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


From ISIS to IS: Declaring a Caliphate and Shortening One’s Name (June 29, 2014)

            As I have discussed in a previous post, I am very interested in the radical rejection of the international state system woven into the very name of the militant group ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (AKA the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Today, however, the group just announced that it has removed the very territorial identifiers that, it seemed to me, produced this radical rejection: according to this BBC report, spokesmen for ISIS, besides declaring their organization a caliphate, have also changed their name to “the Islamic State.”

            While carving a caliphate out of Syrian and Iraqi territory has always been the group’s intention, and while the very generality of the name indeed seems to pose a momentous challenge (for if it is the Islamic state, does that mean it aims to expand to include all territories where Sunni Muslims are in the majority?), I am quite surprised by the group’s dropping of the full name. What has seemed to me so striking about the group’s name depends upon simultaneous concreteness and ambiguity, which convey the group’s literally unsettling territorial ambitions: while its reference to Iraq is clear enough (the same Iraq that is threatening to finally break apart, with current calls for an independent Kurdistan beginning to be heard, as with Israel’s official support, described here), the term al-Sham translated as Syria is deeply ambiguous. As Patrick J. Lyons and Mona El-Naggarjune discuss here in their analysis of the group’s “Arabic name, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham,” al-Sham is “the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands,” which “came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert,” and yet, like the “Western” term “Levant,” can mean, like the “Western” term Levant, “not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.”

            Since it is quite clearly ISIS’s—or should I say IS’s?— desire to destroy the sovereign states of Syria and Iraq and to set up a new Islamist state that may well include portions of land included in the broad and unstable terms “al-Sham” or “Levant” (the group does sometimes go by ISIL), it seemed to me that the open-endedness of the name ISIS very effectively served the group’s clearly destabilizing intentions. The name ISIS (or ISIL) linked the production of a new state both with the very specific state of Iraq and a vaguely theorized notion of Syria whose ambiguity could support the idea of an aggressively expanding state that might strike at various locales in the Middle East, whether Turkey or Jordan or Lebanon or Israel. Perhaps IS is even more menacing in its open-endedness, suggesting an Islamic state poised to expand anywhere and everywhere—but the utter vagueness of this trajectory, and the stark singularity of its claim for not a caliphate, but the caliphate, seems to me to be so ambitious as to appear merely fanciful, unrealizable. But, then again, it is only a name—and very much is being realized and rewritten in the very unstable Middle East, these days.


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EU vs. EEU: Economic Partnerships and Transnational Empire Building (June 27, 2014)

In reading about the geo-political tensions produced by the European Union’s signing of “partnership agreements” with Georgia, Moldova, and the Ukraine, I am reminded at how radically the European Union is transforming global politics. While international organizations have, most obviously with diplomatic mechanisms like the United Nations  or military alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, been continuously shaping the post-World-War-II globe, the European Union seems to more directly threaten the status of the nation-state as the primary player in international relations.  As Steven Rosenberg argues in his analysis, the EU pacts add to the resurfacing of quasi-Cold War tensions between a Russian-dominated East and the West, with the attraction of three former Soviet Bloc nations into a Western European economic world causing angst among pro-Russian partisans in the Ukraine. Putin’s production of a competing Eurasian Economic Union, seen in this light (and especially considering the destabilization of the Ukraine, which was pulled in both western and eastern economic directions), seems designed to make transnational pacts the key factor in a Euro-Asian arena in which nations themselves seem increasingly secondary to the transnational unions they can potentially produce.

            The European Union is, of course, more than just a pragmatic economic alliance. Indeed, as the NATO statement on the agreements with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine shows, the organization stands for a shared vision in terms of legal and social policy, as well as modes of governance. However, ti is hard not to see the economic factors as crucial here—and it is the primacy of this that seems to me to be most intensely pressuring the centrality of national identity. One factor that seems to be crucial to national autonomy (and this has become increasingly clear to me as I continue to read the gargantuan Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty) is the regulation of currency—thus, the European Union’s efforts to ground its identity in a transnational currency, quite emphatically undermine a key aspect of national autonomy. (It is worth noting that submission to a single currency has always been formally resisted by the British, who insisted on exceptional status (along with Denmark) when the 1992 Maastricht Treaty created the European Union and hence a centralized currency policy.)

            In many ways, the increasing strength of transnational organizations need not be seen as some sort of linear advance into a new state, but rather seems to move back to older modes of imperial conflicts—whether it be an ancient world where a coalition of Greek city-states worked against the Persian Empire and its allies, or European lords united by religious affiliation waged concerted campaigns against medieval Islamic cultures; examples could be multiplied. Here, I think it is hard to sustain Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s idea of a single Empire ascendant in today’s globe— for this economic partnership conflict seem to show ever more strongly the primacy of multiple, competing coalitions, and forces us to consider the specters of a very independent China and a US against which the EU seems to have constructed itself in competition.


Drafting Scottish Independence: From Oil Rights to National Anthems (June 21, 2014)

The Scottish Government has issued the Scottish Independence Bill, which is meant to serve as the “constitutional platform” for a new Scottish sovereign state, if Independence Day follows from an affirmative vote on the upcoming Independence referendum, about which I wrote this blog’s first entry. I first learned about this development from reading Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies blog, which includes Elden’s excellent analysis of the territorial aspect to the Scottish constitution bill. While there is much to look over in this fascinating document, which features a draft Constitution and a lengthy appendix describing each section in detail, and I will most likely be revisiting this a number of times before the September 18 vote, the territorial issues isolated by Elden do indeed merit the most immediate attention. As Elden observes, the redactors’ stated confidence in Scotland’s “territorial integrity” being a simple matter that international law will straightforwardly confirm seems well off the mark—especially when you consider that the explanatory section in the appendix to the constitution bill cites Aberdeen University scholars asserting that “over 90% of current UK oil and gas revenues are from fields in Scottish waters, based on international legal principles” (Chapter 2, Part 2, Section 6 here). My guess is that, if Scotland indeed repeals the 1707 Act of Union and becomes an independent sovereign state, a now Scotland-less British government would not be as sanguine as the Scottish Constitution Bill redactors about the notion that Scotland’s territory is uncontestable.

            It is especially intriguing to me that the Scottish Constitution Bill both asserts that “international law” would recognize that Scotland should retain its territorial integrity that it had before the 1707 Union (Part 1, section 7) and that it will remain a constitutional monarchy with the current Queen of Britain as the head of state (Part 1, section 9) . Perhaps one reason that it is so important to keep Scotland a monarchy and to keep the current Queen as head of state (as well as her successors) is that much of Scottish territory that could plausibly be contested—namely, the Shetland Islands and Orkney Islands, both of which came into official Scottish possession in 1470 when Christian I, as King of Norway he was also King of Denmark and Sweden), defaulted to Scotland’s King James III on his dowry for his daughter Margaret, who became Queen of a Scotland with two more archipelagoes that would, in 2014, add significantly to the oil and gas reserves Scottish Independence planners want to maintain). Since the Orkneys and the Shetlands were annexed to the Scottish Crown as personal territories, it would seem that Scottish Independence planners could not have considered moving beyond 1707’s Act of Union: if they sought to abrogate the Union of the Crowns in 1603 (on which see these surveys; this union was not just a ceremonial union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in the person of James VI and James I, by the way, but also included legislation, such as the English Parliamentary Union of England and Scotland Act of 1603), then that might well  enable claims by Queen Elizabeth on virtually any Scottish soil—after all, she maintains the personal throne in direct line proceeding from James I / VI.

            Once again, I am quite sure I will be spending a lot of time reading this fascinating document, but I wanted to point out some of the immediate observations I had, besides marveling at how the complex territorial issues that will surely be unleashed into the world of international law with a pro-Independence vote in the referendum are optimistically reduced to a simple legal issue in the document:

            I was quite fascinated by the Bill pointing out that “the principle of the rule of law continues to apply in Scotland” (Part 1, Section 15.1). Much as with William I’s method of dealing with the conquest of England—essentially claiming that the government continued as before, with simply a righting of the succession to him and some—ahem, minor changes in elite personnel—the pro-Independence redactors of this document seem very zealous to highlight continuity in the process. There is clearly a great desire to avoid any language that sounds like revolution—and indeed the major theme running through the document appears to be that the ultimate goal is simply reverting, on the sovereignty question, to the state of Scotland in 1706, while keeping as much continuity as possible.

            Scotland’s status as a profoundly archipelagic country is nicely woven into the Constitution Bill, which states that the government will pay attention to “particular needs” of “island communities,” which are not reduced to a single type but seen as each having “distinctive geographical characteristics” (Part 1, Section 30).

            This Constitution Bill is strikingly environmentalist: a “healthy environment” is seen as an “entitlement” for all (Part 1, Section 31.1), which falls in line with Environmental Justice views, while 1.31 also weaves into the constitution a commitment to preserve biodiversity and struggle against “climate change.” Especially for such a succinct Constitution draft, this environmentalist language does not at all seem like mere verbiage, but really stands out as a significant commitment.

            Especially considering my recent thoughts about national anthems in the context of World Cup nationalism and British identities, I was intrigued to see the way in which the Constitution bill clearly confirms the Saltire (or St. Andrew’s Cross) as the existing Scottish flag, but leaves open the legislature’s ability to declare a national anthem. While implying ownership of over 90% of the United Kingdom’s oil and gas reserves was evidently not too contentious, deciding between “Flower of Scotland” and “Scots Wha Hae” (among other candidates) was too hot of a topic to handle.

            One final note: although it simply states the obvious, I was struck by the simple essence of the whole independence movement, linked to a single legal act: “The Union with England Act 1707 is repealed” (Part 1, section 35). Most probably, as with the case of working out the details of territorial rights, the truth of the matter will be much more complex than a single sentence can convey—but it is indeed quite thrilling to see how all of what is at stake in the September 18 vote hinges upon this single reversal of the currently ongoing union.


Anglo-American Exceptionalism and World Cup Theatrics (June 16, 2014)

As I have noted here before, for me the World Cup always brings with it a wealth of nationalist material to reflect upon—and this go-round has certainly not disappointed so far. The latest point of interest for me is this analysis by Sam Borden, which builds a case for American (and, incidentally, Anglo-) exceptionalism upon Fred’s shameless, yet effective flop in Brazil’s opening match against Croatia. Apparently, according to Borden, Americans just are not good at cheating, since their natural and national sense of fair-play and determination prevents them from doing what most of the rest of the world does—namely, flopping or diving, that is, either manufacturing a foul by falling or, more frequently, by exaggerating the results of contact with another player in order to elicit a foul-call by the referee. Citing current US Men’s National Team assistant and former player Tab Ramos’s statement that “the American nature is to make everything fair,” Borden presents this inherent American honesty  as a sort of noble burden.

            Borden’s turn to World Cup diving to shore up an American exceptionalist position is coupled with a second, intriguing exception to the alleged global rule that soccer players dive without scruples—America’s former colonial master, England, also proves to be literally too upright to dive. Citing Simon Kuper’s argument in Soccernomics that “the long refusal of English players to dive” has hindered them from winning, and that they should have learned from “Continental Europeans” how to win penalty calls through theatrics, Borden paints a portrait of Anglo-American players as the last bastions of honest, straight-shooting, ethical competition, with their World Cup chances dim in the face of a globe that is otherwise filled with shameless thespians who will dive at a moment’s notice.

            Besides being tiresome in its nationalist, utterly anecdotal assessment about American (and, in its ancestral earlier form, English) culture being somehow too honest and courageous to include diving in its soccer strategies, as well as in its reiteration of the truism that soccer is not the top sport in America because its alleged uniqueness in inviting flopping goes against a masculinist and upright American spirit, Borden’s article simply seems grossly uninformed about American sports. For one thing, flopping is as deeply ingrained in NBA basketball as it is in international soccer, with my favorite video evidence of this being the official 2012-13 NBA video explaining the different types of thespian activity that would incur fines. When Borden cites Kyle Martino using “taking a charge” in basketball as an example when he argues that no other American sport makes an athlete risk being condemned for cheating, it became clear to me that neither Martino nor Borden watches must basketball: “taking a charge” more often than not is perceived as flopping, and the NBA’s flopping problem has become so epidemic as to have finally inspired a fine system. This May 2, 2006 article by Patrick Hruby gives a nicely amusing assessment of NBA flopping traditions, while this December 31, 2013 Ric Bucher article updates recent developments in NBA players’ increasingly unabashed dramatic flair. The steroid scandals that have made the baseball record books become filled with very damning asterisks also speak strongly against Borden’s nostalgic, nationalist imagination of American sports as an oasis of fair play in a world—again, except for our stalwart cousins in England—beset by Machiavellian trickery and athletes who are primarily actors.

            While I am never surprised to hear and see nationalist sentiments voiced by fans in stadiums and bars and living rooms throughout the World Cup—and indeed I rather think that events like the World Cup and the Olympics might in some ways be a fairly innocuous, if not very healthy outlet for patriotic passions, given how small the stakes seem to actually be for anyone but the players and management involved—I was quite shocked to see this sort of impressionistic, and—dare I say—jingoistic analysis in the New York Times. Perhaps things will prove to be precisely as Borden imagines it to be on the pitch throughout the rest of the tournament—and stone-faced, always upright American players will mirror their English counterparts, as the lone ethical sportsmen in a World Cup peopled otherwise by shifty foreigners whose victories will always be  tainted by their theatrics—but somehow I doubt this. And I do think the sort of analysis Borden offers can be very unsavory, feeding xenophobia. In terms of NBA coverage, we can see this in the frequent claim, seen in this NBA news brief and in Bucher’s piece, each of which speaks of those who link the increase of flopping with the increase in the number of “international players,” that flopping is something that is particularly prevalent among foreigners, whose presence threatens to infect otherwise upright Anglo-American athletes. The New York Times might exercise a bit more care in giving sports analysts free rein in discussing ethnonational dispositions.


ISIS and the Unsettling of National Borders (June 12, 2014)

Reading about the frightening military offensives being conducted by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), especially in the light of the ongoing separatist unrest in Eastern Ukraine and the self-proclaimed annexation of the Crimea by Russia, I am fascinated by the tremendous pressure being currently placed on national borders. As this analysis by Tim Lister shows, ISIS is operating deliberately across national lines, with the apparent goal of setting up an Islamist state that would consist of Sunni-dominated territories currently classified as either Syrian or Iraqi sovereign soil. Intriguingly, the final “S” in the ISIS acronym, as this BBC News profile shows, is not actually from the word ‘Syria,’ but from the Arabic word “al-Sham,” whose meanings range from Damascus to Syria to the “Levant”—  and if it is the latter, then this jihadist group could spread well beyond simply two nations.

            While ethnically-motivated civil conflict is certainly not surprising in Iraq, the role of ISIS in this current fighting has clearly altered the landscape in radical ways. As Peter Bergen shows in this analysis, ISIS has been an outlier even to al-Qaeda, with its refusal to conform to organizational directives and its particularly ferocious fighting in Syria having caused it to be expelled from al-Qaeda itself. What is striking to me is its clear ambition, woven into its very organizational fabric, to produce a new sort of state that defies current sovereign borders accepted by the United Nations (and recall that the First Gulf War was waged primarily to defend the Kuwaiti borders that Saddam Hussein had challenged—as you can see from this US Department of State explanation from the Office of the Historian)—stretching at least across Syria and Iraq.

            As one who has read numerous books on the meaning of nationalism, I have always been intrigued by one recurring flaw in many definitions of what separates the nation-state from, say, a kingdom or empire—namely, many scholars see nations as static entities that coexist in an international world of agreed-upon borders, whereas the age of empires and kingdoms involved constant expansion. One of the problems with such a definition is that it requires us seeing a good percentage of the twentieth century as entirely aberrational, since the expansionist energies that were linked to World War I and World War II were clearly central to those eras. Moreover, nations and empires are often very difficult to distinguish—a phenomenon I recently discussed in terms of nostalgia for the U.S.S.R transcending the opposing sides in the current civil war in Ukraine and—again, depending upon how you see it—in a now Russian Crimea.

 Empires—whether King Arthur’s or Stalin’s—seem most powerful when they can bring many sorts of polities within their umbrella, as national borders melt before the powerful appeal of a greater, thriving state-body. Promising a greater Sunni state that is answerable to no one, not even al-Qaeda, ISIS seems to be a simultaneously unifying and entropic force, gathering members even as it undermines agreed-upon political and ethnic borders.

            Whether it is in a strictly deliberate, rational process, such as the vote on Scottish Independence,  or in the direct (and proxy) war-zones of the Ukraine or Iraq, or even in the nebulous air-identification zones that depend upon contested sovereignty claims in the tense skies over the East China Sea, national borders seem to be in a strange sort of suspension these days. As the refugees flee from the wrath of ISIS, in an already unstable country whose volatility was increased exponentially by my own nation-state’s tragically misguided 2003 invasion and 8-year occupation of Iraq, I feel increasingly that we are living in an era where a historically large portion of the national global map may be rewritten. How odd to have such ethnonational violence undoing borders, even as much of the world population tells itself it is being united by nations fighting other nations on the soccer pitch.


The Medieval Combat World Championship and Nationalist Spoil-Sports (June 9, 2014)

In reading Tom Holland’s fascinating report on his visit to the First International Medieval Combat Federation World Championships, held in the Castilla de Belmonte in Spain (south of Madrid), I was mesmerized by the wonderfully hybrid time of this spectacle: even as participants experientially learn the pleasures and pains of medieval combat in a setting that Holland reads as quixotically medieval, very modern forms of nationalism seem to be structuring the events. After first giving a taste of Franco-Swedish combat, Holland moves on to what proved to be a fundamental rift in the participating community, and one which seems to be reproducing the East-West split that characterized the Cold War as much as today’s Russo-Ukrainian conflict: Russians had pulled out of the championship playoffs, marking a fundamental East-West scission in the medieval combat world.

       The spectacular nature of faux-medieval fighting has always intrigued me—and the World Championship organizers nicely highlight, in postmodern-medieval fashion, the layers of artificiality in their choice of venue: the Belmonte, an actual medieval castle, is singled out as having been the setting for the 1961 film El Cid.  Moreover, as I have discussed in terms of World Cup ethno-nationalism, I am more than a little intrigued at this juncture in time with intersections of sports and nationalism.

             What most struck me about Holland’s reporting on the East-West split within this particular medieval combat world is that Russians are apparently quite contemptuous of Americans participating, “on the grounds that the US ha[s] no medieval history”— and this, after the very same Russians deployed Soviet iconography to evidently “taunt” a Polish contingent. Much as nationalist scholars co-opted the medieval past throughout the nineteenth-century rise of university literary studies, so do these medieval combatants also, through their sport, seem, in some cases, to lay claim to an ethno-national cultural capital—and one that cannot be transported, apparently, by immigrants moving to new locations and yet retaining their stakes in heritage (of which America is surely a clear example). It amuses me how un-medieval such an attitude is, especially considering how multiethnic and unstable Arthurian empire is, as I recently discussed in the light of recent critical activity in and around Russia. Indeed, the very diversity of medieval modes of claiming inheritance in America makes it seem perhaps the most fertile area for such revival.

             On a final note, I do feel sorry for these literalist anti-American combatants on one score: if they feel that American soil does not host the requisite amount of medieval history, they will clearly probably also discount Canadian territory as a potential site for authentic faux-medieval combat, and thus never be able to bring themselves to enjoy the truly wondrous kitsch of a visit to my nearest and dearest Medieval Times.


Yearning for the Good Old Imperial Days: Russia, Ukraine, and Arthurian Empire (June 8, 2014)

The crisis in eastern Ukraine (and whether or not you include the Crimea as still part of Ukraine or now part of Russia depends upon your perspective) continues to fascinate me, since it places so much pressure on the unique, entropic force of ethnicity. While ethnic identity often helps bind a nation, it can also—especially when it is brought into the foreground of practical decisions about which loyalties matter more—fracture a national community. It is striking to me how complex the stories of assertions of difference be between neighbors—and a conflict such as this makes me wonder if those populations who are most alike end up, due to the intense work required to distinguish themselves, channeling the most intense sorts of differentiating energy. Linguistic difference (as I discuss here) has been appealed to—yet the very smallness of difference can simply illuminate much shared history, such as Ukrainians and Russians each looking back for their origins in the medieval world of , Kievan Rus, the medieval, Viking-inflected Slavic kingdom (on which see this fine Wikipedia article).

            This recent analysis by Steve Rosenberg on the motivations for those seeking to carve out a new sovereign state, the Donetsk People’s Republic,  makes me realize that a yearning for an empire that can subsume ethnic differences is also a key factor in this conflict: for many, there is currently an intense stream of nostalgic desire for the past days of a Soviet greatness that transcended ethnic distinction. While ethnic differences were a major factor in the Soviet Union, with perceptions of Russian domination constantly countering the sense of a national identity that would supersede ethnic identity when it comes to questions of loyalties,  it is striking to think that much of the separatist activity in the Ukraine is less about Russian ethnicity as about a yearning for the Russian-led imperial super-state. Many, of course, assume that Putin is seeking to revive a Soviet-style empire, as Oliver Bullough explains, and indeed recent economic alliances lend credence to this regional ambition. Reading Rosenberg’s article, I was struck by the combination of nostalgia for imperial togetherness with the obviously violent, if quixotic effort to carve out an autonomous territorial nation-state: two modes of state-consolidation sit explosively side by side. And as a medievalist, I remain focused on the fascinating conceptual questions that have been triggered by this conflict.

            Since I have, in preparation for a Fall class on Arthurian romance, been doing a lot of re-reading of Arthurian chronicles, I have been thinking a lot about both continuities and differences in the ways in which medieval and modern challenges to territorial control were encoded. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Arthurian power is its profoundly imperial nature: though it is always easy to see similarities with ethnic identity in the way Arthurian empires coalesce, it always seems to me to be alien to the nature of Arthurian power. Arthur’s court would always grow by bringing in knights from all over the place, and the Arthur who enters into literary history through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is one who both aims for, and largely succeeds in putting together a massive, transnational, and emphatically multiethnic empire. In my mind, Putin’s imperial ambitions are analogous to Arthur’s—and very much approximate the successful strategies of regional super-powers such as the United States and China, who have each expanded by first militarily defeating and then by assimilating various populations.

            Reading about many separatists’ yearning for the Soviet umbrella that bound together Russia and Ukraine, I am very intrigued about whether the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is much more fraught than has been reported by news media for whom ethnic difference is usually, reductively seen as total. Arthur’s empire, grand in its scale, brought together individuals from many different ethnic backgrounds— and eventually dissolved due to internal strife. For some reason, I keep thinking about this imperial Arthurian experiment as I read about the larger context for the crisis currently wracking Eastern Ukraine, with its combination of a vague desire for grand empire and a practical focus on militarily securing a sovereign territory with emphatically modern, stable borders.