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The Concertina razor Wire design to provided with highly resistant blades, has a great capacity of penetration, while producing a deterrent to potential intruders.

European Security Fencing  [1]


CCTV cameras and barbed wire. Two technologies to control space, albeit in different ways. The camera allows for the monitoring of activities at a distance, and at the same time compels people to adjust their behaviour by giving them a sense of being observed [2]. Instead, barbed wire limits the movements of humans and animals in a direct, physical sense, while the imagination of physical pain evoked by the appearance of the material – an aspect frequently highlighted in product descriptions – gives it an aspect of deterrence. Whereas CCTV is a visual technology, barbed wire operates primarily in the realm of the haptic.

In Western-European everyday life, barbed wire is omnipresent and frequently used to fence off spaces from unwanted visitors. However, it is most commonly used in agriculture and landscaping to limit the movement of animals. Notably, for both applications, traditional twisted barbed wire is used almost exclusively. Historically, this type of wire has predominantly been used for agricultural purposes [3], unlike so-called NATO razor wire which has been developed specifically for use against humans. Thus, also when installed for the seemingly violent prevention of human movement, twisted barbed wire still affords being simultaneously read as a benign technology of everyday civilian life.

Another aspect of interest in this context is the relatively inconspicuous use of barbed wire in many security endeavours. It is not uncommon to find green barbed wire on a fence, to let it blend in with the environment and make its visual presence less prominent. The use of barbed wire in civilian spaces seems primarily focused on creating a practical physical barrier, rather than deter through imagined injury.

For deterrence, camera surveillance has become the technology of preference. The prospect of being filmed while performing unwanted behaviour and having the footage used against you in legal action or social disciplining often works as an effective deterrent. However, the deterrence aspect loses its effectivity in spaces of crisis, where the prospect of legal charges or social disciplining becomes futile: If one is considered an ‘illegal person’ the realm of the legal loses its relevance; in a condition of chaos, social discipline is impossible or insignificant. Once the aspect of deterrence disappears, the technology’s utility for direct action is unveiled. As such, the borders of the Schengen zone expose the practical ineffectiveness of the CCTV camera to provide physical intervention. Even if you are detected immediately, this doesn’t prevent you from moving quickly and disappear before counter-action is possible.

This is where barbed wire returns as a primary technology for spatial demarcation and separation. The promises of high-tech security – the holy grail of the post-Cold War Global North – collapse, and a seemingly archaic, low-tech approach is implemented in its full brutality: Endless stretches of ‘concertina NATO razor wire’ have been installed along the borders of Hungary, Slovenia, and Spain, among others. Razor wire threatens the observer with its display of perceptibly sharp blades. It won’t just poke a little hole in you. It will entangle you and slash you open. Moreover, its association with the realm of the military, its specific design to hurt humans, removes the sense of positive ambiguity of the agricultural wire that is used in everyday security fencing.

Foregrounding the realm of the haptic, the domain of bodily pain, either in fearful imagination or in actual, physical experience, razor wire pushes the human subject toward its base faculties. The reflective experience of self-awareness and observation evoked by the CCTV camera is replaced by the immediacy of bodily fear and pain. Here, the words of Elaine Scarry are useful: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human makes before language is learned.” (The Body in Pain, 1985)


Civilization ends at the razor wire fence.

Middelburg, NL, April 2018



[1] European Security Fencing (ESF) is the main supplier of concertina razor wire for border protection in Europe.

[2] See Michel Foucault’s writing on the behavioural impact of the principle of the panopticon prison design in Discipline and Punish (1975).

[3] Notwithstanding this, it was also applied on a large-scale in WW1 trench warfare and WW2 concentration camps.

Camera Surveillance and Barbed Wire



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