Matthew Hart on Border Politics During the Pandemic Age

A fascinating book about why the idea of being extraterritorial has come to preoccupy writers and artists and a rejoinder to celebrations of the cosmopolitan intellect or the ostensible age of postnational globalization. Hart highlights the aesthetic appeal and confusion arising from extraterritoriality’s mixture of loosening and constraint, of being outside but also within, in spaces where political determination is at once constant and violable.

~Sarah Brouillette, author of UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary


Today’s guest post comes to us from Matthew Hart, author of Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction. In this piece, Hart considers international border politics during the pandemic and the mobile border.

• • • • • •

Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of a world without borders? If contemporary literature and history are any guide, maybe so.

The last years have seen increased calls from the political left and right to liberalize immigration policy and even abolish borders completely. When children are locked in cages at the United States–-Mexico border, and refugees regularly drown crossing the Mediterranean, it’s hard to justify why people shouldn’t enjoy the right to travel as freely as information and commodities. Barriers to human movement, writes open borders activist Teresa Hayter, “are only explicable by racism.”

But this year—this plague year—border controls seem easier to defend. For, while the novel coronavirus needs no passport, transmission rates are clearly affected by the actions of national governments, including restrictions on travel. At the time of writing, the World Health Organization counts 21,381 confirmed cases per million people in the United States. In New Zealand, protected by oceans and a strict program of “managed isolation and quarantine” for visitors, that number drops to 307. This is no natural epidemiological variation.

There’s much more to public health than travel bans and quarantine zones. Masking, testing and tracing, social distancing—the list of proven anti-viral measures is tiresomely familiar. To attribute the Unites States’ public health failures to border policies alone would be as stupidly racist as saying “the China virus.”

To attribute the Unites States’ public health failures to border policies alone would be as stupidly racist as saying “the China virus.”

Yet still we keep trying to shut down the virus by shutting out its human hosts. The United States has not tightened its borders as much as New Zealand, but it has banned most travel from thirty-four nations. So why, even during a time of intense partisan conflict, when wearing a mask has become a symbol of tribal allegiance, is there so little public debate about restrictions on international freedom of movement?

The obvious answer is that universally -applied emergency travel restrictions are morally and politically different from immigration policies that victimize the poor and people of color. Also: we are scared and will put up with a lot, including temporarily stronger borders.

In considering border politics in these pandemic days and nights, I naturally think of the book I’ve just finished about how artists and writers depict the political geography of the present. In Extraterritorial, I argue that, far from existing in a world beyond borders, we live at a time when—to quote the visionary British author China Miéville—the “internationalization of capital” has led not to the border’s overthrow but to its mobilization. The neoliberal dream, Miéville writes, is “not of open borders but mobile ones, as ferociously exclusive as those of any other state.”

These days, borders move about to generally bad effect. The U.S. Border Patrol now runs routine checkpoints, both permanent and ““tactical,” up to a hundred miles north of Mexico and south of Canada. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates with impunity throughout the land. In this context, Daniel Denvir describes how twenty-first- century borders “function as a sieve that sorts workers into more or less favored categories . . .[…] to more effectively exploit them.” One danger, then, is that the temporary measures adopted to deal with COVID-19 will stick around, becoming yet one more way of sieving and sorting the world’s migrant poor.

These days, borders move about to generally bad effect.

In Extraterritorial, I explore the new mobility of borders by focusing on how artists and writers represent places such as airports and export processing zones. Near Paris, for instance, an airport hotel was once declared foreign soil for the purposes of immigration law; doing so made it easier to eject migrants by claiming that they’d never set foot on French soil. In such a political geography, states don’t always need to build walls to keep workers out, or lower the wages of those they let in.

Artists and writers know the truth of the mobile border, even when they imagine worlds set long ago or transformed by disaster. Take Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003–-2013), in which a recognizable North American world is ended by a pandemic disease that spreads unnaturally quickly and kills with unmerciful force.

Unlike the coronavirus, the plague Atwood calls “the waterless flood” is no natural event. Engineered by a misanthropic scientist, the waterless flood spreads via a deliberately infected sex pill called “BlyssPluss,” which is launched worldwide on a single day. Almost immediately, people and nations begin to fall. Communities crumble. Nature reclaims our very homes.

Like much post-apocalyptic fiction, MaddAddam exaggerates features of our own social order. Here is extinction, everywhere and all at once, its delivery guaranteed by insatiable consumer appetites, multi-media hype, and just-in-time logistics.

In such a political geography, states don’t always need to build walls to keep workers out, or lower the wages of those they let in.

In Atwood’s trilogy, no government survives to stem the waterless flood. But people keep making and fighting over boundaries. As the virus spreads, only the lucky few protected by walls and locked doors survive its ravages. In the trilogy’s final part, a handful of survivors seek sanctuary in a public park. Here, in what was once a rare slice of communal space, they plant a garden and build a fence to keep out predators. Nearby, a new humanoid species (another of the mad scientist’s projects) marks territory by urinating around their camp.

In his Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ . . .[…] was the true founder of civil society.” For Rousseau, the foundational political act wasn’t making national borders but creating private property. MaddAddam ends before we learn whether building domestic fences takes us down a slippery slope to capitalism or the nation-state. Yet there seems no doubt about the limits of Atwood’s post-apocalyptic vision. As nations drown in the waterless flood, the borders between here and out there—us and them—reassert themselves in primal form.

As the pandemic drags on, we must think hard about how we draw lines between safety and danger.

The MaddAddam trilogy is, among many things, a parable about the tenacity and mobility of borders, even in a world broken wide open by catastrophic change. It testifies to the messy geopolitical reality in which we now live, when borders are neither open nor closed but mobile sieves that disappear and reappear, catch and release, exploit and degrade as well as preserve and protect.

Studying the work of authors like Atwood in this time of emergency travel restrictions teaches us that there’s no easy reconciliation—not even after the end of the world—between the border’s promise to create envelopes of safety and its denial of free human movement.

As the pandemic drags on, we must think hard about how we draw lines between safety and danger. We must dwell upon who those lines rule in and out—and for how long. We must attend to how those lines move and, in moving, describe the world we will inhabit the other side of the waterless flood.


Leave a Reply