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The ‘Worldmaking’ Power of Borders and Contemporary Politics

Borders are now increasingly at the centre of our everyday lives. They have incredible force to shape, govern and order contemporary political systems. Explaining world-making power of borders and b/ordering practices, Etienne Balibar, in the collection of essays, Politics and the Other Scene, wrote that “[w]ithout the world-configuring function they perform, there would be no borders – or no lasting borders” (Balibar 2002: 79). Borders are constitutive of and constructed by the structures, systems, norms and values of the world around them. While this might seem aphoristic, this insight has profound implications for our understanding of contemporary world politics. This is because, as artefacts and attributes of the system of territorial nation-states, contemporary borders neither appear nor act as we have long assumed they should. They no longer act as decisive lines between nation-states determining the boundaries of their international legal status and responsibilities. Rather, as Balibar argues, borders are now everywhere. This gives rise to important questions about the nature, efficacy and effects of contemporary bordering practices, and the political possibilities that are either permitted or foreclosed by these practices.

Despite aspirations for a borderless world, borders remain a mainstay of politics and policy at every level. However, borders have taken on a new significance in world politics. Once a conspicuous and incontrovertible sign of political difference, autonomy and sovereign right, borders are no longer contiguous with the political topography of the nation-state system. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, borders have become hypervisible and completely invisible. We are witnessing the (re)assertion and (re)making of borders in response to displacement, migration and other forms of insecurity. At the same time, contemporary political practices are rendering borders somewhat invisible, networked, diffuse and networked. Borders are no longer adhering to the role of geographical limit of sovereign territory. They are not lines on the map. Rather, they are inscribed on persons and peoples, and they constantly move with the bodies they seek to control. Despite their powerful force in organising and managing our everyday lives, borders are transgressed and contested by all forms of social and political acts of resistance that refuse to adhere to their containing logics.

Returning to Balibar (2002), if borders do have world-configuring power, and that bordering practices are transforming the liminal spaces of world politics so profoundly, then we have three things to consider. First, we need to consider what kind of borders contemporary bordering practices are producing. Second, we need to understand what kind of world these practices are configuring. Third, we need to account for the political possibilities that arise from the fragmentation, multiplication and transformation of the borders that have emerged to support the nation-state (system).

The primary objective of this workshop is to understand how bordering practices are related to contemporary vectors of (in)security. Rather than situating inquiry at territory’s edge, scholars will engage in discussion and debate over the parameters and possibilities of bordering at a time of immense social, cultural, technological and political transformation. Workshop participants will investigate how historical and contemporary bordering practices interact with and shape politics, policies and polities. Participants will interrogate what sort of borderlands, ‘lifeworlds’, knowledges and subjectivities are being created in their wake, and consider the failures and limits of, and alternatives to, bordering as a response to real or perceived insecurities. By examining how bordering practices are reshaping local, national and global responses to (and capacities to respond to) proliferating insecurities, the workshop will produce a rich and timely inventory of theoretical, methodological and policy dimensions of bordering practices. In sum, the workshop will investigate what sort of world is being produced by bordering practices, and what sort of political futures are enabled and constrained in this bordered world.

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