Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Rugged Border: Surveillance, Policing and the Dynamic Materiality of the US/Mexico Frontier

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Rugged Border: Surveillance, Policing and the Dynamic Materiality of the US/Mexico Frontier

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper explores US Department of Homeland Security surveillance programs in the United States/Mexico borderlands, with an emphasis on the quotidian role of a dynamic more-than-human landscape in frustrating the department's enforcement practices and ambitions. The paper is based on several years' ethnographic research in southern Arizona, archival research, and semi-structured interviews with current and former government personnel. By unpacking the quotidian challenges confronted by Homeland Security personnel, the paper contributes to a post-humanist theory of terrain, shifting the focus of geographic inquiry to the ways that the qualities of certain spaces, objects, and conditions may resist or impede everyday navigation, centralized vision or administrative practice. Yet, as the long saga of Department of Homeland Security surveillance initiatives would suggest, the impediments of terrain are by no means final or determinant To think through this indeterminacy and its implications for the geographic composition of state practice, the paper proposes that the latter be approached "metabolically," with state security and surveillance practices continuously animated by a dynamic exterior as agents and agencies seek to overcome tactical and strategic limitations by incorporating, digesting and subjecting ever-greater kinds and volumes of objects, bodies, landscapes, and data to centralized legibility and control.

Keywords Surveillance, technology, US/Mexico border, post-humanism, object-oriented ontology, terrain

Introduction

In September 2006, the George W Bush administration announced a plan to augment the build-up of enforcement infrastructure and personnel along the United States/Mexico border with a state-of-the-art "virtual fence" called SBInet--a technology initiative intended to allow US border authorities the ability to detect, visualize, and respond to virtually any unauthorized incursion onto US territory in real time. After a competitive round of bidding, the Boeing Corporation won an initial $67 million contract from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a prototype for the program, whose appropriated budget eventually expanded to $3.7 billion (GAO, 2009a). At the time, SBInet was only the latest in a series of technology initiatives intended to enhance the US Border Patrol's "situational awareness" and improve the efficacy of enforcement operations. Yet, despite a massive financial and technical investment, SBInet failed to deliver on many of its most basic operational promises. As a result, the program was quietly canceled in January 2011.

This paper explores the factors and conditions that led to SBInet's cancellation, and that continue to frustrate US Border Patrol surveillance and enforcement practices. Reading the failures of SBInet as an outcome of its inability to contend with a dynamic more-than-human landscape, the paper contributes to a post-humanist theory of terrain. Dittmer (2013), Meehan et al. (2013a), Squire (2014), Sundberg (2011), Walters (2014) and Wood (2007) have each explored how non-human objects and beings affect and mediate military, surveillance or police operations, and how this mediation in turn conditions the composition and geography of state practice. A post-humanist theory of "terrain" builds on and contributes to this literature by shifting the orientation of geographic inquiry to the ways that the quality of certain forces, spaces, and conditions may impede or disrupt a state's vision, navigation, or administrative practice.

Yet, as the long saga of DHS surveillance initiatives would suggest, the impediments of terrain are by no means final or determinant. Indeed, the United States continues to invest tremendous resources toward the twin objectives of "persistent surveillance" and "operational control" across the great expanse of its land and maritime borders. Reading the impediments of terrain alongside this push toward expansive surveillance, then, the paper proposes a "metabolic' theory of the state--one that conceives of state security and surveillance practices as continuously animated by a dynamic exterior that becomes the target of agents' and agencies' efforts to incorporate, digest, and subject ever-greater kinds and volumes of objects, bodies, landscapes, and data to centralized legibility and control. …

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