The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond

This weekend, I read Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond (2019). The book was written as a companion to an exhibit of the same name at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. It was a short, nuanced, and compelling read that considered the potential of archaeology of the contemporary world to understand the series of migrant camps constructed at Calais near the mouth of the Channel Tunnel. The object of the book, however, was less that camps themselves, which were primarily documented through a series of uncaptioned, but arresting photographs, but the larger project of “borderwork.” The Calais camps demonstrate how borderwork mobilized culture, the environment, the landscape, and even time itself to produce inequality. As such the authors situate their work in Calais amid a very pressing contemporary concern with walls and borders and their role in creating the status of the refugee on a global scale. The camp is not just an architectural statement or a new form of urbanism. Sites like the camps in Calais, the US border wall, refugee camps in Greece, and the Sonoran desert create the environmental, temporal, spatial, historical and political situations necessary to dehumanize migrants and to then leverage this dehumanization to produce national, regional, and racial identities.  

The book is complex and at time elusive, but it should become required reading for anyone interested in the potential of an archaeology of the contemporary world to diagnose the global situation and offer perspectives that form the basis for resistance.

As per my usual methods, I’m not going to offer a full review of this book. Instead here are some almost random thoughts:

1. Environmental Hostility. For Hicks and Mallet, the concept of environmental hostility is a broad one involving everything from physical violence visited on the migrants from police, Neo-Nazi groups, and human traffickers to the violence of walls, fences, razor wire, and intrusive searches, sleep deprivation, poor sanitation and other tactics. Creating a hostile space, often in the name of humanitarianism, for migrants by replicating many of the violent situations that led these people to travel to Europe provides a chilling reminder of close connection between colonial practices and legacies and humanitarian claims.

The authors repeat the statement “The humanitarian dismantling operation is over.” at the start of almost every chapter as an effort to remind the reader through simple repetition that the cloak of humanitarianism serves to occlude and, in many cases, reinforce the dehumanizing practices of colonialism. That these practices exist right up to the borders of the former colonizers is hardly more surprising than they use the same rhetoric and tactics used to justify colonial violence.  

What intrigued me, in particular, is how the uses of fences, the marginal location of the camps, and the tensions between local communities and the migrants mapped onto so much of the rhetoric and practice of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch. Of course, the temporary workforce in the Bakken were generally not transnational migrants and residence in workforce housing was far more voluntary that in the camps of Calais. At the same time, the careful delineation of spaces of living using fences and controlled access points, the conflicts over the rights of residents to customize their spaces, and their temporary nature (see my next point), ensured that the environment and their residents remain provisional, marginal, and somehow less than the longer term residents in the community. 

By using space and the environment as a way of reinforcing the alterity of the Bakken workforce, it followed the logic of capitalism that, in some ways, seems to support the rhetoric used against migrants who are (as the ironic meme tells us) somehow both too lazy to support the economy and also likely to take jobs from permanent residents. 

2. Temporal Violence. The notion of environmental violence was familiar to me through the work of Rob Nixon’s award winning book Slow Violence (2011). I was less familiar with the concept of temporal violence. The idea that the temporal contingency of a place like the Jungle is central to the creation of a sense of permanent emergency. The temporal relationship between the time of progress and modernity at the center and the timelessness of the colonized “savage” at the periphery reproduces itself at the border with the continual rebuilding of the temporary camp which makes it always provisional.

The parallel between the dehumanizing rhetoric associated with workers in the Bakken, whose uncontrolled masculinity represented a constant source of fear for communities in Western North Dakota. Temporal violence reduced the residents of temporary workforce housing to the status of savage in much the same way that impermanence of migrant camps works to render  displaced people outside of the dominant narrative of progress and modernization. That many of the temporary workers in the Bakken had lost property or homes in the recession of 2008 emphasized all the more their status outside of the economic time of capital appreciation. 

3. Giving Time. Finally, Hicks and Mallet propose that their book offers an example of “giving time” which they describe, a bit obliquely, as a commitment to fighting falsehoods with facts which “depends on the degree to which we believe that the political imagination has the ability not just to misinterpret the world, but to enact its nature in new ways.” 

By giving time to understand the “Jungle” at Calais and the situation of migrants and contemporary borderwork, these archaeologists of the contemporary world offer a path of post-colonial resistance and protest. Their work highlights the failure of contemporary systems to live up to even the most banal definition of humanitarianism and the failure of our current regime to recognize that the functioning of capitalism, colonialism, and the academic fields of anthropology and archaeology have created ethical obligations toward the migrants sequestered at the borders. 

This book is worth reading because it explicitly recognizes the potential for archaeology to “enact the world in new ways” by using its critical apparatus to critique and to dismantle the dehumanizing practices that support the current system of borders and power. It’s also free and open access.

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