2011, Published in:
Freedom, Borders and Institutions
“When the continuity of affective escape is put into words, it tends to take on
positive connotations. For it is nothing less than the perception of one’s own
vitality, one’s sense of aliveness, of changeability (often signified as freedom)*”
Massumi, B. (2002) p36
Denmark is a country with well-functioning institutions. These frame most
stages of life and are a trusted and proud aspect of Danish public life.
Institutions mediate our relationships to one-another by assigning each person,
situation and space a clearly defined role for set periods of time. And this is
practical: It establishes a range of predictable actions and reactions, effective
administration and planning for the many and for the long-term: The school
system defines the actions of teachers, students and administrative staff, making
clear who is to learn and who is to teach, who makes the budgets and who is to
clean the classroom at the end of the day. It is also a spatial organisation where
the classroom is for learning and the playground is for playing. Hospitals are
spaces for the sick to be treated by qualified personnel; prisons are where those
who misbehave are kept apart from those who can ‘function normally’ in society
by following the agreed rules that are laid out and enforced by civic and judicial
institutions for a given territory.
And finally, border institutions organise our relationship to immigrants.
Affective escape. Here follows a brief explanation of the opening quote taken
from a text, aspects of which provided the catalyst for the analysis here: Affect
is that part of oneself that is emerging, that has not yet been formed into a
coherent position but contains all the possibilities/potentials of that condition.
Before we have formed opinions about our relations to one another, before
we have decided what is right and wrong, what is rational and irrational.
And then, even when positions are taken and coherent arguments formed,
affect (the ever present potential for emergence) escapes the fixity of that
position. It has us questioning again, growing. This is freedom: The ever-present
potential of continuous discovery, of oneself and of others, or learning and
This brief text is about transformations. It is about an action that aimed at
disrupting and changing the predefined roles that are reproduced and re-
enforced by border institutions. This happened first on the level of the individual
and was then projected onto a societal level through the dedicated actions of
hundreds of people over the course of four months.
Detention centres and the city
Detention centres are often located far from urban areas and with very poor
transport links, except for a few centres located near airports to ensure swift
deportation. These temporary spaces – zones between nations – have become
less and less temporary and have increased in numbers across Europe over the
past ten to twenty years.
The spatial and social isolation is deliberate. For detainees in Denmark, Danish
language classes are increasingly difficult to come by and any social life beyond
the centre is made almost impossible because of lack of funds, access and
communication: A prison that is not a prison with sentences that are indefinite.
Preceding the Kirke Asyl action, several people had regularly been visiting the
centres attempting to break through the isolation and confront this ignorance
about each other. But for most people in the country the only contact with
foreigners is via stereotypical media debates critical of any difference within, or
changes to, the face of Denmark.
For those voting against immigration believing in the rationality of the strong
national institutions grants them the safe feeling that the reasonable Danish
immigration system will take care of things, do what is right, and deport people
the right way: the decent Danish way.
But not everyone is happy with the tightening definition of how to be
a ‘legitimate person’ in Denmark. Not everyone feels comfortable with the
construction of an iron cage of ‘normality’.
With Denmark’s participation in the Iraq war a group of people saw a chance to
appeal to this ‘Danish decency’ by forcing the nation to take responsibility for the
refugees its war had created. This was an opportunity to spark a debate about
immigration on a new territory. -One where it would be possible to reach not
only the small pockets of left-wing supporters but a broader, more conservative
population. In other words, to reach and gain the sympathy and support of those
people who are only concerned that things are “done right.”
Relationships that had been built up through visits and events at the detention
centres took on a new urgency. The isolation was to be broken entirely and
people brought from the detention centres in the far-away corners of the nation
to the centre of the city of Copenhagen and into the limelight of society.
Individuals were to represent themselves in the media, tell their own story
rather than being entangled in a bad reputation created by media-reproduced
stereotypes for political gain. Ordinary people would recognise themselves in
these representations. It could be your son, your uncle, your friend.
Equally, for the people intensely involved in the Kirke Asyl action this was about
moving from a fixed understanding of “the refugee” as political victim and “the
activist” as the righteous protagonist, to being an individual, a collaborator and
for some, a friend. Political relationships became personal as people were met
with each other’s complexities and personal relationships became politicised as
they formed the base of a political desire and action.
The potential for affective escape was opened on a personal and societal level,
redefining a city and society open to difference and allowing for change.
Governance, institutions and mediation
The point was to move beyond the defined categories of national and immigrant
and to get to know and understand each other as people. This proved to be
almost impossible in terms of language used in the media, where ‘Irakerne’
became the recognisable name for the refugees. But as overall political and
representational strategy, as well as the relationships formed between
individuals involved, people were moved beyond previous definitions and began
to understand and enjoy the particularities of each other.
This is not something that suits modern day government. Not only because of the
direct threat to policy but also because categories and defined relationships are
so fundamental for governance.
While there is a tendency to believe that government is getting smaller in a
time dominated by finance and economic liberalism, there are aspects that
are proliferating and becoming dispersed through mechanisms of governance
that are more intimate now than ever. It is intimate in the sense that it affects
our relationships to ourselves, and the people around us, on a daily basis
through a trust in systems and organisation that override our own observations:
Governance operates not only through state institutions, but also through
organisational bodies such as public/private partnerships managing our
finance or, more importantly for our topic, formal NGOs that manage our
ethics and moral choices. Each of these mechanisms of governance determines
relationships in a manner that feeds back into an overall organised society. Such
organised systems make it easy to let things pass by. To fulfil ones role, and be
satisfied. Because these systems are practical. These institutions are ‘rational’.
Governance. – A coordination of relationships that are made predictable and
manageable by categorising people and places.
Kirke Asyl succeeded in moving beyond the category, beyond the single-issue
appeal of a group of individuals and instead take their particular position as
a starting point for a wider shift in the ways immigration and difference are
debated. The challenge was to avoid being forced into preconceived categories
by either oneself, through a self-defining rights discourse that is limited to
ones own national category, or by those in power: to transform the ways in
which those categories are understood instead. There is a distinction between
particularities that become a fixed (minority) identity – a fixed category through
which governance operates – and the meeting of particularities that continuously
open up new or other ways of being.
The border institutions that are in place to mediate our relations – to each other,
towards the state, other nations and other nationalities – were not accepted this
time round. Detention centres determine our (non-) relation to asylum seekers
but during this action new relations were nevertheless formed and the fixity of
institutions and identities were challenged.
Changeability and freedom
The fixed relationships of “the immigrant” and the “national citizen” have
become so engrained in our consciousness that they are difficult to defeat. Even
an opinionated reaction against these becomes the opposite: victimisation or
instrumentalisation of the immigrant – a dehumanising relationship in itself in
which the person loses all agency. This happens especially when the care of, or
solidarity with the victim is an engrained aspect of a person’s or group’s identity.
It then becomes necessary to hold as fixed the role of the other as “victim” or
even “comrade” in order to continue to understand one’s own position and
identity; in order to organise and categorise oneself, the space around one
and the other. And this was one of the principal difficulties and political risks
internally in Kirke Asyl. In the midst of hectic activity and actions, this risk was
nevertheless consciously recognised. It was at times successfully dealt with, and
other times, practical concerns and time pressure overrode these. Throughout
though the ambition remained to create a moment in which it would be possible
to push for a different relationship between people categorised as national and
foreigner. To bypass the institutions and organisations that are set up to deal
with how we interact with each other and challenge not only those institutions,
but also our own categories and stereotypes, our own comfort zones, political
and personal ones alike.
In a country run by and through stable institutions, some institutions in which
there is a strong faith and tradition, a critique has to go beyond those and to find
a level that is as fundamental as building inter-human relationships through
setting a specific, common goal. Yet Kirke Asyl was not a purely humanist
project. It was a critique of the institutions as they stand. It became more than
an appeal to a higher human ideal on behalf of victimised individuals. Instead,
it was grounded in the specific interaction between people. It was about
circumventing the differentiating processes that are put in place through the
mediating institutions. Kirke Asyl wanted to find ways to keep “culture” and
personal and societal development an open process rather than one that shuts
in on itself with a perceived self-sufficiency. The nationalist self-sufficiency is
one that is grounded in an a-temporal, fixed notion of human nature and culture.
One on which people and territories are governed through categorisation and
fixity. But instead we understand human nature and culture to be fluid and
dynamic, something that keeps developing and keeps growing, an openness that
is freedom. This freedom, the potential for affective escape, is what needs to be
protected – rather than the right to discriminate, detain, and deport people.
Our changeability is our freedom.
*Opening quote from Massumi, B. (2002) Parables of the virtual, movement, affect, sensation.
Durham and London: Duke University Press