Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Another Letter from the Home Office: Reading the Material Politics of Asylum

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Another Letter from the Home Office: Reading the Material Politics of Asylum

Article excerpt

Abstract. In an era of technologically mediated modes of border enforcement, this paper focuses upon a seemingly more anachronistic mode of governmental intervention: that of the letter. Exploring the use of letters by the UK Border Agency to communicate decisions on asylum claims I argue that taking the materiality of the letter seriously demands a reworking of the politics of asylum. Drawing on ethnographic research within a UK asylum drop-in centre, the paper opens by offering a governmental reading of letters as things which define the limits of present and future actions, whilst fixing individuals to specific locations. The paper then destabilises such a reading by considering how letters are understood through material-discursive entanglements of things, discourses, and spaces, such that letters are understood through, and help to constitute, different atmospheres, spaces, and subjectivities of asylum. Thus I argue that it is by taking seriously the connections between materials, discourses, and affective states that we might critically interrogate framings of the state as an oppressive force shaping the lives of those seeking asylum.

Keywords: asylum, materiality, governance, citizenship


"The point is not merely that there are important material factors in addition to discursive ones; rather, the issue is the conjoined material-discursive nature of constraints, conditions, and practices."

Barad (2003, page 823)

"All states are rooted in writing, and the performance of the state in the routines of writing ... [is] fundamental to the naturalisation of the state."

Joyce and Bennett (2010, page 14)

In a recent review of the role of state-theoretic work around forced migration, Gill (2010) argued for a more nuanced examination of how states come to be practised. Destabilising the image of an unwieldy and abstract state apparatus in this manner has become an important orientation within political geography (Jeffrey, 2012; Mountz, 2003; 2010; Painter, 2006). Rethinking the practice of the state has led to considerations of how the state is encountered through forms of citizen engagement (Jones, 2007), how the accomplishment of state projects relies upon the enrolment of prosaic routines (Blakeley, 2010; Staeheli et al, 2012), and how states seek to shape behaviours and perceptions 'at a distance' (Inda, 2007; Jones et al, 2010). In parallel with this work there have been discussions over the technical nature of governance, drawing attention to how the practice of government relies upon "an array of more or less formalised and more or less specialised technical devices" (Barry, 2001, page 5). This paper seeks to take forward Gill's (2010) call for a "critical asylum politics" that unsettles a singular and abstract account of the state, by focusing upon one such "technical device" of government--that of letters sent to asylum seekers by the former UK Border Agency (UKBA). The paper develops a reading of asylum governance as not simply a "technical matter" (Barry, 2001, page 5), but a material matter, an issue of things, associations, collectives, and the entanglements such a multitude implies. The paper thus takes forward Desbiens et al's (2004, page 242) claim that "the state is not a unitary object but is, rather, a set of practices enacted through relationships between people, places, and institutions", and adds to this view a concern with the materials that perform relations between these people, places, and institutions.

By focusing on letters as an entry point into debates over the governance of asylum, I want to consider how discourses on the ubiquity of borders rely upon the presence of mundane materials and modes of contact. Latour (2000, page 113) argues that society "has to be composed, made up, constructed, established, maintained, and assembled", and it is this sense of the continual work involved in maintaining systems of bordering that a concern with the material politics of asylum might bring to the fore. …

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