“Interior Frontiers” as Political Concept, Diagnostic, and Dispositif

We are in a moment for which we should have been prepared: of distinctions and fears to which we might have been more attentive, of tectonic shifts not readily visible with the tools we bring to them, of durable sensibilities and sonics askew to our shared radars. I’m worried, as so many of us are, that this is a moment in which the political categories and concepts to which we’ve adhered may now seem inadequate or wholly inoperative. But there are some with which we might do more work, that hold the glimpses of what we could have known to act differently and perhaps better.

“Interior frontiers”—Johann Fichte’s early-nineteenth-century concept, reanimated by Etienne Balibar some twenty five years ago—have long informed my own thinking about racial formations past and now pressingly in our present.1 In English “interior frontier,” in French as “frontière interieure,” a gloss of the German “innere grenzen” sometimes translated as interior border or boundary as well. If in Fichte’s hands, an “interior frontier” was a fortifying moral barricade against erosion of the nation and self, I have been more struck by its dark underside, by the raw and visceral and passionately protected distinctions it has the potential to activate and install.

Both elements of the concept—the modifying adjective “interior” and the “border” as mobile noun—gain their force from their polyvalence and from the multiple, variant referents to which they call attention. I take the term as a political concept to resist simple bifurcations and instead to mark our diffracted histories of the present: interior frontiers as a dispositif—a webbed apparatus of racialized states—and as a diagnostic of where and how acute and emotively charged sites of (over)identification emerge. At once, interior frontiers nurture intimately held dispositions of difference and police the legibility of these shifting fault lines.2

The concept of “interior frontier” bridges the plural and mobile borders of person and polity. Blurring the distinction between political rationalities and the affective economy in which they are lodged, interior frontiers hover in the grey zone that makes the personal political. An interior frontier is not a fixed border. Conceptually and concretely, an “interior frontier” defines the affective contours of a protective and precarious threshold of belonging and not belonging.3 Perhaps not unlike that to which Raymond Williams (1977, 184) once sought to turn our collective attention: namely to those inchoate, unfinished “structures of feeling” at “the very edge of semantic availability”—where rising feelings of fear, humiliation, threat, longing, or shame are not opposed to political thought but indexical of it.

But the dispositif/diagnosis shifts again when the “interior” slides from adjective to active verb, to what is “interiorized” in a set of practices and affective attachments embraced by those hoping to find a settled comfort on this frontier (or imposed upon those precariously perched on the edges). Interior frontiers are not only defined through affective delineations of difference, they are also a lived “symptom” of condensed contradictions finding political form in the subjective transformation of such distinctions into racially prescriptive ways of being in the world.4

Here the imagined protective border joins the cultivation of a body politic as Foucault might call it, secured through a “cultivation of the self.” Such “symbolic differences,” as Balibar refers to them, are not in the service of communal well-being but in a circumscribed civility.5 In Balibar’s (2001, 174; author’s translation) rendering, this distributed (in)civility emerges as “the wholly nondemocratic condition of democratic institutions.” These intimate borders emerge at the “heart of civic space,” permeate who can walk which streets without feeling “out of place,” narrowing down the spaces in which one can feel “at home.” And as Karen and Barbara Fields might put it with respect to racecraft, the places where one is rendered “unsafe.”

The colloquial form that these battles take are deceptively straightforward: there is a “we” who are no longer feel comfortable and feel safely “at home” (“nous sommes plus chez nous”), heard on the lips of more than Front National supporters in France. “We are where we belong and at home” (“nous sommes chez nous”), the response of a defiant citizenry born in North Africa and in France. “Home” is invoked or rather erupts again with “pas de jungle chez nous” (“no refugees, no squatter encampments of refugees welcome among us”) when the “illegal” outskirts of Calais’s refugee camp was dismantled this year), and then finally and not least, we find it reverberating among an otherwise well-mannered populace in small towns in the Netherlands, in the halls of Iowa high schools, and among members of the wrestling team of a prestigious New York university who felt licensed and emboldened to shout “go home where you belong.”

These designations and demarcations of what is at home and who can be have a familiar history—colonial through and through. The figure of the “undesirable element” as the Dutch called them, and “internal enemy” as the French did are iconic colonial caricatures. This we know.

What we seem to know less about are the ruinous qualities of life that these interior frontiers foster. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee described impoverished white tenant families in the American South in the 1930s slandered by a system that produced “slendering of forms of freedom” (Evans and Agee 2001, 96) over the course of their lives. We might consider how such “slendering of forms of freedom” manifests itself in the obscene inequality of our world today, and to what effect. Interior frontiers puncture possibilities by assuring that the unheimlich, the strange, the stranger, the not familiar—even the too familiar—is an assault on “feeling at home” and that no matter where one falls in this space there is no safety or security. It is buttressed by the vicious fantasy that freedom comes from stronger barricades rather than the embrace of what Hegelians would call a radical dependency of us all.


1. In 1997 when I was living in Aix-en-Provence, working in the French colonial archives, there was furor around Le Pen and the Front National (FN). My work had long been on the racial histories of empire of the nineteenth century but there and then, the archive seemed too far away. I was pulled into a racialized history of the present, one taking place in my daughter’s school, on the streets of Aix, in marches on the port at Marseille. I began collecting an archive of a different kind: a living, livid, and banal archive of what was then the ‘extreme” right in France. The reaction of my progressive French friends was categorical and dismissive: why bother studying such a fringe extreme-right figure, why waste my time on someone who clearly a nul-nul: a loser of so little import. As I wrote at the time, we should not confuse what was still a fringe party with fringe sentiments. They were not fringe at all. The FN recruited political sensibilities and xenophobic dispositions that were already there. Today, Jean-Marie le Pen’s daughter and successor, Marine, has garnered more votes in regional and national elections than ever imagined and, that which was once thought to be unthinkable has a good chance of happening.

2. For how these “interior frontiers” are positioned mark some of the most consequential and violently guarded racial, class, and gendered fault lines in our world today.

3. We might think of thick and narrow corridors (replete with comportments, sensibilities, sensory aversions, dress, and speech) ill-perceived and unarticulated but not ill-defined—where the standards of normalization and critique are at war and on the line.

4. If racism is understood not as an additive or complement to nationalism but its product and fundamental infrastructural support, institutionalized inequalities cut through race and amplify class divisions. “Double consciousness” in such a political frame may not only be the fate as W. E. B. Du Bois argued of those explicitly raced, but of those who depend on racism’s support to uphold their value, of those invested in a politics of disregard that never can obliterate the disquieting discomforts that come with forcing the value of such distinctions.

5. In such a regime of truth what Balibar (2002, 25) calls “the “ultra subjective forms of violence” are nourished in these corridors of “la limite”—the border and its “extreme” forms of expression. They are inscribed in the “naturalization of domination,” a formula he creates from the combined lexicon of Foucault and Marx. This “imaginative geography,” as Edward Said put it, is an affective one that distributes what I can care about and what falls outside the purview of my morally founded concerns.


Balibar, Etienne. 2001. “Frontières du monde, frontières de la politique.” In Nous, citoyens d’Europe? Les frontières, l'État, le peuple, 163–81. Paris: La Découverte.

_____. 2002. “Three Concepts of Politics: Emancipation, Transformation, Civility.” In Politics and the Other Scene, translated by Christine Jones, James Swenson, and Chris Turner, 1–39. New York: Verso.

Evans, Walker, and James Agee. 2001. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South. New York: Mariner Books. Originally published in 1941.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.