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

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Keeping Lands Green by Keeping Them Ours: Gerry Rising on Federal-to-State Land Transfers (May 24, 2015)

We often think of territorial issues as occurring merely between national states and those entities who would join that group. National states, for example, often fight over disputed land areas (such as, as I have written about here, the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands controversy), and there can even be tensions about states creating new lands, such as recent US-China tensions (see this Reuters article)  about land reclamation in the South China sea demonstrate. And, of course, the national territorial desires of would-be sovereign states are very well known just about everywhere, in our territorially unstable political globe—whether it be in the numerous Native American would-be nations within the United States, a restless Scotland yearning to be free, a Palestinian state seeking to shore up its independent status, or transnational Kurdish communities dreaming of establishing a stable Kurdistan.

Territorial issues, however, are also intra-national—and the workings of the system of jurisdictions within any state often has intense material consequences. As Gerry Rising makes clear in his excellent Buffalo News article, Don’t Transfer Land to Individual States,  land management is one key area where such decisions can have great material significance.

After summarizing federal practices of surveying and managing land in the US, Rising refers to efforts, known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, to transfer control of lands out of federal control. As Rising notes, this “wise use” movement was really about privatization—namely, a movement governed by the “extraction industries: lumbering and mining.”  Recent efforts to transfer lands from the federal to the state level (where it could, of course, then be transferred into private hands or local controls) should be seen as an “outgrowth” of this privatization movement. Chillingly, Rising points out, those seeking to gain control of federally lands under the aegis of more efficient management styles are often those who have exerted efforts to ravage the budgets of the federal agencies that administer these lands: this is, of course, the starve-the-beast style of right-wing anti-federal political forces that have been so active in the United States since the Reagan era (a movement that, as I’ve written about here, has its parallel in post-Thatcher Britain, and which has recently reared its ugly head).

These issues are all about territory—about who controls land—and the stakes, Rising makes clear, are high. Our nation is a fascinating entity in that it is built on a harmonizing of tensions between the federal government and the states. The 10th Amendment of our Constitution is in part designed to maintain that balance—but it often appears that state efforts to maintain rights end up amounting to little more than privatizing as much space as possible. And some states have taken anti-federalist sentiments to absurd levels, calling into question the very hierarchy of jurisdictions that seems to me to be an essential part of the delicate balance key to the US, as the recent uproar about the Jade Helm military exercises and Texas’s reaction have shown: Texas, here, seems to be acting like its own state. Considering how virulently anti-regulation anti-federalist forces are, we need not even go into the specifics of their resistance to environmental policies—such efforts to privatize spaces are little more than an effort to allow a free-for-all appropriation of public land (a trend that Naomi Klein explores so powerfully in her study of the abusive appropriation of public lands and spaces in The Shock Doctrinea trend that, as I discussed here, can be seen in resistance to wealthy landowners seeking to unlawfully claim local access to beach spaces in California.).

Rising’s poignant opinion piece reminded me how vital territorial divisions are for thinking through environmental policies—and how much we need to pay attention to the fine points of who is appealing to lay claim to what, Rising insists, is only really ours while it remains federal—for once it moves to states, it falls irrevocably into the atomized world of mine, mine, mine.

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“A Haunting ISIS Flag: Unexpected Museum Guards and the Fate of Palmyra” (May 23, 2015)

As I have been reading (for a current project) a lot about the First Crusade, I have had in my mind the visions of bloody sieges and countersieges, with the flying of banners over heavily fortified cities. It is for this reason that I found so arresting the image of an ISIS (Islamic State) flag flying over a castle in Palmyra—as seen in this AP photograph at the head of a BBC article on the curious status of ISIS guards at a museum.   The ironies of ISIS museum guards are not hard to find: as I have written about more than once on this blog,  ISIS’s destruction of antiquities is clearly a key part of its aggressive militarist campaign—as is its propensity to sell off as many of the movable antiquities that they can in the desire to fund their nascent war-state. ISIS’s propensity to destroy certain artifacts and sites and its very active sales of plundered antiquities only seems incompatible if you see antiquity destruction as merely a religious statement—rather, it is a very effective propagandic act, conveying the image of a sect that does not abide by such limiting notions as “world heritage” and which is prepared to, and is indeed eager to break global taboos about preserving sites and objects of historical interest. As I have written about here before, ISIS is clearly focused on mastering symbolic modes of violence, with its cultural strategies succeeding in channels that have sometimes been thought the exclusive domain of the Hollywood-centered West.

It is the site of the flag that really struck me, as immersed as I am in in such wonderful, but horrific histories as narrated in Thomas Asbridge’s excellent The First Crusade. Much as, as Asbridge points out so well, history allows us to see that Crusaders could harbor both deeply held religious beliefs and be acquisitive, rapacious plunderers bent upon taking and sacking cities, so does ISIS spread its flags and banners on various sites throughout a Middle East destabilized by violence that few could deny was at least in very significant part (*at least in its current, post-Sadaam Hussein era phase), unleashed by the West.

While most of the museum goods have, the BBC reports, been transferred to Damascus, the image of an ISIS flag over a castle—a fortification designed to allow elites to maintain control over local territories, by offering defenses and barracks and a location from which to launch military campaigns, among other things—casts an eerie shadow over the fate of the Palmyra ruins nearby. Classified as a “World Heritage” site—a classification that would merely seem to invite the ISIS occupiers to unleash their destructive energies, since the world reaction they desire would be predictably large, with a massive shock and horror value delivered with a relatively small investment of force—the Palmyra ruins date back to the Roman era.

The Romans, of course, did their share of destruction—all of Carthage, for example, was burned to the ground, in what Ben Kiernan in Blood and Soil argues may be the first historical genocide—so it hardly seems unpoetic justice for anything Roman to come undone. Much seems to be coming undone in the Middle East these days—and that ISIS flag, reminding us of the blurred lines between the Crusading era and our own, flies hauntingly above that ancient castle.

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Conspiratorial Territorial Theory: Jade Helm and Anti-Federalist Paranoia (May 22, 2015)

The United States Army’s eight-week (July 15-September 15, 2015) military exercises called Jade Helm have provoked some rather intense reactions from various individuals who hold deep-seeded suspicions about the US Federal government as a threat to state- and individual freedom. Dan Lamothe, in his Washington Post analysis of responses to the Jade Helm Operations, offers an excellent description of the exercises, as well as a survey of the range of panicked and conspiratorial responses to the  operations. As Lamothe explains (and see also Russell Berman’s excellent Atlantic article on responses to the operations), the reaction among Texans went beyond garden-variety extremist paranoia about an alleged federal government take-over to actual panic when US military representatives released a map of the exercises describing Texas (as well as Utah and a small section of extreme southern California) as “hostile territory.” Of course, responses to the Jade Helm exercises went well beyond the usual channels for paranoiac thinking about the US Government (such as talk radio, blogs, and pamphlets), when the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, ordered the Texas State Guard to, as Dan Lamothe reports, “monitor” the US operations. Talk about a grand theater for conspiratorial theories to be played out!

What is especially fascinating in responses to the Jade Helm exercises is the refusal of many to accept the distinction between the virtual and the real. The aim of such operations is, from the US military’s perspective, to offer an intense sort of training in actual physical spaces that is governed by the systematic fiction that these spaces include territories held by hostile forces, For those reacting with alarm at these exercises, the alleged line between the virtual and the real is really an illusion—and one that offers a special glimpse into the actual motivations of a US government that harbors desires to eradicate the protections of state sovereignty that exist in places like Texas (though many of these voices have entirely different views of Texas as a fully sovereign nation—as I shall discuss below).

As preposterous as the claims of many of those fearing that the Jade Helm operations are some sort of practice-run for a US federal takeover of states such as Texas and Utah, I find it hard not to think about the many observers who have noted how analogous such conspiratorial thinking is to the habits of literary (and other academic) criticism. We, too, often insist that, behind the façade of this or that cultural phenomenon lies a range of powerful social forces that are responsible for and sustain such fantasies. We, too, often refuse to accept the text (whether we call it surface or form or whatever other term) as what it seems, and consider it the very mission of criticism to distrust the superficial and penetrate to what is really behind the textual face that meets us. In short, we critics often practice what has become known as the paranoid style of critique called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—and I, myself, would usually count myself (when it comes to literary texts) among the perennially suspicious. (For some interesting discussion so of the relations of criticism and conspiracy theory, see Rita Felski’s essay on the “Hermeneutics of Suspicion”; Timothy Melley’s review of works on conspiratorial theory by Chun, Flieger, and Farrell; Jodi Dean’s Theory and Event review of works on conspiratorial logic by Fenster, Marcus, and Melley; and Neville Morley’s blogpost “Criticism as Conspiracy Theory” on responses to Thucydides.)

Those reacting so passionately and paranoiacally to the US military exercises are not acting in a vacuum. Indeed, there is some rationale to their paranoia, if you consider how often the presence of “military exercises” are often used as an aggressive tactic. Russia and the United States often antagonize each other, for example, by performing planned military drills in sensitive areas. For a recent example, as this Telegraph article recounts, the Baltic has become the scene of simultaneous military exercises, with each side menacing the other through military exercises conducted in a potential site of conflict. Examples could be multiplied—and, indeed, broadcasting military exercises, while carefully pointing out that their being planned, has become a key tool in global territorial politics. Shows of force and military posturing are, of course, part of the tool-kit of militarism—and every parade showing off military equipment, every theatrically staged missile test, and every staged visit of a leader to a war shrine or in the company of macho, uniformed soldiers serves the larger agenda of aggressive states.(And that theatrical performance is a vital part of territorialism is a topic I have written about several times in this blog, such as here, here, and here.) Conducting exercises in actual terrain or in waters proximate to a potential enemy seems to be a particularly intense statement of militarist intent—and so it is understandable why some conspiracy theorists, despite the seeming extreme improbability that the Jade Helm operations are anything but a training exercise making convenient use of domestic spaces (indeed, most likely to avoid the aggressive implications of doing such exercises outside American territory).

Of course, if one holds alternative views about the sovereignty status of such spaces, then the Jade Helm exercises take on a very different appearance—gathering up all the energies of the aggressive military exercises done on foreign spaces. And Texas harbors disproportionate number of such theorists. Nowhere in the United States, it seems to me, does intra-American separatist nationalism play a more significant role than in Texas. In saying “intra-American,” of course, I am operating under the standard geo-political assumption that Texas is part of the United States, as one of the fifty states. I accept the standard story of Texas’s territorial history, which can be usefully tracked in that important repository of standard information, Wikipedia: after winning independence from Mexico in 1836 and existing as an independent Republic of Texas for some 9 years, Texas became the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845. Of course, this status as a state is complicated by the US Civil War: from at least March 4, 1861 (when Texas, after earlier legislative and popular votes, officially joined the Confederate States of America) to at least the April 9, 1865 official surrender of the Confederacy’s armed capabilities (though it is difficult to assess when each state officially returned to the United States, given the anarchy that often accompanied the path into Reconstruction in each state), Texas was a state in an active state of separation from the United States. While 1861-1865, thus, dopes complicate things, most observers would view Texas as simply one of the fifty states—entities with certain rights and obligations, as is clear, say, from the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution, which, as this Cornell Legal Information Institute article shows, is key to establishing federalism even as it acknowledges state’s spheres of influence— of the United States.

Such a viewpoint flies in the face of Texas secessionists such as the Republic of Texas, an organization that, as Manny Fernandez shows in his New York Times article, claims to function as a Texas government that stands due to the counterhistorical claim that the Republic of Texas never legitimately joined the United States. As Fernandez shows, the Republic of Texas group operates with much of the machinery of a state: it has minted coins, holds legislative sessions, sends legal summonses, as well as diplomatic letters to such foreign locations as Oklahoma’s government. It is not difficult to assume what the Jade Helm operations must look like to a group such as the Republic of Texas; it does more than just support paranoiac suspicions about an overreaching US Federal government that wants to stamp out all states’ rights; it confirms their views of Texas as indeed a foreign entity.

It is a function of how cohesive that the United States has been for so long that phenomena such as the responses to the Jade Helm exercises can appear so ridiculous to so many—even when they reach the level of a Texas governor ordering state military responses to a federal exercise. Since Reconstruction, after all, there have been very few actual efforts to foment anti-US secession movements—outside, that is, of the ongoing efforts from numerous Native American would-be nations to achieve full sovereignty. However, anti-federalist conspiracy theories are often related directly to violence, and can quickly turn violent: we need only remember the shocking violence of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombings to think how dangerous such anti-federal movements as the “sovereign citizen” movement can be.  As the Southern Poverty Law Center shows in this chilling survey, right-wing terrorism has been incredibly destructive within the United States—and its shockingly high rate of activity makes one wonder why we so readily look to foreign entities when questions of terror arise.  At the heart of much of this extremism is territorial politics—a refusal to accept the standard stories of political power, and to suggest that some work must be done to change them. Such thinking always involves powder kegs. If we turn to places such as Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Yemen, or Nigeria, we can see how horrific, violent, and destructive nationalist-separatist movements can be—whether in times of open conflict or in the constant tension created by unresolved calls for separation.

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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.


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.


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