Interior Frontiers : Ann Laura Stoler
Interior Frontiers / Ann Laura Stoler
Diagnostic and Dispositif
An “Astonishing” Concept
This moment in which I write is one for which we should have been prepared:2 Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders are no longer on distant dark horizons: they are dead center in forging the political cleavages of our times.3 They are singular crusaders but they are not alone. They operate through racialized distinctions and fears to which we might have been more attentive. These are divisive cuts through our social, political, and affective landscapes that are not eruptions as they are so often described. Rather, these figures register deep tectonic shifts not readily visible with the conceptual tools at hand, nor by the metrics we have used to measure durable sensibilities or to capture sonics to which we are so adverse, askew to our shared radars. Prevailing political categories and concepts may now seem inadequate or inoperative. But there are some with which we could do more, with which we might rethink and rework to track the claims (and panics) raised to condone and fortify amplified inequalities, with which we might crush their appeal so as to to be equipped to respond differently and perhaps better.
“Interior frontiers”—Johan Gottlieb Fichte’s early nineteenth century concept, reanimated by Étienne Balibar some thirty years ago—for long has informed my own thinking about the racialized forms in which colonial governance operates, as well as both the unspoken and implicit distinctions in which racisms invest today.4 If Balibar has repeatedly directed us to its nuanced qualities and contemporary relevance, there are features of the term and the practices it inhabits that deserve further examination now. What he has not sought to make explicit is why and how this term serves as a political concept to displace/replace/stand in for more typical conceptions of social difference and the legislation of fear animated to circumscribe person and polity.
“Interior frontiers” is a political concept to which we could turn to understand what sorts of sensibilities get recruited to produce hardening distinctions between who is “us” and who is construed as (irrevocably) “them”—features of governance, as we shall see, that work on multiple sentiments and across sliding scales. The term, “interior frontier” (innere grenzen) first appeared in the Thirteenth Address of Fichte’s 1808 Addresses to the German Nation.5 Balibar consistently has rendered it in French as “frontière intérieure”; in English translations as “interior frontier,” but also as “interior” or “internal border,” or boundary as well. 6
This “astonishing expression” as Balibar called it in the primary essay he devoted solely to it in 1990, derives its force from the “condensation of contradictions” it offers, the term “itself a symptom” of those very contradictory qualities. The border, he writes, is what encloses, imprisons, and puts in touch. It is a “site of passage,” both an “obstacle” to movement, and the “starting point of expansion.”7 We might specify that list of contradictions further: as sites of arrest and attenuated movement, of transgression and exchange.
But internal borders occupy more ambiguous and less visible sorts of spaces. They may divide the “interior of a territory or empire,” “isolate,” and thus “individualize it,” and serve “as expressions of the very constitution of the subject.”8 The oblique phrasing of that final clause (equally opaque in French and in English) is difficult to grasp, in part, because it anticipates a fundamental feature of “internal borders” themselves. The clause bears vital weight, pointing us, still only implicitly, to the changing scale on which internal borders constitute subjects who do and will invest individually and collectively in them. If Fichte played skillfully on the term’s multiple connotations, as Balibar suggests, the latter has as well. The politically affective charge of “interior borders” seems almost to suspend and secure the framing of a political condition in that very ambiguity.
Taking analytic advantage of this slippage between what becomes internal both to the person and polity is a key to the term’s diagnostic capacities and its incisive opening to political effects. “Interior frontiers” are malleable, situated and responsive, and have opaque power. The term itself, Balibar claims, embodies “the non-representable limit of every border, as it would be seen ‘from within’ its delineation.”9 This is not a bird’s eye view but a multiplex optic, a proximate and intimate one. It is a view from those hugging a border’s edges and excluded from its protection—but, more pointedly, it is a view from those seeking security and refuge in its sheltered space.
Both elements of the concept—“interior” as modifying adjective, and “border” as mobile noun—gain their force from their polyvalence, from their variant referents. As such, the analytic challenge is to make room both for the tightening parameters of inclusion that such a term announces, and the mobile practices to which it refers—exercises that a community and individuals practice on themselves. Potentially, the making and assertion of those interior frontiers confer belonging for some, estrangement for others—conjoining, adherence, and exclusions—not sequentially in fixed order, nor necessarily at the same time. Ambiguities about the sites, milieus, persons, and investments that “interior frontiers” seek to delineate and protect are themselves key features of the political, affective, and epistemic qualities such a political concept may highlight and afford.
As we shall see, “interior frontiers” will provide a succession of vantage points to identify the making of the “stranger” in the matrix of citizen and subject formation. Not least, the concept blurs the distinction between political rationalities and the affective economy in which these designations of belonging and exclusion are lodged. Interior frontiers hover in the grey zone that makes the personal fundamentally political—fortifying the tenuous attachments that allow a “me” the sense of being part of a “we,” an elemental feature in recruiting that “me” to invest in distinguishing “us” and “them.”
“Interior frontier” is more than a prime concept in Balibar’s work; he draws on it for decades (sometimes with similar emphasis, at times with different, even equivocal inflection in a score of texts). But even prior to its use as a political concept—and to even passing reference to the term itself—the problematic ambiguity it addresses provides a thick thread through recurrent concerns in his work. One finds it invoked with respect to (l) the dispositifs that maintain inequalities; (2) the delineations of difference that inform the racialized issues and political “accents” on which he continues to press; and (3) the political logics that scramble citizen, stranger, enemy, and foreigner while they make securitization and fear more unreasoned if legible for us.10
Tracking the appearance of “interior frontier” in his talks and texts between 1984 and 2015 provides an occasion to situate the purchase that the concept’s ambiguity yields, to identify the seemingly disparate scales that its filiations between person and polity make hard to untangle.11 It disrupts any easy rendering of that which marks off an interior from an exterior, accentuating their conflation. For Balibar, “it brings to the fore . . . the classical aporias of interiority and exteriority.” An “interior frontier” repeatedly raises not only the problematic of “purification”—and therefore a vigilance around the perceptions and practices that might lead to contamination—it foregrounds the very “uncertainty” of the distinctions on which those identities, precariously wrapped around a purest reasoning, so often depend.12 These issues permeated Balibar’s work before his use of the term, evident in the mid l980s when he was already working through what distinguishes “the interior” from “the “exterior,” and why it politically mattered to pose the question: his trajectory is one that consistently probes the state’s investment in casting the interior differentials of rights to the exterior frontiers that ricochet back to the interior again.
But earlier still, in l981 (a time when racism was virtually banned from the French lexicon), he was on the track of a racism that was central to the making of modern France. Writing in Nouvel Observateur, he did more than condemn an endemic racism in the French Communist Party (of which he was a member until officially expelled, on the day after his text appeared). He called out an endemic racism in France, intimately tied to its colonial history and the resurgence of nostalgia for a “France for the French,” just one symptom of what he was to call a “racist syndrome.”13
Beware those “Invisible Bonds”
We might think to draw on the concept of “Interior frontier” with respect to the work it does: as a political concept whose fluctuating parameters mark diffracted histories of the present; as a dispositif, intangible and invisible but a viscerally central matrix of racialized states; and not least as a diagnostic of where and how sites of anxious over–identification emerge. “Interior frontiers” is a concept that seeks to identify the conditions that depend on nurturing the intimately and fiercely held dispositions that those conditions solicit, and on which they repeatedly call. As such, an interior frontier has a corporeal and affective quality. It is of body and mind: how one’s body is disposed, where disgust is directed, shaping comportment and (dis)taste for what is imagined to make one discomforted and dis-eased.
How these “interior frontiers” are positioned—and where one falls vis-à-vis their gated space—marks some of the most consequential and violently guarded racial fault lines in our world today. For some, ready inclusion is easily conceived; for others—foreigners, those deemed “strangers,” immigrants, children of immigrants born in France, and any persons at that moment defined as “dangerous”—those borders are checkpoints, as for others they are trespassing warnings. No official papers are ever enough to guarantee passage, for interior frontiers are not secured by barbed wire but by unarticulated and often inaccessible conventions that grant no entry.
Those conventions may be boldly advertised, with easily decoded terms like “family values” used in the service of police who “know” what family is, what kind of families count, and what living arrangements are considered abhorrent to (and beyond) any valuation. But paradoxically and crucially, whether invisible or displayed, the attributes of “interior frontiers” are made hard to decipher. They may be experienced as amorphous, narrow, and petty by those excluded, instilling more than ressentiment; rather, they can instill a categorical refusal to accept the required compromises demanded by what, in the end, will never really become the assurance of equity or of a refuge at all.
Fichte’s Use of the Term—and Beyond
Fichte developed the concept of “interior frontiers” at a specific moment and in a despairing context: as a summons to the defeated German nation on the brink of ruination following the Napoleonic wars. Given as a series of lectures in Berlin in the winter of 1807-l808, Addresses to the German Nation was a provocative call to take up moral arms rather than the militarized deadly weapons of war. Central to his visionary program, “interior frontiers” was to be a unifying concept, an enabling intervention, and indeed by Balibar’s account, a potentially radical one.
If in Fichte’s hands, an “interior frontier” was a fortifying moral barricade against erosion of the nation and self, one could be just as struck by its dark underside, by the raw and visceral and passionately protected distinctions it has the potential to activate and install. I think here of racisms’ intimate and surreptitious dwellings—bodily, affective, and in the flesh.14 Fichte’s “Thirteenth Address to the German Nation” provides some sense of these multiple possibilities, worth attending to in his extended description and in his own words:
Italics may not really be needed here but some of the claims are so strikingly dissonant with any notion of an inclusive polity that they seem to warrant added attention. (German) salvation here is sought in a nationalism generated out of this “multitude of invisible bonds.”16 A people is constituted for Fichte not by the borders of the territory they inhabit but because “they speak the same language.”17
Balibar disrupts a facile reading to underscore two of Fichte’s bold “displacements”: one, Fichte’s refusal to reckon descent through blood, and two, a rejection of language as an historical artifact. The strength of Fichte’s insight, he insists, is that belonging is not derived from “the objectivity of language” in its originary cast but rather from how a language is “lived,” “in the subjectivity of speech,” coalescing in an “ethical attitude” and “reciprocal belonging.”18
Balibar’s interpretation of Fichte’s “interior border” seems to take sustenance from the future possibility it offers to fortify moral responsibility, an internal “invincibility” that can forge “a new history.”19 It is here where the concept of the “interior border” holds political promise for him, describing this possibility as “its most profound import.”20 It is here where language is conceived as the “essence of the social bond.” It not only provides the fabric of enduring connection: it “speaks in the first person,” and not least embodies a spiritual training and moral education where “an individual’s interiorization of the patriotic community” is animated and lodged.21 For Fichte, sensibility and feeling are linguistically tethered, ancestrally generated, nurtured in speech that adheres to the person and is community bound.22
But there is nothing inherently positive or inclusive about such attachments. On the contrary, Balibar halts here before the paradox that the internal border produces, entailing both “division and unity,” “closure and opening.” For the ”border is no longer marking territorial spaces but a newly “constituted time” of “projection” and “the future.”23 Warily he notes that new “internal borders” emerge for Fichte in an educational system that “suppresses the differences between conditions” as it creates another “critical kind of internal border.”
And then on a more somber, prescient note, Balibar seems to hesitate, and asks “whether the whole education process does not tend to substitute for the historical division of social conditions, another division between the good and the wicked [méchants], an invisible border between two species of men.”24That last sentence is chilling. We have moved from a utopian, unifying project to the potential for a racially defining, violent one. Balibar’s cautionary observation might be considered anticipatory as it remembers those categories of person that are designated as disposable, exterminable, dangerous to the defense and well-being of society and the security of the state.25 Even a passing familiarity with the racial inequalities both in French and U.S. educational systems, employment, and housing, leave little doubt where and how the racial geopolitics of these internal borders are drawn. Homo academicus displays its foundational grounding not only in a figure of homo hierarchus in bold relief; here it portends one powerful Nietzschean installment of unequally valued human—and not quite human—kinds.
Colonialism, Racism, and Interior Frontiers
So interior borders bear equivocal potentialities. They mark restrictive exclusions and new divisions, hierarchies of worth and privileged moral affiliation. Balibar’s re-animation of the concept exceeds the prompt that Fichte provided, in part because of the ever more immediately divisive and discriminatory contexts in which he chooses to examine its contemporary application, consequences, and racialized effects.
The text published in 1990 is where the concept of “interior frontiers” is given its most analytic due, but he invokes the links between racism and “interior frontiers” five years earlier in two telling contexts: in a discussion of colonialism as an integral internal feature of French society and the French state, and in discussion of the “interior” features of citizenship (in “Les habits neufs de la citoyenneté”) where it is prominently featured as a subtitle in a discussion of citizenship as a “property” in the double sense of the term, as “intimate character” of the person and a legal disposition. In these discussions, citizens and subjects are distinguished not only legally but by “these interior frontiers” whose layout and outline” (le trace) is at once “mobile” and “constantly overdetermined”26: “the distribution of male and female roles, social rights, and distinctions between a national and foreigner” are all implicated in defining where the private begins and the public ends. The domains that “interior frontiers” cover are illustrations. There is no analysis or explicit definition of the term.
“Interior frontier” appears again in 1985, but here with reference to an “interior political frontier” (la frontiere politique interieure) undergoing a critical historical shift on two fronts: it marks the distinction between citizen and subject, and those kinds of people considered dangerous.27 Balibar seems to invoke the term as if it were itself a political dispositif that creates new distributions and divisions: the “laboring classes” replaced by a category of étrangers (foreigners), of immigrants and colonized subjects, making race the divisive wedge.
But something else is afoot here as well: the connotation of “interior” moves out (to describe segments of the population) and then is drawn in again to speak to character traits and characteristics of those personhoods that make them up. Tying these—if still obliquely—is a formulation of racism as the “psychic structure of the state.”28 For these are racialized identifications on which governance seizes and amplifies and through which states manage their microsites of control. If conceptualization emerges with the problematic in formation, the conceptual and political coordinates of interior frontiers are still subjacent, avant le lettre, an exacting examination of Fichte’s use of the term.
It is no surprise that in 1987, in “Racism as Universalism,” as Balibar’s writing compresses more around racism and subcitizens, we find less an endorsement of the felicitous possibilities of “interior frontiers” than a dis-ease; as he notes, the “radicality” of Fichte’s address “does not protect him against the more than ambiguous political implications of his doctrine.”29 For if racism is understood not as an additive or complement to nationalism but its product and fundamental infrastructural support, then the concept takes on another valence, one dependent on institutionalized inequalities and discriminations that internally divide not only subject and citizen but each among and within themselves.
“Double consciousness” in such a political frame may not only be the fate of those who are explicitly raced, as Du Bois argued.30 A quite distinct double(d) consciousness may be the condition of those who endorse racism’s unmarked signs to secure themselves. Europeans in the colonies were not unique in practicing a “politics of disregard,” trafficking between claims to “ignorance” and practices of ignoring, accentuating the unease that comes with subscribing to the fictive worth of those distinctions.31
On first reading “Fichte et les frontières intérieures” in 1991 I was struck by its resonance with the colonial lexicons in which I worked: virtually every line of the text not only evoked what constituted the “invisible bonds” of white colonial privilege, the moral distinctions, and privileged cultural competencies that European colonials awkwardly relegated to and reserved for themselves.
The concept of frontière intérieure captured, in its almost oxymoronic quality, the sort of unspecified moral criteria used to distinguish which colonial subjects merited European equivalence in a court of law. That “merit” was a fashioned by a particular kind of familiarity and comfort in European surroundings: one aided by child-rearing, schooling, domestic management and architecture, and Dutch proficiency, criteria deployed to bar those who did not display and could not adequately demonstrate that they felt adequately “at home” in a European milieu.
As striking was Fichte’s very emphasis in describing this intangible belonging as “les liens invisibles”—the very same phrase used recurrently in Dutch and French colonial documents to assert who would be accorded the privileges of a white European status and who should not. These were part of an everyday that could be touched though unnamed, named but unseen.
The concept of “interior frontier” seems to reach equivocally for something more than mere affiliation: more an interior landscape of personhood responsive to—as it shapes—one’s dispositions, one’s “most private feelings,” as Fichte put it, and attachments in the social world. The French and Dutch colonial archives seemed alive with animating and bounding those European interior frontiers at every turn. Thus a colonial judge in Saigon could determine that a metis mixed-blood boy in the l870s be tried (more severely) in a Nyepative rather than European court of law (despite having a European father) because he did not demonstrate the sort of visible and interior qualities that showed his love of country and moral respectability: he was illiterate in French, demonstrated no distaste for Germans (!), seemed to speak only a few French words, with the added slur that his intimate relationship with his “alleged” French father of lowly origin may have been not parental but that of a sexual partner.32 At issue is not the deed at all, but the kind of person charged.
The convergence between Fichte’s aim to fortify these interior frontiers based, in part, on the ethical qualities of participating in a speech community, and colonial projects designed to secure racialized governance were probably not as similar as I imagined them at the time of that first startling encounter with the concept so many years ago. But one could also imagine the opposite: that the colonial archives offered unusual clarity on an historical and academic artifice in which metropolitan and colonial social grammars of exclusion could not be viewed on common ground. Contrary to that convention, both were powerful “interior frontiers” in the making: the category of European embellished for and by imperial pursuits, the category of internal enemy emerging out of those racialized frontiers.
But perhaps as much insight into the political critique Balibar deploys the concept to do, takes us back to those earlier l985 texts where he describes how citizenship operates to insure and then declare a whole range of people, mostly from former French colonies and protectorates, “inassimilable,” differences created and maintained between “real French stock” (Français de souche) and les immigrés, despite the fact that most of the latter had and have long been legally French. If citizenship is based on a principle of exclusion, he asks whether it is not only a right but a status, neither fixed, nor permanent, but present “by degrees.”33 Here the term frontières intérieures of citizenship does some of that work to account for this process of granting and withholding the tools for acquisition, incremental success at mastering and/or succumbing to conventions, by “degrees.”34
A Border is Not a Line
Two moves add further ballast to the term, intensifying its relevance as a concept in its own right for contemporary political thought, as Balibar elaborates it in an even more compelling direction. Several years after “Fichte et les frontières intérieures,” he makes a striking move, invoking the observations of the well-known (renegade Lacanian) French psychiatrist Andre Green’s understanding of what constitutes a border in the treatment of madness.35 In a bold, astute, and somewhat precarious leap of imagination, Balibar draws on Green’s psychoanalytic treatment of “limit cases” and “borderline patients.”
It is Green’s observations about “the border” and the “line” on which Balibar seizes, recognizing an indubitable insight that makes another kind of sense. In Green’s rendition a border is a “line of demarcation that is never a ‘line’” but “a vast territory where no precise division allows for the separation between what is [madness] and what is not.”36 In Balibar’s rendering, the concept of “interior frontier” does away with what he rightly has called the “state fiction” that a border is a “line.” There are no clearly demarcated or fixed lines to cross, where the “other side” provides immunity. An “interior frontier” depends on a messier set of attributes and occupies a less identifiable place. It bridges and makes a case for plural interior borders of person and polity.
Conceptually and concretely, an “interior frontier” defines the contours of a protective and precarious threshold more than a line. Instead of a border as a “line,” we might think instead of thick and narrow corridors (replete with comportments, sensibilities, sensory aversions, dress, and speech) ill-perceived and unarticulated but not ill-defined—where the standards of normalization and defiance are at war and, as it were, on the line.
With intangible sensibilities and immeasurable measure, interior frontiers seem to share some kinship with that to which Raymond Williams once sought to turn our collective attention: namely to those inchoate “structures of feeling” at “the very edge of semantic availability”—where feeling (experienced as fear, humiliation, threat, longing, or shame) is not opposed to political thought but indexical of a positioning in the making. Structures of feeling are not fixed in ideology but in solution, emergent in a space (like that of interior frontiers) that is intimate and political, active in the making of personhood, social complicity, and political affiliation.37
“Interiorities” and Personhoods on the Line
Dismantling the state fiction that borders are clear cut lines reorients Balibar’s analysis. But the second insight of Green’s that he amplifies is more profound, one of Green’s most striking and prescient statements: As he wrote “One can be a citizen or stateless but it is difficult to imagine that one is a frontier.” In this single stark phrase, Green shatters the parameters of the term. “Having a frontier” is not the same as “being one.”
Balibar astutely attends, asking whether it is in just such a condition, in what Green calls a “no-man’s land” that so many people live, “that affect up close their “being” in as much they are subject to being neither in a physical, legal, and psychic space that is neither “this nor that” (ni ceci, ni cela).39 And then with the clarity of that insight in hand, he poses a rhetorical political question: is it really only on the margins of society, the banlieue, where this frontier is recognized and drawn? Or is it more so that “the parties, the nations, the regions that we have habitually come to consider as having borders, themselves are ones?40
What is actually “interior” and “internal” about an “interior frontier” remains intentionally ambiguous and an open problematic in Balibar’s writing: not least because it serves as a critical diagnostic of how persons are shaped into political subjects, as well as serving as a dispositif of governance. Circling cautiously around these issues, he both addresses and skirts how states harness individuals’ affective ties and marshals the distinctions that make up who they imagine themselves to be, who they need to be to secure presence and dwelling, what they need to master to know they belong in their surroundings, and, not least, what they need to master in themselves.
In returning to the adjective “internal” or “interior,” the “internal” moves analytically again and its political potential transforms. More demands are put on other “polysemic” features of the internal with a slight shift of political grammar: “interior” slides from adjective to an active verb, a set of practices and affective attachments imposed upon and embraced by those precariously perched or comfortably settled on this toxic frontier. Of more issue is what gets “interiorized by individuals” and “internalized” in citizens, subjects, and the stateless, never completely managed by the institutions of the state.41
With this semiotic shift, the internal border is rendered with more substance: equally shaped by and defined through the dispositions and habits of those who relish its delineations and by those who are relegated to its outside and on whom it bears. The “border” neither looks nor feels the same for the two. Relations of power and asymmetrical force assure that interior landscapes are implicated in the emotional economy on which enmity and fear are animated and secure their central place.
“Frontiers of Europe” (1993) marks a return to “frontière intérieure,” called out here as one of Fichte’s “decisive formulations.”42 Two alternative formulations (offered in parenthesis) suggest further rethinking about how to render what transpires in this space. The first is frontières intériorisées—by now a familiar if slightly variant formulation. The second, frontières pour l’intériorité,” is awkwardly phrased.43 What work might these supplemental recastings of the concept do that needs these two seemingly distinct qualifications? The first turns us to how persons in a polity construe these treasured delineations and take them in as features of themselves. But in the second, “frontiers for interiority,” the “for” suggests another charge: an “interiority”—in a sense for one’s own worth that invokes the boundary/border as a stabilizing force, providing the psychic ballast one might not otherwise have the means to garner. This is what Balibar seems to be reaching for when he writes more incisively several years later of
Here the imagined protective border joins the cultivation of a body politic secured through a “cultivation of the self.” Such “symbolic differences” (as Balibar calls them) are not in the service of flourishing communal well-being (as Foucault described them in Ancient Greece).45 This is rather what I call a “circumscribed civility” whose participation for some human kinds is categorically foreclosed.46 “Impenetrable” seals too dark a fate. It is not a community to which anyone should wish to belong.
At The Heart of Civic Space
Such a regime of truth has ugly consequences: Balibar will now identify these effects as “ultra subjective forms of violence,” nourished in this darkened space. In these corridors of “la limite” and its “extreme” forms of expression, blockades are installed.47 Specific institutional installations of violence remain central. But Balibar will once again call on André Green to identify them more ominously again where an an “idealization of hatred,” as he understands Green to be suggesting, prevails:
In this vision, those expulsed are rendered as “disposable waste” while the “fetishized figure of ‘us’—embodied in interior frontiers—is reduced to an fiction of ‘absolute homogeneity.’” This socially damaging vision is not the making of those diminished by precarity and of weakened will alone. Interior frontiers gain their leverage because they are inscribed in the “naturalization of domination,” a formula Balibar attributes to the joined lexicon of Marx and Foucault.49
One might think here with Edward Said’s political concept, “imaginative geography,” that so productively and emotionally bifurcates what is deemed a threat (in his case Islam) and what is not, a formulation of space and a “method,” as he puts it, “of controlling what seems to be a threat to some established view of things.”50 This “imaginative” geography should be specified further: It is an affectively inscribed and ultimately violent material one that distributes what I can care about, what invokes my moral disgust, and what and who falls outside the reasonable purview of my morally founded concerns.
On the cusp of the twenty-first century, Balibar accelerates and intensifies his condemnation of the political work done by the border. It is further indicted and renamed.51 Nowhere has he stated it so boldly: the border, “la limite,” is “the wholly nondemocratic condition of democratic institutions.” A key displacement is underscored: the border is “accepted, sanctified and interiorized” and transported from the exterior “to the middle of political space.”52 One is reminded of Nicos Poulantzas’s l978 treatment of “the internal enemy” as that which is amplified when and where the “frontiers of the national space” are “internalized” and “at the heart of that space itself.”53
Note here that the making of “interior frontiers” can never be just a state project and a manipulation on high alone. Emerging at the “heart of civic space,” they may create an invisible geography marking out who can walk which streets without feeling “out of place,” who can stand on a street corner without being suspect, narrowing down the spaces one has the right to inhabit, or in which one can feel “at home.” In the U.S., racecraft, as Barbara and Karen Fields describe it, shapes the places where one is rendered “unsafe”—or is considered “unsafe” for others.54 Selective surveillance and racialized punishment precede incarceration. Loïc Wacquant puts it precisely and takes it further, arguing that in the U.S. “race is a civic felony.”55
The analytic traction of attending to “internal borders” reappears with new force as Balibar sets out to mark Europe as itself a borderland, but also to point to a hardening of internal borders threatened by the prospect of European citizenship such that
There are not only those who are unassimilated but increasing numbers who are rendered unassimilable (as if all want to be); on the one hand, with the designation of “foreign” and the category of (forever) foreigner assigned by those making an effort to bolster traditional “interior frontiers”; on the other hand, those demanding equal citizenship rights in law and in the everyday, which may manifest as the right to remain different (and defiantly indifferent) to the normative regulations of cultural and nationalized convention.
The lathe of the concept is turned once again to ask whether the “marks of belonging” that are “retrieved in the individual” and “interiorized by him” produce a “countereffect” or what we might describe as the underside of those designations.57 Interiors and exteriors are turned inside out. That “countereffect” of belonging is “the stranger as other within . . . an intruder, out of place.” This internal other provides negative contour in everyday life to “interior frontiers.”
But we should not imagine that what is rendered as “foreign” and “strange” and unseemly is always raced, or only so. There are “different modalities of ‘contradicting’ the norm, i.e., of destroying normality or deviating from it.” In turning from Fichte to Foucault, the “interiorized border” between the criminal and deviant, between being socially wayward vs. physically homeless, being “at risk” or “a risk” is made into a moral and dangerously political space. The potential criminal is deemed deviant, mobilizing a surveillance and security regime sanctioned by the legitimized mandate, as Foucault put it, to defend society (against itself).58
On Viscosity and “Interior Frontiers”
Balibar’s relentless efforts to identify the “extraordinarily viscous” and potentially vicious features of interior borders stop somewhat short of at least one of Green’s observation about such borders. In “The Concept of la limite,” Green asks what is the limit of a person, conjuring the intrusions and transgressions that racialized relations inflict on those subsumed by them, by those on whom they are imposed, and by those who claim their truths. Green makes no reference to Fanon as far as I know, but his conclusions are not that different from what Fanon saw as the psychic scars of a racial colonial machine burned into the future of Europe, and into the permeable membrane that is the flesh.
When we imagine the limit of a person, Green writes, it is the envelope of the skin that immediately comes to mind.59 But no, he reminds us, the skin is discontinuous and porous. The tissue of flesh is interrupted by other tissues, it is full of holes (“il est troué”) that act as gates or better as custom inspectors, he writes: “eyes” [the suspicious gaze,] “ears” [unwelcome music as irritant /noise], “nose” [cooking smells rendered repugnant], “mouth, anus, genitalia.” At issue for Green are two problems: the “consistency and the structure of the border,” and “circulation in and out of its gates.” “But what are the frontiers of my psyche,” he asks?
In attending to “rigidification,” “sclerosis,” “the jamming of frontiers,” Green seems to be anticipating what has become our collective, securitized present, speaking as though in a future conditional tense. His observation forebodes and offers more to reflect upon:
This is a disturbing passage on many counts: not only because it revamps the work that this making of an interior border does—it does not entail work on a body but rather through one. Bodily exposures are part and parcel of the interior frontier as a dispositif. And what of this “loss of distinction between space and time”? Does submission to the command compress into a transgression of my body and senses? One might think with Jacques Rancière here about “la partage du sensible” (the distribution/division/sharing of the sensible);62—or of Judith Butler’s senses of the subject, the invocation of partitions, impingements, willfully and unwillingly imposed on a subject, reminding us that no selves can be fully subsumed or hermetically sealed.63 If Green leans on the metaphor of territorial borders to make his case, he does so to emphasize permeabilities, invasions, contaminations, fissures, penetrations to which one has no ready exit and from which one cannot be immune.64
It is obviously not only in our present moment when interior frontiers are fortifying at the expense of others. Still, what Achille Mbembe might consider as part of the “inversion” of democracy, is occurring on a new globalizing imperial scale.65 We live in a racial emporium that both exceeds nation-states as it instills ever more expansive and intimate xenophobias. At issue is what forms of sociality might produce common refuge rather than anxious retrenchment. For no matter how well understood the conceptual matrix in which these internal and internalized distinctions are drawn, we are still left to learn more about their vernacular making. They inhere in things, feelings, infrastructural arrangements—in visual images, decibel levels, aesthetic conventions, and in what is misconstrued as the innocuity of common sense.
The colloquial form that these battles take are deceptively straightforward: there is a “we” who no longer feel comfortable and feel safely “at home,” a “nous sommes plus chez nous” heard on the lips of more than Front National supporters. “We are where we belong and at home” (nous sommes chez nous), the response of a defiant citizenry born in North Africa and in France.66 “Home” is invoked or rather erupts again with “pas de jungle chez nous” (no refugees, no squatter/refugee/gypsy encampments in our backyards) when the Calais refugee camp was dismantled in Fall 2016. Not least, it reverberates among the well-mannered populace in small Dutch towns, in Iowa’s high school hallways and on the wrestling team of a prestigious New York City university (Columbia), and at a self-declared poorly endowed progressive one (The New School). In each of these locations, some students felt licensed and emboldened to shout (as the French would put it, with no compunction, “decomplexifié”) “go home where you belong.”
Home figures again and again for those who spend so much of their lives in passage, pretending to want to “pass” just to be able to get through a frontier or guarded zone. As Balibar notes, “passing and repassing” occur “at the mercy of expulsions and familial regroupings” through this “viscous spatio-temporal zone.”67 With homing in and closing in such distinctive features of interior frontiers, their mirror image is dark. It is no surprise, then, that those frontiers can emerge as such a hollow space, as Balibar comes to understand: it is “almost a home- a home in which to live a life which is a waiting-to live, a non-life.”68
These designations and demarcations of what is and who can be at home are colloquial and familiar but they have a history that is colonial through and through. The entire French military security apparatus conceived in the l950s to control an “inferiorized” internal population, as Mathieu Rigouste argues, has now been imposed on an inferiorized interiorized immigrant population, most of whom are not immigrants but French citizens.69 But the colonial figure of the “undesirable element,” as the Dutch called those colonized, seen as a threat, or potential threat to colonial authority, and that of the “internal enemy,” as the French called them, have a much longer history. That we know.
Note how the distinction between the terms, which are mutually defining, superimposed, overlapping, are hard to maintain: “Internal enemies” are figured on the qualities that make for “internal frontiers;” the “stranger” and the “enemy,” as Balibar notes, are dangerously confused.70 “Internal strangers” are a threat to “interior borders;” there is “growing confusion,” as Balibar puts it, between the “internal stranger, the “internal enemy,” and between the “internal stranger” and the “foreigner.”71 Each of these figures (and they are figures fashioned of fear) are traced out by the movement of what a citizenry takes to be its indubitable and defining features.72
What we seem to know less about are the ruinous qualities of life that these interior frontiers foster—the ultimate pharmakon of curative and corrosive, protective and poisonous qualities that they are. While altered in density, composition, and form, they are spaces of refracted ruination, the dark, infrared corridors on which divisions rely. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee described impoverished white tenant families in the American South in the l930s for whom there was no possibility of a buffered self—persons assaulted and slandered by a system that produced “slendering of forms of freedom” over the course of their lives.<73
We might consider whether such “slendering” degrees of freedom in our hypercommodified world of fictive choice may manifest in the negative space of “interior frontiers.” Are such frontiers given sustenance among those who experience the obscene inequalities in which we live as providing fewer buffers, and no buffered self? Interior frontiers puncture possibilities by assuring that the unheimlich, the strange, the stranger, the not familiar, too familiar is an assault or potential assault on “feeling at home,” and that no matter where one falls in this space there is no safety or security. It is buttressed by a vicious fantasy that freedom comes from stronger barricades rather than the embrace of what Hegelians would call a radical dependency of us all.
Ann Laura Stoler is Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research.
Published on May 29, 2018
1. Étienne Balibar, “The Infinite Contradiction,” trans. Jean-Marc Poisson and Jacques Lezra, Yale French Studies 88 (1995), p. 147; originally presented at the jury for promotion to Research Director, 16 January, 1993.↩
2. I thank Jay Bernstein, Michel Féher, Lawrence Hirschfeld, Adi Ophir, Richard Rechtman, Mathieu Renault, and Diogo Sardinha for their queries, as well as those at the occasions where this essay was presented: the Political Concepts “Balibar Edition,” Conference, Brown University, November 2016; the History of Science Department, Harvard University, November 2016; Bertrand Oglivie’s philosophy seminar at Paris 8, March 2017; Journée d’études on “Race et Migration,” Sorbonne, April 2017.↩
3. On the fact that the Front National in France, and the Le Pen “phenomenon” were not “marginal” twenty years ago nor was he “nul” (a hopeless nothing, of no import), but already recruiting political sensibilities and xenophobic dispositions that were already entrenched and firmly French, see Ann Laura Stoler, “Racist Visions and the Common Sense of France’s ‘Extreme’ Right” in Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), pp. 269–304.↩
4. My first use of the term is in Ann Laura Stoler, “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (1992), later revised and published in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Balibar’s most extensive engagement with the term appears in “Fichte et la frontière intérieure: A propos des Discours à la nation allemande,” Cahiers de Fontenay, 58/59 (June 1990), reprinted in Étienne Balibar, La crainte des masses: Politique et philosophie avant et après Marx (Paris: Galilée, 1997), pp. 131–156. For the English translation, see Étienne Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border: On Addresses to the German Nation,” in Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy before and after Marx, trans. James Swenson (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 61–84.↩
5. Throughout this text I will refer to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, trans. Isaac Nakhimovsky, Bela Kapossy, and Keith Tribe, (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2013). However, other (earlier) translations have been consulted and are mentioned as well.↩
6. It should be noted that “border” and “frontier” are used interchangeably for the thirty years of Balibar’s texts covered in this essay. One could imagine a generative distinction with use of “frontier” marking a more intensely racialized imperial history than “border” usually invokes. But our concern here is with the “interior” and “internal” qualities of these divisions and that is where the analytic traction to my mind lies. In any case, as late as 2014, the two terms are not distinguished, even as he turns to an explicit conceptualization of the “phenomenology of the border” most recently to date in “At the Borders of Europe: From Cosmopolitanism to Cosmopolitics” in Translation (Spring 2014), pp. 83–103.↩
7. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 63.↩
8. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 63.↩
9. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 63.↩
10. This is not to suggest a deliberate calibration on each of the inflections to which he has given to the term. Nor does it matter to my task. I am more interested in the richness of the concept as a political one that slips between the political and psychic spaces of power, as it reflects the actual quotidian ways in which racialized differences envelop the social relations and personhoods through and on which they work.↩
11. In dating his use of the term, I often refer to the date of presentation of the text, rather than its final publication or later translation.↩
12. The full quote reads: “This expression [interior border] brings to the fore all the classical aporias of interiority and exteriority. In the context of a reflection on the identity of a people, of a nation . . . it necessarily refers to a problematic of this identity, the way in which the ‘inside’ can be penetrated or adulterated by its relation with the ‘outside’ which here we will call the foreign. . . ” (Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 63).↩
13. Étienne Balibar, “De Charonne à Vitry,” Les frontières de la démocratie (La Découverte: Paris, 1992), pp. 19–34, and “Suffrage universel!” (first published in Le Monde in l983) in response to the Front National’s “break through” in regional elections.↩
14. See Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); and Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014)..↩
15. Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, p. 158; my emphasis. Other translations give a slightly different sense to this last sentence. Thus a 1923 translation reads: “From this internal boundary, which is drawn by the spiritual nature of man himself, the marking of the external boundary by dwelling-place results as a consequence; and in the natural view of things it is not because men dwell between certain mountains and rivers that they are a people, but, on the contrary, men dwell together . . . because they were a people already by a law of nature which is much higher” (Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, trans. R.F. Jones and G.H. Turnbull [Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922], p. 224; my emphasis).↩
16. The extensive debates among French and Anglophone political theorists on the nature of Fichte’s brand of nationalism as chauvinist or cosmopolitan, are only broached in this essay with respect to the concept of “interior frontiers.” See Isaac Nakhimovsky’s introduction to Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation where he understand Fichte’s proposals as a salutary set of “moral limits on power politics” (p. xxvi); for a review of the arguments see Arish Abizadeh, “Was Fichte an Ethnic Nationalist? On Cultural Nationalism and Its Double,” History of Political Thought 26:2 (Summer 2005), pp. 334–359.↩
17. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 78.↩
18. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” pp. 78–79.↩
19. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 66.↩
20. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 81.↩
21. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 82–83.↩
22. This affective charge is even more pronounced in Fichte’s Fourth Address: “This language goes deep into the most private feelings of the individual’s thoughts and wishes, limiting or giving them free rein; it binds together all those who speak it into one common understanding; it is the true mutual junction of the world of sense and of spirit, merging them into one such that it is no longer possible to say to which it belongs” (p. 55).↩
23. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 82.↩
24. Balibar, “Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 83.↩
25. On persons made disposable, see Bertrand Oglivie, L’Homme jetable: Essai sur l’exterminisme et la violence extreme (Paris: Editions Amsterdam, 2012). Somewhat surprisingly, Balibar does not take that racially inflected direction as he does in so much of his writing before and after 1990. In fact he names those “two species of men” as “those who live in egotism and those who live in the realm of the spirit” (“Fichte and the Internal Border,” p. 83). I would draw on his phrase, “two species of men” more literally as he himself does a decade later when he writes of racial discourses as attempts at interpreting “differences within the human species” and at defining what and who is “properly human” in relation to “the possibility of the inhuman.” See Étienne Balibar, “Election/Selection,” keynote delivered at the Conference: tRACEs, University of California, Irvine April 10-11, 2003 (https://vimeo.com/album/1631670/video/25691025), published as “Election/selection,” Cahier Derrida, Editions de l’Herne, 2004.↩
26. Balibar says, “On voit que la notion juridique et para-juridique de citoyenneté est indissociable non seulement d’un espace constitutionnel (territoire, souveraineté) relativement clos, mais aussi de ses frontières intérieures, dont le tracé, mouvant, est constamment surdéterminé. La limite du ‘public’ et du ‘privé’ telle que la dessine la distribution des rôles masculins et féminins, la zone névralgique du “droit social”…opposition du ‘national’ et de l’étranger” (Étienne Balibar, “Les habits neufs de la citoyenneté,” in Les frontières de la démocratie, p. 105).↩
27. Balibar “Racisme, nationalisme, État” , Les frontières de la démocratie, p. 93; in this instance of the term’s appearance, Fichte is not cited.↩
28. The French reads, “une structure psychique d’Etat” (Balibar, “Racisme, nationalisme, État,” p. 87).↩
29. Étienne Balibar, “Racism as Universalism,” New Political Science 8:1–2 (Sep. l989), 9–22; this paper was originally delivered in 1988 at the New School for Social Research.↩
30. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Brent Hayes Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007 ), pp. 8–10.↩
31. This point is elaborated in Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), pp. 236–278.↩
32. On this case, see Ann Laura Stoler, “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: Cultural Competence and The Dangers of Métissage”  in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), pp. 79–111.↩
33.“Propositions sur la citoyenneté” , in Les frontières de la démocratie, p. 113.↩
34. Balibar, “Propositions sur la citoyenneté,” pp. 109–123, 113.↩
35. Balibar , “Les frontières de l’Europe” , in La crainte des masses: Politique et philosophie avant et après Marx, (Paris: Galilée, 1996), pp. 381–395; see also André Green, La folie privée: Psychanalyse des cas-limites (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), which was published in English as On Private Madness (London: Hogarth Press, 1986).↩
36. Green, La folie privée, pp. 104, 105.↩
37. Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling” in Marxism and Literature (London: Tavistock, 1973), p. 134.↩
38. André Green, “Le concept de limite,” in La folie privée, p. 107; quoted in Balibar, “Les frontières de l’Europe,” Crainte des masses, p. 383.↩
39. Balibar, “Les frontières de l’Europe,” p. 383. The French anthropologist, Gérard Althabe made a similar observation with respect to the relationship between the rise of the FN, the precarity of “popular classes,” and the racism directed at those designated as “the Maghrébins” when he wrote: turned out from French society, they “camped at [its] doors, and constituted its frontier,” Production de l’étranger, xénophobie et couches populaires (Paris: Sorbonne, 2017 , p. 31).↩
40. Balibar, “Les frontières de l’Europe,” p. 383.↩
41. Balibar, “Qu’est-ce qu’une frontière?,” p. 374.↩
42. Balibar, ‘Les frontières de l’Europe,” p. 388.↩
43. Balibar, “Les frontières de l’Europe,” p. 388.↩
44. Étienne Balibar, “At the Borders of Europe” , in We the People of Europe: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, trans. James Swenson (Princeton 2003), p. 8; my emphasis.↩
45. Balibar, “Les frontières de l’Europe,” p. 389; see Michel Foucault, The Government of the Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982–1983, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Frédéric Gros (New York: Picador, 2010); Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol ll: The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).↩
46. Balibar, “Les frontières de l’Europe,” p. 389.↩
47. Étienne Balibar, “Émancipation, transformation, civilité,” Les temps modernes, n° 587 (May 1996), pp. 409–449, 438.↩
48. Étienne Balibar, Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), pp. 60–61. This text is based on his 1996 Wellek Library Lectures delivered at the University of California, Irvine.↩
49. Balibar, “Émancipation, transformation, civilité,” p, 439.↩
50. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, Random House, 1978), p. 59.↩
51. Étienne Balibar, “World Borders, Political Borders” trans. Erin M. Williams, PMLA 117:1 (Jan 2002), pp. 71–78.↩
52. Balibar, “World Borders, Political Borders,” p. 71–78.↩
53. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiler (London: Verso, 1978).↩
54. Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2012).↩
55. Loïc Wacquant, “Race as Civic Felony,” ISSJ, 57:183 (March 2005), pp. 127–142.↩
56. Étienne Balibar, “Europe as Borderland” , Economic Planning and Social Space 27:2 (2009), pp. 190–215, 201.↩
57. Étienne Balibar, “Civic Universalism and Its Internal Exclusions: The Issue of Anthropological Difference,” boundary 2, 39:1 (2012), pp. 207-229, 215.↩
58. Michel Foucault, “About the Concept of the ‘The Dangerous Individual,’ in l9th-century legal psychiatry,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 1 (1978), 1-16, and Michel Foucault, Il faut défendre la société: College de France lectures (Paris: Gallimard, 1976).↩
59. Indeed that the skin is not only a “physiological envelope” but “has a psychological function which permits containing, delimiting, putting in contact and inscribing” is the insight of Didier Anzieu in Le MOI-PEAU (Paris, Editions Dunod, l985). As he writes “the skin, through its sensorial properties retains a determinant role in the relationship to the other.”↩
60. Green, On Private Madness, p. 63.↩
61. Green, On Private Madness, p. 63.↩
62. Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), p. 44.↩
63. Judith Butler, Senses of the Subject (New York: Fordham, 2015).↩
64. See Ann Laura Stoler, “Introduction: The Dark Logic of Invasive Others,” Social Research 84:1 (Spring 2017), pp., 3–5; see also the essays in this special issue on Invasive Others, edited by Arien Mack and Miriam Ticktin.↩
65. Achille Mbembe, Politique de l’inimités (Paris: La Découverte, 2015), p. 62.↩
66. See also Thomas Chatterton Williams, “The French Origins of ‘You Will Not Replace Us: The European Thinkers behind the White-Nationalist Rallying Cry,” The New Yorker, December 4, 2017, pp. 24–30 (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/the-french-origins-of-you-will-not-replace-us).↩
67. Balibar, “Qu’est-ce que c’est une frontière?,” p. 379.↩
68. Balibar, “Qu’est-ce que c’est une frontière?,” p. 379.↩
69. Mathieu Rigouste, L’ennemi intérieur: la généalogie coloniale et militaire de l’ordre sécuritaire dans la France contemporaine (Paris: La Découverte, 2009). ↩
70. Étienne Balibar, “Strangers as Enemies: Further Reflections on the Aporias of Transnational Citizenship,” text of his remarks delivered at The Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition at McMaster University, March 2006 (https://globalization.mcmaster.ca/research/publications/working-papers/2006/ighc-wps_06-4_balibar.pdf).↩
72. Akeel Bilgrami’s insight that subjective identity is that without which I would no longer be who I conceive myself to be, something “one ought not to revise” sets out a moving target and complicates the temporality of subject formation with respect to interior frontiers (“Identity,” Political Concepts 1 [http://www.politicalconcepts.org/identity-akeel-bilgrami]. As Judith Butler will claim, identity is responsive to changing notions of who I think I am in a present shaped by what I had wanted to be, could have been, and in relations to what acts upon me (Senses of the Subject, p. 8.).↩
73. James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p. 96.↩