most importantly our
There are also a number of people who have made this book
possible in a more practical sense. I wish to express my thanks to: John
Williams and Yosef Lapid for providing constructive feedback on draft
chapters and their generous support of the book; two other anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript; Nicola Ramsey, Senior Commissioning Editor at Edinburgh
University Press, for her outstanding support and lightness of touch in
seeing this project through to completion; Neil Curtis for his fastidious
attention to detail in the copy-editing process; and Henning Lindahl
for his characteristically excellent work on the jacket design.
Finally, parts of the book have appeared elsewhere at earlier stages
in the project and I would like to acknowledge these publications
as follows. The discussion of Frontex in Chapter 1 was originally
developed in an article I published as ‘Borderwork beyond inside/
outside? Frontex, the Citizen-Detective, and the War on Terror’, Space
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and Polity, 12 (1), (April 2008), pp. 63–79. Elements of Chapter 3 were
published as ‘Borders, Territory, Law’, International Political Sociology,
4 (2) (December, 2008), pp. 322–38. My treatment of the shooting of
Jean Charles de Menezes in Chapter 4 is an abridged version of the
article ‘The Shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes: New Border
Politics?’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 32 (2) (April–June 2007),
pp. 177–96, which also appears in A. Closs Stephens and N. VaughanWilliams (eds), Terrorism and the Politics of Response (Abingdon and
New York: Routledge). Finally, parts of the exegesis of the work of
Jacques Derrida at the end of Chapter 5 are based on a section in my
article ‘International Relations and the “Problem of History”’,
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 34 (1), (2005), pp. 115–36.
I am also grateful to Thales International and to the London
Metropolitan Police for permission to reproduce Figures 1 and 3.
September 2008
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Borders are ubiquitous in political life. Indeed, borders are perhaps
even constitutive of political life. Borders are inherent to logics of
inside and outside, practices of inclusion and exclusion, and questions
about identity and difference. Of course, there are many different
types of borders that can be identified: divisions along ethnic, national
or racial lines; class-based forms of stratification; regional and geographical differences; religious, cultural, and generational boundaries;
and so on. None of these borders is in any sense given but
(re)produced through modes of affirmation and contestation and
is, above all, lived. In other words borders are not natural, neutral
nor static but historically contingent, politically charged, dynamic
phenomena that first and foremost involve people and their everyday
Ostensibly, this book focuses upon one particular type of border:
the concept of the border of the state. I say ‘ostensibly’ because, as I
hope will become obvious, different types of borders inevitably fold
into one another: the notion of maintaining sharp, contiguous distinctions between anything is impossible and inevitably breaks down.
In a common understanding of the term, the concept of the border of
the state refers to ‘external’, ‘interstate’ or ‘international’ borders that
delimit and delineate states as independent entities in the state
system.1 According to what John Agnew has referred to as the ‘modern
geopolitical imaginary’, state borders are taken to be territorial
markers of the limits of sovereign political authority and jurisdiction,
and located at the geographical outer edge of the polity.2 Accompanying this imaginary is a well-known historical account of the
emergence and supposed ossification of such borders associated with
the transition from overlapping jurisdictions in medieval Europe to
the emergence of the modern sovereign state characterised by strict
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territorial delimitations.3 Irrespective of conceptual or historical
accuracy, there is little doubt that this imaginary, underpinned by the
concept of the border of the state, has had, and indeed continues to
have, significant political and ethical influence on the practice and
theory of global politics.
Like all concepts in the practice/theory of global politics, the concept
of the border of the state is politically and ethically charged: its usage
in all kinds of discourses must be seen as in part constituting the
modern geopolitical imaginary it purports merely to describe.4 One
obvious example of the work that the concept of the border of the
state does is to allow for a familiar spatial and temporal compartmentalisation of global politics into two supposedly distinct spheres of
activity: history and progress inside, and timeless anarchy outside.5 In
turn, such a compartmentalisation permits a problematic division of
labour between scholars of politics on the one hand and international
relations on the other.6 It is clear that the concept of the border of the
state does a lot of work, epistemologically and ontologically, in
shaping thinking about diverse issues in global politics.
The concept of the border of the state underpins the arrangement
of, and indeed the very condition of possibility for, both domestic and
international legal and political systems. Domestically, it is integral
to conventional notions of the limits of internal sovereignty and
authority, reflected in Max Weber’s paradigmatic definition of the state
as: ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of
the legitimate use of force within a given territory’.7 In the international
sphere it enables the principle of territorial integrity, enshrined in
Article 2, Paragraph 4 of the United Nations (UN) Charter which,
since the end of World War II, has acted as the cornerstone for
regulative ideals such as: the legal existence and equality of all
states before international law; protection against the promotion of
secessionism by some states in other states’ territory; and territorial
independence and preservation.8 As such, and despite historical and
contemporary examples of derogations of these regulative ideals,
without the notion of territorial integrity reliant upon the concept
of the border of the state there would simply be no ‘domestic’
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and ‘international’ juridical–political orders to speak of in the first place.
As a central feature of the architecture of global politics, the concept
of the border of the state can be thought of as a sort of compass. It
orients the convergence of people with a given territory and notions of
a common history, nationality, identity, language and culture. In this
way, it is a pivotal concept that opens up – but can also close down –
a multitude of political and ethical possibilities. Not only does this
particular border delimit states but also different forms of subjectivity
or ‘personhood’ that are produced by the domestic/international
juridical-political order. Like the modern sovereign state, the modern
political subject is also conceived of as being fundamentally bordered
in terms of autonomy before the law.9 Hence, discourses of rights and
responsibilities presume the subject of contemporary political life to be
an individual whose status is clearly demarcated: a citizen. Seen in
these terms, the concept of the border of the state is central to the
production of citizen-subjects whose identity derived from citizenship
provides a series of convenient answers to difficult questions such as
Who am I? Where do I belong? What should I do?
The concept of the border of the state has also framed the way
global security relations are commonly conceptualised. Although the
study of security is a fundamentally contested terrain, the modern
geopolitical imaginary has had a bearing on the trajectory of the field.
This influence has been especially, though not exclusively, due to the
relative dominance of realist and neo-realist approaches in security
studies. Such approaches, with their emphasis on states’ survival in an
anarchical self-help system, rely on the concept of the border of the
state in order to frame their reading of the key elements of security:
the referent object of the threat (national security); the source of the
threat (other states in the context of anarchy); and the likely means of
overcoming that threat (interstate warfare). Indeed, the concept of the
border of the state frames dominant notions of who and where the
‘enemy’ of the state is. As has been pointed out elsewhere, realist and
neo-realist perspectives understand security in terms of the history of
the defence and/or transgression of states’ borders.10 Although the
insights of this approach have been questioned over recent years,
particularly so since the end of the Cold War, aspects of such thinking
undoubtedly continue to permeate security practices. Indeed, the
rise of the notion of ‘homeland security’ in the context of Western
governments’ attempts to counter the threat of international terrorism
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has led to a reinvigoration of border protection initiatives: ‘the new
age of the wall has begun’, writes Guardian columnist Julian Borger,
‘ramparts and stone fortifications, regarded until recently as national
relics and tourist attractions, are back with a vengeance’.11
Despite the ubiquity of borders in political life, and the particularly
privileged position of the concept of the border of the state, a number
of writers with very different perspectives have bemoaned what they
consider to be the paucity of reflection on these matters in the
theoretical literature produced by the discipline of International
Relations (IR). For Chris Brown, ‘neither modern political theory nor
IR theory has an impressive record when it comes to theorising the
problems caused by borders’.12 Similarly, Robert Jackson has argued
that: ‘it is remarkable that state borders are usually taken for granted
by international relations. They are a point of departure but they are
not a subject of inquiry.’ 13 Others in IR who have written in a similar
vein include Mathias Albert,14 Yosef Lapid,15 Andrew Linklater and
John MacMillan,16 R. B. J. Walker,17 and John Williams.18 Similar complaints have been made about the strange absence of theoretical
reflection on the role of borders in political life in a number of
other disciplinary contexts such as political anthropology,19 political
sociology,20 and political geography.21 Williams neatly sums up the
basic point made by all these writers: that borders between states are
all too often treated as if they were merely the ‘fixtures and fittings’ of
the international system.22
One of the purposes of this book is to contribute to efforts to
address this deficiency within the extant literature. My motivation to
write, however, is not only framed by what has hitherto remained
unsaid about borders. It also stems from a dissatisfaction with what I
consider to be the largely unreflective usage of the concept of the
border of the state in diverse claims about global politics. In this
context it is possible to identify two basic, prominent and competing
discourses: the first is the claim that borders between states are a
thing of the past; the second is the assertion that borders between
states are here to stay.
According to the first discourse, the transformation of global
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production, involving the growth of multinational companies, a
twenty-four hour market and post-Fordist industries, has rendered
the notion of a national economy obsolete.23 On this view, economic
change is said to have ushered in new patterns of governance, in
which the role of the modern, sovereign, territorially bordered state
has also diminished.24 The emergence of the European Union, with its
self-portrayal as a ‘borderless area of freedom, security and justice’,
could be cited as an example of this transformation. Consequently, it
is sometimes argued that the erosion of state borders over recent
decades threatens the very idea of the Westphalian territorially defined
international state system.25
By contrast, the second discourse maintains that national
economies have been left intact if not actually strengthened by
globalisation.26 According to this perspective, the modern state
continues to remain the primary political entity in world politics.27
Moreover, especially since the attacks on the twin towers of the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, there have
been challenges to the concept of globalisation and discourses relating
to borderlessness.28 In the face of mounting American military
aggression, and various reassertions of territorial sovereignty, some
writers, as we have already seen, argue that state borders are more
important than ever.29
Despite the fact that an array of evidence can be collected and
mounted in defence of both positions, by now the above debate
has reached something of an impasse. This implies the need for an
alternative approach that does not reify the contours of the debate by
simply arguing in favour of one side over the other. How might this be
done? A preliminary and very straightforward observation concerning
the debate is that, despite the apparent irreconcilability of the two
competing discourses, both rely upon a particular understanding of
the concept of the border of the state. This understanding not only
reflects, but works within and further entrenches, the modern
geopolitical imaginary. What the debate excludes is precisely the
possibility that the concept of the border of the state has undergone
transformation in contemporary political life. A focus on whether
borders between states are merely ‘present’ or ‘absent’ is blind to
dynamics in political practices that challenge the very imaginary
within which those claims about ‘presence’ or ‘absence’ are able to
make any sense at all.
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Étienne Balibar has written about the way in which borders in contemporary political life are not necessarily where they are supposed to
be according to the modern geopolitical imaginary: ‘We are living in
a conjecture of the vacillation of borders – both of their layout and
function – that is at the same time a vacillation of the very notion
of the border, which has become particularly equivocal.’ 30 The
significance of Balibar’s argument, especially when related back to the
impasse of the debate above, is that the vacillation of borders is not
conflated with their disappearance. On the contrary, for Balibar
borders are being ‘multiplied and reduced in their localisation, […]
thinned out and doubled, […] no longer the shores of politics but […]
the space of the political itself’.31 As such, Balibar offers a provocative
starting point for engaging with the debate about the presence/
absence of borders between states without reifying either side.
Instead, he implies the need to think more imaginatively, and perhaps
even outside the modern geopolitical imaginary, to begin to grasp
what is going on in global politics: ‘borders […] are no longer at the
border, an institutionalised site that could be materialised on the
ground and inscribed on the map, where one sovereignty ends and
another begins’.32
In this context, it is difficult to overstate the enormity of what is at
stake, conceptually, historically and politically, in Balibar’s seemingly
paradoxical formulation that ‘borders are no longer at the border’. The
notion that both the nature and location of borders have undergone
some sort of transformation requires a quantum leap in the way we
think about bordering practices and their effects. It also radically
challenges the kinds of orientation hitherto provided by the modern
geopolitical imaginary underpinned by the concept of the border of
the state. In turn, this raises particularly difficult questions about how
issues relating to juridical–political order, citizenship, subjectivity,
identity, security and so on might be framed otherwise. Thus, Balibar’s
pithy formulation highlights an urgent need for the development of
alternative border imaginaries apposite to the study of the changes he
In his call for generating different ways of conceptualising borders,
Balibar is certainly not alone. Rather, it is possible to identify similar
concerns expressed by a number of writers working with various
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perspectives from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. For example, R. B.
J. Walker, who has systematically interrogated the logic of inside/
outside upon which the modern geopolitical imaginary underpinned
by the concept of the border of the state rests, issues a similar
injunction to Balibar throughout many of his texts.33 Walker argues
that: ‘We have shifted rather quickly from the monstrous edifice of the
Berlin Wall, perhaps the paradigm of a securitized territoriality, to a
war on terrorism, and to forms of securitization, enacted anywhere.’ 34
Likewise, Achille Mbembe has insisted: ‘[I]n [the] heteronymous
organisation of territorial rights and claims, it makes little sense to
insist on distinctions between “internal” and “external” political realms,
separated by clearly demarcated boundaries.’ 35 In the same vein, Eyal
Weizman writes: ‘New and suggestive cartographic representations of
today’s world [are required] […] a departure from the traditional view
of a world that consists of a series of more or less homogenous [sic]
nation states separated by clear borders in a continuous spatial flow.’ 36
Moreover, albeit in different ways and contexts, many other writers
have made equivalent claims about the need for alternative border
imaginaries in the study of global politics, including Didier Bigo,37
David Campbell,38 Zaki Laïdi,39 Yosef Lapid,40 Noel Parker,41 Chris
Rumford,42 Gearóid Ó Tuathail and Simon Dalby,43 Michael J. Shapiro,44
and William Walters.45
Yet, despite these repeated calls, there has been a noticeable
reticence when it comes to the task of conceptualising such alternative
border imaginaries and then putting them to work against different
backdrops. As Walker has argued, this reticence is perhaps unsurprising given the stakes involved:
Better explanations – of contemporary political life – are no doubt
called for, but they are unlikely to emerge without a more
sustained reconsideration of fundamental theoretical and philosophical assumptions than can be found in most of the literature
on international relations theory.46
Nevertheless, there is a real danger of a growing disjuncture between
the increasing complexity and differentiation of borders in global
politics on the one hand, and yet the apparent simplicity and lack of
imagination with which borders and bordering practices continue to
be treated on the other. This raises the fundamental question: How
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might it be possible to develop alternative conceptualisations of
borders without reproducing the modern geopolitical imaginary?
This book responds to the challenge issued by Balibar, Walker,
Mbembe, Weizman and others to develop alternative border
imaginaries. To address the central question above the analysis steps
outside the literature in IR and related disciplines and draws upon
hitherto largely untapped resources for extended thinking about the
problem of borders found in post-structuralist thought. The term
‘post-structuralism’ is highly problematical and it is with hesitation
that I use it throughout as a heuristic device to refer to a heterogeneous body of social, political, and philosophical work. Indeed, one
of the many problems with the term is that some of the authors whose
work is often labelled as ‘post-structural’ simply do not subscribe to or
even recognise it as an approach.47
Nevertheless, with these necessary caveats in mind, I will argue that
the thinkers under consideration, primarily Giorgio Agamben, Jacques
Derrida and Michel Foucault, are particularly apposite to the task
in hand because they all share a common interest in critically
questioning both the logic and practice of borders in a general sense.
By this I mean that an area of overlap between them is an insistence
on detailed analyses of how different entities, such as concepts,
subjects, communities and, indeed, states, become produced as
separate phenomena to begin with. In other words, rather than taking
such entities as somehow distinct from the outset and then merely
analysing the relationships between them, attention is drawn to their
production as supposedly singular entities in the first place.48
Moreover, as subsequent discussions will seek to illuminate, this prior
move to produce entities as distinct relates intimately to questions
about force, violence, power, authority and legitimacy, thus necessitating interrogation in its own right. On this basis, it is precisely how
borders work – and how they might be identified, interrogated and
sometimes resisted – that is of central concern to the thinkers I have
chosen to focus upon.
From this general theoretical starting point, the insights of the
authors above are used initially to problematise the concept of the
border of the state. Here the use of the term ‘problematisation’ relates
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to the method Foucault developed in his various studies of madness,
sexuality, discipline, and surveillance and other aspects of social and
political life.49 Instead of asking questions like ‘What is madness?’
Foucault was more interested in exploring how different understandings of madness change over time through an analysis of the
field of relations around the concept.50 As a method, problematisation
interrogates the way that a concept is used in discourse, how that
usage is connected to questions to do with power relations, and the
way in which it is also productive of particular forms of subjectivity.
Therefore, rather than ask ‘What is the concept of the border of the
state?’, my analysis draws upon the insights of Agamben, Foucault
and Derrida together with other thinkers, such as Walter Benjamin
and Carl Schmitt, to think about the work that this concept does:
that is to say what is enabled, constrained or even concealed by the
modern geopolitical imaginary it underpins and sustains. In particular,
the analysis seeks to consider the relationship between the concept
of the border of the state and our understanding of practices of
sovereignty, violence and (bio)power in contemporary political life.
As well as problematising the concept of the border of the state,
however, the book also draws on the above thinkers in search of
critical resources for developing alternative border imaginaries. In this
regard, the move from a geopolitical to a biopolitical horizon of
thinking, initially inspired by Foucault and then taken in new and
provocative directions by Agamben, opens up crucial lines of enquiry.
I argue that much promise is to be found in Agamben’s oeuvre for a
reconceptualisation of the limits of sovereign power: not as fixed
territorial borders located at the outer edge of the state but rather
infused through bodies and diffused throughout everyday life. On the
basis of Agamben’s analysis, I develop the concept of the ‘generalised
biopolitical border’ which, as a critique of the modern geopolitical
imaginary, can be read as a response to those who call for a more
pluralised and radicalised view of what and where borders are in
contemporary political life.
Finally, in addition to drawing upon the insights of poststructuralist thought to problematise the concept of the border of the
state and develop alternative border imaginaries, the book also uses
the problem of borders to explore some of the limitations of the poststructuralist work under consideration. While the concept of the
generalised biopolitical border is shown to be one suggestive response
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to the need for different thinking about borders, problems with this
approach are identified in the light of aspects of the work of Derrida.
In this way, as well as a contribution to thinking differently about
borders in political life, the book can be considered as a critical introduction to and commentary on some of the key thinkers associated
with a post-structualist perspective.
The book is organised into five chapters. The first chapter seeks to
illustrate Étienne Balibar’s point that borders are vacillating and not
necessarily where they are supposed to be in contemporary political
life. To do this I look at three examples of bordering practices that
challenge the modern geopolitical imaginary underpinned by the
concept of the border of the state: the emergence and implementation
of the United Kingdom’s new global border security doctrine; the
recent activities of Frontex, the new European Union (EU) border
management agency, in Africa; and the indefinite detention of
suspected terrorists at the United States Naval Base in Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba. These illustrations provide a crucial empirical backdrop
that demonstrates the overall importance of developing new ways
of identifying and interrogating borders in the light of contemporary
Chapter 2 then provides a tour d’horizon of the study of borders in
IR, critical geopolitics, and the interdisciplinary subfield of border
studies. The aim is to offer an impression of the current ‘state of the
art’ of existing literature that deals in various ways with the concept of
the border of the state. To this end, the primary purpose of the survey
is to accumulate, in a positive fashion, different insights and perspectives from a range of writings that can be mobilised to assist in conceptualising emerging practices of the kind outlined in Chapter 1.
I argue that it is possible to detect the beginnings of a shift in border
studies from a geopolitical to a biopolitical horizon of analysis but
that, while this has opened up new and exciting avenues of enquiry,
these have yet to be fully exploited for: 1. interrogating the concept of
the border of the state; and 2. developing different ways of conceptualising what and where borders are. As such, there is still much
work to be done. On this basis, I situate the book as a contribution to
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ongoing interdisciplinary efforts to employ a biopolitical approach to
the study of borders.
Chapter 3 moves away from the IR and related literature to explore
potential resources in post-structuralist thought for an interrogation of
the concept of the border of the state. Developing some of the insights
of the literature outlined in the previous chapter, I seek to highlight
and examine the relation between state borders and practices of
violence, sovereignty, and (bio)power. First, the work of Benjamin and
Derrida is drawn upon to analyse the violent foundations of the
juridical–political order and the work that borders do in upholding
such violence. Second, I use Schmitt’s paradigmatic account of
sovereignty and later treatment of the relationship between spatial
ordering and law to offer an interpretation of borders as exceptional
spaces. Third, Foucault’s treatment of (bio)power and notion of
biopolitics are explored more fully, which offers further scope for a
critical interrogation of the concept of the border of the state away
from the confines of the modern geopolitical imaginary.
Chapter 4 traces Agamben’s engagement with and development of
Foucault’s understanding of the biopolitical structures of the West
in order to explore the possibilities of his approach for developing
alternative border imaginaries. It begins with an exegesis of
Agamben’s work although departures are made from extant
interpretations in respect of his concept of bare life, the importance of
what he calls a ‘logic of the field’, and the spatial dimensions of his
thought more generally. Building upon Agamben, I develop the
concept of the generalised biopolitical border as an alternative to the
geopolitical concept of the border of the state. Thinking in terms of
the generalised biopolitical border unties an analysis of the limits of
sovereign power from the territorial confines of the modern state and
relocates such an analysis in the context of a global terrain that spans
and decentres notions of ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ space.
Chapter 5 begins by assessing what the implications of the concept
of the generalised biopolitical border might be and how this differs
from the concept of the border of the state. It does so by returning to
the examples of the work that the latter does in contemporary political
life in respect of framing our understanding of juridical–political order,
the production of identities of citizen-subjects, and global security
relations. By rereading these examples in the light of the concept of
the generalised biopolitical border, I then explore how this alternative
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frame might entail new modes of practice/theory. Drawing on
Derrida’s account of the politics of framing, however, I end on a note
of caution about the way in which thinking in terms of the concept of
the generalised biopolitical border runs the risk of foisting the same
problematic sense of form, shape, and coherence on ‘global politics’ as
a totality in the same way that the concept of the border of the state
has done.
1. See Anderson, Frontiers, 1996; and Prescott, Political Frontiers and
Boundaries, 1987.
2. Agnew, ‘The Territorial Trap’, 1994. See also Jackson, The Global Covenant,
2000; and Williams, The Ethics of Territorial Borders, 2006.
3. See Agnew, ‘The Territorial Trap’, 1994; Ruggie, Constructing the World
Polity, 1998; Ó Tuathail and Dalby, Rethinking Geopolitics, 1998; Teschke,
The Myth of 1648, 2003; and Walker, Inside/outside, 1993.
4. In this sense it is what William Connolly refers to as ‘onto-political’;
Connolly, ‘The Irony of Interpretation’, 1992. See also Connolly, The
Terms of Political Discourse, 1993.
5. Bartelson, The Critique of the State, 2001; Walker, Inside/outside, 1993.
6. Camilleri et al., The State in Transition, 1995, pp. 1–4.
7. Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, 1948, p. 78.
8. See Elden, ‘Contingent Sovereignty’, 2006 and ‘Blair, Neo-Conservatism
and the War on Territorial Integrity’, 2007.
9. See Butler, Precarious Life, 2004, p. 32.
10. Linklater and MacMillan, Boundaries in Question, 1995, p. 12
11. Borger, ‘Security Fences or Barriers to Peace?’, 2007, p. 23.
12. Brown, ‘Borders and Identity’, 2001, p. 117.
13. Jackson, The Global Covenant, 2000, p. 316.
14. Albert, ‘On Boundaries’, 1999, p. 54.
15. Lapid, ‘Introduction: Nudging IR Theory in a New Direction’, 2001, pp.
16. Linklater and MacMillan, Boundaries in Question, 1995.
17. Walker, ‘Editorial Note’, 2000, p. 2.
18. Williams, ‘Territorial borders’, 2003, pp. 25–46.
19. Donnan and Wilson, Borders, 1999.
20. Rumford, ‘Introduction: Theorising Borders’, 2006.
21. Kolossov, ‘Border Studies’, 2005; Newman, ‘Boundaries, Borders and
Barriers’, 2001; Paasi, ‘The Changing Discourses on Political Boundaries’,
22. Williams, ‘Territorial borders’, 2003, p. 27.
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23. Brown, ‘Globalisation’, 2005, p. 167.
24. Strange, ‘The Westfailure System’, 1999.
25. Held and McGrew, The Global Transformations Reader, 2002, p. 39; Scholte,
Globalisation, 2000, pp. 135–6.
26. Hirst and Thompson, Globalisation in Question, 1996 and ‘The Future of
Globalisation’, 2002.
27. Carlson et al., ‘Foreword’, 2006, pp. 1–2.
28. Coward, ‘The Globalisation of Enclosure’, 2005, pp. 105–34; Newman,
‘Borders and Bordering’, 2006, p. 181.
29. Starr, ‘International Borders’, 2006, pp. 3–10.
30. Balibar, ‘The Borders of Europe’, 1998, p. 217.
31. Ibid., p. 220.
32. Ibid., pp. 217–18.
33. Walker frequently implies the inadequacy of the inside/outside model
conditioned by the concept of the border of the state. See: Walker,
Inside/outside, 1993, pp. 20, 159, 161; ‘Sovereignty, Identity, Community’,
1990, p. 180; ‘Foreword’, 1999, p. xii; ‘On the Immanence/Imminence of
Empire’, 2002, p. 343.
34. Walker, ‘International/inequality’, 2002, p. 17.
35. Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, 2005, pp. 11–40.
36. Weizman, ‘On Extraterritoriality’, 2007, p. 13.
37. Bigo, ‘The Möbius Ribbon’, 2001.
38. Campbell, Writing Security, 1998; National Deconstruction, 1998; Moral
Spaces, 1999.
39. Z. Laïdi, A World Without Meaning, 1998, p. 97.
40. Lapid, ‘Introduction’, 2001, p. 2.
41. Parker, ‘A Theoretical Introduction’, 2008.
42. Rumford, ‘Introduction’, 2006.
43. Ó Tuathail and Dalby, Rethinking Geopolitics, 1996, p. 29.
44. Shapiro, Challenging Boundaries, 1996; Violent Cartographies, 1997; Moral
Spaces, 1999.
45. Walters, ‘Mapping Schengenland’, 2002; ‘Border/Control’, 2006.
46. Walker, Inside/outside, 1993, p. 159.
47. Jacques Derrida, for example, is ‘eager to maintain [the concept of poststructuralism] as suspect and problematic’, see: Derrida, ‘Deconstruction:
the Im-Possible’, 2001, p. 16.
48. As Noel Parker puts it: ‘post-structuralism leaves in question the solidity
of entities themselves’, see Parker, ‘A Theoretical Introduction’, 2008,
p. 11.
49. Foucault, ‘Problematization’, 1991.
50. Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, 2001 [1959].
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