The following is a preliminary investigation into the passport as a travel document, and as an identifier of individuals and nations. It purpose is to investigate this elusive object's origins, its current role in society, and consider its possible futures.
Previous research into this document spans wide historical, legal and philosophical spaces. It will only be possible to touch on a very small part of this object's phenomenology in such a short format, but hopefully this will be the catalyst for further inquiry.
Dissecting the passport into its empirical parts, it appears to be a neutral, and totally functional object. On the surface it is an identification document that records international travel. Its physical construction is compact, and adorned with national, governmental, and cultural identifiers, all of which is brought together in a collection of high and low technologies.
As an identifying document, it provides a visual representation of its owner, their name, gender, birthplace and date, nationality (according to the current document), the document's own identifier and duration of its validity. Buried within, many passports contain more unknown data in the form of bio-metrics, and ties its owner to a much larger, and mostly invisible network of information.
As a travel document, it records its owners movement between countries, plots possible future movement, and gives (or denies) access to countries throughout the globe. When abroad, it identifies the owner as being part of another nation, and can often grant them protections by their home country.
The issuing country identifies itself though forms of iconography, language, design, and the technologies it chooses to employ.
Much of this information mentioned above clearly manifests itself. Sometimes within complex systems, others in more simple ones. But it is the information that is held within this document that is recorded through no official system at all.
This benign identification document, designed for international travel, that most un-objectively identifies its owner so as to allow them safe travel throughout our globalised world, the systems, history and ontology of this document as both an object that acts, is acted upon, and is acted through stimulates questions of mobility, identity, technology, nation, and governance.
Passports as already expressed can generally be simplified into documents that identify an individual, where they might be from and at times give indications to where they might be going.
Despite their ubiquity amongst international travellers (with exception to citizens of the European Union), their existence, nor their history is as standardised as one might believe. Like the individuals they try to identify, their origins are hard to pin down, and have manifested out of many varied origins.
It is overly simplistic to suggest any one motivator or general historical movement can account for the origins of the passport. Foucault, in his historical studies on knowledge allows us to recognise that it is never one grand teleological narrative but rather the culmination of many small events, often disparate in nature, that can account for what we now know. Furthermore, it is questionable to assume that the birth of the passport was born from nations and frontiers, but rather we should consider the reverse.
On the official Belgian website for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, it states that:
A passport is an official, worldwide recognised and usable travel document in the format of a booklet issued by the relevant authority in a particular State to its nationals. ... a passport allows its holder to travel to any country in the world, subject to fulfilling any applicable visa requirements.
A worldwide recognised and usable document issued to nationals of a state, that allows travel to any country in the world. If travel throughout the world is considered to be a right for those baring a passport, then we'd best investigate the history of movement regulation.
This history varies throughout time and place. During Medieval times, a nation's strength economically and militarily was directly comparable to its population. Military might considered in terms of armies, economic strength in the form of production. Thus it was not in the best interest of any ruler to loose their subjects.
It is recorded that in Portugal in the 1600s, systems were put in place for incoming merchants to register themselves, cargo and any additional passengers on arrival, and for any citizens considering leaving the country, to seek approval, and receive official papers prior to leaving. In those time, much like today, this was not a free service, and had to be affected in official spaces designated by the authorities.
Later, just after the British abolishment of slavery, the British Empire had to respond to a loss of workers across their colonies. The solution to this was to distribute indentured Indian labour across its colonies to where there were shortages. The colonial Indian government developed papers to identify the travelling labourers as "free-men" so as to not identify them as slaves, and in turn to protect their rights in their destination countries. It is here that the first use of the word emigration was used to specifically identify the movement of manual labourers.
It is suggested that the from of documentation most closely related to our modern day passport originated after the first world war alongside the establishment of the League of Nations. After the Great War, during a time of high migration, nations felt the need to record international movement. It was considered necessary for individuals to carry "documentary substantiation of identity..." so that nations may "...register and keep watch over aliens".
In Portugal as is described above, the ruling class worked to dissuade people from leaving the nation. It was considered that "emigration was an illusion, a trap that only the naïve would enter into" an undocumented emigration was considered treason. However emigration was a reality that the ruling classes could not deny, and so systems of control were implemented. They pitched the existence of the passport not as an "obstacle" but rather, like it is today, a "facilitator" for movement. This was an easy enough task as emigrants at the time were often victims of various forms of fraud and/or exploitation, either in the form of transportation, or promises on arrival in their destination.
So too was the passport a regulator of immigration seen to control the influx of the unwanted or the "alien". A clear example of this is in the case of Indian migration within the British Empire during the mid 1800s. It was only emigrants (in the form of Indian indentured labour) whose mobility was recorded. The British Empire and Colonial Indian government did not see a need in controlling the movement of free Indians. As a result many migrated to other British Colonies, notably Canada and Australia to seek new opportunities. Commonwealth powers started to feel the threat of loosing a national identity, and felt the need for restrictions on "free" movement. It is in 1905 during correspondence between the "Seat of the Empire" and Australian authorities that the term "Passport" is first officially mentioned.
It during this time and throughout the 20 century, that sentiment to restrict movement, and install the technology of the passport, rises. However we must recognise that these concerns always rose from white settler colonies or European nations.
It is clear that from this history of mobility control, the stakeholders are not the populace that this system is applied to. Nor is it, as it was historically, necessarily our current elites who seek to gain. It seems that the restriction of mobility is a purely a governmental system that is in place to perpetuate an idea of national identity. When the public are asked to reflect on the idea of national identity, and thus that of mobility, national ideology is not clearly definable. This was clear to see in the split of the Britain from the European Union. Forces for and against Brexit were spread across socio economic, political, cultural, and "national" identities.
We can extrapolate from history, and our present situation, that the core of mobility control rises from an arbitrary conflict between "them" and "us". Neither party identifiable by concrete terms, despite the wishes and sentiments of government and nationalists. It is not clear exactly what the purpose is of border and migration control. Nor was it clear historically. However it seems to me, that at its core it is an exercise of governmental power, imposed by questionable rhetoric, and motivations.
The technology of the passport alone, speaks volumes in the methodology of control. Its cold, clinical representation of the self, encapsulated in untouchable technologies, decorated in national iconography, has so much more to say than what meets the eye.
W. Walters, Reflections on Migration and Governmentality . movements. Journal für kritische Migrations- und Grenzregimeforschung, 2015
M. Salter, "Passport Photos" Making Things International . Making Things International, University of Minnesota Press, Apr 1, 2015
S R Clark, Balancing Privacy and Security in the Australian Passport System . Deakin Law Review, 2011
R V Mongia, Race Nationality and Mobility: A History of the Passport . Public Culture 11(3) pg527-556, 1999
V Pereira, Papers of State Power: The Passport and the Control of Mobility . The making of modern Portugal Chapter 1, 2013