Silicon Borders, Binary Poetics

Peering down from low Earth orbit over Mexicali (MX) and its northern neighbor Calexico (US), it quickly becomes apparent that two radically different territories collide, each with its own geometry, ecology, and economy. The rapid construction of maquiladores (factories) that followed the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 quickly caused Mexicali’s population to explode as both high and low skilled workers moved to the city to manufacture products for U.S. markets. The city has also recently become home to what is known as the “Silicon Border”, a 40-square kilometer industrial zone built to produce computer components for technology companies based in the United States. Alongside the silicon border are rows of garment factories, employing mostly women from Southern Mexico and Central America.


Satellite radiograph of the border between Mexicali and Calexico, Mexico and the U.S.

Capital investment flooded into Mexicali in the late 90’s because of Mexico’s comparative lack of environmental and labor regulations and protections, making the highly toxic production of electronics parts and harsh working conditions associated with garment production much less expensive on the Southern side of the dividing line. In satellite photos of Mexicali and Calexico, what is immediately apparent is the way in which the border has enabled capital investment to radically shape the two geographies, with a starkly visible contrast between the sprawling factories on the southern side of the border and the farms in the north, each producing its own topology of (re)distribution, (re)circulation, and (re)production.

The border is crossed by the Rio Nuevo, a river that flows from South to North and originates in the heart of Mexicali. The river has no geological water source that produces its flows – it is produced by a combination of irrigation runoff (70%), municipal sewage (28%), and industrial waste (2%), emerging as a toxic tide that “contains a stew of about 100 contaminants: volatile organic compounds, heavy metals (including selenium, uranium, arsenic and mercury), and pesticides (including DDT) and PCBs. The waterway also holds the pathogens that cause tuberculosis, encephalitis, polio, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid” (1). The Rio Nuevo is simply one of the many processes that reveals the border to be a binary poetic circuit: toxic materials are first exported to the maquilas on the southern side of the border, only then to reemerge as a flow which returns north, a toxic crossing that produces not a border separation, but a border ecology in which power circulates across difference and is accumulated in differentiated territories.


El Rio Nuevo, which flows from Mexico into the U.S., “The dirtiest river in the U.S.”

The border that divides Mexicali and Calexico is importantly material, symbolic, political, economic, and discursive. Each of these registers are all deeply entangled as modalities of differentiation and accumulation, sometimes constricting and at others opening up material flows of actualization. Power is enacted through the policing, production, and regulation of flows in which ecological circuits are cut, redistributing and channeling flows across territories. Capitalism, as a historical process of differentiation, exercises its accumulating potentialities by stratifying diverse ecologies into dynamic edges and limits. Deleuzian geographers Keith Woodward John Paul Jones describe the (b)ordering expression produced by capital:

“We can ground this dual-sided disordering and ordering by reference to the
worldwide expansion of capital under globalization. If the process of bordering is
concerned with the passage of multiplicities through or across their saturated
condition in order to create new assemblages and creative possibilities, capital is
content to always be present at the limit of those transformations. ‘[C]apitalism is
continually reterritorializing with one hand what it is deterritorializing with the
other’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 259).” (2)

The borders produced in the binary (dis)ordering of flows of global capital always come to fold back upon themselves; these borders emerge not as impossibly empty voids between two worlds but rather as dense ecological circuits where limits are defined only by the speed of the flows through them. Limits exercise their power through processes of ordering and disordering, closing and opening, channeling and blocking, all of which are both historically mobile and dynamic. We should resist conceptualizing a border as an infinitely thin dividing edge between two territories. Rather, it would be more generative to understand a border in its capacity to expand from a line into a territory – a productive zone of affect and entanglement. A border certainly divides and parses, but it also equally generates the avenues and tunnels through which border poetics take shape.


The Interior of a garment Maquila on the U.S.-Mexico Border

A border poetics produces limits which articulate the edges of territories of circulation and production. At the limit of every territory, specific formations emerge from fields of potentiality as a result of “edge effects”. Deleuze and Guattari described these edge effect in their concept “line of flight” ~ a kind of movement through the boundaries of possibility, between an entangled actuality and virtuality. Edge effects come into being anywhere a diversity of habitats/territories meet, and extend/resonate well beyond each of their limits and unleash productive potentialities. Capital makes use of these edge effects by shifting power differentials across territories, ordering and reordering structures of relation in order to perpetuate processes of accumulation.

Borderings always produce differentials in which affective (re)distributions occur between and through various material formations. Labor in Mexicali is structured roughly into two different strata, high-skilled laborers that work in electronics manufacturing (that are predominately male) and low-skilled laborers that work in garment factories (that are predominantly female). These strata are produced only through the (re)production and maintenance of a multiplicity of dimensionalities ~ north / south, man / woman, middle / lower class, etc., each with their own policing structures that reproduce these dimensions of difference. The production of these edges allow for material and affective accumulations to occur within various territories, unequally (re)producing/supporting specific bodies articulated by these dimensionalities of difference.

If we are to understand power as being enacted across dimensionalities of difference, then we are also offered two different approaches to resistance to the power produced by these differences. The first approach to resistance would be understood as formally political, and would operate in contestation within the already-existing modes of differentiation. This is what could be understood as a “liberal” politics, or rather a politics that only offers choice and resistance within the already existing frameworks of difference. Fights for increases in wages in the maquilas, for example, would be a liberal struggle in the sense that it seeks to reorder accumulations across a line of already-existing class difference.  Similarly, a fight for the improvement of environmental regulations in Mexico would be liberal, in the sense that the struggle is enacted across the North / South divide.

A second approach to resistance would emerge as meta-political, and would concern itself with giving birth to or destroying the modalities of differentiation themselves. Producing new fields of difference have the capacity to produce new species/subjects in which new ecologies of power can find life. Historically, we could look to the birth of the proletariat as a class within which new struggles were waged. Furthermore, the destruction of these modalities could offer other liberatory potentials. The metapolitical death of the structures that regulate the flows between North and South would give birth to a novel ecology of relation, with new historical creativities and productivities.

The production and destruction of these modalities of differentiation and of binary poetics themselves is the always-ongoing process within which history unfolds. Redistributing the already existing accumulations produced by histories of difference is necessary, just as the birth and death of the modalities that produce these differences require our praxis. When we look to the Silicon Border and see power manifest across these fields of difference (class/gender/nationality/etc.), we should struggle to always think these two expressions of resistance together simultaneously, within and against the various expressions of binary poetics.

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