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The Materiality of Borders: Avoiding the Twin Pitfalls of Empiricism and Theoreticism

Jed Horner

PhD candidate, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales

Borders, and practices of what Van Houtum et al. (2005) term ‘b/ordering’, whereby borders are seemingly rendered meaningful and concrete, remain a focus of political discourse(s) in Australia and are increasingly an object of analysis. In this paper, I respond to the burgeoning interest in exploring the materiality of borders, using Etienne Balibar’s assertion that ‘each border has its own history’ as a point of entry. I argue that charting a genealogy of this history necessarily entails adopting a theoretical and methodological framework capable of showing how it emerged, what logics have underpinned its operation and how particular technologies, understood as relational systems of meaning rather than merely material objects, are articulated for this purpose over time. Drawing on my ongoing research, I offer a theoretically and empirically informed account of borders as ‘frontiers’, neither purely material, nor purely ideological. I posit, with reference to the Australian border, that Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) notion of ‘discourse’, which dissolves the seeming ‘discursive/non-discursive’ divide is particularly productive here, lending itself to detailed archival research of the type required to illuminate the porosity, but also seeming fixity or decisiveness, of borders and how they materialise during specific spatio-temporal moments.


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