Foucauldian Landscapes: Re-Envisioning the Forgotten Spaces of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Samuel Truett’s Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands examines the industrial development of the Arizona-Sonora border in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Major themes include the significance of railroads and mining operations as conveyors of modernity, environmental and social challenges to technological growth, and the relationship between labor and capital during this period. He proposes the idea of the “fugitive landscape” as a space where environmental and social conditions can lead to technology failure and the frustration of state-corporate endeavors to extend their influence. The governments of Mexico and the United States, in conjunction with their business allies, sought to exert control over the borderlands by regulating and regimenting the bodies of new settlers who arrived to work in rail construction, mining, and other ventures. They deployed “apparatuses of security” to police these populations and separate them from Native American communities that resisted the modern nation-state. Michel Foucault’s theoretical frameworks of governmentality and bio-power are useful to explore the transformations wrought by the deployment of public and private institutions in the borderlands, alongside industrial technology, which served to extend the reach of modernity to a once “fugitive” space.

In Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume One, he describes how eighteenth-century preoccupations with the control of human bodies emerged alongside the formation of schools, barracks, and notions of public health. Whereas the monarch had posited control over death as an indication of his sovereignty, modern nation-states’ expression of “power was now carefully supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life.” A nascent trend toward regulation and regimentation made the body a site of political contestation; managing populations and monitoring perceived threats to the whole became central concerns of the state (Foucault, History of Sexuality: Vol. I, 139-41). This discussion speaks to Foucault’s notion of governmentality, which refers to the use of statistical analysis and “apparatuses of security” in the management of populations. In Security, Territory, Population, he traces the transformation of the medieval state into one that became increasingly administrative and bureaucratic during the Renaissance. This functional change emphasizes a key difference between medieval states, which focused on largely controlling a sovereign’s spatial realm to modern states that have sought to “improve the condition of the population, to increase its wealth, its longevity, and its health” as a means of expressing state sovereignty and power (Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 104-110).

Fugitive landscapes are spaces that evade the processes of quantification and state domination that Foucault described. This concept acknowledges the existence of territory and people located outside or along the margins of the nation-state. Before the arrival of railroads and new forms of communication in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, communities living in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands could more easily resist government attempts at assimilation thanks to the challenges posed by natural topography and sheer geographic remoteness. In the late nineteenth century, however, private corporations and state institutions, including the army, police, and public health services, transformed the borderlands into a space that was compartmentalized, measured, and controlled. Foucault’s notion of bio-power is important when conceptualizing the demographic changes that occurred along the border as thousands of new Anglo-American immigrants quickly remade extant social relations and sought to dislodge Apaches and other communities from their land. He notes how the social body is transformed by the modes of production into units of input to be used by capitalism. This process creates the “factors of segregation and social hierarchization… guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony (Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 141).”

By centering the discussion on the body, as Foucault does, it becomes possible to recognize how the state signifies certain bodies as “legitimate” and others as not. In the 1870s and 1880s, the laborers that migrated to the Arizona-Sonora borderlands to work in the extractive industries became the populations that required protections by government and corporate entities. The Chiricahua Apaches represented the obverse; governmentality deployed the apparatuses of security against them to isolate their communities and subvert their resistance to U.S. and Mexican hegemonies (Truett, 44; 115-16).

This relationship also uncovers the mutability of technology when wielded by state institutions. Whereas the railroads had been used to bring “modernity” and Anglo Americans to the regions for several years, in 1886 it became a tool of dislocation that saw the mass deportation of “hostile” Indian populations. With the extension of governmentality over the borderlands, the Apache were converted, at gunpoint, from “fugitive subjects” into quantifiable populations disciplined by the modern state. Their removal from the region also reorganized power relations as social hierarchies adjusted in the United States to the detriment of Mexicans, Chinese, and others; twenty-one years later many of these groups, along with labor organizers, faced deportation by railcar from Bisbee, Arizona in 1917 (Truett, 174-77).

By applying Foucault’s notions of power and the state within the transnational context of the Arizona-Sonora region, it becomes possible to see how domination unfolds in different ways. Mexican, U.S., and corporate governmentalities subjected the borderlands’ fugitive landscapes to new forms of surveillance, control, and quantification, while also transforming existing social relations and threatening resident populations with dislocation if they posed resistance to these measures (Truett, 102). Recognizing this patchwork of domination as a larger, binational governmentality allows for an appreciation of how competing (and sometimes contradictory) state interests ultimately contributed, as a whole, to the overall process of hegemony in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

The state’s war on fugitive landscapes speaks to the way that national authorities employed governmentality to eliminate ambiguity in an attempt to ensure that within their boundaries nothing could resist observation, regulation, and quantification. This process also addresses nation-states attempt to define themselves along their territorial margins, uncovering the ways in which identity production and power are reinforced in the metropole via the periphery. Truett and Foucault, together, unveil the transnational characteristics of domination in the borderlands and how state technologies can be used to refashion and discipline existing social, economic, and political relationships.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume One. New York: Vintage, 1990.

———-. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. New York: Picador, 2007.

Truett, Samuel. Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Categories: Methodology | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Foucauldian Landscapes: Re-Envisioning the Forgotten Spaces of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

  1. Nice thoughts, Mike. Thank you for sharing them here. Reminds me, in part, of how Alex Stern, citing Foucault, approaches medicalization and the border in her essay “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood”:

    “Framing my exploration of one conjuncture and facet of United States modernity through the imbricated triad of buildings, boundaries, and blood enables me to begin to unravel what a spatial narrative of biopower might look like. By setting down an underlying theoretical matrix centered on biopower, a perversely modern style and strategy of “disciplining the body and of regulating populations,” I can move from the realm of the singular body and subjectivity to that of the body politic and nation imagined. In his illuminating analysis of Foucault’s concepts of governmentality, practices of the self, and normalization, Mitchell Dean explains the historical symbiosis between biopower and epistemology, writing that the exercise of biopower is not possible without the development of specific forms of rationality and discourse taking the individual, body and soul, and the population, and its component parts, as objects of knowledge.The specific forms of rationality and discourse that I address in this essay are the cultural and social-scientific formations of eugenics and public health, both of which were emphatically central to racialization, definitions of citizenship, and the legitimation of violence during the I9IOs and 192Os. (52-53)”

    Some research I have done on disease control and quarantine along the US-Mexico border has solidified to me the usefulness of the notion of biopower in interpreting these processes.

  2. Michael K. Bess

    Agreed, reading Stern’s article was really an eye-opening experience for me to see how she deeply incorporated a discussion of Foucault’s theories into her research and narrative. I definitely think it’s something we, as scholars, should pursue further. I always recommend her work to others.

  3. Pingback: Borderlands History Blog Turns 1 « Borderlands History

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