These notes represent a summary of Etienne Balibar´s paper on ‘Europe as Borderland’.[1] Rather critical of common uses of the concept, I build my interpretation of ‘borderland’ on Balibar. Bringing it in together with contemporary concepts in spatial- and particularly urban studies, I think it is a fascinating framework to understand contemporary socio-spatial situations. ‘Borderland’, in my view, is not only a fruitful way of conceptualising current spatial configurations but also a tool for their investigation. Furthermore, I would argue, it offers alternative indights for political engagement towards more just and inclusive urban and other spaces. I find borderland especially useful for the analysis of a complex region such as the Eastern Mediterranean, even though, or maybe because, Balibar originally addresses the situation in Europe.


Summary “Europe as Borderland” (Etienne Balibar 2009)


According to Balibar, Borders are central to the relationship between citizenship and political association in political space, i.e. the nation-state. But they are also essential in deconstructing citizenship and territorially reconstructing it as collective identity. This is to be seen under the wider context of political space as “spatial representations” underlining any concept of power.[2] According to Balibar, political space becomes public space through its civil use. This transformation happens when political space “is not only `mapped’ by sovereign powers […], or imposed by economic forces […] but also `used’ and `instituted’ […] by civic practices, debates, forms of representations, and social conflicts […]”.[3] However, according to Balibar, there must be political space first to allow the emergence of public space, and political space in turn requires a “unified and isolated”[4] territory of power. Territory, again, requires borders to categorise, measure, and calculate land,[5] turning it into units of power in the form of nation-states. Progressive thinking challenges this one-sided view on territory and speaks of an interaction between territorialisation and deterritorialisation.[6] While the definition of cultural features in order to create a collective identity supports territorialisation, other identities are voluntarily or violently eliminated, and thereby deterritorialised. This can cause resistance to territorialisation, and individuals or groups remain “outside the normative `political space’, in the land of (political) nowhere which can also become a counterpolitical or an antipolitical space […]”.[7]

Traditionally there is interplay between sovereignty over a territory and the population that lives within the borders of this territory: the state belongs to the people and the people belong to the state. The aforementioned outsiders, nomads or strangers pose a threat to this structure, as well as new forms of supranational entities and a dwindling in the function of national borders. The clear structure regulating territory, sovereignty and population is replaced by a “mobile equilibrium”, blending internal and external influences upon the state. `Global borders´ such as the Iron Curtain, or the more recent North-South divide, represent a complex and uncertain political world order that reaches far into the local. In his paper, Balibar introduces four conflicting patterns that conceptualise this “mobile equilibrium”: the clash of civilisation pattern, the global network pattern, the centre-periphery pattern and the crossover pattern, which actually represents the “borderland”.

Four Models of Political Space

In the clash-of-civilisation model, Balibar of course refers to Huntington´s infamous book,[8] which, so Balibar, derives its ideas from Carl Schmitt´s “Großraumetheorie”.[9] Within the global network pattern, Balibar claims that territorialisation is seen as only a temporal condition of an otherwise dominating trend of deterritorialisation. Global networks, however, can be conceptualised along two different ways, a dominant and a revolutionary realisation of the global network. Deriving from the work of Fernand Braudel[10] and Immanuel Wallerstein,[11] the idea of an opposition between the centre and the periphery describes the capitalist world system, originating in the 16th century capitalist expansion.[12] The fourth pattern is a space of crossover; Balibar´s borderland.

Introducing the crossover model, Balibar sees Europe as an overlap of spaces, intersecting over its projected territory. This picture, so Balibar, criticises the notion of pureness in cultural identity, and resonates postcolonial writing as well as the work of geographers and political theorists who examine the prospects of `border zones´ of the new European space. It is about coexistence and a mixing of languages, religions, and cultures “with origins and connections all over the world”.[13] With regard to the term “Mitteleuropa” (Central Europe), Balibar, referring to Edward Said, claims that this is no longer a centre and a periphery, but “a series of assembled peripheries”[14] instead. These overlapping peripheries are open to influences from elsewhere through various processes, be they European or global. Underlining the double meaning of this openness or indeterminacy, he emphasises its potential for both conflict and innovation. Rather than a space of pure identity, Europe has been a space of `constructed identities´ composed by heterogeneous populations and cultures. In a note on the political consequence of this, Balibar states that “[e]urope’s heterogeneity can be politically mediated, but cannot be eliminated. In this sense, only a `federal’ vision of Europe, preserving its cultural differences and solidarities, can provide a viable historical project for the `supranational’ public sphere […]”.[15]

In each of the four models, so Balibar, a different approach towards the concept of border is depicted. Referring to his own text on Europe and borders from 2002,[16] he highlights the duality of borders, as separating units and as partitioning a whole. He sees `border regimes´ as decisive for the future, as they regulate the crossovers from local to global and vice versa.

Territorialisation vs. Deterritorialisation

In the second part of the paper, Balibar discusses the dialectic between territorialisation and deterritorialisation. He argues that the four models he introduced can be seen as different political approaches towards the blurring of internal and external spaces. He is referring to Habermas´ notion of `Weltinnenpolitik´ (global domestic politics)[17] and claims that even domestic problems are today a matter of `Aussenpolitik´ (foreign politics). He chose `security policies´ and `cultural difference´ to further elaborate on European identity. Balibar identifies two extreme poles in this regard. On the one hand there is a process of exclusion, the quasi military enforcement of `security borders´. On the other hand there is a civil process of `elaboration of differences´, a rather hopeless perplexity concerning the self-understanding of Europe´s identity and community. However, this desperation could be an instrument to neutralise cultural wars, a way out of interpretation and assimilation, giving a multicultural Europe an active, progressive content. It could rethink the notion of cultural identity, seeing difference as a challenge, but also as a valuable asset.

On security issues, Balibar refers to Sandro Mazzadra, who compares the policy against illegal migration into Europe with war and consequently speaks about `border war´.[18] In a schizophrenic way, immigration is desired and rejected at the same time, creating a situation of double fear. Although needed as `capitalist reserve army´, insecurity is imposed on the migrants by keeping them in a condition of illegality and thereby outside the social struggles in the host states. On the other hand, apparent insecurity is used to manipulate the native population, thereby controlling it, and also prevent them from actively making use of civil rights. Balibar shows however that it is difficult to keep such a tense security status under control. He continues with the notion of two different characteristics of borders and the `spatial political´ configuration. First there is a process of dislocation. Borders are on the one hand dispersed across a territory; on the other hand, outsourced beyond the actual territory, showing a lack of ability to deal with related issues internally. Second, there is a change in the relationship between the concept of the border and the concept of strangers or foreigners, producing “the stranger/foreigner as a social type”.[19] Within this `mobile equilibrium´ Europe, there is no easy answer to questions of citizenship. No clear distinction between foreigners and a native population can be made. Moreover, as stated above, it is the borders which determine the status of strangers or foreigners and not the other way around.


In this context, Balibar introduces the concept of translation. He claims that in the 20th and 21st centuries different languages have come to predominantly mark collective identity, although an absolute congruence between a language and a territory was never given in Europe. Therefore, so Balibar, translation was necessary to deal with the heterogeneous situation, even if there were issues resulting in the ban of certain idioms or the domination of powerful languages. In terms of translation, Balibar cites Zygmunt Baumann, who speaks about translation as “the texture of everyday life […] a necessary aspect of being-in-the-world”.[20] Although discrepancies in translation might be problematic for professionals, in everyday life, we have learned to understand each other. There lies a universal potential in this practise of communication without speaking the same language. It does not only support our knowledge about what to do with the other in certain situations, but also enables us to develop an understanding for someone who acts differently. In this sense, Balibar connects the practise of translation to the creation of a democratic public space. Ideas must circulate in public space, why translation is essential. He quotes Umberto Eco, who sees “[t]ranslation as te common language of Europe”.[21] I therefore see `translation´ as the linguistic equivalent to the spatial conception of borderland, since it equally represents the `in between´ as the actual substance, while the `centre´ is empty.

Taking us back to territorialisation and deterritorialisation, Balibar relates the discrepancy between mutual understanding and conflict to the concept of translation by arguing that languages are essentially untranslatable. In the endeavour to reach mutual understanding, translation is the activity that constantly seeks to construct common grounds. In a space of crossover there are no dualities and we have to overcome this notion by accepting that culture generates identity through narratives and discourses in which translation plays a decisive role. It is not about culturally fixed entities and not about an underlying natural human ideal. Some cultures dominate, some are dominated and this equilibrium is shaped and reshaped through discourse and circulation. This aspect is of particular significance regarding religious alignments. Religions are not based on a nature of humanity but historically developed through a permanent process of translation. Balibar highlights the importance of history, because it can be used to draw borders around a narrative and assimilate others, or it can be used to engage in transformation processes via discourse.


In his concluding marks, Balibar reminds us of the necessity of Europe to constitute a political space. With political space today framed in a context of `globlisation´, his concept of `borderland´ is meant to represent an alternative to other, dominant models. Borderland, for Balibar is “a political space [conceptualised] in terms of overlapping open regions.”[22] Contradictions arise because no clear boundaries can be drawn between `inside´ and `outside´ any more. `Borderland’ is the name of the place where the opposites flow into one another, where `strangers’ can be at the same time stigmatized and indiscernible from `ourselves’, where the notion of citizenship, involving at the same time community and universality, once again confronts its intrinsic antinomies.”[23] With regard to citizenship, Balibar favours a transnational over a postnational approach. He outlines the history of citizenship as one dominated by a `community of citizens´ in ancient times, and as a national matter embedded in states later on. What is at stake now, is a new model of citizenship, one that is transnational and plays its role in the democratisation of life. Returning to spatial implications, Balibar raises two questions about the territory of these new citizens. Firstly, how would a federal European model, neither based on the reproduction of the national, nor on a cosmopolitical citizenship look like? Secondly, are new transnational citizens ready to win over `old citizens´ to collectively challenge existing patterns and give new meaning to the concept? Again linking citizenship to space and his idea of borderland, Balibar wants to highlight the possibilities for common citizens to occupy the `strategic place’ located at the (multiple) junctions of the national and the global space; not the place of absolute sovereignty but the place of mediation, not the place of border enforcement, but of border crossing.“[24] Ending on a rather negative note, Balibar accuses the ruling elites of controlling the debates around the constitution of Europe, persistent on isolation and difference. They are supported by passive people who also reject a more open political conception. Paradoxically though, today’s challenges are identical and require common action and policies across state-borders because external forces do not remain `outside´ any longer.


My argument is that much of what Balibars says about Europe is also of relevance for the rest of the world. When reading his text, I more than once thought that `Europe´ could easily be replaced by `Levant´ without losing any of its validity. Balibar, I would say, places a concept at disposal that helps us to both make sense of socio-spatial situations as well as to think about alternatives for positive development. I think that within the wider discourse on territoriality versus deterritoriality, or fixed versus fluid notions of space in a variety of fields, his conception of borders in relation to space is particularly inspiring.

[1] Balibar, E 2009, Europe as borderland, in: Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 27(2): 190-215.

[2] Compare Lefebvre, who claims that „spatial representations [as] tied to relations of production and the `order´ which those relations impose”, also seen as conceptualised space, as discussed by planners, architects and scientists. (p 33)

Lefebvre, H 1991, The Production of Space, English translation: Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell

[3] Balibar 2009, p 191

[4] ibid

[5] Compare Elden´s discourse on territory as measurable and calculabe space:

Elden, S 2010, Land, terrain, territory, in: Progress in Human Geography 34(6): 799-817

[6] See among others: Deleuze, G, Guattari, F 2004, A Thousand Plateaus, London: Continuum

[7] Balibar 2009, p 192; Also compare Foucault´s „heterotopias“ –

Foucault, M 1986, Of Other Spaces, in: Diacritics-a Review of Contemporary Criticism 16(1): 22-27

[8] Huntington, S P 2002, The Clash of Civilisations, London: Simon and Schuster

[9] See among others:

Legg, S 2011, Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos, Abingdon: Routledge

Meyer, R, Schetter, C, Prinz, J 2012, Spatial contestation? – The theological foundations of Carl Schmitt’s spatial thought, in: Geoforum 43: 687–696.

Minca, C, VaughanWilliams N 2012, Carl Schmitt and the Concept of the Border, in: Geopolitics 17(4): 756-772

[10] Fernand Braudel´s most interesting piece in terms of the Levant is his work on the Mediterranean Sea and its history in the 16th century. In it, Braudel is drawing a comprehensive picture of the Mediterranean in terms of states, societies, cultures, and a political layer, which exceeds its physical limits.

Braudel, F 1996, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Volume I, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

[11] As a former student of Braudel, Wallerstein is picking up on the idea of the “longue durée“ as a description of history in slow rhythms, in which social, cultural, economic and political structures can stretch over centuries..

Wallerstein, I ed. 2004, The Modern World-System in the Longue Durée, Boulder, CO: Paradigm

[12] Wallerstein, I 1974-89 The ModernWorld-system, three volumes, New York: Academia Press

[13] Balibar 2009, p 200

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] Balibar E 2002, The borders of Europe, in: Politics and the Other Scene, London: Verso, 87-103

[17] Derrida, J, Habermas, J 2003, Unsere Erneuerung – Nach dem Krieg: Die Wiedergeburt Europas, Frankfurt: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

[18] Mezzadra S, Dal Lago A 2002, I confini impensati dell’ Europa, in: Europa politica: Ragioni di una necessitá, Eds H Friese, A Negri, P Wagner, Roma: Manifestolibri, 143-157

[19] Balibar 2009, p 204

[20] Balibar 2009, p 205

[21] Balibar 2009, p 206

[22] Balibar 2009, p 210

[23] ibid

[24] Balibar 2009, p 213

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s