On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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Tensions in the Exclave: The New Cold War and Kaliningrad (April 6, 2015)

Another sign of the return of Cold War emerged in the news today (here following BBC reporting): responding to Russian missile deployment at Kaliningrad, Poland plans to build observation towers on its land border with Russia. As I have written about before, tensions between the European Union and the Russian Federation have been increasing, and we see here a “cold,” but still militarist example to add to economic Russo-EU competition. The border fortification program, as the BBC reports, will cost $3.8 million (14 million zloty), with 75% of the budget coming from the European Union’s External Borders Fund.

One of the things that makes this particular border issue intriguing to this blog is the fact that Kaliningrad is an exclave—Russian territory (part of the Kaliningrad Oblast) that is not connected to Russia proper, but is in fact between Polish and Lithuanian lands. Considering theorists of nationalism such as Ernest Gellner who have argued that nationalist development differs from imperialist development in favoring static, contiguous territories (a view that makes the expansionist regimes of, say, the World War II era either anomalous or indeed aloof from national identity), the exclave stands as an intriguing challenge: all the armature of territorial nationalism is deployed, but in a space that challenges everyday assumptions about how national space unfolds. It is fascinating to me to see the dance of retaliatory gestures of the Cold War era, with the EU a new entity intervening in what was previously a US-NATO vs USSR dynamic. An exclave such as Kaliningrad should make for a geographically fascinating area in which to see how new modes of territorialism play out.

In reading about the EU’s External Borders Fund, whose mission statement page highlights the investments required to maintain the integrity of external borders, I was fascinated by how much such external borer maintenance is tied to the goal of free movement within those borders. The External Borders Fund foregrounds the EU’s interests in the Schengen zone, which features areas where internal movement is seen as a right and something to be facilitated. Intriguingly, not all EU members are part of this Schengen zone (the UK a prominent non-participant), while non-EU members are also part of this artificial zone designed to enable and protect free movement. It will be interesting to see if this dialectics of internal-external pressure leads to explicit debates about how neo-Cold War tensions are affecting the possibility of expanding free movement—or whether it will simply seethe beneath the surface.

As I have written about before here, here, and here, the European Union has itself become a locus of great internal tensions, with nationalist energies militating against federalism. The Kaliningrad tensions will perhaps offer an excellent indicator of whether there will be a rallying around this federalist vision that can enable such free movement as the Schengen zone entails—or whether it may indeed cause further fracturing among members.

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A Lake of Rare Earths Sludge: Territorial Management of Profitable Pollution (April 5, 2015)

Having just read this fascinating article by Tim Maughan, “The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust” (an article, which, judging by its web address, must at one point have been entitled “The Worst Place on Earth”), I am thinking very much about the ways in which environmental pollution is, from one perspective, simply a cost that industrial powers weigh in pursuing economic activity.

Maughan focuses his article on a gigantic lake of toxic sludge attached to the town of Baotou, in Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China; see this Wikipedia article). Baotou is a town that has boomed due to its participation in the rare earths trade—that is, the trade in particular elemental materials that are required for modern high-tech industrial production (see this US Geological Survey page on rare earths, as well as this useful Ames Laboratories (part of the Department of Energy) page on various rare earths and their uses). As Maughan relates, China controls some 95% of the rare earths trade, even though its territorial surface only contains about 30% of the world’s rare earths, which are distributed all across the world’s surface. What has allowed China, in part, to monopolize this trade is its decision to bear the massive environmental costs related to transforming rare earths into usable products for modern technological industries—for example, as Maughan notes, the production of cerium oxide from cerium.

The images of the toxic lake in the Maughan article are chilling, but do not seem to me new or otherworldly: they evoke the postindustrial horrors of the past century, seen not only in numerous photographs and videos, but also powerfully evoked in filmic works: they remind me of, say, the twentieth-century Soviet Union as evoked in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or the twentieth-century American industrial horror envisioned in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, or indeed the post-apocalyptic wasteland images of numerous dystopian science fiction films. Maughan quite intriguingly focuses on smells in his writing. Describing the powerful scent of Sulphur in the air that, he assumes, must once have filled the air of industrial cities in America and England (a comment that, as a resident of Buffalo, a formerly hyper-industrialized city in the American Rust Belt, struck me very keenly). What is so striking about seeing these images is that, despite all the knowledge of environmental destruction, the horrific scale of environmental pollution in Baotou goes on apace.

It seems hardly surprising to me that this massive industry (Maughan notes that the mines near this area are said to contain some 70% of the rare earths reserves in the world, giving what appears to be the ability to affect world prices through producing artificial shortages) is placed in Inner Mongolia—far from most population centers and indeed in an autonomous area bordering Mongolia. As scholars such as David Harvey and Rob Nixon have shown, capitalist production is increasingly linked to the geographical management of environmental injustice, and in this case the massive pollution epitomized by the image of the toxic lake (which is simply one of the many environmental effects of this industry, though its strange sludge—which Maughan intriguingly describes as almost not liquid-like, thereby initiating a kind of crisis about materiality even as it speaks to a new scale of massive pollution tied to high-tech culture and massive consumerism) has been confined to a marginalized area of China. Any governmental power will, of course, manage its territory, determining where to distribute the presence and costs of pollution—and this industry has obviously brought massive economic development to the region.

The images of pollution and the description of the eerily choreographed responses to outsiders’ questions in the Baotou Maughan describes will haunt me for some time, providing an especially powerful illustration of territorial policies managing both the profits and pollution of current capitalist culture. As I have written about elsewhere, there is often resistance by marginalized groups to aggressive transational capitalist environmental injustice; one wonders if the clock is ticking on such resistance to emerge in the vicinity of this unimaginably black and artificial toxic lake in Baotou.

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Symbolic Violence and Object Power: ISIS, Iconoclasm, and Museums (March 15, 2015)

ISIS operatives, as is only far too well known, have been making quite a show of destroying objects, and sometimes even whole sites, of archaeological, historical, and artistic significance. As can be gleaned from Ian Black’s Guardian reporting, or  by this CNN study by Susannah Cullinane, Hamdi Alkhshali and Mohammed Tawfeeq, ISIS members have recently destroyed vast swathes of the Assyrian city of Nimrud, of the Assyrian palace of Khorsabad, and numerous artistic objects held at the Mosul Museum. As I have written about here earlier, in regards to ISIS’s destruction of such sites as the traditional site of Jonah’s grave, symbolic violence is a crucial component of ISIS strategy. Adept at waging both conventional and unconventional warfare, the destruction of objects of cultural and historical significance is a very provocative asymmetrical tactic: it helps cultivate a recruitment-friendly reputation of fearlessness and fundamentalist bravado, as ISIS flouts secularist values concerning historical and cultural sensitivity. As destroying religiously important sites was an all-too-common tactic among insurgents during the Second Iraq War, predictably effective in spurring both fear among Iraqis and revulsion from Western commentators, ISIS has clearly determined that it will gain considerably from a systematic iconoclastic campaign.

As with the important issue that President Barack Obama—controversially, but, I think, rightly and importantly—raised, about recalling such historical episodes as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and slavery, before assuming Islamists have a monopoly on religiously inflected violence (see some reporting on this in Anthony Zurcher’s BBC commentary, or this actually quite thoughtful and intelligent inter-faith discussion by religious scholars on CNN), I have been thinking a lot about how we cannot exactly dissociate the issue of the destruction of historical objects from their non-destructive seizure and control. For Walter Benjamin, every “cultural treasure”—which implies any object in or deemed worthy of being in a museum—is also a “document in barbarism” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans, Harry Zohn, p. 256). Violence saturates all aspects of art and archaeology, both in their being the material remains of formerly great powers and as material appropriated by those current powers who collect their remains.

Museums can often, indeed, seem like collections of spoils. When I first spent significant time in the British Museum, for example, I recall feeling quite uneasy about room after room filled with Egyptian goods and mummies: in a place that features sculptures ripped off the Parthenon, massive totem poles removed from Northwestern North America, and almost literally countless other artifacts ripped from their original surroundings, the almost dizzying collection of ancient Egyptian mummies more than anything made me think about the imperialist dimension of the museums of former imperial powers. The stories of the territories they took over and controlled is displayed, with all the framing force of the museum as a place of systematized cultural knowledge transmission. (Britain’s control of the Elgin Marbles, by the way, shows that it is not just about static control of an object, but its circulation, as is clear from controversy over the UK loaning these items, claimed by Greece, to Russia, as you can read about here; as you can read here, the Elgin Marbles make Time magazine’s Top Ten Plundered Artifacts list.)

In thinking about the actions of ISIS in destroying various objects of art, I have at times wondered whether such acts of destruction , when it comes to territorial control, are the flip-side, as it were, of museums—they demonstrate geo-political power through the regulation of historical remains. In the same way that, say, the imperial British state could demonstrate geopolitical power—whether actual (or former) territorial control, or simply the military and / or economic power such that it could acquire key objects—by showing off museum pieces, ISIS demonstrates its actual power by flaunting world opinion and spectacularly destroying important artistic and historical objects. It is vital to pay attention to the intensely propagandic power of these actions, for the alleged fundamentalist religious rationale that the actions stem from religious iconoclasm is only partially true: as has been reported by people like Heather Pringle and Simon Cox, ISIS operatives are well known for selling as many precious archaeological objects as they can for fund-raising, and they tend only to destroy objects so large or of so little value that the propagandic value that comes from shocking world sensibilities through the destruction of historical objects becomes the decisive factor.

Iconoclasm is hardly a new phenomenon—and its energies are very vital in Western development. As Simon Schama’s excellent comparison of post-Reformation destruction of art in medieval England makes clear, “Artefacts under Attack,”  the systematic erasure of much visual art plays a profound—and chilling—role in much of the early modern Protestant West. Iconoclasm has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition that most see as central to the West, with Moses’s destruction of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32—which includes his own angry destruction of the original Ten Commandments (32:19), his melting down of the golden idol and forcing of the revelers to drink it (32:20), followed by an internal civil war over idol worship that leads to the killing, by family members and neighbors, of some three thousand of the Israelites (32:27-28). However secularized much of the West has become, such iconoclastic impulses are clearly woven deeply into the religious foundations that still inform much of the West’s activity.

ISIS’s destruction of archaeological objects is in my view both shocking and morally outrageous, and—as someone who loves to learn about all periods of history—deeply sad. Of course, their actions are meant to inspire just these sort of feelings in secular Westerners such as I, eliciting rage that is both highly localized (shuddering at the loss of, say, specifically Assyrian art-works) and universalized (shuddering at the fundamental disregard of history or other cultures held by anyone who could destroy objects and sites that allow us to physically interact with past human cultures). ISIS’s actions also make me think how much power such images have—both as released in shock when we see them willfully destroyed, and as released with wonder and curiosity when various powers maintain and display the objects of others. With ancient Greek sculptures zealously controlled by the British, with facades of Mayan temples currently housed in American museums, and with the works of so many others ripped from their original contexts and housed in institutions across the world, it is clear that we inhabit a world where objects can convey the prestige and power of those who control—and might potentially destroy—them.

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Integrity and Fluidity amid Greco-Nationalist-Europeanist Tensions (February 1, 2015)

I continue to follow closely the developments in Greece, as the new Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras positions itself relative to the European Union. Clearly, the European Union’s current disposition is at stake, as this most serious electoral threat to European financial stability unfolds.

It was fascinating for me to watch the BBC Hardtalk reporter aggressively question Pierre Muscovici, the European Union Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, as he, with diplomatic sangfroid, states that the results of a democratic election in Greece grounded in a desire to renegotiate debts can be respected, even as he avers that the current Greek government must act in “respect of the rules and commitments” made previously in the name of the Greek state.  The BBC interviewer quite rightly disrupts Moscovici’s effort to make what seems to be a fantastical view that there can be no “loss” for anyone while acting both according to the new Syriza government’s campaign promises of writing off some portion of Greek debt in renegotiations and according to those previous “rules and commitments,” about which you can read in the article version of this interview excerpt.

The crisis created by Syriza campaigning about writing off some (or even all) debt is proving to be a very interesting field for pressures placed on notions of political identity. In the Hardtalk interview, Moscovici uses language that is especially interesting in terms of political geography. In stating that “we always defend the integrity of the Eurozone,” Moscovici speaks of the European Union as if it were a single territorial unit, though he is clearly talking about it in much more amorphous terms as a set of centralized policy-making bodies, the rules according to which they operate, and the decisions that have produced constraints within which they operate. The fact that non-EU entities are involved in any discussion of Greek debt (the International Monetary Fund, for example) means that the concept of EU “integrity” is really about a list of discrete states who agree to abide by agreements in the global sphere of current capitalism. Intriguingly, Tsipras, who campaigned on Greek voters’ anxiety that their national integrity had been compromised by participation in the European Union, are drawing competing lines in this still live change of government.

The nationalist rhetoric that fueled the Syriza election makes it unlikely that coolness and a deliberative, collaborative spirit will be the order of the day: Tsipras, after all, campaigned on the view that a Syriza-led government would mean that “national humiliation will be over,” and that electing Syriza “might be the last chance for Greece”: Such nationalist sentiment would be hard to walk back entirely when negotiating with Greece’s wary European Union negotiators speaking on behalf of very powerful creditors.

In her CNBC article, Catherine Boyle asks the fascinating question, “Will Syriza or Its Creditors Blink First?”  As I continue to watch this situation unfold, I am most interested in seeing how each of these sides imagines the very entities they represent, since the current state of national needs versus a virtually alien, federalized entity will not seem to allow much compromise at all. It will be interesting to see the integrity of each formulation mutate, rendered fluid by the necessities of economic union in a Europe that remains divided by the inexorable logic of national difference.


Nationalism in the Eurozone: the Syriza Surprise and the Promise of Euro-National Tensions (January 31, 2015)

Reading about the latest events in Greece has been fascinating, indeed. Besides the fact that the election of what largely appears to be a leftist government (though clearly not an extremist one, considering that their platform featured tax-relief for property owners and they, of course, were also more than willing to form a coalition with a right-wing group) goes somewhat against the grain of rightward turns in a number of recent elections, the rise of new prime minister Alexis Tsipras in a Syriza-led government seems to me to be the most striking example of the intensification of nationalist politics within the European Union. [For a fine summary of the Syriza government’s key aims, see this BBC article ;  for excellent coverage of the election, including the coalition, see this Guardian reporting.] As I have written about elsewhere, there has been increasing resistance among various European national communities to the great power, if not even to the very concept of, the European Union . The rise of Tsirpas seems to ratchet up these tensions more than just a notch—for at the heart of Syriza’s victory seems to be not just frustration with the austerity measures imposed by the European Union and its economic partners in exchange for Greece’s 2009 bailout [on which see this excellent Wikipedia article section], but a resounding statement that Greek national interests must take precedence over the larger economic agreement that is European Union. It is hard to imagine how the European Union would be able to survive if multiple states had such nationalist electoral referendums. How could stable economic policies be maintained if each election would mean that previously negotiated terms would need to be redrawn? If the European Union was designed, as I suspect it was, in part to achieve a large, populous, and diverse enough economy to compete with the United States, then it is clear that it continues to have one element potentially undermining all efforts at the sort of economic policy cohesion needed to compete on the capitalist stage—nationalism. As much as Texans or Vermonters may dabble with the idea of ending the United States union, and as much as that union was in fact suspended from 1861 to 1865, the United States is not currently wracked by actually viable nationalist separatist movements (such as in the United Kingdom or Spain, about which I have written here and here)  , nor is it a union that is in reality merely a concept bringing together a multitude of nations into a cooperative whole. It will be fascinating to see how the Syriza government leads and what the negotiations with Europe will be like—for this will of necessity bring the fundamental tensions between nationalism and European Union onto center-stage.

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Sovereignty, Energy, and the Rosebud Sioux: Land Claims and Pipeline Politics (December 24, 2014)

Returning from my deadline-imposed blogging break, I wanted to return to a subject that has been attracting much of my attention (and reading) lately—the complex play of sovereignties and jurisdictions created by the almost bewildering array of Native American “nations” within United States territory. The latest incident to leap out to me from current events is, as the India Country Media Today Network reports here,  the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (AKA Sicangu Lakota Oyate) identifying the United States House of Representatives’ vote of November 14, 2015 on the Keystone Pipeline an “act of war.” President Scott’s full statement can be found on the Bold Nebraska site.

Although the Keystone XL bill ultimately died—well, at least temporarily—in the Senate’s November 19 vote, and although US President Obama may well veto it even if it passes, the official Rosebud Sioux reaction is very striking in its challenging of assumptions about territorial rights. The President of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe[1]  did not use ambiguous words in identifying the political space from which he declared the US House’s vote for unilaterally developing the Keystone Pipeline across “our lands”: “we are a sovereign nation, and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” This is unambiguously the language of a sovereign power holding territory with exclusive rights, and—no matter whether this flies in the face of what, from a US federal perspective, is the United States’s simultaneously de facto and de jure hold over the reservation lands in South Dakota claimed by the Sicangu Oyate),  it is striking how intensely this rhetorical statement calls into question standard notions of authority.

As an integral component of a transnational economic enterprise involving co-operation between Canadian and American interests in the movement of fossil fuels for sale on the international market, the Keystone XL Pipeline http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_Pipeline is generating a massive amount of controversy. Reports regarding concerns about the injurious environmental impact of this project are numerous; here are some sites that collect these vital questions: the US Department of State’s environmental impact report, the National Wildlife Federation’s environmental impact assessment,  and the Friends of the Earth assessment.  As readers of this blog will already intuit, I am more focused on the issues of territorial rights opened up by this transnational project that involves the crossing of various kinds of jurisdictions—US federal, state, county, city, and reservation, Canadian federal and provincial, etc.—across various types of geography. Debates about this project will surely generate more posts and thoughts about how notions of territory adjust to economic demands. Insofar as areas become critical either for resource extraction—or, as in the Keystone XL Pipeline case, simply as areas for profitably siting a pipeline that needs to continuously spread across much of center of North America—they often generate fierce competition to lay claim to space.

In speaking on the Keystone XL Pipeline project, Rosebud Sioux President Scott refers to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty—  which specifically refers to the parties involved as “nations”— and the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which seems on a quick reading to register a more aggressive and organized territorialism in referring to “parties” rather than “nations.” President Scott does not do the sort of hair-splitting that is required to separate the notion of a nation-state with full sovereignty—including, say, air-space rights and the ability to close borders—with the potentially ambiguous notion of “nation” that has been perennially appealed to (as far as we can translate it, of course) by peoples claiming a perennial integrity that is more often than not attached to some sort of land-claim.

Among statements made to Nicole Hensley of the New York Daily News, President Scott says “When it comes to treaties, they forget about us…People forget we’re a sovereign nation” and “Everybody else…they’re just guests here.” These are not just powerful words, but a clear challenge to the clearly dominant assumption that US Indian lands are inherently secondary to US federal jurisdiction, with full sovereignty only an illusion maintained when economic or military interests (or indeed others) do not intervene. As I have been reading a lot these days about the legal history of Indian lands, as well as reading works that try to reorient the typically Euro-American perspective in US historiography, I will be paying especially close attention to the resolute Rosebud Sioux revolt against the Keystone XL Pipeline—and other economic, ecological, and geographical crises that will invariably be illuminated as this struggle continues.

[1] I use “Tribe” here since this appears to be the way the Rosebud Sioux refer to themselves in English, at least as far as I can gather from the ICTMN reporting; I am fully aware of the great controversy that some see in the use of the term “tribe,” with many following anthropologists’ critique that this can connote a kind of primitivism vis-à-vis standard political units such as nation-states; on this subject in an African context, see this helpful pedagogical guide put out by the SPLC,  [I am grateful to Rob Barrett for this link, as well as for some enlightening discussion about the stakes of identifying tribality)

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From Scotland to Cataluña: Specters of Continuing Ethnonational Unraveling (November 8, 2014)

National borders seem acutely uneasy these days, at least in and around Europe. Following the very intense September 18, 2014 Independence Vote that nearly ended 307-year old union of the Scottish and English states (about which I have written quite a bit here), will on November 9 be an independence vote on the status of Catalonian desires to separate from Spain (for an excellent analysis of the current situation of the Catalonian independence moment, support for which has ballooned due to a very popular Spanish government, see Nick Rider’s BBC essay; see also the BBC’s excellent profile on Catalonia [more properly, Cataluña).

Whereas the Scottish Independence vote was an actual vote with the highest stakes for any state (actual separation), the November 9 vote has essentially been reduced to an opinion poll. As Rider reports, Artur Mas, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia (Generalidad de Cataluña), had in 2012 moved for a referendum vote on independence for Catalonia and was met with resistance from Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, whose government argued any such referendum was unconstitutional according to Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which preserved much regional autonomy but (Rajoy’s government held) prevented any one region from voting for separation (see the constitution in official English translation here, and see also this excellent Wikipedia article). Mas, galvanized both by independent movements and by the Rajoy government’s unpopularity, moved for a non-binding “consultation” on November 9, 2014.

While the November 9 “consultation” clearly has no constitutional weight, it is striking to see an independence movement within Western Europe that, like Scotland, is predicated upon a region’s self-perception as ethnically and historically separate from a central government. As I have written of elsewhere in terms of the vote held to move Crimea (like Catalonia a semi-autonomous region) out of the Ukranian state and into the Russian state (and in the context of related separatism in Eastern Ukraine),  as well as in the context of the extraordinary political chaos unleashed by ISIS’s violent efforts to carve out a new Islamic state (indeed, a caliphate) in the Middle East, state borders seem to be acutely unstable these days. Catalonian and Scottish efforts to tie ethnonationalist separation to democratic processes is fascinating—but I wonder if notions of democracy itself will have to change radically if separatist movements start to become the norm rather than the exception.

As you can see in my earlier blog post on economic injustice and a redistribution of the meaning of democracy, I have been thinking a lot today about how currently unstable the very concept of democracy seems: I was here spurred by Rick Lymon and Alison Smale’s analysis of remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that indicate his desire to steer Hungary towards the “illiberal” democracies modeled after Russia, China, and Turkey, rather than the “liberal” democracies of the West that brought the 2008 financial crisis and thus seem ill-prepared for the economic future. The question may not be whether Scottish or Catalonian efforts are actually democratic, but rather what democracy will mean in an increasingly socially and economically divided West. In writing earlier of the odd fit within Spain of such a counter-democratic principle as inherited royal sovereignty in a modern nation-state, I mused that rule by a privileged elite is perhaps symbolically honest in a capitalist West of increasing—and increasingly entrenched, as Thomas Piketty argues in his analysis in Capital of the exponentially increasing privilege of inherited money—economic inequality. Whatever the outcome of the Catalonian “consultation,” and however the ongoing issue of Scottish independence unfolds, it seems that the ethnonationalist unraveling going on in so  much of Europe may increasingly be cited as evidence, à la Orban, that the Western neoliberal state model is self-destructing.


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