Where are they now: RuiNation and Bordering Practices

Jan 23, 2023 | Fellows, Transformations (Issue 8), Where are they now?

RuiNation and Bordering Practices

In October 2022, I joined the IAS Politics of Credibility Project as an International Fellow to explore the theoretical and methodological regimes of legitimacy and evidence that underpin asylum determination regimes in the UK and Europe (Greece, Cyprus and Germany). Having worked for decades on the role of borders, I was looking forward to exploring knowledge, evidence, interpretations which determined our understanding of credibility procedures.

The first thing I discovered in Durham however was a mass grave. On the second day in my office in University College at Durham University, I realized that under the prestigious library located between my office and the Cathedral there was and perhaps, somehow, still is a mass grave from the mid seventeenth century.

Elegantly restored the world heritages of the Cathedral and the Castle attract the attention of any visitor to the city. Documents of victory, wealth, greatness. Between them there is the Palace Green Library, home to ’treasures spanning millennia and the globe’. Alongside colonial documents, medieval manuscripts and unique archives, the library hosts original works by significant European philosophers such as Thomas More and Francis Bacon. During a month I was at Durham University, I was so preoccupied with the mass grave that I did not visit any of these world heritages.

Image courtesy of Nayanika Mookherjee

Around the 1640s several thousand Scottish young men were taken to Durham as war prisoners. The iconic Cathedral was used as a concentration camp. Those who did not die of hunger or cold were deported to North America as free labor force on plantations. The dead bodies were buried collectively not far from the Cathedral, where the library stands today. There is no sign of the grave. No names.  Except a plaque in the Cathedral which you can easily miss and if not pointed out, one can simply walk over what is a mass grave (See right).

Why did a mass grave, and not ‘cultural heritages’, haunt me so much and take all my attention? I asked myself. Perhaps the invizibalised mass grave reveals better than any other document the brutal history of what I study, borders. The mass grave is part of a long history of expulsion that stretches across space and its time expands. The mass grave helps me to understand the current bordering practices, such as the ‘hostile environment’ policy or Windrush scandal. The mass grave is the ruin of the existing nation-state. A debris of ruination. As the anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler in her book Imperial Debris writes, ruins are sites that condense alternative senses of history.

Walter Benjamin saw the luxury arcades of Paris the ruins of modernity. Ruins does not refer to buildings that are abandoned or have lost their function (as the definition of ruins tells us). Rather ruin is an ongoing process. For Stoler, ruination is both an act of ruining, a condition of being ruined, and a cause of it.

The Paris Benjamin wrote about was praised to be the capital of nineteenth century. A modernized city according to the Baron Haussmann famous urban planning. Modernization of Paris meant reconstruction of the city so any revolution could be avoided easily. Broad boulevards and large squares replaced narrow alleys and old quarters. Spatial potentialities for mobilization and political movements were demolished.

Modernization of Paris was starting of the decay of Paris as a city. The modern city might be a well-functioning infrastructure but not necessarily a city.

A city is defined by its people’s civility not anything else. A city’s temporality is structured by ‘Kairos’, i.e. critical moments when things can happen and openings for political actions, interaction, friendship, love, togetherness may ensue. Temporality of infrastructure is formed by ‘chronos, the measured, capitalist mechanical chronological time, that leaves no space for spontaneity, free and natural interaction between citizens.  Not surprisingly that when people revolted in Paris in the 1830s, they fired at the clocks. The anti-clock revolutionary action was symbolically a protest against the capitalist temporality, time as a device of control and domination.

Parisian arcades demonstrating commodification of city life and how the city was reduced to space for consumption. A depolitized and dehistorized city. In other words, a ruin.

Hundred years after Benjamin’s work, we are surrounded by ruins and ruinations. The new millennium started with dystopian scenarios. Images and imaginaries of various forms of collapse are all over around us; irreversible environmental catastrophes, omnipresent threat of another world war, food and energy insecurities, and decay of infrastructures and cities. The term ruination is related to other terms such as precarity, vulnerability, dispossession, and decay. Not surprisingly, in the past decades ruins and ruination have been recurrent themes in social sciences, humanities and art. Ruination is an intellectual and political engagement with the present.

Perhaps the contemporary conceptualization of cities in term of ruination, can be best seen in Doha and Dubai. The icons of constructions based on destructions. Rather infrastructures than cities, Dubai and Doha have been materialized through decay of migrant workers’ bodies. So-called progress or as it is also called development for some people is possible through premature decay of the life of other people.

Civilization and ruination are dialectically interrelated. Colonialism was fashioned through destruction of indigenous knowledge and practices about how to maintain life. Ruination of environment, of economies, of life chances. of bodies, of relationships, of future imaginaries. During 20 years of US occupation, Afghan people were exposed to a brutal violence, while at the same time received humanitarian assistances. The same state that dropped bombs on them, fell food too. The airplanes in the sky were at once both devices of ruination and of repair.

Ruination is a kind of biopolitics. Whose life is protected against decay? Whose life is exposed to premature decay? Whose body is cared and its decay is delayed? And whose body is abandoned to accelerated decay?

The Scottish young men in Durham were also exposed to similar kind of bordering practice, detained, deported, and exposed to death. Bordering practices ruin. They ruin not only lives but also imagination and imaginaries. Borders are ruins of the current model of how humanity is organized. Bounded and divided. If the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall are ruins of empires, today’s border walls are ruins of the nation-state system because they are testimonies of a failed system.

Ruination is both spatial and temporal practice. It is spatial in terms of its destruction of habitations that result in displacement and forced migration. It is also temporal. Borders are not ruins of a past. They are ruins of the future because they deprive us the chance to imagine a future otherwise. A future in which human beings are neither bounded nor divided.

The thoughts for this submission were further developed in the workshop I participated in and the public lecture I gave as part of the IAS project on the Politics of Credibility.

I hope to be back in the IAS at Durham University again.

Professor Shahram Khosravi, Stockholm University


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