To Tackle Spaces: Looking For Analytical Tools

*Draft paper. Do not cite without the permission of the author.
by Marie-Claude Haince, York University

As someone who has been investigating the sidelining of “unwanted” immigrants in detention centers, theSpaces of Resistance seminar was for me a great opportunity to reflect on the architecture of exclusion in so-called “Western democratic societies.” Moreover, my intention in attending such a seminar was to discover new or different analytical tools to capture the space I’m investigating. Throughout the readings proposed, some concepts caught my attention. In this paper, I would like to discuss the notion of “topologies of power,” in relation to concepts such as “assemblages” and “apparatus.” It seems to be a relevant piste, an interesting way of apprehending the space, while keeping in mind the question of power, its architecture and its “making of.”

On Topologies and Assemblages

In his article, “Topological Twists: Power’s Shifting Geographies,” John Allen (2011) proposes a new way to understand power at work and develops a vocabulary in this respect. While exposing the limits of territorial and networked approaches, Allen advocates for a “topological sensibility” (2011:284) which is able to disclose the spatiality of power. This idea of topology has the merit of challenging some conceptions of space as fixed and achieved. It exposes and captures the diffuse characteristics of power.

The approach proposed by Allen focuses on “spatial relationships,” “the mediated exercises of power.” As he argues, “a topological appreciation of the workings of power, in that sense, is not so much about which actors have become more or less dispersed, more or less networked, as it is about how they make their leverage and presence felt through certain practices of proximity and reach” (2011:290). In other words, Allen, with a topological understanding of power, attaches great importance to paying attention to the “how” of power. How power is exercised, how the actors evolve in this framework, how power relationships are at play, and so on. In other words, he focuses on the “practised nature of power” (2011:291). In sum, the topology of power is the arrangement which enables the deployment of power.

But how does this conception of topology differ from the notion of assemblage put forward by numerous scholars (Ong and Collier, Rabinow, Sassen, to name a few)?

Building on Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower, anthropologist Paul Rabinow developed, in the 1990s and most notably in Anthropos Today, this idea of a post-disciplinary rationality, namely “assemblage.” For Rabinow, assemblages are local re-compositions or re-arrangements of the triptych “life-language-work,” which have potentially global effects. An approach in terms of assemblages implies three levels of analysis: 1) the problematization (around an event); 2) the assemblage (i.e. the forces moving around the event); 3) the device (i.e. the crystallization of these forces in a lasting apparatus). The assemblage would be the tangible result of a contemporary anthropological problem; i.e. “an apparatus composed of a grouping of heterogeneous elements […] deployed for specific purposes at a particular historical conjuncture” (Rabinow and Rose, The Essential Foucault: Selections from the Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984. New York: New Press, 2003:10). The task then, for anthropologists and social scientists, is to show how and in what ways this works.

Aihwa Ong and Stephen Collier follow the avenue proposed by Rabinow. They offer some “research trajectories” to grasp phenomena associated with globalization. They focus on the “structural transformation or new configurations” induced by global phenomena. In their view, “‘global assemblages’ are sites for the formation and reformulation of […] anthropological problems. They are domains in which the forms and values of individual and collective existence are problematized or at stake […]” (Ong and Collier, eds.,Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Wiley, 2005:4). Simply put, they propose a distinctive approach to contemporary anthropological problems. New subjectivities, new forms of work, these are the objects of their investigation. They “consider the forms of individual and collective life as they are reflected upon and valued, constituted and reconstituted, through reflexive practices” (p. 7). By doing so, they endeavour to shed light on a specific conjuncture. One of the main aims of the study of assemblages “is to gain analytical and critical insight into global forms by examining how actors reflect upon them or call them into question” (p. 14). This kind of approach has the merit of staying close to practices. Indeed, by dissecting the significance of practices, it is possible to seize a specific anthropological problem.

Nevertheless, a question remains for the anthropologist used to work and play with the Foucaldian notion of apparatus: In what ways is this notion of assemblage dissimilar?

An Anthropology of Apparatuses

Spaces such as the Immigration Detention Centers, so often seen as operating outside of the state (as spaces of exception), are actually integral parts of the state; they operate from within. They are the margins of the state and they can be defined as spaces, practices, strategies and mechanisms through which the uncertainty of the law takes shape and where arbitrariness is deployed to make law certain, as Veena Das and Deborah Poole point out. In other words, they are the “grey zones” where exclusion takes place and shapes subjectivities. It is within these grey zones that biopolitics operates.

My current research, titled Contemporary Heterotopias: Institutional and Political Apparatuses of “Alien” Sidelining in Canada, explores the institutional regulation of the “unwanted” and the role played by institutions and by “intermediate actors” (private security agencies, NGOs, etc.) when they have to manage bodies, individuals, and populations who are considered “unwanted.” To do so, I take a specific site or space of investigation, namely the Canada Immigration Prevention Center of Laval, while aspiring to give an empirical intelligibility to these processes of sidelining.

The space – as an architectural frame, as a set of practices, as an ethos, as an apparatus, etc. – is at the heart of my examination. Furthermore, theoretically this research is notably framed by an anthropological inquiry into the moving borders of exclusion. This perspective is necessary to apprehend those apparatuses of exclusion that are emerging in contemporary societies such as Canada. Developing such a theoretical framework requires linking a more classical examination of these kinds of spaces (namely the Canada Immigration Prevention Center of Laval) such as that fuelled by Goffman’s well know work to a new conceptualization of those spaces, such as a “space of non-existence” (Susan Coutin, “Illegality, Borderlands, and the Space of Nonexistence,” in Globalization under Construction. Governmentality, Law, and Identity. Richard Warren Perry, and Bill Maurer, eds., pp. 177-202. University of Minnesota Press, 2003) “hors-lieux” (Michel Agier, Aux bords du monde, les réfugiés. Flammarion, 2002), or even “non-places” (Marc Augé, Non-Lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité. Seuil, 1992), which will allow us to challenge accepted definitions of space and open new ways of thinking about borderscapes, borders, and exclusion. This framework allows me to go beyond liminality and to think more broadly about those heterotopias  – other spaces – that have emerged contemporaneously. In sum, such a “dissection” allows me to interrogate the relations between these apparatuses and the way mechanisms of exclusion take shape in contemporary societies.

Grasping the “power at work” is the main concern of the ethnography of institutions I’m carrying out. This implies paying attention to routines, internal culture, codes, production of authority and their effects. Looking at sidelining institutions from the “bottom-up perspective” of ethnographic fieldwork implies going beyond the structural relationships between institutions, ideologies and political policies. It requires a closer look at the actors who are at the center of these processes of exclusion, meaning the administrative agents and intermediate actors in those institutions. Examining, on the ground level, how these protagonists (re)appropriate procedures and their effects is also a prerequisite for this kind of approach which focuses on the “power at work.”

In order to understand these spaces theoretically and empirically, I have adopted an approach that I elsewhere have called an anthropology of apparatuses (Marie-Claude Haince, “Upstream’ Borders: An Ethnographic Approach to Control and Management of Immigration in Canada.” Electronic Document, 2011, Apparatus, a key concept in contemporary thought elaborated by Michel Foucault has to be considered as: a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. (Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books. 1980:194-228)

Empirically, the approach I propose focuses on the daily functioning, practices, and strategies that take form within and shape these apparatuses, specifically those that concern immigration and the various elements that are at the heart of the apparatus, such as Canadian and Quebecois immigration institutions, laws, legislative and regulatory documents, policies, discourses, procedures, etc. In other words, my approach favours a micro and non-institutional perspective, which is based on daily functioning and which seeks to reveal what is at stake in the apparatus, notably the production of categories, classifications, subjectivities and borders, etc. that are central to the management of immigration and which shape and control the immigrant’s conditions of existence. With the idea of biopolitics as a modality of the exercise of power, and acting as an analytical nucleus, such an approach opens up several possibilities.

It is important to note that the apparatus shapes the categorizations that assign to each a place in society. By extension, it allows for the fabrication of an individual typology and, in that case, an immigrant typology. Moreover, as Foucault has argued, the apparatus allows one to grasp how global strategies of power are embedded in micro-relations of power (Foucault 1980:199). Analyzing these micro-relations of power provides an opportunity to question the mechanisms of power, in other words, to show how power works and operates on a daily basis through relations giving form to exclusion concretely.

Conceptually, Immigration Prevention Centers are for me apparatuses. The place or space itself, the concrete materialized architecture of exclusion, is only a component of a larger set of relations that are at play.

Still Looking for Analytical Tools

To conclude, the set of notions examined here are interesting tools for developing a method of investigation, for conceptualizing the space examined. Hence, they are relevant methodological tools rather than analytic ones. That is to say, I still have to push further my quest for analytical tools.

Photo: No Walls Street. Credit: Mosa’aberising on Flickr.