Animating United States-Mexico border studies

Humanism predominates in scholarship on the United States-Mexico border. By humanism, I am referring to a Western political-philosophical tradition that treats the human as an ontological given, the privileged if not the only actor of epistemological consequence. Methodological humanism – the tendency to study sociality as if it were reduced to the actions and relations of humans – restricts who or what counts as a legitimate actor and matter of concern in research; it also limits what may be known about the logics and mechanics of geopower and especially its exclusionary and violent effects.

In this short blog, I call for an animated methodology to address these limitations in the study of contemporary geopolitical arrangements. The goal of animating political ecology is to register the material world in all its lively and inert power. For to treat the material world – animals, plants, soils – as merely the instrument of human endeavors is to position the human subject as dominant, all-knowing master.

Methodological Humanism & Border Research

With few exceptions, existing research on the United States-Mexico border is human-centric. The principal actors of methodological significance in most scholarship are lawmakers, agents of boundary enforcement, political activists, migrants, and land managers responsible for conservation mandates in federally designated protected areas, to give a few examples. Other-than-humans as sentient beings or biophysical assemblages tend to be framed either as backdrop, the theatre of US enforcement measures, or the passive victims of such measures as in conservation-focused literature. Two things follow from privileging the human. For one, the category of the human is taken as an ontological given (as is the nonhuman). And two, society and nature are organized as separate ontological realms but also arranged hierarchically such that nonhuman nature is positioned as inferior. In what follows, I elaborate on the implications of both assumptions.

To center the human as the primary actor of significance is to operationalize a form of methodological humanism while ignoring that the figure of the human is not pre-given or static. Indeed, as feminist, anti-colonial, and anti-racist theorists have long argued, the boundary around who counts as human in modern Western discursive practices is continuously policed in relation to specific geometries of power to demarcate those lives worthy of rights and protections and those who may be abandoned – stripped of political rights – yet subjected to the violent power of the state. Furthermore, to privilege the human is to assume and therefore reproduce a hierarchical relation between humans and nonhumans that sits at the heart of Western philosophy and political institutions. Humanist anthropocentrism demarcates the figure of the human as outside of, separate from, or even master of nonhuman nature. In Race and the Crisis of Humanism, Kay Anderson suggests the human is distinguished in terms of its “nature-altering” or “nature transcending” capacities. The human, Cary Wolfe writes in What is Posthumanism?, “is achieved by escaping or repressing not just its animal origins in nature, the biological, and the evolutionary, but more generally by transcending the bonds of materiality and embodiment altogether.” Globalized through European colonialism, humanist ontologies have been called upon to cast other-than-human sentient beings as background or resource, devoid of their own agency, purposes and meaning and, therefore, as objects available for use by humans.

The prevalence of humanist methodologies and dualist logics in border research settles the question of who counts as human in advance while authorizing the exclusion of nonhumans as legitimate matters of political and ethical concern. Arguably, nonhumans may be of little interest to many researchers working in the borderlands. My point is not that all scholars should study animals or plants, for instance. Rather, I worry about how dualist ontologies limit what may be known about the logics and mechanics of geopolitical arrangements and especially their violent effects. For how violence is interpreted is crucial to strategies for organizing against it.

Animating Border Research

Over the past few years, I have pursued methodological tools that permit alternative points of departure. This pursuit is compelled by my own political commitments in conversation with posthumanist as well as Indigenous thought. In what follows, I engage these bodies of work and highlight how they might enable other, more animated ways of doing political ecology in the US-Mexico borderlands.

Posthumanist thought encompasses different streams. Here, I mobilize two often intersecting currents, which Jamie Lorimer names as deconstructive and vitalist. Deconstructive posthumanism centers on analyzing how a particular figure of the human is constituted. This work attends to the exclusionary discursive practices enacted to demarcate who counts as human while highlighting the violence suffered by those rendered nonhuman. As the late feminist environmental philosopher Val Plumwood demonstrates, the inferior status assigned to other-than-human beings works to naturalize not only speciesism but also sexism, racism, ableism and other exclusionary and oppressive formations. Indeed, at specific moments in particular sites, women, racialized groups, and children have been situated in the same ontological space of nature or other-than-human animals; that is, outside the realm of politically qualified life. Ultimately, the human/nonhuman dualism serves a crucial ontological function, rendering intelligible the endangerment and death of those living beings deemed unworthy of ethical and political consideration.

Vitalist posthumanism is focused on how entities categorized as humans and nonhumans come into being as assemblages of organic materials and processes with distinct properties and shifting capacities. Scholars aligned with this current, such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, and Sarah Whatmore advance methodologies to account for other-than-humans – sentient beings, earth processes, but also objects or things – as actors who matter to political outcomes; actors who object, inflect, and confound human projects; actors whose properties and capacities exceed human comprehension and control. As Karen Barad suggests, when we limit our conceptualizations of power by restricting it to the realm of the ‘social’, we lose sight of the full range of its capacities.

Posthumanist theoretical tools offer distinct points of departure to register geopower in all its materiality. For instance, this work prompts the very question of who counts as a political actor. Kersty Hobson advances an argument for the consideration of animals as lively beings and actors who matter to the un/doing of political processes. Another crucial site of questioning is how and where lines are drawn around the human but also between the human and nonhuman. This is the focus of Vicki Squire’s work, which shows how the very category of the human is composed through struggles over mobility in the US-Mexico borderlands. My own research frames boundary enforcement as a “more-than-human” endeavor and shows how nonhuman actors—animals, plants, and biophysical processes—(re)configure boundary enforcement practices.

And yet, it is important to acknowledge we cannot simply think our way out of methodological humanism. We also need research practices that enable us to cultivate and enact other ways of being in and with the world. Political ecologists are experimenting with research practices to follow actors and study their capacity to affect and act in particular ways at specific sites of action. Latour’s Reassembling the Social offers strategies for tracing how associations between entities, living and inert, knot together to de/stabilize particular socio-political orders. How emergent associations achieve durability in time and space is the subject of empirical analysis, focusing on the relations and practices that bring them into being. As Whatmore suggests, these innovative research practices imply training ourselves to register sensory and bodily information that goes beyond familiar forms of talk and text.

While posthumanist thought has much to offer the project of animating political ecology, it remains intimately tied to modern Western humanism. I am interested in decentering the human so as to decenter Western philosophy as the primary if not the only frame of reference. Many other world societies already possess a sensitivity to other-than-humans as actors along with the explanatory tools to understand how living and inert beings act in concert to bring the world into being. To ignore these other approaches is to reproduce colonial ways of knowing and being. Admittedly, paths to engaging across epistemic worlds are not well defined, though this is not a reason to remain constrained by a post/humanist orbit. Deborah Bird Rose’s work with Aboriginal communities in Australia engages conversations between communities with distinct ontologies and practices but who share concepts like uncertainty and connectivity. Ultimately, shifting away from human exceptionalism and the conceit of mastery are steps to invite collaboration, not only across species divides but also ontological divides to engage in practices of constituting knowledges and worlds otherwise.

Violence, Ethics & Animated Political Ecology

If scholars address other-than-human beings as political actors, as entities who participate in un/making worlds (and often in ways that are beyond human control), then do we not have a responsibility to identify and name the exclusionary violence committed against them? In the case of the US-Mexico border, for instance, US enforcement policies exclude the many other-than-human beings that constitute the southern borderlands – plants, animals, insects, soils – from political and ethical consideration, exposing them to violence and death. From the increased presence of human actors in the borderlands, most notably Border Patrol agents in trucks, Humvees, 4-wheelers or on horseback, to infrastructure like border walls, boundary enforcement operations disregard, enclose, run over, and let other-than-humans die with impunity. If we do not name and contest this violence in our own scholarship, we risk operationalizing the ontology of the state, which treats borderland beings as objects available for human use/abuse in the pursuit of particular geopolitical goals (in the name of a narrowly defined human figure). At stake in the project of animating political ecologies of bordering is where we as scholars stand and with whom we choose to align.


Juanita Sundberg is an Associate Professor in Geography at the University of British Columbia. Also visit her excellent online exhibit Faith, Fencing, and Faith: Landscapes of Migration on the US-Mexico Border



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