Security, spatiality, and social suffering.

Author:Darby, Phillip

This article outlines a schema for developing an alternative knowledge about security, privileging non-European peoples and focusing on the sources and potentiality of insecurity. Urging attention to the everyday and the personal, to the claims of the other, and to forms of social suffering, the analysis foregrounds the part that spatiality can play in reconceptualizing security without making spatiality itself the subject of analysis. KEYWORDS: security, spatiality, social suffering, the everyday, subjectivity


It is symptomatic of our time that universities all over the world are rapidly expanding their international-studies programs to meet demand when established disciplinary formations concerned with the international are unable to offer much in the way of leads about how to break out of the impasse in which we find ourselves; violence in many manifestations, "state failure," and disasters of various kinds challenge Western imagery of a world being set right through the workings of the market, the process of democratization, and the commitment to development.

The gulf between international doctrine and practice on the ground is underscored by the use of the construct of "emergencies" to present recurrent breakdowns as somehow exceptional, rather than endemic to the system. These and other signs of closure in the prevailing narratives of the international speak to the need to reopen the question of the political--a matter that has long been a concern of this journal and that this special issue of Alternatives takes up by addressing the role of spatiality. It should also be said that in the dominant Western tradition, the nub of the question of the political, as it connects the international to the national, is the subject of security. (1)

Everyone would recognize that there are formidable obstacles to attempting to think security differently. If has been asserted, for instance, that the poststructuralist critique of traditional security studies has been largely ignored by practitioners in the field and that it has never had much influence in mainstream international relations. (2) For its part, human security has been criticized for being expansive and vague and therefore of limited utility as a tool of analysis. (3)

It is evident that in the aftermath of 9/11, and to a lesser extent the crisis over asylum seekers and refugees generally, the parameters of acceptable dissent have narrowed substantially. Fear and xenophobia deeply scar public culture in the West. In terms of party politics, there is the apprehension that questioning national-security agendas carries the prospect of being savaged by the electorate. Critics in nongovernmental organizations and academe run the risk of being censured by the state. In the United States, there have been moves by conservative groups to cut funding to international-studies programs that are "biased" against US foreign policy. (4) It has also been reported that professors have been denounced for anti-Americanism and teachers suspended from their positions for criticizing in the classroom US actions overseas. (5) In Australia, a right-wing think tank with the ear of the government has issued a public warning against the danger of political activism on the part of aid agencies. It has recently come to light that the government has vetoed without explanation research proposals, earlier endorsed by panels of experts, that, although not directly concerned with security, ran counter to the government's agenda. (6)

Yet there is another side. Such political excesses provide incentives for fresh thinking and help generate new constituencies working for change. In this way, debate can move forward on different grounds. I want to suggest that the difficulty of rethinking security can no longer--if it ever could--be said to reside in a lack of knowledge. As will be intimated, there are innovative conceptual developments in several discourses, perhaps most significantly in postcolonial studies, and rich insights to be gained from lived experience that are pertinent to recasting the story of security. The problem is that much of this knowledge has not been seen to relate to security in its international context or disciplinary enclosures. The task is, therefore, to extract this knowledge from its various emplacements and bring it to bear on the question at hand.

This article attempts to outline a schema for developing an alternative knowledge structure about security, privileging the experience of non-European peoples and focusing on the sources and potentialities of insecurity. In other words, it reverses established ways of proceeding. After considering the spatial and other limitations of statecentric approaches, a case is made for turning to the everyday, emphasizing the need to be selective and to be attentive to the importance of the personal. The article then turns to consider security, arguing that it can help to bring about recognition of the claims of the other, thereby contributing to the security of all parties concerned. The concluding section examines work on social suffering, which speaks back to some of the themes developed earlier. I go on to suggest that this literature could extend the horizons of thinking about security generally. In places, my treatment of issues is in the nature of hypotheses, perhaps not more than ideas to be pursued. (7) Throughout, I foreground the part that spatiality can play in reconceptualizing security as traditionally conceived, without making spatiality itself the subject of analysis.

It has long been a commonplace to observe that security is tied to the state. What is less commonly acknowledged is that the linkage is of fundamental import. As Michael Dillon puts it, security became the predicate upon which "the vernacular architecture of modern political power, exemplified in the State, was based." (8) It was the successor to the idea of salvation in the Christian church: no salvation outside the church. For Dillon, this transposes into "the defining maxim of modern politics: no security outside the State; no State without security." (9)

In the First World, we have been habituated to thinking of threats to the state as emanating from the outside. Hence the association of the international with danger. Generations of IR students were schooled into the belief that the space of the international was different from the space of the nation. It fascinated precisely because it was exotic; there was in the literature something akin to travel writing or the philosopher's journey back to a state of nature, and there were similarities with forms of science fiction that explored a different conception of the political. Above all, what imprinted itself on the mind was the idea of a struggle between brutal collectivities, with settlement in the last resort being through "blood and iron." So compelling was the imagery, that all kinds of insecurities came to be relocated in the threatening nature of the outside world.

Of course, from time to time it was necessary to look inward--in the early days of the Cold War, for instance, and in the aftermath of 9/11--but the stranger within the nation was mostly understood to be in league with the external enemy. At least until recently, the fear that the state might be undermined from within was much stronger in the Third World because subjectivities could not so readily be shaped to the national imaginary. Witness the longstanding concern of sections of the Indian polity with the question "Can a Muslim be an Indian?" Questions set in a similar frame are increasingly being asked in other national contexts, even in the West.

In a recent turn, there has been a growing interest in the spatialization of the state and its significance for thinking about security. It is now more widely recognized that the seeming "naturalness" of the territorial state and the division of space between nation-states screens from view a politics of domination and subordination, both nationally and internationally. (10) It also helps structure the understanding of the difference between self and other, the other mostly being seen as belonging to some other nation-state. The rise of the modern nation-state was intimately related to the collection of information and the development of practices of making society more legible and people more visible in the interests of social control. (11) Thus it was that the understanding of the political was constructed by the kind of knowledge that was valorized. As Sankaran Krishna has observed: "The making of the nation serves as universal alibi for the violent unmaking of all alternative forms of community." (12)

We see one illustration of this contention in the response to economic refugees and asylum seekers over the past few years. Scholars in many fields have been forthright in denouncing racist state policies and in advocating a more humane approach, but much less has been said about how exclusion is embedded in the imaginary of the state. In terms of research, a start has been made by directing attention to the problems of borders and border control, but as yet comparable interest has not been shown in what might be done to develop meeting places that could contribute to freeing up the fixity of the present territorial order. As it stands, spatial understandings underpin global inequality and, in different ways, impinge on people's security everywhere. On the one side, the Third World as a more or less open site for resource utilization, cheap labor (including outsourcing), and sex tourism; on the other, the way that regulatory regimes lock the bulk of the world's people in place.

It might be contended that not all states act similarly and that the state can be an instrument for progressive change as well as a prop of a statist order. This was certainly the hope of the nationalists who struggled for decolonization. It found partial expression in the 1950s and...

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