The Paradoxicality of the ‘Transitzone’

A Few Anecdotes on Katrin Ströbel’s and Mohammed Laouli’s “frontières fluides – fluid boundaries.”

The concept of the ‘Unwort,’ which could be literally translated as a non- or un-word has, since its inception in the early 90s, brought together some of the most interesting sociopolitical notions on the table that indeed have gone a long way to betray the state of mind and state of being of the German society and European societies at large. Some of the interesting ‘un-words’ that have been chosen to be most offensive and popular have included ausländerfrei (free of foreigners, 1991), ethnische Säuberung (ethnic cleansing, 1992), Überfremdung (over-foreignization, 1993), national befreite Zone (nationally liberated zone, 2000), freiwillige Ausreise (voluntary emigration, 2006), Döner-Morde (Döner murders, 2011), Sozialtourismus (social / welfare tourism, 2013), Lügenpresse (liar press, 2014), Gutmensch (do-gooder, 2015). All these un-words have one thing in common with each other, namely Germany’s strained relationship with foreigners and an infatuation not to be a migrant space. Another word that would have made a perfect un-word for 2015 would have been transit as in transitzone, as used by politicians, journalists and people from all works of life to describe artificial zones that were proposed to be created (and that have actually always existed) to serve as transit spots for refugees. Transit etymologically from Latin transitus which means a go-over, pass-over, passage, or the act and fact of passing across or through, was meant to be hijacked and enforced a meaning equivalent to something like a cul-de-sac within this notion of the transitzone. These transitzones were thus supposed to become buffer zones to prevent refugees from getting into central European countries.

To transit. To pass over, through, across. To convey. To be in motion. A dynamic state that through any concept of zonification makes becomes static. Transit spaces, cities and even the sea have long become the end of the journey, rather than the conveyor from a to b. It is the complexity of such spaces, the fluidity between the etymological meaning of transit as a dynamic concept and its contemporary meaning as a static space, and it is the paradox of the porosity of such spaces or boundaries, no matter how much effort is put into making them rigid and impermeable, that has led Katrin Ströbel and Mohammed Laouli on to realizing the project “frontières fluides – fluid boundaries.” The project explores cities that are geographically, historically, economically and politically characterized by the sea from which they owe their existence like Rabat, Playa Blanca, Marseille, or cities whose bodies of water play an important role in their geopolitical realities like Amsterdam, Friedrichshafen and Bregenz. By so doing, Ströbel and Laouli investigate the transitory nature of these cities or more especially their waters, while putting a spotlight on the fact that these spaces are points of departure or dead ends for migrants or refugees and displaced peoples of all kinds. They focus on smaller and bigger narratives of individuals that occupy these transit spaces or who have experienced and embody the paradoxality of these spaces. Through installations and videos, they offer the people a podium on which to recount their stories of transit and migration.
To be able to understand the transitory nature of these cities Ströbel and Laouli have chosen to explore in their research, one must understand the mutability and elasticity of cities and their social structures. To be able to understand these cities, one must engage in a critical questioning of the postcolonial status quo or better still the coloniality of such cities and their waters, with regards to the long history of the colonization of space and time, and its repercussions. To be able to understand these cities, one must understand the waters that give them life. For the sake of limitations in space and time, this essay will throw light only of the sea.
Especially the sea. Take the Mediterranean sea for example that could actually be a transit space between Africa, Europe and Middle East, but which has become the epitome for a cleft, an unconventional archive, as Predrag Matvejevi? put it, and history, as Derek Walcott would have meant when he wrote:

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

The sea. It is very difficult to talk about the sea today as a simile for anything, for the gargantuan and profound nature of the sea no longer allows for figures of speech and rhetorics that just simulate. The characteristic element of the metaphor that stresses 'equation to' rather than 'similarity of' comes in very handy when thinking of the sea. Such is the case in Derek Walcott's seminal poem on the sea, which he unshakenly titled The Sea is History. Referring to the trauma, the lost lives, cultures, languages and memories during the Middle Passage, Walcott doesn't only make a metaphor for, but rather defines the sea as a sepulchral space. Back then the sea was, and today while 900 people drown in the Mediterranean sea on one day, and many thousands perish in one week, the sea is still history.
The sea is thus migration. The sea is that medium that facilitated and still facilitates the forceful, but also free movements of peoples from A to B, as it enabled the Vikings to set foot in the Americas, but later also Columbus, Vespucci and a horde of other 'explorers', African slaves and till today millions of migrants from the other side of the great pond. In this same light, the sea is also the concrete fortress or the vaccine with which Europe protects itself, if one thinks of Roberto Esposito's Paradigm of Immunization. Elaborating on his view of the concept of biopolitics through the prism of his notion of 'overprotection', Esposito proposes that when protection of life through immunization surpasses a certain threshold, it topples and negates itself:
"’protection is the negation of life,’ in the sense that such a protection, when pushed beyond a certain limit, forces life into a sort of cage or armoring in which what we lose is not only liberty, but also the real sense of individual and collective existence. In other words, we lose that social circulation, which is to say that appearing of existence outside of itself that I choose to describe with the word communitas: the constitutively exposed character of existence.”

This is how the sea came to stand also for the opposite of liberty, collective existence, or community for that matter. These altogether make the sea in Lefebvrian sense, like any other space, a political space.
The sea is thus politics. At the latest with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the sea had become sophisticatedly political. In this treaty, under the auspices of the pope, a demarcation of the sea was made somewhere between the Cape Verde islands and the Caribbean islands, allocating every water and lands eastwards to the Portuguese and westwards to the Spanish. The repercussions of this treaty, and others of its kind then and now, are common knowledge. With the inception of the concept of the nation-state (be it as from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia or otherwise), wherein sovereignty was granted to certain geographical territories as juridical entities, claims of more sea space challenged the concept of the Mare Liberum of the 17th century. These disputes that reached an apex post WWII ultimately led to the 1982 Law of the Sea treaty, whereby the usage of the world's seas were strictly regulated between nations with regards to political sovereignty, environmental issues, management of natural resources, as well as disposition of waste, but above all establishing frameworks for business transactions... who fishes or does off-shore mining where, when and how. Thus the sea was, is and always will be economy.
And the sea is also culture and philosophy, especially when Paul Gilroy writes of a system of interactions – historical, cultural, political – that are inherently tied to the Atlantic in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness:
"I want to develop the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective"

Gilroy puts a spot light on the Atlantic by shifting the discourse from a nationalistic and ethnocentristic oriented discourse of "English blacks" or "American blacks" to the communal experience of the Middle Passage, which is centred on/in/around the Atlantic ocean, and “black Atlantic” culture being the point of intersection of African diaspora identities. Drawing reference from Du Bois, Gilroy brilliantly discoursed and situated the concept of 'double consciousness' in the contemporary, negating the reductionist dichotomies of just black and white, but pledging for a hybrid identity of the “black Atlantic”. It is important to say that Gilroy considers the notion of hybridity as a two-way street, wherein both the 'master' and his 'subordinate' are influenced by each other's cultures, especially when he writes about Delany or Hip Hop music. Esiaba Irobi expatiates on Gilroy's concept from a phenomenological point of view when he wrote in the Philosophy of the Sea: History, Economics and Reason in the Caribbean Basin of the Africans in the New World as:
“living, thinking embodiments of ritual, medicinal, agricultural, political, musical, artistic, organizational, philosophical ideas and knowledges from old and complex cultures in Africa (...) The physical, spiritual, creative, resilient cultural software described above explains why the Africans were able to negotiate new identities (USA), syncretize other religions (Haiti), subvert predatory histories (Jamaica), hybridize hegemonic cultures (Bahia), and deploy liberation theories of resistance (Martinique) in the Caribbean and the rest of the Diaspora.”

It is against this backdrop of historical, migration-related, spatio-political, economic, cultural and philosophical understandings of the sea that Ströbel and Laouli realize the project “frontières fluides – fluid boundaries.” This project, in its experimental and investigational nature is more important now than ever before, as Europe is pursued by the spectre of its past and its capitalist interventions all over the world. It is most important in order to understand what the zonality of the un-word ‘tranzitzone’ could possibly mean for the millions of people trying to flee from the misery of their homes to search for greener pastures.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Published in: Mohammed Laouli & Katrin Ströbel, Frontières fluides II, 2016