Sassen: Identifying New Borders

Saskia Sassen’s research deals with the existence and formation of borders and of cities as frontier zones. Sassen argues that contemporary globalization is defined by the weakening of the conventional  nation state; interstate borders are becoming less important. While they have been given importance in the past, it is changing as a result of how and what kinds of flows these borders regulate. There are now many new types of borders being formed.

Bordering Capabilities

Sassen notes that the sharpest changes are not interstate but internal borders which emerge as part of ‘new geographies of centrality’. There are now many activities within a nation-state or even a city which go beyond the territory and land. China for instance is buying land in Zambia to grow palm for bio-fuels. Finance has crossed borders and there are now new bordered spaces, as a result of transnational networks. There are new bordered terrains within countries, within cities.

Analytic Tactics

How do we perform research and analysis of such borders?

1. Destabilize Categories (ex: think of borders are bordering capabilities)
2. Recover how something is made (ex: examine historical, political factors and the different parts.

Q: What do powerful categories like borders actually keep us from seeing?

While national borders have become weaker with globalization, there are new borders that are tightening, within the nation state. And beyond state actors. So, what characterizes now? The weakening of borders or the strengthening of new borders? What about invisible borders like the growing inequality within cities, and the juxtaposed experience of quality of life?

By looking at what she describes as the ‘systemic edge’ we can examine whether and how borders are inclusive or exclusive. For instance, the last 20 years we have seen the US’s immigration policy as defined by expulsion while also bringing people in. The proliferation of internal borderings and geographies of centrality and privilege are spreading. Rich or elites people between cities have more in common than they do with other people within the city or country (the 1%). This is the transnational nature of the geography of privilege.

Urbanization is both the process of actively making surplus populations and the process of expulsion (ex: land grabbing). Financial firms are now buying up a lot of the world’s land to control its resources. Ultimately, there is this shift in commodification of land which is moving from the national down to the urban. We need new categories to understand and explain urban borders.

The sub-prime Housing market in the USA excludes most people. And interestingly, the majority of land buyers in Russia are from the CIS while in Hong Kong are from mainland china. There are examples of the new geographies of centrality.

Borders have an unstable and changing meaning. There are new, transversal borders which we should question, like citizenship (what does it mean in this area of migration and surveillance?) The border can be a construction, location, governing regime, site of enforcement. But it can also be territorial, institutional and imaginary.

We could define the border by what kinds of flows it regulates, and where / how (the regime). Cross border flows include capital but geographic boundaries are now just one point in the chain of flows. there can be longer chains inside a country which regulate and control – the airport for instance, is a border but before that you may encounter pre-border inspections.

Formal and Informal Borders?

Immigrants
This is a curious case in which the person is both the carrier and the site of enforcement. He/she can become the border depending on their status (undocumented, illegal, visa status). These types of new bordering capabilities are increasingly restrictive. The WTO for instance has impenetrable borders.

Streets
The street is an in determinant space, which could be a border or a zone of empowerment. It is a critical space in which powerless people can do something without formal instruments.

In Russia, there are many borders which restrict. The fences found across the former Soviet union territory is one example. The many construction barriers, such as for instance around the former hotel Rossiya, which pretend to blend in and not be visible; or the many former hotels which housed immigrant populations from Afghanistan or Vietnam during the Cold War. How have these been developing on the bases of exclusion? Institutions within the city are now privatizing the spaces around themselves (even exclusive institutions like Skolkovo, Strelka) acting as more gated and restricted spaces.

Network City
The city is a complex and incomplete system. In this era, we must examine: Who has the capacity to make borders? Should states prevent the formation of borders? How ? Who are the mobile and immobile groups? If they can’t move physically, are they connected virtually? Non-cosmopolitan artists are not global, they are more local, but their work is informed by activities everywhere.

Identify borders and their social impacts will offer important insights into our cities.

Image: Aram Barthall’s center of the city

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