In this piece, Dominic Davies (University of Oxford) explores the architecture of the ‘global border regime’ as a political and en emotional response to representations of migrants and refugees as an ‘invasion’. Through an analysis of detention architecture, including through depictions of detention centres by artists and in graphic novels, Davies suggests that visual strategies can highlight the infrastructural violence of borders and state responses to refugees, and can also invite the audience to question their own emotional responses to displacement. In so doing, his article offers an additional perspective to Refugee Hosts’ approach to representations of displacement through the framework of ‘Spaces and Places, not Faces‘. For more pieces by Davies, whose work focuses on colonial/post-colonial literature, infrastructure and graphic novels, click here. To read, hear and see more of our Representations of Displacement Series, click here

Hard Infrastructures, Diseased Bodies

By Dominic Davies, University of Oxford. 

In the opening pages of her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed offers a close reading of an anti-migrant poster published by the far-right British National Front in 2003. Here, she carefully distils from the poster’s violent rhetoric of ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and ‘soft touch’ Britain, an underlying biopolitics of ‘softness’ and ‘hardness’. Drawing on a biological language of disease that has become unnervingly mainstream in more recent years, the National Front’s anti-migrant rhetoric conflates the ‘invasion’ of the ‘host’ nation with the viral contamination of the human body. As embodied ‘host’, the nation’s fleshy, soft borders are vulnerable to penetration from this viral ‘other’, that which is not ‘of’ the nation but that, like the parasite, will leach ‘off’ its biological and chemical resources.

Through this corporeal metaphor, a reaction is elicited; rather than the compassion or sympathy espoused by ‘soft’ liberals, a contrasting ‘hard’ attitude commits to the securitisation of the borders of the national body against the migrant ‘epidemic’.

“The implicit demand is for a nation that is less emotional, less open, less easily moved, one that is ‘hard,’ or ‘tough’,” writes Ahmed – although of course, this ‘hard’ response is also produced by emotional outburst, perhaps more emotional even than its ‘soft’ counterpart. These divergent responses are perhaps epitomised in the current language of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit.

This emotional ‘hardness’ materialises in an increased architectural hardening at the ports of entry into the nation, and these have centred particularly around the instantiation of hyper-militarised border technologies. From the proliferation of biometric data collection to the construction of barbed wire fences, concrete walls and immigration detention centres, these technologies constitute what Reece Jones, along with many others, calls ‘the global border regime’.

These physical border infrastructures are ‘hard’; they appear detached, regulatory, bureaucratic and concrete. But this architectural apparatus is built and shaped, fundamentally, by the anxieties of the emotional (national) body. There is an intimate connection between an abstract, anti-migrant anxiety, and the very material concrete out of which the wall or detention centre is built. Indeed, border infrastructure is both a product of, and material witness to, the fear of injury to the national body. Such a rigid, ‘hard’ policing of borders then translates this fear, socially and politically, into the pre-emptive injuring of migrant bodies.

But if border infrastructures are so constructed, devising techniques to reconsider and examine the border regime’s architectural hardening from alternative perspectives might be able to better reveal the emotional logics that underpin them – maybe even to challenge them. As Dennis Rodgers and Bruce O’Neill write of ‘infrastructural violence’, physical structures provide an “ideal ethnographic site for theorising how broad and abstract social orderings such as the state, citizenship, criminality, ethnicity and class play out concretely at the level of everyday practice” (pg. 402). Moreover, this focus on violent infrastructures, as well as cultural representations of them – a strategy I have described elsewhere as ‘infrastructural reading’ – might also open up “a concrete way of discussing society’s responsibility for this harm.”

Drawing Infrastructures of Incarceration

In this Refugee Hosts blog series on Representations of Displacement, Dominika Blachnicka-Ciacek evocatively contrasts “the media spectacle” of “the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ with ‘the performance of medieval executions.” The global border regime, in its effort to appear ‘hard’, vehemently combines the most pernicious aspects of corporeal punishment and surveilled disciplinarity: it translates the medieval spectacle of suffering and punishment into the biopolitical regime of disciplinary surveillance, particularly as it manifests in the architecture of migrant detention. Whilst border infrastructures materialise the emotional fears of the diseased national body, they transpose these fears into the embodied suffering of the displaced migrant who finds herself caught in their midst.

Figure 1: Jeremy Bentham’s architectural sketch of the penitentiary panopticon.

As Michel Foucault famously recognised, the architectural apparatus of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon epitomised the shift from spectacular medieval punishments to regimes of disciplinary regulation (see Figure 1). Containing inmates within individual cells and subjecting them to “a state of permanent visibility,” the Panopticon assured “the automatic functioning of power”(pg. 201). Diseased bodies are first isolated, contained and examined, then quietly excised from the body of the contaminated nation state. Bentham’s drawings of infrastructures of incarceration proffered an architectural template that extended well-beyond the mere walls of the prison; indeed, they allegorised the regulatory social structures of liberal democratic societies as a whole.

Preceding and inspiring Bentham’s architectural designs, the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi produced a series of etchings of imaginary prisons, entitled Le Carceri (first edition, 1750; second edition, 1761 – see Figure 2 below). These prison interiors depict technologies of torture and architectures of containment (which, Piranesi suggests, amount to the same thing). Crucially though, they remain devoid of spectacular images of the bodies they are designed to incarcerate. Evacuated of embodied narrative focalisation, Piranesi’s infrastructures of incarceration threaten, notes Dorita Hannah, “to envelop the beholder.” She continues: “Dis-eased, the audience is no longer composed of passive witness, but, as a communal body-in-peril, becomes implicated in the force of the event.”

Figure 2: A plate from Piranesi’s series of etchings, Le Carceri.

In Le Carceri, viewers are forced to contemplate the contours of this built infrastructure; they are confronted with the violence of its hard materials, as these materialise their emotional response to society’s ‘other’. Forcing them to bear witness to the horror of this architectural apparatus, the dis-ease these images induce further reveals the viewers’ complicity in such violence. It is not the ‘other’ who is diseased, viral, contaminating; Piranesi’s infrastructures of incarceration reveal that the virus in fact courses through the very fabric of a society that condemns its most marginal populations – the mentally ill, the migrant, the poor – to such violent architectural labyrinths.

Comics and the Architectures of Migrant Detention

Now in the twenty-first century, the Hong Kong-born and Toronto-raised multidisciplinary artist, trained architect and long-time activist for migrant rights, Tings Chak, builds on Piranesi’s dystopian architectural speculation in her book, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (2014). Except, of course, where Piranesi’s sprawling prisons were fictional and other worldly, Chak’s work – which has been described as a ‘graphic novel’, ‘comics’, and simply as a series of architectural sketches – instead reveals the other worldliness of the all-too-real migrant detention system (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Chak’s drawing of Toronto East Detention Centre.

With minimal narrative commentary, Chak’s mapping of migrant detention centres scattered across her home country of Canada reveals how this violent architectural innovation socially and spatially reproduces migrant invisibility, on the one hand, and suffering, on the other (see Figure 4). The book’s first section includes street view sketches of the towns in which such centres are located. These apparently mundane streetscapes are disorientated by the insertion of, first, a circular photograph of the otherwise overlooked detention centre; and second, an inverted plane – a mirror image of the normal street view – that induces an experience of motion sickness, placing the reader at a dis-ease in this hardened infrastructure space.

Figure 4: Chak’s interior drawings of a migrant detention centre.

In the book’s central multi-page sequence (36-51), Chak takes her readers from the street outside into the hard, bordered cells of which the detention centre is comprised. Viewers are asked to move into and through the layers of security infrastructure, their gaze held by mostly white, blank pages marked only by thick black lines, weighty doors and conspicuous CCTV cameras (see Figures 4 and 5). Throughout these pages the camera’s eyeball returns the readerly gaze, confronting readers, and subjecting their bodies to a cool disciplinary surveillance.

Figure 5: Chak measures out the bodily dimensions of the detention cell.

In what is perhaps the most compelling invocation of Bentham’s architectural designs, Chak then inserts embodied dimensions into the cell-like frames of her comic, measuring the ‘minimum habitable space for an incarcerated individual’: ‘2 Square metres of floor area and 3.5 cubic metre of airspace’ (p. 102-103). The photographed body who pushes against the vacant walls of her line drawings dramatises these claustrophobic infrastructural conditions, whilst the accompanying narrative, through its direct interpellation – ‘your body’, ‘your life’ – encourages the reader to insert themselves into this instance of architectural containment.

Through these visual strategies, Chak’s architectural drawings reverse the global border regime’s sinister translation of spectacular into disciplinary violence. Instead, Chak converts the disciplinary mundaneness of migrant detention into a violent infrastructural spectacle; the hardened borders of the detention centre become spectacularly, and repulsively, violent. In so doing, Undocumented reverses the hard, bordered notion of who is diseased by putting its audience not at ease; which is to say, readers become, themselves, dis-eased. The clinical lines of Chak’s pen materialise the emotional hardness of anti-migrant rhetoric to reveal their violence, thereby containing – if not detaining – readers in the architectures of their own emotional making.



I am indebted to Candida Rifkind, Associate Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Winnipeg, for drawing my attention to Tings Chak’s comic, and my once MA student, Haya Alfarhan, for the idea that comics might ‘detain’ their readers. Both have related work forthcoming in 2018. 


Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Second Edition.
  • Blachnicka-Ciacek, Dominika. 2017. ‘“Refugees. Present/Absent”. Escaping the traps of refugee (mis)representations’. Refugee Hosts, 9 October. Online Source: Accessed 17 October 2017.
  • Chaks, Ting. 2014. Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention. Montreal/Amsterdam: The Architect Observer.
  • Davies, Dominic. 2017. Imperial Infrastructure and Spatial Resistance in Colonial Literature, 1880-1930. Oxford: Peter Lang.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Hannah, Dorita. 2011. ‘Towards an “Architecture of Cruelty”: Mining the Spatial Speech of Antonin Artaud’. In Kenzari, Bechir, ed. Architecture and Violence. Barcelona: Actar Publishers, pp.97-126.
  • Jones, Jonathan. 2002. ‘No Way Out’. The Guardian, 6 November. Online Source: Accessed 13 October 2017.
  • Jones, Reece. 2016. Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. New York and London: Verso.
  • Rodgers, Dennis, and O’Neill, Bruce. 2012. ‘Infrastructural Violence: Introduction to the Special Issue’. Ethnography, Vol.13, No.4, pp.401-412.


For pieces related to the themes explored in this post, read the following: 

To read other pieces published as part of the Refugee Hosts Representations of Displacement Series, click here


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s