The one-sidedness of Europe’s borders / Report EF lecture Lieven De Cauter


2009, Euregional Forum Newspaper

The Euregional Lecture Series was kicked off on 7 May 2009 by cultural philosopher Lieven De Cauter. In the form of a travelogue, De Cauter exposed the extreme and inhumane conditions at some of Europe’s most heavily fortified border zones, such as the Spanish enclave Ceuta in Northern Africa. He also discussed the complete absence of this issue in the daily news and public debates.

Reflections on the seams of the world

Revisiting the capsular civilisation

Lieven De Cauter used this occasion to talk about his visits to various locations – Ceuta and Melilla, Palestine, San Diego/Tijuana – that he had previously developed elaborate theories on without having actually seen them. His belated visit to these different border zones spread all over the world constituted not just a moral duty, but also served as a reality check. The extraordinary condition of these border zones turned out to surpass his theoretical expectations, when it became clear that the ‘new Iron Curtain of Europe’ is not just hard to cross for Africans in search of a better life: for European citizens, too, it can only be fragmentarily seen or felt – while it is, nevertheless, the place where decisions are made about who belongs inside or outside of the European Union. In order to fully divulge the shocking reality at the seams of the world, Lieven De Cauter decided not to be drawn into another philosophical exposé in the context of the Euregional Forum; instead, he kept strictly within the confines of a travelogue, illuminated with images, diary fragments and witness reports.

A dream falls apart

Lieven De Cauter first sketched the context in which his philosophical ideas around the ‘capsular civilisation’ – the tendency to isolate oneself, at an individual, urban and geopolitical level – came to fruition. It was an attempt to counterbalance the political discourse in the nineties of the last century, in as far as it was dominated by network theories and terms like globalisation, connection, smooth space and seamlessness. Two shocking experiences exploded this seemingly imperturbable optimistic discourse. In 1998, De Cauter read a small newspaper article about a wall that Spain was building around two of its enclaves on the Northern African coast: Ceuta and Melilla. This was followed, in September 1998, by the infamous Semira Adamu incident: a Nigerian political refugee, illegally staying in Belgium, who died as a result of heavy-handed police action during their sixth attempt at deporting her. To De Cauter, these two events summarise the contradiction of our globalised world: the image of a seamless world can only be maintained by numerous cunning manoeuvres, painful stitches and bloody interventions. Ceuta is a place and an event that unveils the painful and sharp stitches of our globalised world – dramatically visualised in Ad van Denderen’s famous photograph on the cover of De Cauter’s book ‘The Capsular Civilisation’.

Some previous notes

De Cauter started his travelogue with several remarks intended to avoid a possible confusion of terminology. Thus, he was forced to correct one presumption: it is not barbed wire, but razor wire which will become the determining characteristic of 21st century urbanism. Furthermore, De Cauter adjusted the introduction to the evening, by stating that a border can never be described in terms of Giorgio Agamben’s phrase ‘(concentration) camp’. A border is rather a zone where people lose their rights and citizenship and can only lay claim to their own bodies – which Agamben calls ‘naked living’ or ‘Zoé’. The famous collage of Rem Koolhaas’ early project ‘Exodus’ is a sublime representation of this logic. On the other hand, De Cauter does agree with the introductory statement that the borders of Europe are not remote phenomena, but lie splintered across the entire European territory. One painful manifestation of this is the notorious Dutch prison boat. The prison boat also shows the unavoidable fallacy of the notion of humanising the problematic issue of illegal refugees, since the structural detention of illegal refugees is in fact totally inhuman. The picturesque photograph by Belgian Magnum photographer Raoul De Keyser, which he made for Lieven De Cauter’s installation at the Rotterdam Architecture Biennial, depicts sublimely – in the tradition of Dutch landscape paintings – how the prison boat is not even a prison, but rather a cage for naked living. De Cauter finally states that we cannot forget that, in the end, all of us are involved – willy-nilly – in the wall at Ceuta, since it is being paid for with European means, which is to say, with all of our tax money.

Travelogue of a journey to the unresolved borders of Europe

Destination Ceuta

The all-encompassing, drastic character of Europe’s outer borders turns out to be a great contrast to its often ephemeral, hard to trace existence. The wall at Ceuta – only 7/8 km long – is surrounded by a heavily militarised zone and is therefore practically unapproachable. Its limited visibility, however, turns out to be inversely proportional to its mental presence locally. A night-time photograph showing people storming the razor wire leaves nothing to the imagination: the few who succeed in climbing the fence are summarily shot by the border police. It took a lot of effort for Lieven De Cauter and his partners (Office KGDVS architects Kersten Geers and David van Severen, and photographer Bas Princen) to glimpse a small fragment of the wall, disappearing into the hilly landscape – the very same fragment on Ad van Denderen’s photograph. This fragmentary experience has taught De Cauter why there are only few people who know about the existence of this “20 km-long monument” with its horrible scenes of terror. The only possible solution for the harrowing predicament at the wall of Ceuta, in De Cauter’s opinion, is to reform this old free port into a special territory managed by the UN. Or, another solution might be along the lines of the poetic-architectonic proposal by Office KGDVS, which transforms the border crossing from a zone of naked living into an idyllic border oasis.

The Palestinian border of Europe

Lieven De Cauter continued his story by reading fragments from his ‘Palestinian Diary: feast in a war zone’. Many people will think it strange to see the Palestinian wall – erected by Israelis on Palestinian territory – presented as an ‘unsolved border of Europe’. As a clarification, De Cauter refers to Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who in his fascinating, horrific and, above all, controversial book ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’ describes the Israeli occupation of Palestine as the last colonial project of Europe – a project carried out by European Jews. Based on detailed maps, De Cauter shows how the Palestinian territory has shrunk, over the years, to what is known today as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, a map drawn up by Israeli researcher Eyal Weizman for peace group Bet’Salem shows that one can hardly speak of ‘the’ West Bank: even though the territory falls under Palestinian self-government, there are nonetheless numerous places and corridors controlled by the Israeli army. As a result, the West Bank is just an archipelago of enclaves closed off by checkpoints and corridors, safeguarding transport for Israeli citizens. From that point of view, De Cauter maintains that the Palestine territories are definitely borders of Europe, comparable to the better-known border sites between Europe and Africa.

Destination Hebron

The diary notes written by De Cauter after his visit to Hebron further enhance Weizman’s analysis: the Palestinian city of Hebron itself turns out to be just an archipelago of enclaves, too. In the old centre of Hebron 4,000 Israeli soldiers protect the lives of 450 settlers – while the city centre used to be inhabited by 130,000 people –, thus rendering any normalcy and activity out of the question. The only thing the Palestinian citizens can do is to continue their political struggle in the field of heritage preservation and their struggle to develop the renovated, lifeless Hebron ‘ kasbah’ for tourism. Moreover, the nets hanging over the streets to capture the garbage that the Jewish settlers throw down from the upper city worsen the symbolic ‘gnawing’ at the heart of the city. As a result, the ‘encroachments’ of the Palestinian border take place at a physical, immediately noticeable micro-level – in contrast to the wall at Ceuta, which makes exclusion visible for everybody, yet at the same time allows for a degree of distance due to its continuous monumentality (as if it is actually a work of art by Christo’s Superstudio).

Concluding remark: A one-sided border

Once more, De Cauter cannot offer simple answers to this unsolved ‘Palestinian’ border of Europe. De Cauter does, however, see a symbolic gesture in the spontaneous action of a photographer who accompanied him and who did everything in his power to ‘shoot’ a picture of the marching soldiers. Another symbolic gesture which De Cauter recognises is the open recognition that, in the Palestinian conflict, there is only one side to the story. All too often the assumption is put forward that we should remain realistic in the sensitive Palestinian issue and also take into account the problems of the Jewish settlers. But following Ilan Pappé, De Cauter pleads for the recognition that there are ‘no two sides in the Palestinian story’: “In a rape scene there is only one side. Just like, in the Holocaust, there is only one side to the story, in the Naqbah, too, there is only the one side to the story. It is insane to suggest there is also the side of the rapist to be considered, or that of the camp guard. In line with this, De Cauter states there is only one side in the conflict at the outer borders of Europe – it is insane to suggest that Europe, too, is a victim of illegal immigration by Africans in search of a better life.


– In response to De Cauter’s eye witness accounts, sociologist Merijn Oudenampsen (researcher Design, JVE) expresses his amazement at the excessive focus on the outer borders of FortEurope – as if the outer border determines whether you’re inside or outside of European territory. He stated that this idea underestimates the complex reality of Europe, which simultaneously internalises its borders (in the shape of, for instance, a computer system that determines who has a right to accommodation or a place of work) and externalises them (the organisation of admission tests in African countries).

Lieven De Cauter replied that the one process does not preclude the other, proposing the metaphor of the Russian doll: in Fort Europe you are never sure where or when you are ‘inside’ or ‘outside’. Which is why borders often seem to coincide with one’s own body: once you are designated as an illegal, you lose all rights to citizenship and you are always outside of Europe… because, officially, you are not present in the EU. But De Cauter wants to oppose Giorgio Agamben, saying that it nevertheless makes a world of difference to illegal immigrants whether they actually get to the EU and work here – even if it is as an illegal without rights – or whether they don’t even reach the EU.

– Cultural researcher Bas Heurings wondered about the general relevance of De Cauter’s visits to Ceuta and Hebron, other than the subjective and relatively superficial impressions of two very different locations.

Lieven De Cauter repeats his ambition, in light of the theme of ‘the unsolved borders of Europe’, to actually visit the borders and report on what he finds there, rather than reflecting on them in an abstract sense. He realises that this point of departure means that his lecture loses some of the originality and theoretical quality of his work on the capsular civilisation. In contrast to his recent book project ‘The return of the state of nature’, in which he, together with Rudi Laermans, sheds a theoretical light on the problematics from Hobbes to Leo Strauss, from neo-cons to reality TV, the ‘Palestinian Diary’ especially is geared at a larger audience. Readers of the draft version of the Palestinian Diary confirm how accurately the Palestinian identity, facts and figures are brought to life by means of several walking seminars.

– Another question concerned De Cauter’s personal emotions during his visit to two very different border situations in Europe – the heavily guarded border between Spain and Morocco, and the tangle of borders between Israel and Palestine, disputed in a war.

Lieven De Cauter pointed out that his experiences at the borders of Europe weren’t all sad, but above all a wondrous occurrence, with many beautiful moments – which is indicated in the subtitle to the ‘Palestinian Diary’: ‘Feast in a war zone’. The narrative diary style is intended to transfer dry, distant information into a ‘subjective, intensely lived reality’, whereby you get to meet real people and empathise with their daily struggles. A personal experience can be the start of an idea: thus, a Palestinian artist once revealed to De Cauter that the double Palestinian identity of victim and terrorist sickened him – which also indicated the objective situation of the Palestinian in question as living entre chien et loup, the French expression for ‘twilight zone’.

– Design researcher Zelkjo Blace wonders about the reasons behind discussing two very iconographic and popular border situations, which are, moreover, easy to place in a critical discourse. He draws attention to the much milder and therefore much more complex border situation in the western part of the Balkans, in former Yugoslavia. According to Blace, the knowledge of these borders of Europe is rather minimal, in terms of public opinion as well as research.

De Cauter replies that, in spite of their iconographic qualities, few people are really aware of the reality at the borders at Ceuta and Palestine. Mainstream news items talk about these border areas in clear-cut terms – ‘the’ West Bank –, creating the impression that these are closed entities that one can visit the next day. The iconographic quality of border situations thus blanks out the daily reality in Palestine, which is more like an ‘archipelago of enclaves’. The accessible, novella-like report of De Cauter’s visits to Ceuta and Palestine is an attempt to bring this reality to the fore, through its commonplace perception. He appeals to everyone to visit borders, too, and take note of their daily operation, past any iconographic quality.

– A last question referred to Giorgio Agamben’s concepts of ‘the camp’ and ‘naked living’ as the general condition of Western politics and civilisation. In his lecture, however, De Cauter seems to restrict the camp condition to specific border situations and specific subjects, like illegal refugees. The question is asked whether it is not necessary to expand the specific border subjectivity as described in the lecture and to depict it as a model of European citizenship.

De Cauter radically rejects this idea of Agamben’s, since it lapses too much into a strict division between inside and outside, between law and lawlessness. In view of this rigid conceptualisation, Agamben lapses into a one-sided rejection of the constitutional state, without wanting to recognise its advantages – even though these advantages are very ambiguous and sometimes downright humiliating. The theoretical difficulty is that, for illegal refugees, it nonetheless makes a world of difference whether they finally get to stay in the USA or the EU and find work there – even if it is without ‘official papers’ – or whether they don’t get in at all. The previously mentioned metaphor of the Russian doll is an attempt to get a better understanding of this interwovenness of inside and outside, or law and lawlessness. De Cauter gives a positive twist to this idea by stating that the difficult inside/outside position of illegal persons can also offer political advantages in their struggle for recognition and rights.

Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article