Notes on Angela Mitropoulos’ “Notes on the Frontiers and Borders of the Postcolony”

This piece pushes past Agamben’s analysis of the state of exception and homo sacer, stressing the condition of those on the “frontiers” of globalization.  (See Hugh’s notes on the other Mitropoulos piece for more – her blog and some bio)

372 – State of emergency declared over indigenous communities in the Northern Territory of Australia, due, officially, to anecdotal reports of child abuse, but considered by Mitropoulos and others as an excuse “‘to justify the weakening of Aboriginal communal rights to land under the guise of economic development. (Phillips, 2007)’”

373 – Tampa freight ship saves 300 undocumented migrants from drowning, and the Australian government also seizes on this as an opportunity for “authoritarian displays of sovereignty,” just as in the case of the Northern Territory aboriginal community “scandal.” Mitropoulos refers this us to Agamben’s analysis of homo sacer and the idea of a state of exception: undocumented migrants are both the ultimate instantiation of bare life [as Pugliese points out, when people of the global south leave to attempt to access the global north, these people “must instrumentalize their bodies into material adjuncts of the technologies of trade and transport” (“Civil Modalities of Refugee Trauma…”, 162)] and the objects over which the state of exception operates.

Mitropoulos speaks of the Christian missionary tradition of “helping” indigenous communities – then refers to “seductive” pull of the “disposition of benevolence.” Australia “benevolently” attempted to “save failed states” in the Asia-Pacific just as it did the northern parts of Australia. She calls this an “internal re-colonisation.”

374 – Claims we must move beyond Agamben for understanding of these dynamics. Proposes a reposing of question in terms of the relation between border and frontier with the key being the “techniques of the contract.”

Border (contracts) /frontier: the European idea of “contractual peace (i.e., mutually agreed upon borders)” as distinguished from frontiers which is the ‘state’ of “perpetual war,” absent of all contracts and borders, is one of the most important keys to the ideas developed in the rest of Mitropoulos’ peace.

e.g. – Colony as frontier, as site of “total war.” Once this has been established, state is not dealing with civilian/subjects, but “savages,” who thus can be herded into internment camps, and generally organized as objects/animals/savages (for instance the use of cattle prods on Egyptian demonstrators). Further claim that the tactics imposed on citizen/subjects in first world who are acting against state’s norms are subject to same tactics used to manage people of colonies (internal re-colonisation).

374, 5 – Social contract theory puts the frontier/border binary as between state of nature/society (Hobbesian social contract theory is more pessimistic about state of nature, whereas Rousseau is much more optimistic). Claims that optimistic view of frontier as possibility, as horizon, has informed “exodus and empire.” But I think it’s also true that pessimistic view of  frontier is equally informative of the pioneering empire, as it is what justifies the benevolent paternalism applied to savages who cannot organize their own communities or supply their own well-being.

Virno – “The border is stable and fixed, the frontier is mobile and uncertain” – Technique of colonization is to resignify communities as frontier, as savage, in order to impose contractual relations, borders, which are beneficial to the colonizer.

“[T]he frontier is that space into which people carry those borders with them as they might their own personal possessions.” One might think of each person, then, as representing a set of borders enclosing them from, and being their primary mode of relatedness to, the people around them. “…frontier does  not imply escape so much as escape whose sense is exhausted by and as individuation … the ability to enter into contractual relations”

376 – But according to the colonized, the frontier is experienced as dispossession by extreme violence.

“…borders are in fact porous, selectively inclusive (and exclusive),” permeable to certain modes of being and impermeable to others.

And here is where Mitropoulos seeks to distinguish her analysis from an Agambenesque one:

“The measures announced under the recent state of emergency in Australia are not merely sovereign judgments of an exception, but technologies that seek to filter…. Rather, many of the measures are directed toward contractual individuation, as in applying punitive measures (such as cutting welfare payments) where there is deemed to be a failure of individual compliance with certain norms; shifting land tenure arrangements from communal holdings to private real estate; and so on. It is evident that the national government is seeking to squeeze those who live in remote communities into the model of the ideal property-owning, proper bourgeois subject” [my emphasis].

Contractualization of society as its depoliticization: contract holders are assumed to be equal, impartial to any group allegiance but to that which ensures the validity and enforces their contracts (the state). “In this sense, the contact is the ‘internal border’ par excellence,” because it is only those who accept the conditions (and are in the material/financial/geopolitical position to accept the conditions) of the various norms one must embody (sending child to school or being able to afford health care, etc.) that pass through the filter which separates “frontier” from borderland. Borderland is that which is not frontier; borderland is that space one occupies when one has been deemed worthy of leaving the space of exception of the frontier.

377 – Shifts focus to “internet-as-cyberspace-as-frontier” and to “difference of understandings of exodus, desertion, and refusal,” stating that her questioning will bear directly on readings of Operaismo, Autonomia, and Autonomist Marxism.

Strongest motif in these last two pages is a criticism of these deployments the concepts of “exodus, desertion, and refusal” as radical protest. Mitropoulos’ criticism seems to be based on the difference of understanding of these concepts among the members of the borderlands as opposed to those overtaken by the frontier: at the heart of the call to “re-aquire political advantage by association and in the neutralisation of differences” an understanding of subjectivity which is exclusionary to those who are in a consistent subjection to the state of exception of the frontier?

378 – Thus, cognitive labor (which is her reason for bringing up the problematic idea of internet as frontier) and the opportunity some see in it, the “recuperation of ontological or analytical primacy in the midst of its crisis.” The problem is that this grab for political power is premised on the exclusion of the true homo sacer, on the exclusion of those who have never been able to fit into the model of social liberal contractarianism.


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