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The Design Politics of the Passport
The Design Politics of the Passport

Mahmoud Keshavarz

Mahmoud Keshavarz is a postdoctoral researcher at the Engaging Vulnerability Research Program, Department of Cultural Anthropology, Uppsala University, Sweden. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019

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Content Type:

Book Chapter

The Design Industry:

Design Practice

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Introduction: Design, Politics, and The Mobility Regime

DOI: 10.5040/9781474289405.ch-001
Page Range: 1–14

The freedom of movement […] is not the end purpose of politics, that is, something that can be achieved by political means. It is rather the substance and meaning of all things political.

Hannah Arendt

It was autumn 2012. A gloomy afternoon approached as the clouds loomed over the sky of Malmö, a city located in south of Sweden. I was sitting in the kitchen of my apartment listening to Nemat, a young, calm, slim boy from Afghanistan. I had known him for six months by this point. His family had fled the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had migrated to Iran. He was born and raised there and resided in Tehran legally until he was six years old. Then the authorities refused to prolong their permit. The family had to stay in Tehran undocumented, since going back to Afghanistan in 2002 was not an option. The country was just occupied by US forces. The consequences of being undocumented meant living in constant fear of deportation and thus being subject to exploitation at work, school, and in everyday encounters in Iranian society. When Nemat was 12 he had to begin working—in sectors including construction, tailoring, and household production workshops—to help the family bear the high costs of an undocumented life. When he was 15 the family decided to go back to Afghanistan as their situation in Iran was becoming worse. However, things did not work in their hometown of Ghazni as they had imagined. Afghanistan, a playground for different Western military forces since the 1970s, was too dangerous to live a life. After a few months, they decided to go back to Iran. They did not have a passport or a visa and, even if they had wanted to get one, it was an impossible task. The family had to travel separately as crossing altogether would have hindered their chances of crossing. Nemat crossed the border to Pakistan first with the help of smugglers and from there he hid in a Nissan pickup truck to cross the border to Iran, where he faced shooting from the Iranian border guards who, together with the international community, consider that specific border as a battlefield for the “war” on drug trafficking. Back in Tehran and reunited with his family within a few months, Nemat decided to leave Iran for Europe as he had no place, neither in Afghanistan nor Iran. The main problem, however was acquiring a proper passport, or a “right” passport as he put it. Without one, Nemat had no place in the world. He was not given a passport at birth and his possibilities to obtain one was incredibly limited—despite the fact that he worked twelve hours per day; that he and his family contributed to the Iranian economy through their devaluated labor, and that they refused to engage in any war in their home country. “Why did you not get an Afghan passport?” I asked him. “What would I do with that? There is no use in it!” Nemat decided to take the matter into his own hands and obtain a passport that could guarantee him a place in the world, a place to live, to make, to dream. That was when his long journey of border transgressing outside of Iran started.

During the last seven years, I have listened to the stories of many undocumented migrants and border transgressors who have had different experiences of how the lack of a passport, not having a good passport, carrying a forged passport, or waiting to be granted a proper passport have shaped their conditions and their options of mobility and residence. Mundane, instrumental, and sometimes not even at stake for the privileged population of the world, namely, white middle-class citizens of the Global North, a passport tends to be directly embedded in the lives of the majority of the world’s population: most prominently in the lived experiences of stateless refugees, undocumented migrants, and border transgressors, as well as working-class citizens of the Global South. To turn the passport into an object of thought stems from these non-privileged lived experiences.

In this book, I explore how the ability to move across territories is historically and contemporarily designed and commodified by following the emergence, development, and escalating uses of passports. By highlighting how the passport designs the conditions of being, moving, and residing in the world beyond the “actual” design of the passport, I aim to weave together stories of how mobilities, and more importantly immobilities, are organized through specific designed objects. Moreover, I intend to trace how mobilities are distributed unevenly and asymmetrically across various spaces by intentional as well as contingent actions and decisions.

This book argues that the passport is not neutral but a real and powerful device with its own specific history, design, and politics, mediating moments through which socially constructed power relations can be enacted and performed. Ethnicity, gender, and class come to interact, intersect, and produce inequalities through how passports work in various situations. Passports are material evidence of exercising discrimination. Passports circumvent abstract discussions of power in academia and bring to the fore stories of power relations at their sites of production, as well as in their spaces of circulation and consumption. This book explores the capacities and incapacities of the passport in granting an individual the possibility of crossing a border and thereby granting them the ability to claim the right to movement. This is to say that such an apparently simple and thin artifact is capable of helping to trace the politics of mobility in particular, as well as politics more generally. Passports thus can be thought of as instances in which the relations, contradictions, convergences, and intersections of design and politics collide. In international relations, a passport is frequently defined as a booklet issued by a national government that identifies its bearer as a citizen of that country, with permission to travel abroad and return under the home nation’s protection. When traced back historically, through its capacities, and in relation to how design and politics operate, passports reveal various aspects of design as an activity that participates in the manipulation of the world, regardless of its initial and actual intentions.

The Politics of Design and the Design of Politics

While this book is primarily about passports as objects or devices, it is also about the politics that generate the design and use of the passport, as well as the politics generated by the design of the passport. In this sense, it is an intervention in how the politics of design and the design of politics can be explored through objects. These two approaches to understanding the relations between design and politics may help further expand on the complexities and ambiguity involved in questions of design and politics that have been addressed previously by design scholars from different perspectives. [1]

The politics of design can be thought of as relations that prescribe in advance what will and will not count as design, which order what is regulated and possible to regulate by those acts described as design practices. The politics of design is about ordering, devising, and distributing regulated and regulatable material practices. The politics of design defines who is to be called designer, and how one is qualified to talk about design; who understands the language of design and who is allowed to expand the language; who is making constructive criticism and who is foreign to it. What kind of designer can one become in such a world where the limits and meanings of the role are set out in advance? What happens when one has no place in the established regulation of the practice? [2] Much of this type of politics is produced historically and discursively, but it is also produced materially through diverse economic and intellectual practices derived from institutions in higher education; museums; the cultural, economic, and industrial sectors of government as well as commercial corporates, galleries, and design magazines (Forty 1995; Attfield 2000).

In the aftermath of Brexit, Deezen, a design blog, announced a passport design competition for “designs that present a positive vision of the post-Brexit UK to the world, and that represent all its citizens.” The banality of such a call in washing away the politics inherited through the Brexit vote, as well as ignoring the histories and complexities of passports, by treating them only as a symbol representing a nation-state, is not a surprise. Previously, a new design for the Norwegian passport had won several awards for its “Nordic touch.” Entitled “Norwegian Landscape” this entry won the contest run by the government due to the fact that “it both illustrates the Norwegian identity and makes sure the passport will be viewed as a document of high value” according to the judges (Howarth 2014). In these trivial, but very common, instances of “passport design,” questions concerning who has the authority to decide upon “the Norwegian identity” and perhaps how the designer(s), and consequently their design, enforce a particular Norwegian identity are not addressed. Moreover, the design of the passport is considered only in relation to its graphic reality, representational capacity, and its symbolic values—thus its designers will be only those graphic designers giving a visual language to its interface. Here a specific politics of design in relation to the passport is enacted, which argues that the only relation between the passport and its design is the way it looks visually, at surface level, omitting the relations and forces that a passport designs through its interactions with humans. Design thus is seen as a one-way process that can be inscribed into an object by those who see themselves as professional designers.

The design of politics on the other hand can be thought of as the materialities produced by different human and non-human actors that generate different conditions for certain politics to emerge. In other words, how materials produce possibilities, not necessary by the virtue of being made, but by being transformed intentionally by humans from one thing to another—wood becoming table—as well as how they produce impossibilities for certain bodies to move, inhabit, and act in particular moments and places.

In the eyes of the public, perhaps one of the most recent indicative examples of the way the design of politics operates are the spikes or other material obstacles deterring the possibility of sleeping for homeless persons in certain areas of various cities. While these are explicit cases of using material means to regulate an order of things—or in the words of designers or city authorities prevent “vandalism”—they do not tell us much about the complex forces and relations involved in issues of design and politics beyond that of aggressive, hostile, and obvious instrumental uses of design. By highlighting this particular example as the exclusively violent one, we tend to see design as a neutral and passive instrument that can be the carrier of “good” or “bad” ideologies and intentions. However in this book, by examining the passport and its specific design, I argue the opposite: that because design always entails an imagination of certain persons, ideologies, arguments, positions, and privileges being realized in the materiality of the world, design inevitably produces specific politics of life and living. These spikes have existed for a long time in other forms in train stations, on city clocks, and in other urban spaces to limit areas for birds to land. By reducing questions of design of politics to exceptional cases of violence against humans instrumentalized through design, we run the risk of forgetting the less explicit, less obvious aggression that resides in any operating design actions. To recognize them and to act upon them, a political understanding of design and a material understanding of politics are urgently needed, which would (i) situate design as a political activity, and (ii) include matters of reworking the material conditions and possibilities of the world in our conception of “the political.”

For this reason, I use the term “design politics” throughout this book to refer to the complex set of mutual relations that are the politics of design and the design of politics. In other words, this book throughout is an exploration of the concept of design politics, of what design politics, not only as a concept but also a series of practices, entails through examining the passport, its histories, its designing, and its transformations and reappropriations.

Thus, the design politics of the passport is about the politics produced by the material existence of passports historically and temporarily as much as the politics that drives their graphic reality. In this sense, the term “design” in this book is used in a complex and broad sense, but this does not necessarily make this a vague usage. To discuss the design of politics and the politics of design in a situated and concrete fashion, in relation to how the passport operates locally and globally, I use three meanings of the term “design.” While slightly different in what they do and generate, these usages nonetheless overlap and exist in every designed situation: (i) the designed thing (the passport); (ii) the activity of designing (the different practices, situations, and contexts involved in designing passports, technologically, bureaucratically, and materially); and (iii) the actions flowing from the designed thing and the activity of designing: what I call in Chapter 4passporting,” that is how passports design certain conditions of mobility and normalize certain bodies as being legal and others as semi-legal or illegal. This understanding of design comes from an ontological perspective. Such a perspective argues that human beings design their relations to the world and the future, as well as the possibilities to act in the present and future through designed objects, environments, services, and systems ( Willis 2006). In summary, through making a world possible by artifacts and artifactual relations, human beings remake the world constantly, and consequently into an artificial horizon ( Dilnot 2014). However, such a designed world is not passive and constantly kicks back; it “acts back on us and designs us” (Willis 2006: 70).

Following this, design in this book is understood as and in relation to the material practices generated by state and non-state actors in their promotion and production of a certain politics of movement. This is regardless of whether or not those material practices involved in politics of movement are seen or considered as design by design institutions and discourses. These political situations in return are considered as design or acts of designing that open up but also limit certain modes of being, moving and acting in the world. In this sense, by developing the concept of design politics this book expands the notion of the politics of design and the design of politics through the artifact of the passport, its generative practices, and the environments to which it gives shape. Overall, by thinking of passports in such an expanded manner and through interrogating the relations made possible by the artifice and the artifactual relations, this book goes beyond the idea of design as representation. Passports highlight the agency of design as an activity that consists not merely of designing artifacts and relations, but also of designing new environments in which new regimes of meaning-making and translations are produced. As much as these environments are socially constructed, they are materially sustained and reproduced; as much as they are real and pragmatic, they are fictional and illusionary. It is in this context that passports should be taken more seriously and deserve an analysis of their own. Rather than as a product or a servant of border politics, a designed service provider, we should think of passports as a set of relations within design politics that configure not only our perceptions of the world but also the possibilities for intervening into those perceptions.

Beyond a Representative Device

Passports mediate experiences of moving, residing, and, consequently, acting in the world. Due to this they can be “remediated” through other forms of representations, especially in cultural and artistic works. These works, through acknowledging the brutality of the passport as a system of control, deception, and regulation, try to open this banal booklet and redirect it as an object of thinking, imagination, and memory with the hope of reworking the hegemonic narrative prescribed to them.

Amita Kumar’s (2000) beautifully written book Passport Photos tackles various issues of identity, home, racism, and belonging through precisely those bureaucratic features that exist in passports: photos, signatures, names, sex, places of birth, and so on. Kumar’s powerful account works very well to reappropriate those bureaucratic features, turning them upside down and opening them up toward other stories: in his case often stories of the wretched, the forgotten, the underclass, and the pariah.

Some cultural practices that surround passports as a mediating metaphor for identity as well as a concrete object of identification can gain another layer of meaning after they are set in circulation. Ahmad Hammoud and Malak Ghazaly’s project Passport for the Stateless is a case in point. As part of a larger project Stateless of the World, Hammoud and Ghazaly have designed a passport for the stateless person, whose lack in being recognized by any state results in lacking a passport. As part of the exhibition Cairo Now at Dubai Design Week, Hammoud and Ghazaly sent their project to be shown at the exhibition, but when the passport arrived, it was signed off and every page was ripped off (Figure 1). State security considered this fictional passport of some value, which prompted them to try to invalidate it by signing off and ripping it apart.

Similarly, but in a different fashion, Khaled Jarrar’s State of Palestine stamp project unsettles the relations between borders, authority, and passports. Part of a larger project Live and Work in Palestine, Jarrar designed a visa stamp for Palestine, visited a bus station in the West Bank, and asked tourists for their passports to be stamped by the visa he designed (Figure 2). We often get our passports stamped when entering a legally existing territory. Jarrar, however, does the opposite. By stamping a visa from a non-existing territory—of course non-existing in the imaginary of the international community—into the existing legal passports, he redraws a map of Palestine and performs its borders. This happens at the moment of performance of asking for the passport and stamping it, as well as through the traces of stamp left on those circulating passports. He reminds us that passports or visas are not simply products or signifiers of the borders but rather the very components that constitute border politics. They are the very material and performative practices that produce borders. While these examples, among other ones, demonstrate, expand, and unsettle what a passport is, how it operates, and how it can be rethought differently, this book avoids engagement with artistic works concerning passports. This is because these works tend to metaphorize or universalize passports, tendencies that I aim to resist throughout this book. This is not because these approaches are redundant or unhelpful, but due to the fact that this book engages with very materialized, concrete, and non-representational situations and encounters that produce and are produced by the passport.

It might be true that passports are just another material technique of border control. However, their unique emergence, transformation, and existence can illuminate the complexity of how mobility and immobility can be produced and communicated through material practices. More specifically, due to their particular materiality and technical configurations, passports are different from barbed wire, for example. While one of the most important and determining actors in development and promotion of mobility across territories as a modern phenomenon, their specific capacities in facilitating, regulating, and producing identification at any moment and place make them unique compared to other techniques of control.

Another factor that makes passports special compared to other material techniques of border control is their actual mobility due to their configuration. Compared to the majority of border techniques, which are technically fixed and bound to the geographical location of the border, passports are conceived to be mobile, to be carried. A passport that does not accompany a mobile body fails its purpose from the perspective of the issuing authority. This makes the passport a very interesting case for studying mobility and immobility as a design paradigm that shapes specific politics of movement and migration. This book aims to follow such materialized and designed relationships and shows how passports are not only representative devices of bodies, identities, and mobilities as frequently framed by states and passport authorities, as well as the majority of the scholarship in security and border studies. Through a social and material history of passports, including lived experiences and accounts of travelers without the “right” papers, as well as those who forge and fake relationships between bodies and passports, this book argues that passports produce bodies, migratory movements, and mobilities. If this argument is true, then their design is not only operative in the formation of their shape, color, and graphics, but also more broadly in how they shape interactions between bodies and the world.

Mobility Regimes: Practices, Performances, and Articulations

A passport as a specific device of bordering politics and practice acts on behalf of the border. Passports are called upon whenever or wherever the necessity of a border is felt or desired by certain states, groups, or individuals. At the same time, they have the capacity of producing borders, stretching them temporally and spatially beyond the geopolitical lines at the edge of the territories. In this sense, passports have always been a device for “delocalization of borders” (Bigo 2002; Mountz 2011), a prevailing paradigm in recent critical literature in border studies. Because they are designed to be used, asked, traded, and reused beyond the actual territorial borders, they are capable of moving borders with themselves as it will be explained in detail in Chapter 4.

This is why it is important to understand the passport as a designed artifact that not only serves states’ purposeful and oppressive policies of movement in the interest of capital and national discourses, but also a device that actively directs, frames, and articulates our understanding of contemporary politics in general and of mobility regimes in particular. By the term “mobility regime” I do not mean that celebrated notion of “new mobilities” (Sheller and Urry 2006) which emerged from post-modern discourses entangled with the acceleration of globalization of the time. Such an approach to mobilities has been challenged recently by the claim that mobilities should be understood in terms of a regime, to avoid the creation of dualities and to prevent the production of a homogenous analytic lens that discusses every mobile individual due to its assumed shared condition: mobility (Glick Schiller and Salazar 2013). While following such a critique in general, this book pushes such criticism further and argues for an understanding of mobility in relation to how mundane, material, and performative small encounters and situations configure possibilities of movement vis-à-vis the claim upon the right to move. In this sense, I interpret the mobility regime through the ways in which under particular historical and material circumstances, certain practices merge into each other, forge relations, and produce “self-evident” realities in a given time such as (un)desired migratory flows.

My understanding of “the regime” comes from the ways in which Michel Foucault discusses “practices” of knowledge production within and beyond institutions (Foucault 1977, 1978, 1991) and how these practices form a regime through repetitions, acceptance, legitimization, and normalization. In other words, regimes of practices help us “to study [the] interplay between a ‘code’, which rules ways of doing things (how people are to be graded and examined, things and signs classified, individuals trained, etc.) and a production of true discourses which serve to found, justify and provide reasons and principles for these ways of doing things” (Foucault 1991: 79).

Those practices do not exist in isolation. They are performed historically and in relation to other practices, both material and discursive. In order to exercise power, regimes of practices need to be performed. The performance of practices reveals the performativity of sovereignty. Regimes of practices that produce conditions of immobility, in truth, perform certain forms of sovereignty, power, and statehood. In line with Judith Butler’s theorization of gender as performative (1988), the state can also be understood through its “stylized repetition of acts” such as policies, customs, paperwork, and institutions. Through its practices performed by human actors—civil servants, citizens, non-citizens, and so forth—as well as non-human actors—artifacts such as passports—the state reinforces its sovereignty (Doty 1996; Weber 1998; Feldman 2005).

However, regimes of practices and their performances within the world are not just there or given. While they are planned, their performative repetitions never produce the same result but contingent outcomes that come from a series of relations. I understand these relations as “articulations.” Articulation in this work refers to a “form of [...] connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions. It is a linkage which is not necessary, determined, absolute and essential for all time” ( Grossberg and Hall 1986: 144). Articulation is not merely discursive or ideological; it is embedded in the historical conditions and material practices in which it happens. Stuart Hall (1996) argues that any articulation is always already materially and historically embedded. In his famous essay on race and uneven development in the context of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Hall explains such embeddedness as “tendential combinations” that are “not prescribed in the fully determinist sense” but are nevertheless “‘preferred’ combinations sedimented and solidified by real historical development over time” (330).

For instance, one of the most important historical forces that have shaped the contemporary mobility regime to a great degree is colonialism. Scholars working in fields other than design have powerfully evinced how concrete material practices of mobility were invented, designed, developed further, and used on a mass scale through colonialism. They show how the regulation of the movement of certain bodies and in particular the policing of migration and migration policies are extensively shaped by colonialism and its aftermath. For instance, how the violence of everyday life in colonies is organized and normalized through specific architecture, design, and development of racially divided zones, towns, streets, buildings, and institutions ( Fanon 1963; Çelik 1997); or how a specific artifact such as barbed wire, designed, and produced for the specific site of agriculture moved to the sites of colonial wars, and later mass sequestration and detention (Netz 2010); or how the specific identification technique of biometrics was developed by the colonial state of South Africa (Breckenridge 2014); and how the current migration family visa is shaped by colonial legacies regulating domestic spaces in colonies (Turner 2014).

Therefore, articulation is about situating linkages that are inherited historically. It is also about the ability to connect and recognize disconnections, and the possibilities for forging new relations produced and generated within the materialities of the world, their histories, and their capacities. In this sense, the passport is one of the “material articulations” of the mobility regime. It does this through forging connections between different and dispersed technological, bureaucratic, and administrative practices, which consequently produce contradictory wholes, such as a nation or citizenship. By locating the passport as a material articulation of the mobility regime, we can situate the design of a passport as a matter of articulation, which allows us to discuss how the possibility to move and act is constantly produced through mundane design decisions in different localities and across time. Whereas the enforcement of carrying passports while crossing borders might be a top-down decision made by states, particularly in the Global North, the details of passports as a system of control are negotiated among different participants of the regime: politicians, lobbyists, security researchers, security companies, activists advocating privacy rights, graphic and interaction designers, existing technologies, protocols, standard organizations, and so on. This is why I do not attempt to find a single designer behind the passport but try to explore a regime of design practices that can be examined, opened up, and challenged through the single artifact of the passport.

This understanding of design’s involvement in the politics of movement thus goes beyond a dichotomy of connection/disconnection or mobility/immobility, and points to the complex ways in which the national and international circulation of goods, bodies, capital, and labor requires a giant political apparatus articulated through dispersed material practices to render certain circuits possible and other circuits impossible ( Salter 2013). As recent scholarly works of critical border studies (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013; Nail 2016) argue, borders do not merely exclude and include. They produce a flow. Without borders the circulation of capital, labor, and wealth would not operate. Thus, borders do not regulate mobility; they produce mobility. The question, however, is what kind of mobility they produce and what type of bodies, things, and histories get to be mobile over other ones and at what and whose cost.

Up until the recent “material turn” in social sciences, most humanities scholars have only dealt with the discursive aspect of the mobility regime and migration in terms of its production, negotiation, or contestation. At the same time, design scholars have widely overlooked the active presence of design and designing as a historical and material agent in shaping the current order of mobility and immobilizing certain populations. This book puts forward a suggestion that design researchers need to study these practices from the perspective of the agency of design by recognizing the politics they generate. Moreover, it suggests that migration researchers need to pay attention not only to the materiality of the processes that render certain bodies as migrants, as legalized or illegalized travelers which has been done recently (Squire 2014; Walters 2014; Andersson 2016), but also to how these processes are designed, persuaded, and consumed. This is necessary in order to understand how the mundane and seemingly apolitical makings and details of design emerge as a distinctively economic and political activity that articulates specific mobility regimes both historically and in the present. Moreover, beyond the production and regulation of certain bodies and their abilities to move and reside at will, this will help us to examine how design practices develop spaces and conditions of normalcy, acceptability, or what design scholar Tony Fry (2015: 85) calls a “designed system of compliance.” Such designed systems produce unequal, exploitative, and violent relations that are not seen or experienced as violent by hegemonic orders and ruling classes who enjoy the smoothness of mobility promised by discourses of innovation and progress.

Travelers Without the “Right” Papers

While following the existing scholarly works on the passport and expanding the themes explored previously such as the passport as a producer of the state ( Torpey 2000; Robertson 2010), as a biopolitical device (Salter 2003), or as a specific European identification technique ( Groebner 2007), this book approaches the passport from the perspective of those who do not own one or do not have access to one that can guarantee them equal admission into the current mobility regime.

Whereas this book focuses on a specific artifact, its material reality, and the relations it produces in different situations, it can also be thought of as a book about bodies. However, it focuses on how the design of a specific device shapes, regulates, and orientates bodies and their abilities to move. In doing so, it brings together the stories of heterogeneous travelers who are rendered a “group” by their lived experiences of their passports or lack thereof: asylum seekers, refugees, undocumented migrants, or what I chose to call “travelers without the right papers.” Rather than being about highly mobile bodies as a celebrated phenomenon of globalization, or nomadic bodies as a celebrated and fetishized intellectual romanticism, this book is about those bodies being immobilized by passports and their design politics.

This research started primarily as my doctoral project on the material conditions that produce and sustain undocumentedness (Keshavarz 2016). During those years I listened to the stories of undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, and border transgressors in Sweden and in other European countries. Passports have been a particularly significant form of evidence, central in many stories and memories retold by different individuals I have met over the last seven years. What was common to all these individuals with different legal statuses in crossing borders or in residing in the territories they were located was the lack of a passport, or the lack of a “valuable” one, or a “right” visa. The stories in this book are told from the perspectives of those who have traveled and resided without the “right” paper. The term “right” here refers to two meanings of the term ironically: (i) being right in relation to the legal framework in which those papers are assessed; (ii) right in its social and political status in current international politics and geopolitics. For instance, having a Swedish passport—as I have obtained very recently—is an especially “righteous” paper in crossing international borders. However my Iranian passport is not sufficient in granting me the same freedom of movement I enjoy with my Swedish passport. This is also subject to time and changing geopolitics. A Yugoslavian red passport could get its bearer to almost all countries in the world without a visa, even during the Cold War. By 2008, however, the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia could travel visa-free to only about one tenth of the world’s 200 states (Jansen 2009).

According to the latest report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 2017), there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world. This is the highest recorded level registered by the UNHCR. Turkey, Pakistan, and Uganda are the top three on the list of hosting countries. This is opposed to a common assumption that considers Europe as the main “host-nation.” At the same time, these statistics do not tell us anything about the lived experiences, struggles, and resistance of travelers without the right papers all over the world and about the conditions imposed upon them. This book thus tries to set the possibility to recognize border transgressors and travelers without the right papers as some of the foremost political narrators of our much-lauded era of globalization, mobility, democracy, and human rights, when what they do not have access to is not human rights but “the right to have rights” in the words of Hannah Arendt (1973).

To take the struggle of travelers without the right papers seriously means also to recognize the risks that such approach might entail. Beyond misrepresentation and homogenizing heterogeneous individuals and their different politics and practices, my work runs the risk of producing tools, analysis, knowledge, and materials that assist the state and other entities in their policies and regulations against those whose stories I tell. Previously, Paulo Freire (1968) has warned us—as researchers—that “the real danger lies in the risk of shifting the focus of the investigation from meaningful themes to the people themselves, thereby treating the people as objects of the investigation” (107). This runs the risk of “constructing” people and their suffering as problems to be analyzed, solved, and, consequently, given the social scientific treatment ( Sayad 2004) or design solution that they “deserve.” This is why I have tried to write this book in a way that focuses on specific conditions of immobility and the regimes of practices that shape those conditions as opposed to focusing on the travelers without the right papers themselves. In this sense, I do not aim to study travelers without the right papers whose presumed homogenized “culture” and “practices” can be objectified for the use of institutions that have (re)produced categories such as immigrant, refugees, and asylum seekers. I rather try to problematize specific produced, made, and articulated material realities within the conditions of immobility through re-narrating the accounts given by individuals whose lives have been conditioned by lack of a (right) passport. It is a form of co-interrogation of the materiality of borders and nation-states as a maintenance force behind such productions and articulations, from the critical standpoint of travelers without the right papers. The anthropologist Nicholas De Genova (2005) calls such interactions a form of “anti-anthropological ethnography.” While stories told here are individual ones, the book seeks to bring a collective experience to the fore. This is not to say that I only put individual stories together in order to produce a homogenous category. Instead, I try to weave them together as a shared history. This is a shared history of those who are subject to the violence of the material articulations of immobility and their resistance against that violence.

One important issue in relation to those whom I retell their stories is the issue of gender. The majority of stories in this book are stories of young men or more accurately unaccompanied male minors. There are various reasons for this. I came to contact with many of the travelers without the right papers through my engagement in a local support group in Malmö. There I met mostly unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan and Somalia. However this can be thought from another perspective too: borders call as well as filter certain bodies in relation to their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, wealth, health, and class. To see, situate, and understand the bodies that “successfully” cross borders, that survive the violence of the mobility regime in order to re-narrate their lived experiences of bordering, tells us a lot about borders as various forms of “ethnosexualised frontiers” (Nagel 2003).

A few notes on the ethical issues around this book: I have changed the names of all those who shared their stories with me in this book (except when otherwise stated). I have also changed some nationalities on request. In addition, I have changed the locations of our meetings and encounters (except when otherwise stated). There are some details of practices of forgery shared by those who I interviewed that I do not reveal, as this runs the risk of revealing important techniques used by some at the time of writing. There is, however, some information in Chapter 4 about the price and types of passport available on the market that I have written about. This information is not specific and will not hinder border crossers if it is shared. Indeed, any simple online search will show the different options available, and these prices more or less match the information given by the forgers I met and interviewed.

Passport Situations

This book is structured into short blocks, organized around the moments and situations that can be called “passport situations.” Passport situations can be thought of as those situations when and where a passport is important, thus rendering it as an operative as well as illuminative agent of making relationships. Moreover, situations here can also refer to the moments and localities that a passport produces. There is a binding relationship between these specific situations and passports. Passports are the producer of a condition through which passport situations emerge, and are experienced, confronted, contested, or negotiated.

To focus on situations created by passports is to avoid a universal or global history and story of the passport. As I argue for tracing the articulations of the mobility regime and call for a designerly as well as a political understanding of how they produce practices, rationalities, and persuasions, a global or universal account of these articulations is impossible. My attempt to sketch histories of the passport in the next chapter should be read in this context. More than the or a history of the passport, this chapter highlights a series of “passport situations,” where different design decisions and technological practices entangle with economic and political contexts of different times, and fashion the passport as a functional product of progress and civilization. Chapter 3 focuses on how power relations produce and are produced by passports. This is done through a non-linear move from the artificial to the political and back again; from the design of passports, to their biopolitical features, to the reverse of this; from objects, to ecologies, to bodies, and back to designed interfaces mediating experiences of immobility. This is an attempt to explore how design and politics operate internally and mutually.

Chapter 4 expands these internal operations of the design politics of passports by focusing on what I call “passporting” and its operational modes. Materialities, sensibilities, part-taking, and translating as the four main modes of passporting are discussed and analyzed. I show how the same modes that make the passport legible lay the ground for the limits and vulnerability of passporting and the mobility regime. I do so by showing how forgery uses them to obtain a degree of mobility for those who have no self-determined place in the mobility regime.

Previous works on passports as objects of analysis focus only on passports in themselves and stop the analysis at the point of production and use of passports. This runs the risk of freezing this artifact as unchangeable. From design’s perspective, discussing the passport without identifying its possibilities of being remade, reappropriated, and redesigned seems incomplete. Forgery as an act of redesigning passports and the relations and situations they produce, through recognizing the very artificiality of those relations, is also an inevitable element of the passport. Without passports, forgery would not exist, and without forgery, passports would not be redesigned constantly with higher security standards. Discussing one without the other seems a half-done task from a design scholar’s point of view. This is the issue tackled in Chapter 5. Through a series of interviews with forgers, this chapter frames forgery as a specific critical technical practice that sometimes teaches us about the material politics of the mobility regime better than the object of inquiry in itself.

The final chapter of this book reflects on how the study of the passport and its regimes of practice can be helpful in establishing a wider concept of design politics. It shows the vulnerability of design in its artifactual relations to the world as well as the limits of its intervention into the world. This may help to sketch out an account of what an ethics of design could entail, based on the struggles of those whose relation to the world and its possibilities of access, movement, and residence are limited and yet are negotiated by design constantly. Such an understanding of an ethics of design is concerned with recognizing the politics and history involved in (re)designing artifacts such as passports, as well as interrogating the relations and conditions that produce a world so inhabitable and open to some, yet so violent, confined, and unlivable to others, who struggle to remake and rearticulate it. This book is an attempt to emphasize such historical and political urgency in design and designing.



[1] These investigations can be seen extensively in the work of Tony Fry (2010), Carl DiSalvo (2012), and Albena Yaneva (2017), who by using different theoretical frameworks concludes very different takes on the relations between design and politics. Tony Fry’s trilogy on design, politics, and futuring and specifically Design as Politics (2010) places design as an inherently and ontologically political action that can potentially explore new configurations of politics required to address the unsustainable future we are facing. Fry builds his critique of the current forms of politics and design practice based on various works of political philosophy and argues for a move beyond instrumental treatment of design in and for politics. Carl DiSalvo (2012) rather gives a specific name to the interplay of design and politics. Drawing on Chantal Mouffe’s works on “agonistic pluralism” and “the political,” Adversarial design is the name given by him to a series of design practices within computational design that perform certain acts of agonism among human and non-human adversaries. However, by outlining conditions for political design in general and adversarial design in particular, DiSalvo gives adversarial design an important new role of political agency, as if the designed world of objects, services, relations, experiences, and things is not already political. Another recent work on the relation between design and politics is Alberta Yaneva’s book on architecture and its potential for the political. Since Yaneva builds her main argument heavily based on Bruno Latour’s work, she partly dismisses the subjectivities and histories involved in the process of making. For her, politics is not a matter of who makes things but how things come together.

[2] I have borrowed this understanding of politics of design practice from the ways in which Judith Butler interprets Michel Foucault’s ideas in relation to how subjectivity is formed within established domains of knowledge (Butler 2004a: 314).