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Performing Schengen: myths, rituals and the making of European territoriality beyond Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2010


Myth-making has historically been an essential component of the modern state's quest for territorial control and legitimacy. As a sui generis post-national political entity in search for identity and recognition, the European Union (EU) seems to mimicking its more established national counterpart. By formulating and reproducing a narrative that hails Europe's border control regime (‘Schengen’) as a success story of European integration and by deploying evocative imagery at Europe's common borders, the EU is in fact trying to establish itself as an integral part of the European political landscape. This article argues that what we are witnessing today in Europe is indeed the emergence of the ‘myth of Schengen’; however, the regime's mythopoiesis goes beyond the EU's official narrative and symbolic representations. To capture the full range of actors, locations and activities involved in the establishment and reproduction of this post-national myth, it is necessary to shift the attention to the performative dimension of this process. To support this argument, the article relies on the insights of anthropological and sociological works that have emphasised the role of rituality and performativity in constituting social structures and identities. These insights are then applied to examine the rituals and performances characterising four cases of ‘unofficial’ Schengen myth-making beyond Europe: a hotel in Beijing, street kids in Kinshasa, a British music band, and a group of Eastern European artists.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2010

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1 Luxembourg Presidency, ‘Twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Schengen Agreements’, Press Release (2 June 2005).

2 See C. Shore, Building Europe: The Cultural Politics of European Integration (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); and Tobias Theiler, Political Symbolism and European Integration (Manchester University Press, 2005). Some classic examples of what in EU jargon is called the Union's ‘cultural policy’ include the creation of the European passport, flag and anthem.

3 A. D. Smith, National Identity (London: Penguin 1991).

4 Chiara Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth (Cambridge University Press, 2007); Christopher Flood, Political Myth (London: Routledge 2002); Lance W. Bennett, ‘Myth, Ritual, and Political Control’, Journal of Communication, 30:4 (1980), pp. 166–79; H. Tudor, Political Myth (London: MacMillan, 1972); see also G. Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York: AMS Press, 1975) and Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946).

5 On rituals, see Bobby C. Alexander, ‘Ritual and Current Studies of ritual: overview’, in Steven D. Glazer (ed.), Anthropology of Religion: a Handbook (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1997); Steven Lukes, ‘Political Ritual and Social Integration’, Sociology, 9:2 (1975), pp. 289–308; Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Fiona Bowie, The Anthropology of Religion: an introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), ch. 10. On political rituals, see David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics, and Power (Yale University Press, 1989).

6 David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics, and Power, p. 8.

7 Fiona Bowie, The Anthropology of Religion, p. 151; Steven Lukes, ‘Political Ritual and Social Integration’, p. 290.

8 Flood, Political Myth, pp. 184,187.

9 Robert Alan Segal, The Myth and Ritual Theory: An Anthology (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1998).

10 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).

11 Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth, p. 132.

12 Tudor, Political Myth, p. 138.

13 Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth, p. 14.

14 Flood, Political Myth, p. 44; emphasis added.

15 Ibid. p. 41.

16 A. D. Smith, National Identity; Anthony D. Smith, ‘Will and Sacrifice: Images of National Identity’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30:3 (2001), pp. 571–84.

17 Smith, National Identity.

18 Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (University of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 225–6.

19 Sorel, Reflections on Violence; Tudor, Political Myth, p. 123.

20 Cassirer, The Myth of the State; Flood, Political Myth, p. 36.

21 Flood, Political Myth, p. 37.

22 Bottici, A philosophy of Political Myth, p. 132; emphasis added.

23 The anthropologist Malinowski is one of the major exponents of this structural-functionalist approach to myth-making. In his view, the ‘indispensable’ function that myth fulfils is that ‘it expresses, enhances and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of rituals and contains practical rules for the guidance of man’ (1974), p. 101.

24 Flood, Political Myth, p. 56.

25 Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth, p. 155.

26 Tudor, Political Myth, p. 123.

27 Bowie, The Anthropology of Religion: an introduction, p. 151; Kertzer, Ritual, Politics, and Power, p. 14; Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, p. 17.

28 Segal, The Myth and Ritual Theory, pp. 12–3.

29 The approach to the myth-ritual relation positing the primacy of narrative in the constitution of myth builds on the ‘intellectualist’ tradition in religious studies (Bowie, The Anthropology of Religion: an introduction, p. 157). The main representative of this tradition is the anthropologist Tylor, who claimed that religion is a means to explain the universe. Intellectualists regarding rituals include historian of religion Eliade (rituals as enactment of myths) and anthropologist Horton (myths and rituals as explanatory devices).

30 On the myth-ritualist theory, see Segal, The Myth and Ritual Theory, Richard F. Hardin, ‘“Ritual” in recent criticism: the Elusive sense of Community’, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, 98 (1983), pp. 846–62; Robert Ackernman, The Myth and Ritual School (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991); for a critique see H. S. Versnel, ‘What's Sauce for the Gosse is Sauce for the Gander: Myth and Ritual, Old and New’, in Edmund Lowell (ed.), Approaches to Greek Myth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990). Some of the most influential representatives of this tradition include W. Robertson-Smith, James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, and S. H. Hooke.

31 Quoted in Segal, The Myth and Ritual Theory, p. 3.

32 While discursive approaches to the relation between myth and ritual are based on the intellectualist tradition in religious studies (cf. fn. 29), the myth-ritualist theory can be traced to the contending ‘symbolist’ tradition (represented, among others, by authors such as Clifford Geertz and Maurice Bloch). From this perspective, the form a ritual takes and the belief it expresses are effective because they are also making statements about (‘symbolize’) and mirror society. On the debate between intellectualists and symbolists, see Bowie, The Anthropology of Religion: an Introduction, p. 157.

33 Ibid.

34 Segal, The Myth and Ritual Theory, p. 13.

35 T. R. Schatzki, Cetina K. Knorr and E. von Savigny (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory (London: Routledge, 2001).

36 Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 145.

37 Lloyd Moya, ‘Performativity, Parody, Politics’, Theory, Culture & Society, 16:2 (1999), p. 197.

38 Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 141.

39 Ibid., p. 24. This ‘unreflective’ dimension is what distinguishes everyday ritual and theatrical performances. A ritual performance is not just the repetition of a received script. Individuals in a ritual are not ‘acting’ but ‘enacting’. Ritual is ‘a mode of action taken by real and familiar people to affect the lives of other real and familiar people. Participants in ritual might be “acting”, but they are not necessarily “just pretending”. They are enacting, which contradicts neither the notion of belief nor the practice of theatrical acting’ (Alexander, ‘Ritual and Current Studies of ritual: overview’, p. 154).

40 Moya, ‘Performativity, Parody, Politics’, p. 201.

41 Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 30.

42 L. Nelson, ‘Bodies (and spaces) do matter: the limits of performativity’, Gender, Place and Culture, 6:4 (1999), p. 338.

43 Notions of performativity have been used to study – inter alia – human geography (N. Gregson, G. Rose, ‘Taking Butler elsewhere: performativities, spatialities and subjectivities’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18:4 (2000), pp. 433–52), cultural geography (Catherine Nash, ‘Performativity in practice: some recent work in cultural geography’, Progress in Human Geography, 24:4 (2000), pp. 653–64), and citizenship (M. Joseph, Nomadic identities: the performance of citizenship, Minneapolis (MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

44 David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); Cynthia Weber, ‘Performative states’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 27 (1998), pp. 77–97; Roxanne Doty, Imperial Encounters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Richard K. Ashley, ‘Foreign Policy as Political Performance’, International Studies Notes, mimeo (1988); R. B. J. Walker, Inside/outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

45 Ibid., Writing Security, p. 208.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Works that have articulated aesthetic themes in IR include Roland Bleiker (ed.), ‘Poetic World Politics’, Alternatives, 25:3 (2000); Roland Bleiker, ‘Painting Politics’, Social Alternatives, 20:4 (2000); Tracey Seeley (ed.), ‘Literature and Peace’, Peace Review, 13:2 (2001); Christine Sylvester, ‘(Sur)Real Internationalisms: Émigrés, Natives Sons, and Ethical War Creations’, Alternatives, 24:2 (1999), pp. 219–47.

49 Roland Bleiker, ‘The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30:3 (2001), p. 514.

50 Ibid., p. 527.

51 John Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); see also Bleiker, The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory, p. 527.

52 A similar point has been raised in works on political myth and rituals. For Edelman, myths are a facet of everyday life, not the exception, and thus we should not look for the mythical only in sites of the extraordinary (for example, parades; Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, p. 226). Some routine action can also be thought of as ritual (for example, going to work; Quakers call this action the ‘sacrament of the everyday’; Kertzer, Ritual, Politics, and Power, p. 10).

53 The initial act of labelling an entity or person as ‘Schengen’ (and its repetition over time) has been performed by social actors themselves (that is, hotel owners, band members, urban residents, art critics). The attachment of meanings to a practice is therefore not the sole responsibility of the researcher.

54 On metaphors and their discursive functions, see Andrew Ortony, Metaphor and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). On the Schengen metaphor, see Ruben Zaiotti, ‘Bridging Commonsense: Pragmatic Metaphors and the ‘Schengen Laboratory’, in M. Kornprobst, N. Shah, V. Pouliot and R. Zaiotti (eds), Metaphors of Globalization: Mirrors, Magicians, Mutinies (Houndmills: Palgrave 2008), pp. 66–80. The relation between the ‘real’ and the ‘metaphorical’ Schengen is further elaborated in the article's conclusions.

55 A methodological note before proceeding with the article's empirical section. The analysis of the case studies is based on information extrapolated from both primary and secondary sources. The primary source material stems from semi-structured interviews (carried out via electronic mail) with relevant actors (members of the band ‘Schengen’, artists in the ‘Non Schengen’ movement, Schengen Hotel's staff) and from participant observation. It should be noted that fieldwork in Beijing was conducted by a locally-based researcher and that practical constraints have prevented in situ research on the Congolese case. The broad geographical and thematic scope of the cases taken into consideration has meant that this work could not rely on a ‘thick description’ of relevant rituals. The interpretivist method adopted in this work to study rituals (which involves the reconstruction of how meanings have been attached to practices and, in turn, how these practices have shaped meanings) also means that there cannot be definitive ‘proof’ (in the positivist sense) that a myth actually ‘exists’ and that certain practices contribute to its creation.

56 This spin is not that surprising. After all, the purpose of any act of ‘branding’ is to sell a product to a customer, and thus the product should be associated with something positive. In the eyes of the management, ‘Schengen’ is supposed to do the trick.

57 Tellingly, the Schengen Hotel is one of the rare examples of post-nationalism in the hotel industry (at least in the choice of name). There is in fact – at least to my knowledge – no equivalent ‘EU Hotel’. (There are plenty of ‘Europe’ Hotels though; branding seems to work better if detached from politics…). The same could be said of more traditional supranational entities such as international organisations (hence no ‘UN Hotel’, let alone ‘WTO’ or ‘G8’ hotels – admittedly, not very attractive options).

58 The practice of promoting places that actually do not exist and devising them as imagined reconstructions is relatively common, especially in the heritage sector (for example, legendary and literary locations; Williams, Stephens, Tourism and Geography (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 177). The existence of such places (but the same could be said of ‘real’ ones) highlights how the tourist experience is, by and large, artificial. It involves the creation of a place that did not exist before. In other words, it is about the (re)invention of places and their mythisation. On tourism and the ‘invention of places’, see Williams, Tourism and Geography, p. 172 et ss. On the relation between myth and tourism, see Christoph Hennig, ‘Tourism: Enacting modern myths’, in Graham Dann (ed.), The Tourist as a Metaphor of the Social World (CABI Publishing, 2002) and Tom Selwyn, The Tourist Image: Myths and Myth Making in Tourism (Chichester: John Wiley, 1996).

59 On the performative aspect of tourism, see Tim Edensor, ‘Staging Tourism: Tourists as Performers’, Annals of Tourism Research, 27:2 (2000), pp. 322–44.

60 There is an interesting parallel here with the idea of (Westernised) tourist enclaves acting as cocoons or ‘environmental bubbles’ endowed with all the comforts available ‘back home’ (See Williams, Tourism and Geography, p. 178).

61 T. K. Biaya, ‘Dynamique des performances et discours identitaires: espace d'énonciation dans la diaspora africaine’, Étude de la population africaine/African Population Studies, 14 :2 (1998), pp. 1–29.

62 This interpretation is not the only one available. According to an alternative reading of the term's origins, ‘Schegue’ derives from ‘Che Guevara’, the name of the Latin American revolutionary figure, symbol of courage and rebellion against oppression and injustice.

63 Biaya, ‘Dynamique des performances et discours identitaires’, p. 20.

64 Ndomolo is a highly erotic dance, accompanied by an imagined dialogue in Swahili between an aggressive child soldier and a fearless and vulgar Kinois, leading to the death of the latter. It is a form of violence related to identity and expiation in the encounter with foreign child soldiers.

65 Biaya, ‘Dynamique des performances et discours identitaires’, p. 21.

66 Exemplary are some of the hairstyles popular in the 1990s, such as the cuts with yellow (‘à la Jospin’) or red (‘à la Rodman’) highlights. At the time, Lionel Jospin, a French politician, embodied the opposition of the French left against the then-President Jacques Chirac. Dennis Rodman, an outspoken and eccentric American basketball player, instead represented the fight against the American moral order and conformism. Both hairstyles symbolised the victory of the people over the dictator (that is, the then-President Mobuto; Biaya, ‘Dynamique des performances et discours identitaires’, p. 28).

67 Biaya, ‘Dynamique des performances et discours identitaires’, p. 25.

68 Eero Tarasti, Myth and Music: A Semiotic Approach to the Aesthetics of Myth in Music (Walter de Gruyter, 1979).

69 Richard D. Leppert and Susan McClary, Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance, and Reception (Cambridge: CUP, 1987), p. xiv.

70 Ibid.

71 The band's website can be found at {}.

72 All quotes are taken from the band's website. See previous footnote.

73 Nicholas Cook, ‘Music as Practice’, in Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, Richard Middleton (eds), The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 205; on performativity in music, see also Leppert and McClary, Music and Society, and Lawrence Kramer, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders Words, Music, and Performativity’, in Steven Paul Scher, Suzanne M. Lodato, Walter Bernhart, Suzanne Aspden (eds), Word and Music Studies (Rodopi, 2002).

74 Suzana Milevska, ‘Non-Schengen art: the phantasm of belonging’, paper presented at the UCL school of Slavonic and East European studies 7th annual international postgraduate conference, Inclusion Exclusion (University College London, 16–18 February 2006).

75 Ibid., ‘The Phantasm of Belonging: belonging without having something in common’, mimeo (2006). p. 3.

76 For an overview of Ostojić's work, see ‘Tanja Ostojić – Personal Homepage’, available at: {}.

77 Tanja Ostojić, ‘Mission Statement on Three works’, available at: {}.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid. See also Milevska, ‘Non-Schengen art’, p. 7.

80 ‘Interview with Tanja Ostojić’, available at: {}.

81 W. Van Der Riijt, ‘Schengen depuis le 26 Mars 1995’, in M. Den Boer, (ed.), The Implementation of Schengen: First the Widening, now the Deepening (Maastricht: European Institute of Public Administration, 1997), p. 47.

82 O. Jensen and T. Richardson, Making European Space: Mobility, Power and Territorial Identity (London: Routledge, 2004).

83 Jensen and Richardson, Making European Space, p. 3.

84 Chris Rumford, ‘Rethinking European Spaces: Territory, Borders, Governance’, Comparative European Politics, 4:2/3 (2006), p. 133.

85 Ibid., p. 138.