Academic journal article Borderlands

The Disappearance of Race: A Critique of the Use of Agamben in Border and Migration Scholarship

Academic journal article Borderlands

The Disappearance of Race: A Critique of the Use of Agamben in Border and Migration Scholarship

Article excerpt

This essay critically assesses the use of Agamben's theory within border and migration studies. What I am interested in tracing is the ways that, through reference to Agamben, particular dynamics of bordering are foregrounded, while others recede.

In particular, I argue that because Agamben foregrounds legal structures in his scholarship, and does not articulate a theory of racism or work from a history of racism, that reliance on his scholarship has the effect of displacing discussions of race/racism in the field. This displacement repeats the erasure or disappearance of race/racism in the world.


Over the last decade scholars have increasingly drawn on the work of Giorgio Agamben to understand contemporary bordering practices and the politics of illegalized migration (cf De Genova 2010; Dines et al. 2015; Rajaram & Grundy-Warr 2004; Schinkel 2009; Squire 2015; Vaughan-Williams 2012). This is perhaps especially true in border and migration scholarship that associates itself with critical border studies (Parker & Vaughan-Williams 2009; 2012) and with the autonomy of migration (De Genova 2010, Rygiel 2010, Squire 2015, Walters 2008). In order to offer some locating details about the usage of Agamben, I will take Critical Border Studies (CBS) as an example here. CBS is a predominantly European branch of border studies that looks to political philosophy and critical theory as a way to think of borders not as lines, but as enacted practices. One of the central features of CBS is that it applies, in the words of its practitioners, 'theoretical and conceptual work' to the 'diversity and complexity of contemporary bordering practices' (Parker & Vaughan-Williams 2012, p. 727). Overwhelmingly, what is understood by Parker and Vaughan-Williams as 'theoretical and conceptual work' is political theory and continental philosophy, and even more specifically, work produced in this field predominantly by white, male Europeans.

Amongst the theorists from which CBS works in developing its understanding of bordering practices, Agamben is perhaps the most privileged. One contributor to CBS, Mark Salter, describes Agamben as 'one of the most important contemporary social theorists of border[s]' (sic) (Salter 2012, p. 741). He describes Agamben's work as playing a 'signal role' in current writings on borders, and goes on to discuss the ways in which Agamben's concepts have been taken up in the field. Indeed, the sheer number of times in which Agamben's work reappears across the field is impressive. The reception of this work is also notable, as engagement with Agamben's theory across the field has become field-defining: these pieces of work are received as keynote addresses at prominent conferences, and as recipients of major awards within borderland studies (Vaughan-Williams 2009). To perhaps under describe the disciplinary state of things, I think it might be useful therefore to begin from the observation that, as Vicki Squire writes, Giorgio Agamben's 'work has been highly influential in the fields of border and migration studies over recent years' (2015, p. 502). In this description, we have again moved beyond merely CBS, and toward the field more broadly.

In this article I want to ask questions about the disciplinary and epistemological effects of the privileged positioning of Agamben's work within border and migration studies. This is a question of citational structure and practice. I am interested in citation as a practice because of the ways it is, in the words of Sara Ahmed, a 'rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies' (2013). To ask questions about the reproduction of citation is to ask questions about the ways in which scholarly descriptions and analysis of the world participate in what Ahmed calls 'techniques of selection' (2013), which in turn foreground particular themes over others, and particular perspectives over others. …

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