Border Thinking (Book Review)

Marina Gržinić, ed., Border Thinking: Disassembling Histories of Racialized Violence, Publication Series of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Vol. 21 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018), 308 pp.

Border Thinking originated in 2015 as part of Post-Conceptual Art Practices, a studio art practice led by Marina Gržinić, Professor and Head of the Conceptual Art study programat the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, as an attempt to tell the story of the refugee protest camp in Vienna, which formed in 2012 and lasted for several years. At that time, the Austrian government suppressed the protests, creating an urgency to not only write the history of the refugee movement but also to reflect more broadly on its status in Europe, and beyond. The book in this way reflects not only on the “refugee crisis” in Europe, whose the most prominent feature is the proliferation of all kinds of new forms of borders, but also on the increasingly noticeable limitations imposed by (Western) European (white, mainstream) thought on efforts to think through  the crisis.

 Border thinking

“Border thinking,” a term derived from post- and decolonial studies, refers to thinking that originates on or near a border that closes and divides. However, the anthology promises to push its own limits by thinking further: its goal is to re-appropriate the border, to re-contextualize and re-mobilize it.(Marina Gržinić, “Introduction,” in Border Thinking:Disassembling Histories of Racialized Violence(Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018), 20.) The volume disassembles and dismantles the genealogies of racialized violence in a series of five carefully titled sections: “Exposing,” “Mobilization,” “Get Down To,” “Demasking,” and “Disconnecting.” All the contributions share the idea that it is necessary to think at and on the border—a border that has already acquired all the hallmarks of a territory beyond its own materiality and locality. The book addresses borders not only in terms of the actually existing borders of “Fortress Europe,” but also in terms of what Brian Carr terms  “racial flesh”(Brian Carr, “At the Thresholds of the ‘Human’: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Replication of Imperial Memory,” Cultural Critique, no. 39 (1998): 119–50. doi:10.2307/1354553), the place where these borders are inscribed. And while borders are addressed by different contributors as a (Eurocentric) epistemological limit that acts as a kind of “colonial aphasia,”(Borrowing the term from Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France,” Public Culture23, no.1 (2001): 121–56.) these “bordered bodies” also offer a liminal space that allows us to think its beyond, de-linking borders from Eurocentric epistemology. The theoretical contributions and artistic positions in the anthology, coming from a broad variety of geographical, national, identity, and research contexts, thus provide an extensive and multifocal reading of the gruesome consequences of widespread racializing processes.

Disassembling Histories of Racialized Violence

Using a genealogical approach, Border Thinking opens a specific “stream of memory”(Rubia Salgado, Gergana Mineva, and das Kollektiv Women, “Stream of Memory,” in Border Thinking, 48.) in order to reflect on a new global order in which the proliferation of borders, walls, and the ever-new attempts at their crossing find themselves next to each other. Here we find ignorance and hope, numbness and empowerment. Rubia Salgado, Gergana Mineva, and das Kollektiv Women explicitly expose such a world. Their “Stream of Memory” uses the anaphoric repetition of the phrase “we remember” to lay out the eloquent genealogy of the structural racism of various capitalist institutions and how they increasingly function in conjunction with contemporary conservative racist populism. Göksun Yazici in her essay “Differential Inclusion of Syrian Refugees in Turkey Institutions of Migration Management and Temporary Protection Regulation” unveils the logic of the European Union’s contemporary migration regime and the ways it transforms the border into a territory where selective inclusion takes place. Yazici explores the various levels of precarity, vulnerability, (un)freedom, and rights that this control over migration and the EU’s regulation of labor together generate.

In “Necropolitics in the East,” Stanimir Panayotov uses the idea of race as a central analytical tool to think about the bio/necropolitics of Central Eastern Europe. He conceptualizes the island (in light of two emblematic border-islands, Lesbos and Lampedusa) as a paradigmatic place for exercising necropolitics, where simultaneous border security of allegedly humanist (national-racial-war) states and border patrolling of humanist liberal thought is being exercised.

The essay “Set City—Post-Snuff Film and the New Age of Reality Cinematography: Real Transience of the Protagonist at the Execution Film Set” byKhaled Ramadan analyzes the cinematic actual execution of a Jordanian Air Force pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh in ISIS’s propagandistic recruitment video. The essay elaborates a new visual genre for our time called “reality cinematography.”(Khaled Ramadan, “Set City—Post-Snuff Film and the New Age of Reality Cinematography: Real Transience of the Protagonist at the Execution Film Set,”in Border Thinking, 73.) While Ramadan simultaneously questions our complicity in the production and consumption of images of violence and death, Betül Seyma Küpeli and Esra Özmen’s artwork RESOURCE: IMMIGRATION?calls into question the complicity of artistic practices and institutions in the hyper-consumption of images of (im)migration and refugees. Their video-installation project in progress, relating to the 15thVenice Biennale of Architecture’s theme “Reporting from the Front,” problematizes the hegemony of the exterior gaze in the contemporary economy, transforming refugees and migrants into visual objects of trade.

This problematic is also amplified by Fieke Jansen and Tactical Technology Collective. Their essay “Smarter Borders: Challenges and Limitations of Data-Driven Borders” opens the second part of the book and describes the transformation of the border into an environment that extends beyond its physical domain, where data moves more freely than the population, and where data collection and the creation of new databases intrudes upon the daily life of individuals.

Musawenkosi Ndlovu’s essay “Borderless Global Public Sphere”highlights the seizure of Africa as a new global news market. Ndlowu elaborates on the ways this strategic expansion of dominant neoliberal capitalist countries, which is carrying and extending Western ideas, colonial languages, cultural imperialism and marketing and commodifying identities, results in confiscating the right to self-understanding, self- consciousness, self-representation, and the production of new borders between African countries, regions, and classes.

Jelena Petrović in her essay “What Does Freedom Stand for Today?”questions the very notion of today’s freedom, suggesting that it now serves as an arbitrary notion of neoliberal society and as a means of justifying permanent wars against terror. In order to rethink today’s forms of politics of liberation, she draws on art practices that are producing the politics of error (glitch) by dealing with an unspoken history and calling for an emancipatory re-conceptualization of the community. In other words, if we are to think “freedom as radically different future,”(Jelena Petrović, “What Does Freedom Stand for Today?” in Border Thinking, 115.) we should envision the community as “being-with others” that depends on recognizing everyone’s fundamental human rights.Human Dignity is Violable: No Fundamental Right to a Better Life!(2016), an artwork by Marika Schmiedt, deals with Austrian asylum and refugee policies. By appropriating the anti-refugee visual and rhetorical forms, her five posters critically comment on the “refugee guide,” issued by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Interior, as a source of information for refugees on rules and values in Austria.

Maira Enesi Caixeta writes of the (whitewashing) effects of racism and colorism on her “mixed race” body that resulted in a psychological rejection of her own blackness and escalated in a self-destructive relationship with her own body. Her autobiographical analysis “Racialized Dysphoria” simultaneously speaks also about the liberating and empowering identification with blackness that eventually enabled her to “re-inhabit” her own body.

Shirley Ann Tate’s essay “Border Bodies: Mixedness and Passing in ‘Prison Break’” opens the anthology’s third part, examining neoliberal racialization in an allegedly “post-race” era (where post-is nothing but a camouflage for never having addressed persistent racism). In ruminating on the “post-race reality” and “post-race scopic regime,” both common to “post-Obama” discourse in the United States and the “multi-racial/tolerant” politics of life in the UK, Tate unveils how the recreation of the (white) national space resides in the background of the racially mixed “border body” being recognized as white. Whiteness, she suggests, prefers to display itself as an unmarked and immaculate norm. A similar logic is made visible in relation to the “Fortress Europe” that persistently erases its colonial history in its effort to maintain the myth of a “space of freedom.” In “Interrogating Silences: Crisis, Borders, and Decolonial Interferences” Tjaša Kancler writes from the position of a “not quite white and not quite trans*”(Tjaša Kancler, “Interrogating Silences: Crisis, Borders, and Decolonial Interferences,” in Border Thinking, 155.) Eastern European migrant to Spain. Kancler addresses the muted colonial/imperial history of European migration policy and elaborates on the reconfiguration of the borders within Europe as a repetition of the Western European political, economic, and social model in the Eastern European countries of post-socialism.

“Border identity,” or mestizaje, the process of racial mixing, is crucial for Yuderkys Espinoza Miñoso. Her “Toward a Construction of the History of a (Dis)encounter: The Feminist Reason and the Antiracist and Decolonial Agency in Abya Yala” outlines the genealogy of meetings and discrepancies between feminist politics and black and indigenous antiracist struggles in Latin America from the 1980s onward. She introduces the notion of “feminist reason”(Yuderkys Espinoza Miñoso, “Toward a Construction of the History of a (Dis)encounter: The Feminist Reason and the Antiracist and Decolonial Agency in Abya Yala,” in Border Thinking, 173.) to emphasize the consequences of Latin American feminism’s commitment to Western modernity and coloniality for the decolonial struggles. That language plays a key role in the processes of racialization, genderization, and exoticization (of bodies) as well as in creating class distinctions and hierarchies, is made evident in Njideka Stephanie Iroh’s work. “A Diva’s Dish Darling and You Wish You Had It” is a poem mobilized as a medium for analyzing the role of the fastest growing language of new technologies and social media, which contribute to the depoliticization of the struggle of the racialized “others.” As stated: “They say the struggle is real but the lines are blurred.”(Njideka Stephanie Iroh, “A Diva’s Dish Darling and You Wish You Had It,” in Border Thinking, 179.)

In her essay “Now, Little Ship, Look Out!” Suvendrini Perera elaborates on the “in-between state” as an emblematic condition of today’s migrants forced to cross the Mediterranean Sea. She emphasizes how the necropolitics of slavery haunts the biopolitics of neoliberalism. If once the disposable life of an African slave was caught within the incomplete passage, between life and death, freedom and slavery, than the traces of past “oceanic ecology” haunt the contemporary oceanic “corpo-graphies.”(Joseph Puglisese quoted in Suvendrini Perera, “Now, Little Ship, Look Out!” in Border thinking,188.)

The fourth part of the book opens with “Transpositions: Jews, Roma, and Other Aliens in the Radical Right Culture in Hungary,” where author Zoltán Kékesi demasks the real and symbolic landscape of racism in Hungary while analyzing the anti-Semitic memorial site commemorating the first unjust anti-Jewish trial (Tiszaeszlár affair). Kékesi shows how memorials and commemorations are serving the nation-state by claiming to purify and restore the community, thus maintaining the anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, anti-immigrant phantasmatic narratives, discriminatory discourses and the regimes of “historical truth.”

In “Diffractions at Borders,” Juan Guardiola talks to C.A.S.I.T.A. (Loreto Alonso, Eduardo Galvagni, and Diego del Pozo Barriuso) about their artistic cycle Vallas de la frontera en Ceuta y Melilla 1985–2014 (Infografías) [Fences at the Border in Ceuta y Melilla 1985–2014 (Infographics)] from 2014 and the developments in the areas of Ceuta and Melilla that separate Spanish from Moroccan territory. C.A.S.I.T.A. appropriates prints and facsimiles of the Spanish Army Geographical Service (the imperialist, idealized lithographic panoramas of Spanish-Moroccan war zones) and intervenes on them by superimposing contemporary infographic images of borders currently found at Ceuta and Melilla. Their conversation illuminates the work as testifying about the “ghostly landscapes with aberrant perspectives of terrible events.”(C.A.S.I.T.A. in Conversation with Juan Guardiola, “Diffractions at Borders,” in Border thinking, 211.)

Neda Hosseinyar’s map Politics of Fear, tackles the rhetoric of the protection of (“worthy”) lives (flourishing in times of class-based exploitation). Her project depicts a European map on which she locates the Islamophobic and anti-Muslim slogans used by the extreme right-wing political parties in the EU in campaign posters. She thereby shifts our perception of these parties from fragmented, national positions into seeing them as the transnational, right- and far right-wing manifests of a homophobic and racist Europe. Aneta Stojnić, in “(Dis)embodied Subjectivities and Technologies of Control,” elaborates on the processes of dehumanization and desubjectivation as preceding the above-mentioned mechanisms of creating “others” and examines the potential of liminal (decentered, ungovernable) bodies and spaces created under the today’s digital forms of control.  In “A Stateless People against the State: The Kurdish Autonomy as a Limitation of Nation-State Power,” Çetin Gürer analyses the theoretical framework of “democratic autonomy” developed by the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. For the Kurdish people in the territory of Turkey, especially since 2000, self-established and self-managed institutions have become more important than state-run ones.

The terminology introduced in the last section of Border Thinking—“further beyond,”(Miguel González Cabezas, “Plus Ultra,” in Border thinking, 248.) “hyper-neutrality,”(Joshua Simon, “Phantom Politics in Palestine-Israel: From Double Negation to Double Erasure,” in Border thinking, 251.) “eternal present,”(Ilya Budraitskis, “The Russian Revolution in Dreams and Reality,” in Border thinking, 265.) total “de-historicization” and “de-contextualization”(Adla Isanović, “Sarajevo, Rotten Heart of Europe,” in Border thinking, 276.)—points to a complete disconnect between thought and reality, a sort of a pure form of a dream. “Further beyond” is a national Spanish motto problematized in artwork by Miguel González Cabezas. Plus Ultra (2016) underlines the intensified externalization of border control from 2006 onwards, starting with the Spanish (EU)-Morocco agreement. This agreement, focused on how to control migration from Africa to Spain, became a model for all subsequent agreements on immigration control between EU and non-EU countries and for the construction of walls within the EU.

Joshua Simon’s “Phantom Politics in Palestine-Israel: From Double Negation to Double Erasure” coins the term “hyper-neutrality” to describe the ever-intensifing political reality of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Its key characteristic, states Simon, is not only the cruel and vicious mechanism of “double erasure” (of the refugees and any Palestinian collective-political project), but also the skewing of historical time in relation to the crucial turning points of the political conflict into the past (1967–1948– 1917),visible in the return to the idea of ​​the biblical divine promise of the Holy Land as a premise for the existence of the Israeli State and the reason for all its actions. Ilya Budraitskis’s “The Russian Revolution in Dreams and Reality” highlights another construction of national history as the “eternal present” (without contradictions, conflicts, and revolutions), covering up the ever-deepening economic, social, and ideological crisis of post-Soviet Russia, which has become a “pure form” of this ideological crisis.

In “Sarajevo, Rotten Heart of Europe,” Adla Isanovićreads “Sarajevo, the Heart of Europe” (2014), an ambitious multidisciplinary festival, as being in the service of de-contextualization, de-historicization, depoliticization, and the erasure of local histories and memory while simultaneously serving the civilizing mission of Europe to restore its superiority by silencing its legacy of colonialism, racism, and fascism—all at the heart of the neoliberal government. Finally, Hiroshi Yoshioka outlines the history of images and narrations associated with nuclear energy as reflected in representations of Japanese society since 1945 up to today’s nuclear imagination of Japan in relation to the Fukushima catastrophe from 2011. “Hiroshima, Fukushima, and Beyond: Borders and Transgressions in Nuclear Imagination” finds a continued suppression of and obliviousness to the persistent danger of radiation beneath the promise of a nuclear future of “pure power.”

Taking the border as a political stand against colonial aphasia, Border Thinking raises the possibility of waking up from this “pure form” of a dream, as long as we actually think the borders: with border thinking, the borders of thinking can be transgressed. The book invites us to recognize the construct of race as a mechanism of reification, of security systems, and of techniques of governmentality,(Here I refer to Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2017), 35.) that is, as the major internal mechanism of neoliberal global capitalism. This anthology is thus intended for all those who wish to transgress one’s own borders of thinking in order to conceive of a radically different conviviality.

Jovita Pristovšek (Ljubljana)
Jovita Pristovšek holds an MA in Fine Arts from The Academy of Fine Arts, Ljubljana. In 2017 she completed her PhD in philosophy at the Postgraduate School SRC SASA (Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts), Ljubljana. Her research interests focus on the regimes of aesthetic, public, and political. Since 2009, she has been teaching at the Academy of Visual Arts (AVA) in Ljubljana.