For a long time, the direction seemed to be clear: the days of remote areas were numbered and it was only a question of time before they would all become developed, governed, and firmly integrated into the global ethico-politics of democracy, heritage making and tourism. But 25 years after the end of the Cold War – with more than half of this period under the ‘war on terror’ – we see remoteness return in ways we have yet to fully understand.
Seen from the vantage point of global ‘centers’ of power, one driver for renewed remoteness in today’s world is insecurity. The Sahel-Sahara region or the highlands of Asia from the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands to Xinjiang, Tibet, and northern Burma, to give a few examples, are zones where dominant concerns with insecurity and danger are fuelling armed intervention and political isolation. The result is remote ‘black holes’ from where little information escapes. As insecure zones are ‘de-familiarized’ in this way, colonial fantasies of the remote, strange and wild frontier are also being reactivated – with large sociopolitical consequences for both global ‘centers’ and ‘margins’.
At the same time, newly remote areas are fundamentally connected to the world economy in unequal ways. Anthropologists have long documented such connections, criticising dominant narratives of remoteness, as they have travelled along trade and transport routes in the Sahara (Scheele 2012) or across the Himalayas (Saxer 2013); unearthed violent resource extractions in the Amazon or Indonesia’s rainforests (Tsing 2005); and ‘followed the people’ across distant desert borders. Looking at the newly remote areas from on high, too, even more connections become evident: for the very same global ‘centers’ that are seeking to distance themselves from these areas are also actively forging connections with them. These connections are often shallow, brutal or counterproductive, as seen in the ‘remote-controlled’ drone attacks in the ‘AfPak’ borderlands; in the use of mercenaries and middlemen in distant wars; and in the extension of western-funded border controls into faraway frontier zones. Such frontier zones, however recent or constructed their remoteness may be, are increasingly seen as ‘havens’ for terrorists and as transit routes for drugs, wildlife and migrants. Concerns with such transnational ‘threats’ are turning remote regions into laboratories for new border technologies (Andersson 2014). Remoteness is here productive: to security professionals, loggers and smugglers alike, being ‘out of reach’ is itself a key asset in that it allows for forging frontier economies and security apparatuses away from the public eye.
How to understand this return of remoteness in the early 21st century? What stakes are involved as parts of the world are selectively de-familiarized and distanced from global centers – and who wins and who loses out in this process? In debating such questions, this research initiative will build on recent conceptualizations (especially Harms, Hussain and Shneiderman 2014) to consider how anthropology may contribute to a better grasp of the politics of remoteness in today’s world, while arguing for a ‘return to remoteness’ in anthropology itself as we critically reactivate our disciplinary heritage.
A special issue on the Return of Remoteness is currently under review and scheduled for publication in 2019.
Panel at EASA 2016, Milano