Unthinking Utopia –Borderlessness as Method

Excerpt from a chapter for the book Utopia Pulse – Flares in the Darkroom, Oliver Ressler and Ines Doujack (eds), Pluto Press, London, 2015.

By ZannyBegg

“We are here because you were there” Kwame Nimako[1]

During a drawing workshop in Western Sydney Mona tells me she had packed a Persian translation of George Orwell’s 1984 to read on the way to Australia, but once on the boat she was told it was too heavy and she must throw it overboard. She complained that hasn’t been able to find another translation to finish the book. We joke she doesn’t need it–her years in Australia being an ample introduction to the double-think of Orwellian dystopia.

We discuss the bird she is drawing. She tells me it is a Homa bird. We stumble through explanations, and with a little research, I start to understand. The Homa is a mythical Persian bird that, as Herman Melville briefly alludes to in Moby-Dick, “never alights.” The Homa is impossible to catch but is said to bestow kingship or spiritual enlightenment on those its flies over. In some versions of the story this limitless nomad has shed its legs, unimportant appendages for a being always on the wing. As we talk the Homa bird begins to fill the room, and our drawings,with possibility. Between Orwellian totalitarianism and the Homa bird emerges the terrible gaps between limits and limitlessness, between the here and the there. It is within these gapsI find a starting point for writing about utopia.

Thomas More described Utopia as a territory blessed with a narrow isthmus, sea lying rocky outcrops and other natural defences that protected it from external threats. It is a circumscribed space with all the negative dynamics that must entail, but it gave a name to a flourishing genre of literature, activism and political thought. Importantly, the contradiction he embedded in the term, between the Greek word outopos (no place) and its phonetic pronunciation as eutopia (the good place), continues to provide pertinent ways through which we can understand the politics of possibility. In the 19th century there was a flurry of utopian books and experiments inspired by them. In one example a group of radicals fled the emerging Australian nation and set sail for Paraguay to found a New Australia. For these colonisers utopia was territorialised and More’s concerns with defence were pertinent (although they discovered to their detriment that their enemies were themselves).

While many of the late nineteenth century movements had a spatialised approach to utopia in the early twenty-first century an alternative discourse emerged from within globalisation theorists focused on the borderless non-place (very different versions, Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Kenichi Ohmae’s borderless world exemplify this trend). Borderlessness promised a world of interconnectedness and flows, where global differences would be deterritorialised, like the flight of the Homa bird, into a non-place of potentiality.

Of course the borderlessness of globalisation was clearly“utopian” in the incredulous understanding of the word. As Brian Holmes pointed out on the eve of the financial crash in 2008 it was an appealing fiction that justified post-Cold War neoliberal trade expansion. Sandro Mazzarda and Brett Nielson, have expressed similar scepticism about the “hydraulic” metaphor of “flow” by highlighting thestriated and complicated space of capitalist globalisation.“Border as method… tries to make sense of the different kinds of mobilities that traverse and intersect in different spaces, making the very concept of space increasingly heterogeneous and complicated in its constitution”.[2] As Shahram Khosravi, from The Silent University, points out while global travel may have shrunk the world for a wealthy elite who fly by air, an underclass of paperless migrants and refugees have been shut out of this “flow” forced to use striated land and sea routes, often paying with their lives to cross a border.[3]

After the 2008 financial crash even the most enthusiastic neo-liberal capitalists seem to have lost their “flow”: the globalised rhetoric of “one world” has been replaced by regional and national power blocks, not unlike the superstates of George Orwell’s 1984, ones that circle the wagons behind trade wars, security measures and border police. The brief moment of capitalist victory after1989 has been celebrated with a revival of imperialist interventions in the non-core economies (something considered too politically costly in the aftermath of the Vietnam war), escalating border controls and savage austerity measures.

For Marina Gržinić this shift marks a change from the biopolitical order that sought to regulate the “good life” to a necropolitical order focused on the disposability of life. Foucault’s biopolitics in her reading can be designated in an axiomatic way as “make live and let die”. Necropolitics regulates life through the perspective of death and can be summarized in an axiomatic way as “let live and make die”. [4]

Central to Gržinić is the writing of Santiago López Petit who argues that in the first decade of the new millennium there was a “great transformation” which resulted in the matching of global capitalism and reality: “there is no outside”. [5]The claustrophobic fit between the two has released capitalist ideologies from any burden of justification for their system. This has freed capitalism from the softening and modifying impact of competition for its global dominance.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the discourse on human rights. As Gržinić points out the international Human Rights regime was developed in Western Europe after World war II as a point of positive differentiation to thetotalitarianism of the Soviet Block. The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, for example, was signed in 1951, at the height of the Cold War, and sought to both resolve the aftermath of post-war displacements while recouping the moral high ground for capitalist “humanism”. In the contemporary context, with an absence of the need for this differentiation, the global order of human rights is now, according to Gržinić,a dead end.[6]

Concurrent and central to this process are the links that she (after Achille Mbembe) draws between necropolitics and a “racialization” that enacts a “process of capital’s differentiation between citizens (first and second grade citizens), non-citizens (refugees and asylum seekers), and migrants; they are all violently, but differently discriminated as the labour market under global capitalism imposes processes of racial, class and gender selection.”[7] For example, as an exercise in doublethink, refugees are violently excluded from the “official” labour market, yet surreptitiously included in the shadow economy as a vulnerable and super-exploitable workforce that can be drawn in and out of paid work at whim.

In the process of writing this essay I catch a train from Redfern to Western Sydney with Murtaza. Murtaza came to Australia by boat, and has been in Australia for 5 years. He spent six months on Christmas Island, two years in detention and the remaining time in community detention. When released into the community he was initially granted the right to work, he got a job, got his license, bought a car, paid his taxes and was sending money back home to his family to pay off debts they incurred helping him escape.

In September this year he has called into the immigration office and told, effective immediately, that his work rights had been taken away (no reasons given). He was not granted any other form of financial assistance. When he asked what he was to do he was told “sleep on the streets or return to your own country”. Murtaza is a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, a country he was forced to flee with his family as a child. His family is in Pakistan a place he cannot return to for fear of his life. As we talk it is obvious how trapped he feels, escaping death to be confronted by the living death of indefinite detention. He expressed his regret that Australia is an Island: “there is no way I will ever be allowed to stay, and I have no safe way to leave. It’s like I am dead already”.

Murtaza had just received thunderous applause for speaking at a cultural event in the city. He has a headache and after a while we stop talking. What can I say? Sitting with my passport in the draw at home I am painfully aware of the privilege that “citizenship” grants me, a category of belonging that has eluded my friend since birth. The next day the newspapers are full of the new legislation before the Australian parliament: the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014. Among other things the bill removes references to the UN Convention on Refugees and eliminates refoulement obligations. A subsidiary story, run in The Guardian, details how the Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison has been systematically breaking the law in his attempt to delay granting asylum to refugees currently in Australia, hoping to buy time until he can change the laws to deport them.[8]

In a 2003 article Angela Mitropoulos attempted to answer the question posed by refugees on a hunger strike in Curtin Detention Centre“where is the human right?”[9]For her an answer to this question springs less from universalist or divine sources then it does from the law, specifically the power of nation-states to legislate for the protection of human rights based on the categories of citizen/non-citizen. The difficulty is that this division effectively eliminates the “human” aspect of “human rights” reserving them for the far more limited category of citizens. As Hannah Arendt argues “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were human”.[10]

Popular anxiety over the collapse of the discourse on human rights can be found in a range of blockbuster science fiction films that have come out in the recent years. One particularly relevantfor this discussion is Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium. Evocative of More’s Utopia Elysium is an attractive oasis, protected by the distance of space, where a handful of citizens have built a biopolitical order that has, as Foucault predicted, offered its citizens a controlled “good life” and eliminated death via Med-Bays that cure illness, restore the ravages of time and heal other defects. Trapped down on earth is the mass of thenon-citizens forever cut off from the healing machines: forced to work or left to die.

Uniquely, Elysium includes a semi-sympathetic portrayal of a people smuggler, Spider, who makes a living out of selling dangerous passages into space with cracked codes to access the Med-Bays. In the inevitable confrontation between the main heroes of the film Matt Damon and Jodi Foster, Spider (played by Wagner Maniçoba de Moura) manages to crack open the entire program running the Med-Bays making the whole of humanity ‘citizens’. The film concludes with emissaries from Elysium heading to earth with Med-Bays to begin curing the sick and extending the hand of citizenship to a polluted and over-crowded planet.

Elysium is animated by a deep-seated anxiety: the lush space outpost is home to the 1% who ensures their survival at the expense of the teaming mass of humanity. Will we be the ones left behind on a ravaged earth? In a 2003 article about the infamous “children overboard scandal” (where government minister erroneously claimed that refugees had thrown their children overboard to flag down a ship) Ghassan Hage argued, “what kind of people believe that a parent (even an animal parent let alone a human parent from another culture) could actually throw their child overboard? Perhaps only those who are unconsciously worried about being thrown overboard themselves by their own motherland?”[11]For Hage ‘worrying’ about one’s nation has replaced “caring” about it indicating a slide from more comfortable ideas of citizenship, that denote access to the “good life,” to more insecure ones focused on maintaining ones position against others.

Sandro Mazzarda and Brett Neilson, who talked of “border as method” to describe the constricted and fragmented spatial-temporal global order, argued that the border not only physically constrains the free movement of people around the globe but polices a global division of labour “that serves to equilibrate, in the most violent of ways, the constitutive tensions that underlie the very existence of labour markets”.[12]

While the early days of globalization produced a borderless fantasy for capitalism, to counter-act a defunct fantasy with another fantasy might seem counter-intuitive and facile. But what if we posed borderlessness as method as a deconstructing device that challenges territorially inscribed notions of utopia by creating an endless line of flight (a la the Homa bird) out of the binary between citizen/non-citizen that has hitherto contained it? This is not to evict, even within our imaginations, connections between people and the land, but to disengage the human from geo-politically constituted notions of citizen/non-citizen. In this task we would sublate the territorially defined eutopia (the good place) into outopos a borderless non-place opening the potentiality of utopian thinking for contemporary realities.

Gavin Kendall and Mike Michael, when writing on “the outside” in the thinking of Foucault (among other theorists) explain, “we take it as a presupposition that this outside that impinges in order to instigate shattered thinking is an outside that is semiotically fecund: it is a (non)place of fluxes and shifts”. Foucault himself explains the unthought as follows “the whole of modern thought is imbued with the necessity of thinking the Unthought – of reflecting the contents of the In-itself in the form of the For-itself.[13]It is worth noting that the outside proposed here is not an outside of capitalism, which as Santiago López Petit explains no longer exists, but an outside of known reality that acts as a destabilizing challenge to the “order of things”. If utopia is anything more than a literary amusement it is in its possibilities of “becoming”, the not-yet of the unthought that might offer ways for social actors to act “for themselves”.

In my contribution to Utopia Pulse, Flares in the Darkroom I tried to unthink utopia by using borderlessness as a method, an attempt admittedly caught in the contemporary realities of racism, border politics and refugee struggles. Salon Fluchthilfe draws its name from the German word fluchthilfe a positive term used to describe those who help others cross borders to escape persecution (which in English has only derogatory translations, such as people smugglers or human traffickers).Salon Fluchthilfe included the work of Barat Ali Batoor, The Silent University, Undrawing the Line, Katarzyna Izabela Winiecka, Mindj Panther, Pilar Mata Dupont, Escape from Woomera, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson and Mariam Ghani with a discussion forum organised by Marina Gržinić and Marissa Lôbo from Maiz (Self-organization – Participation – Autonomy – Resistance – Transformation – Utopia)an independent organization by and for migrant women.

For me,“unthinking” borders began in the drawing workshops run by the Refugee Art Project in Villawood Detention Centre and with those in community detention in Sydney. Through these workshops the collective Undrawing the Line was formed (by Murtaza, Safdar Ahmed, Mona and myself) to imagine new possibilities beyond the “shattered thinking” of borders. Using borderlessness as method we began working on an oversized drawing of the WaqWaq Tree with a series of birds, such as the Homa bird, in anaglyph 3D. In contrast to the Western tradition of utopia WaqWaq is a non-place from 13th century Islamic maps that denoted the limits of the known world, it sits outside the western tradition of utopia and predates Thomas More’s book by a few hundred years. Evocative of a “post-human” reality the WaqWaq tree grows human fruit that speak of the future.To affect a physical breach of “the binary” viewers needed to wear 3D glasses,which disrupt signals between the left and right eyes, providing glimpses a borderless future animated along the Z axis.

My shattered thinking was further developed by the discussion convened by Marina Gržinić and Marissa Lôbo at the Secession that highlighted the power of self-articulation and action, the specificity and fragility of dialogue and the necessity of continuous deconstruction of whiteness without reconstituting discourses that allow it to re-fall in love with itself.[14]In her recent book Gržinić quoted Achille Mbembe on the aftermath of apartheid, a call to arms that for me speaks to the issue of decolonisation more broadly. He argues that we must keep documenting “the gaping scars, demolished homes, broken lives; the skeletons, the debris and the rubble; the ruins and the fading memories of that there once was … but it also demands that we pay attention to the Black people’s capacity for self-making, self-reference and self-expression and to alternative versions of whiteness that are not primarily constituted around property and privilege, but around an ethics of mutuality and human solidarity. Looking forward-the politics of possibility, a future-orientated politics-implies a mediation about how to illuminate anew the experience of being human, of human life.”[15]

Unsurprisingly for a drawing produced through experiences of detention In The Shade of the WaqWaq Tree ended up full of birds. The proud Homa bird is joined by a parliament of other flying nomads and migrants, much like the multitude that populates Faridud-Din Attar famous poem The Conference of the Birds. The birds in Attar’s poem lack a divine leader, so they set off on a quest to find the legendary Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird roughly equivalent to the western phoenix. The birds, each of whom represent a human fault that prevents the attainment of enlightenment, embark on an arduous journey before finally reach the dwelling place of the Simorgh where they find a lake in which they see their own reflection “Though you have struggled, wandered, travelled far/It is yourselves you see and what you are.’[16]We will only know who we are and what we are capable of by seeing the entire assemblage of those who stand at the edge of the mirror and look into its reflection.

[1]Marina Gržinić and Šefik Tatlić, Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life, Lexington Books, 2014, kindle edition, http://www.amazon.com

[2]Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, “Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor”, Transversal, accessed November 13, 2014, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0608/mezzadraneilson/en

[3]ShahramKhosravi, “Is a World without Borders Utopian?” in The Silent University,TenstaKonsthall, 2013.

[4] Marina Gržinić and ŠefikTatlić, Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life, Lexington Books, 2014, kindle edition, http://www.amazon.com

[5]Santiago López Petit, “Public Space or Spaces of Anonymity”, Barcelona Metropolis Archive, accessed November 13,2014, http://w2.bcn.cat/bcnmetropolis/arxiu/en/page6ad2.html?id=23&ui=416

[6]Marina Gržinić and Šefik Tatlić, Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life, Lexington Books, 2014, kindle edition, http://www.amazon.com


[7]Ibid Gržinić 2014

[8] Ben Doherty, ‘Scott Morrison Ignored Departmental Advice on Visas for Boat Arrivals’, the Guardian, accessed November 13 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/oct/27/scott-morrison-ignored-department-advice-on-visas-for-boat-arrivals?CMP=share_btn_fb

[9] Angela Mitropoulos, ‘The Barbed End of Human Rights’, borderlands ejournal, Volume 2, Number 1, 2003, accessed November 13, 2014,


[10]H. Arendt,. The Origins of Totalitarianism,  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979 p299.

[11]Ghassan Hage, “On Worrying: the lost art of the well-administered national cuddle”, borderlands e-journal, Volume 2, Number 1, 2003, accessed November 13,2014, http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol2no1_2003/hage_worrying.html

[12] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, “Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor”, Transversal, accessed November 13, 2014,

[13] M. Foucault, The Order of Things, Routledge Classics, 2002: London/New York, p356

[14]Marina Gržinić and Šefik Tatlić, Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life, Lexington Books, 2014, kindle edition, http://www.amazon.com


[15]ibid, Gržinić, 2014

[16]Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Iranian Lectures, “At the sign of the Simorgh: Mythical Birds and the Mystical Discourse in Persian Poetry”, Foundation for Iranian Studies, accessed November 13, 2014, http://fis-iran.org/en/programs/noruzlectures/simorgh-hakkak