Orienting to im/mobility

This image is a screenshot of El Paso zoning maps accessed online. The ICE detention center described here is underneath the corner where the three maps overlap.

The questions came out of walks — from El Paso Service Processing Center (ICE Detention) to the Bus Route 50 stop, outside USPS on Boeing Ave. On sandstorm nights, the walk was lean and grimace, spit and hack. The wide stretches required it; long blocks zoned postwar. Required wait, corners of dust lots labelled “Property of US Government,” under the airport watch tower and the Super Guppy’s tarmac gleam.

The questions came out of an academic not-being-inside, a pitch for different archives, accessed in days of closures; “I am testing the audio through the cloth mask, the first soundwalk recording began. Walking as a means of recreation, re-creation, re-routing. The “outdoor space which skims Property of US Government is always abutting, othering, occluding enclosure.

Lining El Paso routes directed by fencing begins to make visible im/mobility[i] — the movements of some bodies reliant on the constrictions of others. In the site which forged these questions, rapid transit passes fences to detention; Apollo rocket containers glide barred windows, the deportation flight tarmac’s the next block down from NASA. Beyond: White Sands Missile Range, arriving flights of refugees to Fort Bliss, outgoing military freight on tracks.

Sara Ahmed binds the structure of spaces of im/mobility to whiteness as a bad habit, as “a series of actions that are repeated, forgotten, and that allow some bodies to take up space by restricting the mobility of others.”[ii] A habituated space of im/mobility, to Ahmed, represents the repetitions and forgettings of whiteness. Power puts spaces of im/mobility out of sense (sensation), and in so doing, out of memory.

The forgetting forging im/mobility is both inhabited and material. As textual documents of this enclosed site are disappeared from archives, what mapping could come from the outer bounds, outdoors, site and walk themselves taken as archives? By walking spaces of im/mobility, we wondered, what layers, what fleshy collections, what noticings and increments?

Derrida “places” archive: “the meaning of ‘archive’ its only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded … it is at their home, in that place which is their house … that official documents are filed.” The archive as place is at once site of power, the power which frames the ability to inhabit (in-habit), and delimits access to the site itself. “It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place.”[iii] What, then, does it mean to not have access to archive, for the archive itself to be delimited space, restriction of motion? What does it mean for the place where power resides to be occluded?

While this walk-based investigation emerged from the archival occlusions of the pandemic, the closures of places, our understanding of the dis-appearance of residences of state power came to be specified historically through the frame of carceral geography. Carceral geography understands im/mobility as a set of social relationships, dispersed across a landscape beyond the site of prisons, themselves read as “partial geographical solutions to political crises” (Ruth Wilson Gilmore).[iv] Geographer and filmmaker Brett Story articulates disappearance as an attribute of contemporary prisons:

Prisons are, after all, by design and definition, spaces of disappearance. They disappear (or attempt to disappear) the people inside them. And they are themselves increasingly disappeared from the dense social spaces where many of us live and move around … But prisons are disappeared in other ways as well. They are disappeared behind common ideas, exploited anxieties, and persistent mythologies … In this sense, not only are they themselves disappeared, but they perform a disappearing trick of their own. For, as well as disappearing people, prisons also disappear the social crises that they are tasked, in practice, with resolving: poverty, unemployment, political dissent, inequality, uneven development.[v]

This disappearing trick has to do with what can be seen, and by whom. Disappearance becomes a trick of visuality — “the structures that inform how we see and determine who has the right to look, where, and at what, as well as who has the power to choose who and what is visible.”[vi] Kaia Sand’s 2010 Remember to Wave documents a walking route in the vicinity of the Portland Exposition Center, site of Japanese American incarceration and former stockyard, surrounded by a flood-prone area of precarious, low-cost housing for workers before more recent gentrification. The project is prompted by a question about the potential in poetry to map as a means of seeing:

I began to wonder how we might map the thickness of time and its political history. Where were all these graves Lucille [Clifton] urged me to remember? Beneath condominiums? Under widening swells of water? Within pastures of graves more clearly marked? If we couldn’t see them, how could we remember them?[vii]

Sand opens the typewritten, collaged book with the questions:

How do I notice
what I don’t notice?

How do I notice
what I don’t know
I don’t notice?[viii]

A noticing and poetic noting becomes response to the occlusions and re-direction of sight prompted by architectures of disappearance. Applying lenses of carceral geography to contemporary poetry, this commentary will explore poetics that aim to sense and archive a spatial organization of power in sites of im/mobility. The focus will be on in-process or recently published works that take a delimited local frame, investigating geographies whose span is bound by the body in walking and dwelling: a neighborhood, a refugee camp, the fairgrounds of a gun show, a prison, a route to work. The body, as seer and sensor, maps — measures a contact zone, presses through thresholds and abuts proximities, makes present duplicate and shadow meanings, foldings, and near arrivals.

The questions of this commentary are inherently pedagogical, insofar as they address fraught processes of coming to see and sense a space of dis-appearance through poetics. This commentary accompanies a collective study among our group of research fellows at El Paso Community College/ the University of Texas at El Paso, creating a series of sound walks focused on carceral geography in El Paso. Commentaries will take the form of close readings, conversations with poets, and thematic explorations. Please reach out with thoughts and wonders, and ideas for topics and poets within this scope.

i. Deirdre Conlon, Nancy Hiemstra, and Alison Mountz, “Spatial Control: Geographical Approaches to the Study of Immigration Detention” in Global Detention Project Working Paper, no. 24 (September 2017).

ii. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 129.

iii. Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (1995), 9–10.

iv. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), 26.

v. Brett Story, Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power Across Neoliberal America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 167–68.

vi. Institute of the Arts and Sciences, UC Santa Cruz, Visualizing Abolition— Carceral Visuality.

vii. Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave (Oa’hu, HI: Tinfish Press, 2010), 7.

viii. Sand, Remember to Wave, 3.