By Nivi Manchanda ([email protected]) and Sharri Plonski ([email protected]), School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London
This project is an ongoing conversation between two friends working through their respective interests in borders and corridors whilst also grappling with a changing world amidst a global pandemic. We each use anti-racist and anti-colonial politics, albeit with differing regional and theoretical interests. Nivi is working on a project that looks at the processes of bordering using the works of four mid 20th century thinkers, Temsula Ao, Maria Lugones, Jean Genet and Huey Newton. Sharri’s latest research project is focused on global logistics corridors and the physical and virtual infrastructures required to make logistics “work”.
This conversation asks what happens when the border and the corridor are put into dialogue with each other, with the hope that it is generative of/for future conversations, between us and between others contending with this new reality, in which social distance, in which disease, in which borders have been reinforced in our daily lives. Whilst our conversation predates the events of 25 May and the Black Lives Matter protests that shook the world and continue to reverberate, our premise was an open-ended conversation that stressed the radical contingency of the present moment. In this piece, we ask lots of questions and often leave them hanging. Others are invited to build on our thoughts.
Sharri (24 March 2020)
If we are developing “a conversation” – between the border and the corridor and between us, then, for me, this starts with a question around how stuff we (allegedly) need will transit the borders of lockdown. What about our supply-chain corridors will change, which routes will survive and which will be lost in the aftermath of “Corona”; and of course, who will benefit and who will suffer from these shifts? Deb Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics (2014) resonates everywhere with states and private actors maintaining a constant refrain of “keep things moving, keep the supply-chain clear of human life, of space, of traffic and congestion. Of contagion”. The ports are still functioning at all costs, which means seafarers have to remain off-shore, out of time and space of those moving inland, within borders.
The issue will be how to enable supply-chain travel on/in-land without touching the world outside. This entails turning land-corridors – the railroads, delivery routes, freeways, warehouses – from walled flows into moving fortresses. This also means that everyone else is policed and jailed in their own homes, while they are encouraged to shop online, touch screens and “keep safe”, maintaining social distance from everyone and everything outside, including the politics that will drive these changes, from radical love, from organising abolitionist futures. And stuff gets to move in and out around them and us. The conduits of capital will have “right-of-way” while we are all locked down.
Nivi (24 March 2020)
The border and the corridor are mutually constitutive in the logics of racial capital, and yet they are often apprehended as quite different, sometimes even disconnected things. Our conversation illuminates this imbrication.
I think this crisis will change things and perhaps pivot them from the border to the corridor. If politics up to now was about making sure some people stay in place (the poor, the racialised, etc.) and others are granted hypermobility through borders, we have definitely seen a shift. Borders on the whole are closed. And yet, the flow of goods and some services has accelerated. This is where “e-commerce” kicks in and becomes king, but has to still rely on a series of land-corridors to function effectively.
We’ve also seen racialised populations now applauded as “key workers”, Romanians who were being kicked out and attacked violently, are now being flown in.
I don’t think this changes race or its modalities. But I do wonder what this might do to notions of mobility? What does it mean in terms of reconfigurations of class and race politics? Will the vectors of capital now discriminate on different axes?
Sharri (26 March 2020)
I am trying to answer your last question through the lens of Ann Stoler’s “Interior Frontiers” (2017), which is all about how race and class become channelled, routed and controlled, via borders that are mobile. Stoler’s approach (building on her reading of Étienne Balibar) to the imagined and moral geographies that determine who is in and who is out, which bodies are present, which are unseen, pushes us to think just how blatantly the bodies that don’t belong, don’t feel at home, stick out – due to pigment, due to difference. Whiteness (and the different class, gender and cultural norms that are structured through Whiteness) becomes transparent, invisible, common sense; normal. And Blackness and Brownness are just SO visible. Threatening. Needing to be policed, contained, governed. I can’t help but worry how much worse this is going to be, after months of self-isolation in these times of Corona; and the new powers police will be given to contain, constrain and limit our lives.
I go back to the corridor (which gets a quick mention halfway through her piece). That interior frontiers operate like corridors, in narrow, snake-line lines; rivers and estuaries. Controllable, securitised; violence is pushed to its external edges and frontiers, so inside feels safe, smooth, fast, constantly free of restrictions to movement. Coming back to a basic logic of space-making, borders and mobility: to make some things move, others must be blocked (Massey 1994). And these corridors “inhere” in both conceptual and physical “things”. It both lives in our imaginations and in our actual practices – the way we move through space, the way we develop space, the way we think of self and other, all come together and yet are irreducible.
And yet these lines are liminal, and never actually disentangled from the spaces through which they move. This is the fantasy of the corridor, and the border, the frontier, the fortress, or, as Hannah Appel (2019) points out, the fantasy of the offshore. States put up those walls – making them as visible and tall and scary as they can to outsiders. But it doesn’t actually work. And this is the problem I had with Stoler’s piece – because it retained a kind of abstract distance, things felt solid and complete and fixed in its assessment of borders, of inside-outside, and of the apparatuses that determined the sites and mobility of these border relations. I don’t think it works, especially once you look from the experience of those who move differently, who resist border-making or who produce their own borders. The border fugitives.
It was interesting to read Stoler alongside Audra Simpson (2014), who talks about refusal and who sees these same borders through the lens of Indigenous peoples resisting settler colonial strangulations, rather than exclusively being governed and enclosed by them. This is not to say the borders aren’t real, and they don’t have power. But when you start to break down how borders work, how they’re made, how they move – which is allegedly what Stoler is doing here – then you start to break down the certainty of them, and the systems are no longer big structural things. They are broken down into parts, into practices, into things and spaces that cohere in our minds and in our habits; our “geographies of common sense”, to quote David Harvey (2005). Which means refusal and resistance are also important to understanding where these spaces can take us. Deb Cowen (2019) calls this thinking “infrastructures otherwise” – I don’t want to romanticise refusal or resistance, but we also can’t leave them out.
This is what corridors, I think, can teach us.
Nivi (27 March 2020)
When I read Stoler’s piece I was really struck by the “interiority” of some borders. How spaces are still cut off, boundaries policed, and barriers erected for those that are not normatively “White”, etc.: the differentiation between the subject and the citizen. The “migrant” who acquires a British passport but remains forever outside: by dint of skin colour, accent, religion…
I think there’s something quite useful in here about the interaction between the “interior frontier” and the corridor. Stoler mentions it in passing but the resonances between her project and ours are here to be excavated: conceptually and concretely, an “interior frontier” defines the contours of a protective and precarious threshold more than a line. Instead of a border as a “line”, we might think instead of thick and narrow corridors (replete with comportments, sensibilities, sensory aversions, dress, and speech), ill-perceived and unarticulated but not ill-defined – where the standards of normalization and defiance are at war and, as it were, on the line.
How does a corridor, snaking through borders, present a “threshold”? How does it normalise? What does the corridor do – what possibilities of resistance and co-optation does it offer when borders become less concrete or differently articulated/materialised? This pandemic is surely something that complicates our understandings of borders.
But like you say, police presence and expansion now more than ever show the importance of “interior borders” – the police are policing these internal boundaries, these corridors that are at once conduits and choke-points. If we are in the stage of disaster capitalism (Klein 2007), then what role do corridors play in a differently bifurcated imaginative geography? Do they work alongside borders to include and exclude? Or do they do something entirely different…? I’m also interested in the porousness or vicosity of corridors versus borders, and how this will help us reconfigure our questions and methods in dealing with them.
Sharri (28 March 2020)
First, reading Lee and Ahtone’s (2020) recent piece on “land-grab universities”, the point is driven home, that our conversation needs to start from the idea that stolen land is foundational to how we analyse and understand our borders and corridors; that Indigenous destruction and replacement are not just signposts or “grave-markers” on the pathway to our present condition, but core to who we are, where we are (Byrd 2011). It is live and living.
But I also feel like the point this piece is trying to make – particularly read alongside the wonderful work we’ve been engaging with by Audra Simpson, Manu Karuka (2019), Tiffany King (2019) and Jodi Byrd – is how easy it is not to see. How invisible the violence becomes, beneath the accepted line of the border, the monochromatic colours of our maps, the iron rails of the train. Part of making this violence visible involves tracing how these things come into being, the processes that made them, the bodies and blood that stain them. But it also comes with refusal – refusal to let this disappear. And then thinking “abolitionist politics” for the future. Actually doing something to “liberate” our future.
Nivi (1 April 2020)
Just finished reading Perera’s (2007) “Pacific borderscapes” piece and it underscores your points about invisibility and the need for abolition. The piece is all about what the border hides in plain sight, what it prevents us from noticing. It also emphasises different ways of relating to borders; and alternate worldviews that persist in spite of what modern cartography and maps say about them.
This question captures it all so poignantly:
How do the moving bodies of asylum seekers reconfigure this multiethnic, transnational, transborder space of islands and archipelagos, coastlines and oceans, constituted by a mesh of discourses and practices? There are multiple actors in this geo-politico-cultural space, shaped by embedded colonial and neo-colonial histories and continuing conflicts over sovereignty, ownership, and identity. (Perera 2007: 206)
Sharri (2 April 2020)
In The Transit of Empire, Jodi Byrd (2011) brings us back to a kind of fundamental point, that we need to start from the lens of the “Indian”, as moving and mobile, not only in terms of the forced displacements they experienced, the journeys they take across space and time – fundamentally interrupting the flows of imperial modes of erasure and replacement – but how Indianness shapes/makes circuitous the conceptual work of empire: as ahistorical, as past, as discreet and separate from how our world works. And so her point is more than just about revealing what transits of empire did to Indigenous peoples (because this leaves them in the past); but to acknowledge and give space to their agency, their presence; to be part of the postcolonial conversation.
For us, this means that methods of analysis necessarily shift – to thinking “cacophonously”, to thinking through the lens of disruption, rather than smoothness, universality, structured logics. This forces us to see borders both as they are fixed/unfixed around indigeneity, race, gender, class; and how Indigenous peoples push to make their lives seen as something that was differently affected by both settlers and arrivants (and to see arrivants differently from settlers); to understand these processes as intimately connected but differently positioned, differently performed, and to keep it that way. To get comfortable with friction, with mad sounds, with a lack of harmony – even as we reckon with the white space of corridors that try to make all of this easy to transgress, make movement possible, make life secured and governable.
The thought I keep coming back to is how the corridor operates as flows and smoothness, because nothing is actually smooth, abstract, or fungible – this is her point. Indianness is erased to make these flows work.
The concluding chapter in Byrd starts with a poem that is at its core a powerful window into the apocalypse – and with it, she asks us to see with her what is revealed, what it ends, what it gives birth to. And since we feel our own apocalyptic shift in these times of Corona, I can’t help but be drawn to the question that seems to scream at me from these short lines about suns blasting the earth and land and life laid bare: has anything changed? Are things being revealed in our current apocalypse? Is there a nuclear explosion changing our vision, changing what we see, what we live? What will return to hiding when the apocalypse is over? Or will it be over? And will we just find a new way to function that re-inscribes the colonial, re-inscribes the anti-black and brown logics that produce and re-produce our borders? And will corridors return to their invisible role, continuing to circulate, extract and accumulate power, wealth, security, violence and governance in the very uneven and stratified ways it does now? Just moving along differently, more controlled, and with more hyper-flexible routes?
Borders definitely became more visible and entrenched during this period – we feel them inside our homes and along the neighbourhood streets, as police start to ensure that no one is standing outside, no one is sharing space or air – never mind what is happening at the edges of states. Never mind what is happening to make the rest of the world disappear. As Adam Hanieh (2020) says, this will be globally devastating and it is a lie to believe that a pandemic shows no bias, no favourites. The wealthy will be saved by private testers, hospitals, ICU beds and ventilators. The poor will take their chances with the virus – they will continue to make our supply-chain corridors function (or face a slower death than the one the virus brings…).
If we travel with Byrd, we are taken on a journey that forces us to refuse the smoothness of empire and see with her what it sought to erase, until we come to an inevitable end, to where she “stops”, with the idea of collective justice in our apocalyptic present. Moving from the transits of empire to decolonisation, to collective seeing and unveiling, to grieving for what was lost and lives on in colonial violence, havoc, destruction; and from here, for settler, arrivant, and Indigenous peoples to develop the capacity to heal together:
Rather than framing justice for American Indians as the fourth horseman accompanying the apocalyptic “plague, pestilence, and famine”, it is time to imagine Indigenous decolonization as a process that restores life and allows settler, arrivant, and native to apprehend and grieve together the violences of US empire. (Byrd 2011: 229)
Here’s to the end of “normal” – and to refusing the pull to go back to it.
Nivi (9 April 2020)
I’m still grappling with Byrd very slowly. But the main thing that strikes me about her work is her commitment to putting postcolonial and Indigenous theory in conversation with each other.
There’s obviously an element that is temporal in this and she says so herself. For those within American Indian and Indigenous studies, postcolonial theory has been especially verboten precisely because of the “post-” – even though its contradictory temporal meanings are often debated – as it represents a condition of futurity that has not yet been achieved as the United States continues to colonize and occupy Indigenous homelands.
But it’s also spatial: claims to land and place are entirely different for scholars (and the lived experience) of postcoloniality (they have states) and those of settler colonialism. I wonder if this is also another entry point into corridors and borders. The postcolonial and to some extent even the Asian and African anti-colonial theorist has been obsessed with what happens when you inherit a state and the legacies of colonialism that inhere within that inherited state – even if there is recognition that sometimes those borders are colonial and arbitrary creations themselves. Whereas settler colonial theorisation hinges on a completely divergent conceptual and material starting point: the persistent and ongoing recognition that maps, spaces, territory, and borders mean something entirely different. That border abolition cannot be a project unless we first acknowledge that that land is always already someone else’s. That border imperialism means different things in different contexts and a project of multicultural liberal inclusion is a death sentence for Indigenous peoples (cf. Coulthard 2014).
I can’t help but wonder what this means for our conversation between the border and the corridor. Could the border still be the postcolonial way of sense-making? Is the corridor a more meaningful perspective on current settler colonialism (also now thinking of Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks ).
In Byrd’s (2011) words:
Within the continental United States, it means imagining an entirely different map and understanding of territory and space: a map constituted by over 565 sovereign Indigenous nations, with their own borders and boundaries, that transgress what has been naturalized as contiguous territory divided into 48 states … “There is always”, Aileen Moreton-Robinson  writes of Indigenous peoples’ incommensurablity within the postcolonizing settler society, “a subject position that can be thought of as fixed in its inalienable relation to land. This subject position cannot be erased by colonizing processes, which seek to position the Indigenous as object, inferior, other, and its origins are not tied to migration”.
Does writing against the border inevitably end up reifying the border and all that it entails? And how does this help us contend with what is happening, with seeing the history of this moment, with lines being drawn or made more mobile right in front of us?
Sharri (9 April 2020)
Borders and corridors operate as ambiguous spaces: they can each be generated as sites, as material footprints of conflict, power, resistance and resilience, important to colonial, postcolonial and decolonial thinking and movements. They also co-constitute and are dependent on one another; without the border, the corridor just doesn’t function, and the corridor strengthens the border.
I think what changes them will be the way they operate with decolonial, postcolonial and/or Indigenous modes of practice. Whether they can be imagined “otherwise”. Whether they can be queered (Cowen 2014), or whether they become a fix (Harvey 2001) to what is always contradictory, always threatening, always in need of violence to make it work smoothly, which is a big part of how corridors come into being, and how they are managed and maintained.
I think this has been what I found so powerful in reading Tiffany King (2019: 10) alongside Jodi Byrd, both of whom bring me back to method, to what happens to our thought, sight, analysis, epistemologies when we see waterways as “connected with the currents”, rather than as that which divides parcels of land, segregated because of the idea of land as property, as owned, as accumulated capital. They tell us to think and see differently; to ask ourselves in a genuine way what changes when we see the world – to see its borders, lines, boundaries, corridors, currents, connections – in these other (decolonial/abolitionist) ways; in ways that European colonialism/racial capitalism tried its best to erase.
Nivi (9 April 2020)
I think I was gesturing to some of the frictions in trying to think and see differently when I was thinking about the border and the corridor – we can see this pop up in conversations about how to organise anti-racist politics, and there is sometimes an antipathy to coalition politics. It’s probably too much of a stretch but I can’t help continue thinking that these frictions live in the dissonance between the method and metaphor of the border, which to me feels like it belongs to a postcolonial: one in which the state remains the object of enquiry – the bestower of identities, the source of violence, and often the engine of hope – and the method of the corridor, which may make more space for indigeneity. Especially if we track back to Audra Simpson (2014: 114), to her point about border-recognition and border-refusals. As she says, “the very notion of Indigenous nationhood, which demarcates identity and seizes tradition in ways that may be antagonistic to the encompassing frame of the state, may be simply unintelligible to the western and/or imperial ear”.
This return to Audra Simpson felt like the right place to stop. Nonetheless, against the backdrop of a global pandemic which continues to re-configure the sites, routes and life of the border through the racialisation of (im)mobile bodies, we want to end with a few questions:
- Can Covid-19 (and the frictions of a still-locked-down world) give us an opportunity to think the nation-state otherwise – and thus borders, corridors and infrastructures that connect and disconnect us (paraphrasing Cowen  here)?
- Can we use these new methods and insights to understand how our moment is imbricated in past, present and future trajectories; and as we continue to think and see this work in line with the radical traditions that inspires us, can we begin to finally imagine and work towards something else?
- Could we see our work as part of an abolitionist tradition that is alive in the anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist struggles of the present (just as it was in the past)?
- Or as we live our new normal, are we very much just stuck (conceptually as much as physically), reinscribing modes of thought and demarcating identities in line with a statist, anti-Indigenous, anti-black agenda? [WE HOPE NOT!]
 This conversation mostly evolved over email, and the idea of it being a “dialogue” between us, the border and the corridor was an organic outcome of just writing to one another as the world suddenly stopped. The dates we cite here are the real ones. And the conversation continues to this day.
 One of the repercussions of maintaining supply-chains at all costs is seafarers being trapped on container ships months longer than their contracts, as no one wants to let them past their now-sanitized borders; and others just can’t find ways home with the skies now closed to travel (see, for more details, Khalili 2020).
 Throughout this conversation, we were also sharing our reading lists. Ann Stoler and Audra Simpson kicked off our shared thinking about space, borders and refusals.
Appel H (2019) The Licit Lives of Capitalism: US Oil in Equatorial Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press
Byrd J (2011) The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press
Coulthard G (2014) Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Cowen D (2014) The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in the Global Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Cowen D (2019) Following the infrastructures of empire: Notes on cities, settler colonialism, and method. Urban Geography DOI:10.1080/02723638.2019.1677990
Hanieh A (2020) This is a global pandemic, let’s treat it as such. Verso Books Blog 27 March https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4623-this-is-a-global-pandemic-let-s-treat-it-as-such (last accessed 21 July 2020)
Harvey D (2001) Globalization and the “spatial fix”. Geographische Revue 2:23-30
Harvey D (2005) Spaces of Neoliberalisation: Towards a Theory of Uneven Development. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag
Karuka M (2019) Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Oakland: University of California
Khalili L (2020) Abandoned at sea: Sailors and Covid-19. Verso Books Blog 1 May https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4692-abandoned-at-sea-sailors-and-covid-19 (last accessed 16 July 2020)
King T L (2019) The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. Durham: Duke University Press
Klein N (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin
Lee R and Ahtone T (2020) Land-grab universities. High Country News 30 March https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.4/Indigenous-affairs-education-land-grab-universities (last accessed 21 July 2020)
Massey D (1994) Space, Place, and Gender. Cambridge: Polity
Moreton-Robinson A (2003) I still call Australia home: Indigenous belonging and place in a white postcolonizing society. In S Ahmed, C Castañeda, A-M Fortier and M Sheller (eds) Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration (pp23-40). Oxford: Berg
Perera S (2007) A Pacific zone? (In)security, sovereignty, and stories of the Pacific borderscape. In P K Rajaram and C Grundy-Warr (eds) Borderscapes: Hidden Geographies and Politics at Territory’s Edge (pp201-230). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Simpson A (2014) Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press
Stoler A L (2017) Interior frontiers. Political Concepts: A Lexicon http://www.politicalconcepts.org/interior-frontiers-ann-laura-stoler/ (last accessed 21 July 2020)