The Political Archipelago: For a New Paradigm of Territorial Sovereignty ///
text originally written in French for the monthly column “Le Funambule” in Swiss Architectural Journal Tracés (thank you to Christophe Catsaros)
“The World is an archipelago” was the calm philosophical scream of the late philosopher Edouard Glissant. An archipelago shares a common history but each of its islands keeps an identity that it continuously constructs with its inhabitants. In this text, I would like to describe the archipelago as a new way to perceive territories as well as their political sovereignty.
The archipelago is however not intrinsically a figure of emancipation. For the needs of my first book, Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012), I elaborated a metaphorical map of the West Bank as it is experienced by Palestinians on a daily basis: an archipelago whose islands occupy only 39% of the West Bank territories that belong to Palestinians. The ‘sea’ around them represents regions controlled by the Israeli army and the ‘reefs’ embody the Israeli civil settlements that keeps occupying illegally the territory of another nation. In this metaphorical archipelago, it is not rate that an island inhabitant cannot access the neighbor island because of the frequent Israeli military checkpoints.
There is however a form of archipelago that was not forced, but rather, that emerged in an immanent way through the political action of its inhabitants. That was the case for the 1871 Paris Commune that was not thinking itself as a citadel surrounded by a hostile territory, but rather as an island among others — other cities in France like Toulouse, Marseille or Saint Etienne also succeeded to declare their commune for a little while — and also included the countryside in its sovereignty scheme as Karl Marx pointed out in his book The Civil War in France (1871).
Similar phenomena have been observed since 2011 on multiple territories of the world. The archipelago of the revolt counts many islands whose names resonate from the universality that link them together: Sidi Bouzid, Tahrir, Douma, S’derot Rotshield, Dawwar Al-Lu’Lu, Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti, Oakland, La Petite Patrie, Natal, Bayda, Taksim, Megaro Tis ERT and so much more. These small territories that have gathered millions of bodies, and that, for some of them, continues to be inhabited as I am writing these words, embody a new way to live politically.
These islands do not have any immigration problems: all bodies are welcome on it is their very presence on this territory that defines them as inhabitants and citizens. Each body has to choose at each moment the space that it occupies. It can be only at one place at a time and only this given body can be present on this given place. That is the principle of occupation and its political implication, whether we talk about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or the one of the Occupy movement that claims it in its own name. At each moment, we are confronted to an oxymoronic choice, simultaneously necessary — since we cannot not choose — and radical — since our choice of a space excludes every other — of the space that our body occupies.
The islands of the archipelago I was evoking above are thus formed by groups of bodies that accept, implicitly or explicitly, to create a political community. These groups, through the materiality of the bodies that form them, define territories whose limits do not cease to be redefined. Elsewhere, other islands are formed and, despite the fact that each develops its own identity, dialogues between them are effectuated and thus, they can acquire the status of political archipelago. The ‘sea’ that separates them is a region of flux. Fast fluxes, slow fluxes, just like the ocean, they constitute the ambient milieu of these islands whose name of occupation informs about their ‘sedentary’ nature. One has to understand this term, not as the absence of movement or as a permanence, but rather as the space of a constructive intensive movement that lasts as long as the island exists; in other words, as long as bodies form a political community on this territory.
Far from the representative democracy’s scheme that we know too well, the political archipelago incarnates a paradigm in which the notion of majority, and therefore the notion of norm, are considered as less important than the one of political intensity, i.e. the corporal and spatial engagement of an ethical community. This is the condition for new political practices to emerge without being synonym of the domination of a group — even if it is a majority — on another. As I was attempting to demonstrate above, this political archipelago already exists in coexistence with the recognized sovereignty paradigm. Nevertheless, we can imagine it as the only form of worldwide sovereignty and thus forget about the obsolete concept of country. Such a reformulation of the notion of territory also implies important redefinition of architecture that currently carries the symptoms of the political paradigm in which we live.