Le Panoptique

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At Play with the Border

Publié le 1 décembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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While at play with the border in the virtual and futuristic world of the video game Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter2, we are confronted by the extent to which it imitates actual U.S.-Mexico border politics. The extreme sense of urgency and panic evident in the game about the potential penetration of American soil by borderhackers, mirrors the fears and anxieties conveyed by Americans about external dangers to national security after 9/11. The response to such a danger, in both the virtual and actual, is a process of re-bordering and fortification through military intervention.

Essence of a Dream
Borders, Essence of a Dream, 2008
Certains droits réservés.

Manoeuvring as if ‘ghosts’ through the architectural wasteland of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in the year 2014, the technologically sophisticated and hypermasculinized soldier of the future is designated a simple and an urgent task to deter borderhackers from infecting the American way of life. Acquiring a divine-like might, this band of cyborg soldiers featured in the video game Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter2 are “dropped into hell with only 72 hours to prevent an all out war” by securing a terrain of roughly two thousand miles.(1) On this terrain, there are no crystallized borders, spatial barriers, and architectural impediments that cannot be transcended by the omnipresent gaze of the game navigator. Such de-bordering, however, is also a mirror image of a practice of re-bordering where human beings depicted as borderhackers and reduced to a biological existence are annihilated. The game shows us that the practice of securing the border legitimates the removal of undesirables, and that the production of their deaths, in turn, fortifies spatial partitioning between the U.S. and Mexico. In the final hour of the game, the prevention of an impending virus from penetrating the border gestures the safety of the American nation.

While the game is a fictional parable set in a futuristic moment, the topography on which the low-intensity war happens, and the sacrifice of undesirables as securing the biological reproduction and conservation of American society, invites thought on border spaces as apparatuses that manage life and death. Border spaces, however, are not complete and permanent forms; together with the illegality of undesirables, they are mutually and continually performed assemblages. Unlike the parable of the game where the total annihilation of borderhackers reinforces the existence of the border, I am arguing that in actuality such violent spectacles of securing at the U.S.-Mexico border require the perpetual movement and de-bordering that is performed by undesirable bodies. The threat of potential border penetration by illegal migrants is required for re-bordering, just as violent spectacles at the border reproduce the delinquent status of undesirables. What then, does illegality do for the state? What can be said about its relationship to the American way of life?

Behind the Spectacle of Securing

The production of this video game glorifies a militarized and masculinized American culture. The virtual and anarchic world of the game, though seemingly distant, simulates the actual insofar as it echoes the growing militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond. The deaths of undesirables in the game is not unlike the reality at the border. With the implementation of the U.S. immigration laws in the 1990s, notably the initiation of ‘prevention through deterrence’ operations, the deaths of undesirables in the borderlands have reached a humanitarian crisis.(2) The task of such operations has been to redirect movement away from highly monitored, patrolled, and fenced border zones, towards crossing more extensive, dangerous, and uninhabited terrains.(3)

Roxanne Doty argues that ‘prevention through deterrence’ operations are founded on an awareness of the body’s physiological needs, “the horror of the human body without enough water…other hazards such as dangerous terrain, the extreme cold of desert nights, [and] drowning in water.”(4) What such operations do is render borderlands into no man’s lands or spaces of exception(5) where death and violence is invisible, while manufacturing spectacles of securing through military presence and surveillance technologies. Such militarization conveys an illusionary sense of security, since it has meant the insecurity of thousands of human lives. While border militarization reifies the physical and territorial limits of the American nation, it also reproduces the representation of southern migrants as delinquent and volatile bodies that must be contained through violence. While neo-liberalism annuls borders, illegality plays a pivotal function in fixing the positioning of the state as the sovereign guarantor of national security against foreign threats.

Performing Illegality

The role that illegality plays in the reproduction of the American way of life however goes beyond the topography of the borderlands, although the border is the vital apparatus responsible for the disciplinary partitioning between illegal and legal.(6) The production of illegality and the partitioning that takes place at the border have been integral to the exploitation of labour from the south. It is through this partitioning that undocumented migrants are made docile – they become “both a productive body and a subjugated body.”(7) Such partitioning is realized through techniques of surveillance and biometric mechanisms employed by the state to bring growing populations under surveillance by converting the body into a password.(8) Those that have the incorrect code are denied access. But, of course, the state controls and manipulates both the code and the devices by which passwords are deciphered. Apart from verbal confirmations of identity, the scanning of retinas, fingerprints, facial profiles, and bodily dimensions, are but a few of the methods by which the body confessesbefore the sovereign.(9) It is the body, rather than the voice, which confesses at the border. Identities are thus written on bodies for the purposes of ranking them and disciplining them as un/healthy, un/productive, un/desired, inferior or superior.(10) Underlying such ‘bio-political tattooing’(11) is thus an encoded evaluation of the moral worth and economic use-value of migrants(12) With regards to border politics, exclusion through illegality is a marker that dehumanizes, with the goal of extracting labour power from the body, and the shaping of the body into an economically efficient unit. (13) In other words, devices of disciplining at the border are not meant to convert illegal foreign bodies into nationals. Rather, the objectified body of the Mexican migrant represents an extractable and expandable labor resource that contributes to the reproduction of American life. More to the point, while “foreign labour is desired…the persons in whom it is embodied are not.”(14)

Behind the state’s overarching power over the body is a twofold aim: to structure its optimal functioning within a system of power relations, and to make it vulnerable to external malleability. One of the ways in which the docility of the body is normalized is through an internalization of surveillance and disciplining in times of movement, with the state having no longer to use direct forms of coercion to manage and contain it.(15) Michel Kearney argues that the militarization of the border, along with the variety of technological methods of surveillance, is not conducted for the purposes of entirely deterring the entry of illegal labour. The underlying principle behind crossings away from highly surveillances and accessible border spaces is to subjugate bodies by forcing them to cross hazardous and infrequently monitored terrains in the desert.(16) Migrations through such dangerous terrains subjugate the body by reducing it to a biological existence, which renders their labour power open to exploitation. The very process of being smuggled into the U.S. insinuates the commodification of the body, together with the violence experienced by migrants during their voyage, point towards their loss of personhood as migrants shed their status as Mexican citizens to become apolitical, undocumented, and invisible.(17) Preventing migrants from gaining citizen status and socio-political rights is a practice that begins well before their entry into American society. The physical violence and dangers confronted in border spaces works at this degradation of personhood and severing power from the body.(18) It is this splintering, a splintering actualized through the classification of bodies as illegal, which works to configure the migrant body into an economically exploitable and efficient unit.

Border surveillance further congeals the subjugation of undocumented bodies by constituting the subjectivities that migrants perform when crossing designated terrains. Although indirectly, it is by policing migrant mobility that the state reproduces and normalizes parameters around how undocumented bodies are identified, regulated, and administered. Given that undocumented migrants are criminalized prior to crossing the Mexico-U.S. border, they are constantly conscious of their perusal, potential detention, and deportation by Border Patrol. As such, undocumented bodies are not only disciplined through direct surveillance, but they are deemed docile by internalizing the sovereign’s “seeing machine.”(19) Kearney’s ethnographic reflections from migrants reinforce these observations:

He was thinking, he says, that he felt like a criminal, like someone who had to hide because they were doing some bad thing. But, he says, he could not understand what bad thing he was doing for he is an honest man who comes to the United States only to work, to leave his sweat and earn some money…The other men agree that they feel the same when they are exposed to possible apprehension by the Border Patrol or by other police agents.(20)

This excerpt shows that migrants are conscious of the subjectivity generated through their surveillance. In particular, by internalizing the gaze of the sovereign, they are disciplined to ‘feel like criminals.’ It is worth noting that the internalization of delinquent status reinforces the position that illegal migrants are compelled to occupy in American society, in particular that they take on unwanted jobs that are ‘off the books.(21) Rather than mending the delinquent status of the migrant, surveillance serves to ingrain the stigma that undesirables bear, while also working to subjugate and manipulate their labour power. The (re)production of migrant criminality and illegality has been pivotal to such an extraction.

The nexus between illegality and border politics demonstrates that the north continues to appropriate the labour of southern peoples through legally institutionalized discourses of illegality. The subjugation of the migrant body in the borderlands can be attributed to both, policies of exclusion, and, disciplinary practices that are actualized at the border. While such apparatuses of securing may give an illusionary sense of safety, they have also meant the insecurity of thousands of human lives, the lives of those who have left remnants of violence in the desert, and of those who continue to reproduce American life through their subjugation and exclusion.


(1)“Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter2” http://ghostrecon.uk.ubi.com/graw2/info/index.php
(2)Rubio-Goldsmith, Raquel et al., “The “Funnel Effect” & Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2005.” The Binational Migration Institute (BMI), 2006 Pg, 6
(3)See discussion in Doty Lynn Roxanne. “Crossroads of Death” in The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror. Eds., Dauphinee, Elizabeth & Masters, Christina. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 & for further exploration on the subject matter see Doty Lynn Roxanne. “Fronteras Compasivas and the Ethics of Unconditional Hospitality.”Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol.35 No. 1 (2006): 53-74
(4)Ibid., Pg 16
(6)Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995 Pg 199
(7)Foucault, Michel “The Political Investment of the Body” in The Body: A Reader. Fraser, Mariam & Greco Monica eds. London: Routledge, 2005Pg, 100
(8)Ibid., Pg, 84
(10) Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995 Pg, 199
(11)Agamben, Georgio. “No to Bio-Political Tattooing.”Makeworlds. 2004 at http://www.makeworlds.org/node/68
(13)Ibid., 100-2
(14)Doty Lynn Roxanne. “Crossroads of Death” in The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror. Eds., Dauphinee, Elizabeth & Masters, Christina. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Much of the analysis in this piece is based on the findings in: Rubio-Goldsmith, Raquel et al., “The “Funnel Effect” & Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2005.” The Binational Migration Institute (BMI), 2006
(15)Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books. See Chapter 3 on “Panopticism”
(17)Doty Lynn Roxann. “Fronteras Compasivas and the Ethics of Unconditional Hospitality.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol.35 No.1 (2006): Pg, 59
(18)Foucault, Michel “The Political Investment of the Body” The Body: A Reader. London: Routledge Pg, 104
(19)Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995 Pg 204
(20)Kearney, Michael. “Borders and Boundaries of State and Self at the End of Empire.” Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 4 No. 1 (1991): Pgs 60-1
(21)Sassen, Saskia. Globalization and its Discontents. New York: The New York Press, 2005 Pg, 43

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