- Borderlands: Towards an Anthropology of the Cosmopolitan Condition by Michel Agier
Michel Agier's Borderlands, originally published in French in 2013, is now available in English (translation by Michael Fernbach). With this new edition, following on the heels of what has been dubbed the "European Refugee Crisis" (Fernando and Giordano 2016), the book is rightly described as "timely" on the jacket. However, the work goes far beyond the contemporary global context of migration and displacement to outline a novel approach to borders, and to notions of the self and the subject, at a moment when, as Agier argues, both are becoming increasingly blurred and decentered. Further, as Agier makes clear early on, such processes of decentering are at the very heart of the anthropological project (9).
Upon opening the book, the reader might expect the analysis to be located squarely within recent discussions about migration in the Mediterranean. The cover image is an award-winning photo by José Palazón (photographer and head of the NGO Prodein), which circulated widely when it was taken in October 2014 thanks to the absurd juxtaposition it depicts: golfers play in the foreground as migrants cross the border fence in Melilla (the extraterritorial border between Spain and Morocco). The "opening scene" of the book is a key internal Mediterranean border: Patras, Greece. At the time, Patras was home to an informal camp of (primarily Afghan) migrants who stayed there for days, weeks, and months, as they sought to leap the port fence or climb into a container truck and board the ferry to Italy. (The more established camp was dismantled and disbanded by the Greek police in 2011; though as my own frequent crossings of this border attest, the border game continues.) Still, right off the bat, Agier makes clear that his analysis is much bigger than all of this: he has set out to describe what he calls "border situations," which—as he goes on to argue—can be found everywhere. [End Page 437]
Understanding what the border means in Agier's innovative analysis constituted this reader's primary project, as the book moves through a variety of aspects that characterize such proliferating border situations. Describing the border as a socially constituted space (not limited to territorial borders like Patras and Melilla), Agier speaks of the border as a site of "contact and exchange" (19), of uncertainty and liminality. Borders are, for Agier, sites of great ambivalence but also possibility, of conflict as well as encounter (28), where the boundaries of identity and difference may be either (or both) reified and transgressed. The border is not merely social, but is above all, epistemological (100) and intersubjective, reflecting the relationship between self and other, where the self-subject sits in relation to what Agier calls the "other-subject": the one whose alterity calls the self into new forms of relation.
One of Agier's key projects in this book is to reframe the border as a challenge to identitarian thinking, a most welcome return to the critiques of the "identity" concept (as both analytical frame and emic category of practice) which Cooper and Brubaker raised in 2000 (and with whom Agier is explicitly in dialogue). In a complex and nuanced analysis to which I cannot do justice to in the space of a review, Agier shows how identitarian thinking, and essentialized, reified notions of identity and difference, crop up in many unexpected venues, even as the world has become increasingly peopled by forms of experience and subjectivity wholly inappropriate to such frameworks. Agier's analysis suggests that such (dangerous) identitarian thinking is one of the possible effects of border situations: a reified and binary understanding of the distinction between self and other.
Another possible result of border situations is the decentering that Agier speaks of early on and which he follows in diverse sites throughout the book. Such decentering is grounded on an encounter with alterity, but not with an other who emerges from the "exotic, fictional, virtual, ideal, or dreamed-of elsewhere" (100). Instead, he argues, an acknowledgment of relative and...