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


Potential World Cup Fever: Sport and Sanctions (July 27, 2014)

I was surprised, given how much the glow of the nationalism-suffused World Cup was still lingering in the air during the horrific intensification of violence in and around Ukraine, that it took so long for Westerners to call for the removal of the 2018 FIFA World Cup from Russia—but the calls have started to come in, ranging from allies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British politician Nick Clegg, and representatives of the Dutch Football Association.  

        No government spokesperson has yet backed up such calls, and indeed both the German government and FIFA have thus far decisively rejected such calls.  Indeed, FIFA has vigorously countered efforts to punish Russia by moving the venue of the 2018 World Cup, arguing that past boycotts of sporting events have proven “not the most effective way of solving problems,” while insisting that the World Cup can be a “powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments.”

            We still do not know who exactly brought down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, of course, though it is clear from the very cautious moves towards pressuring Russia that these actions are more about compelling more active participation in investigation than in responding to clear blame. Moreover, the intense violence ravaging Eastern Ukraine clearly spills beyond this particular incident, with the stunning rewriting of sovereign boundaries depending upon highly unstable ethnonational differences that thrive most in open conflict. As I have written about more than once, the ethnonational energies driving the crisis in Ukraine is profoundly destabilizing and threatens a return to much of the unsparing partisan conflict of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

            Given the profound linkage between the World Cup and nationalism (about which I have written here, here, here,  and, more generally in terms of nation-based competition, here), it is quite apropos to link the venue of the 2018 World Cup with this Russo-Ukrainian conflict. It is hard not to recall that Russia, which clearly basked in the international attention of hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, not long afterwards performed what to me seems the most astounding and destabilizing move throughout this conflict—moving to secure the annexation of the Crimea—an action with profound territorial, economic, and diplomatic consequences that, as these articles assert, either fades into the background of current coverage of the conflict or is in fact seen as a done deal.

            The combination of symbolic struggle, nationalist competition, and, perhaps most importantly, massive flows of transnational wealth, make the 2018 venue of the World Cup an interesting focus for the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. I will look closely at the language used to discuss this dimension of the conflict, since this is a potential sanction with such super-charged symbolism as to possibly radically alter the conversation. Prestige could be on the line—and this has a market value that is very difficult to assess.



ISIS, Jonah, and Symbolic Violence (July 25, 2014)

In the Middle English poem Patience, the prophet Jonah, who has just woken up from pleasant dreams in his desert bower to find the shelter destroyed, lashes out:

          I received some comfort that is now seized from me—

          my lovely, lovely woodbine bower that sheltered my head.

          But now I see that you are set upon destroying all my happiness… [“I keuered me a comfort þat now is ca3t fro me, / My wod-bynde so wlonk þat wered my heued; / Bot now I se þou art sette my solace to reue,” 485-87, ed. Anderson; my translation).

          Jonah, of course, had already been through a lot—a terrifying prophecy assignment, a violent storm, a few days inside a fish, and then his great disappointment at Nineveh not being destroyed as per his prophetic statement.

            In a clear effort to use shock tactics to keep itself in the news, ISIS has continued the symbolic indignities visited upon Jonah—by apparently blowing up his symbolic resting place. As these Huffington Post, Guardian and Al-Arabiya articles relate, Sunni militants rigged explosives to the Shiite mosque built upon the eight-century BCE site alleged to be the tomb of Jonah, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah the prophet from the eponymous book of the Hebrew Bible, who is known as the prophet Yunus  in Islam (and this after having recently destroyed a shrine linked with the prophet Daniel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel). In its ongoing effort to sow terror throughout Syria and Iraq, threatening to undo recognized sovereign borders as it attempts to create a new Caliphate ruled by the fundamentalist extremism of Sharia Law, ISIS has consistently sought to use psychological warfare in its actions. Besides its chilling broadcasting of committing such war-crimes as torture and executing prisoners who surrender, discussed in these locations, ISIS has also revived pre-modern practices of insisting that non-Sunni residents, particularly Christians, either pay extra taxes or face summary execution, as related here.  ISIS is clearly quite savvy about being provocative, and its image-consciousness can even be seen in its effort to control its own name, though its efforts to re-brand itself as the more ambitious IS, as I discuss here, has not apparently taken root.

            Destroying a shrine related to an Islamic prophet is, of course, quite provocative indeed, though such actions are hardly surprising for hardline Sunni militants acting on Wahabi beliefs. ISIS, as this excellent Wikipedia article recounts, grew out of the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which regularly destroyed Shiite mosques and shrines, in an effort to destabilize Iraq. Fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, of course, often accuse Shiites of being idolaters, so there is a religious component to such an attack, as well. As this Transasia News article on the destruction of shrines relates, ISIS are Takfiri militants—meaning that they reserve the right to accuse other Muslims of apostasy, and hence to punish them on religious grounds. ISIS aims to be religious judge, jury, and executioner, it seems.

            Despite the manner in which religiously modulated violence can barely register for us when we are used to the mind-numbing violence of post-2003 Iraq, the destruction of such a famous shrine still has the power to shock. Indeed, anyone who would blow up a spiritual site clearly seeks to marshal intense shock, since such sites bear with them all the uncanniness and mystique of many individuals’ belief in the otherworldly. I still recall how shocked I was way back in March 2001, when the Taliban blew up the two sixth-century CE Buddhas of Bamiyan—two massive sandstone statues in Central Afghanistan. The destruction of the Buddhas was, many may recall, both deliberate and well-organized (one can find the demolition on youtube, but I simply cannot stomach linking to such shameless destructive action), with both idolatry and contempt for heritage preservation being cited in this interview.  Clearly, however, the Taliban’s actions were meant to unnerve any who would oppose them, showing not just religious single-mindedness, but utter contempt for all others.

            Symbolic violence often plays a role in warfare, especially when religious ideologies come into play. It is sad enough that so much of Iraq, a geographical location filled with a mind-boggling array of archaeological sites from so many eras and cultures of human history, has been ravaged by recent military activities, such as the horrific Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, or my own country’s deeply misguided 2003 invasion and disastrous occupation (and ensuing destabilization). With ISIS clearly so ambitious in its efforts to produce a large, intolerant, and expansive Caliphate, I quake to think what destruction will come next.

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Asserting the North Sudan: Of Absurdity, Legality, and a Princess (July 16, 2014)

It is not often one learns of actual terra nullius—that is, land officially claimed by no one. After all, virtually every iota of terrestrial space on the globe is claimed in our post-national world (with many of those claims, such as those involving certain islands in the South China Sea, being disputed). It is important to say “virtually every iota of space” here, because terra nullius is not simply a legal mechanism for past claims, but covers a number of terrestrial areas over which sovereignty has not been claimed (you can see a list of both historical and current cases in this Wikipedia article).

            I was reminded about the fascinating issue of terra nullius by Susie Nakley, who posted (along with some rather appropriately shocked commentary about imperialism, white privilege, and the need for postcolonial studies) a link to this Guardian blog article about a Virginian father who traveled to Bir Tawil  to claim it as his kingdom (by planting a flag), so that his daughter could be a “real princess.” I must say I share Nakley’s and the Guardian blogger’s bewilderment that Jeremiah Heaton could be so blind to how loaded of a gesture his territorial claim might be, though I also think it casts such clear light on such an intriguing place—a kind of geo-political non-place—that I am half-glad Heaton made the trip.

            Bir Tawil is one of the few significantly sized cases of terra nullius that is not located on one of the earth’s poles. It is a 2,060 sq. km area that lies between Egypt and Sudan. And when I do say it lies between Egypt and Sudan, I am, remarkably, speaking correctly—for, as this Wikipedia article relates, a long-running border dispute would make it disadvantageous for either Egypt or Sudan to claim the land, since it would require them to release a claim upon another, disputed area that is rich with oil resources. Zack Beauchamp provides a compelling and thorough overview of terra nullius law and history in his article on the Heaton claim to the creation of the “Kingdom of North Sudan.” Besides his excellent analysis of terra nullius and of Heaton’s claim, Beauchamp is especially strong on highlighting that such a claim is legible within current international theory—in Beauchamp’s choice phrasing, it is “perfectly, bizarrely legal.”

            It is not the assertion of, but the reception and adjudication of such claims that fascinate me. Anyone, of course, can plant a flag somewhere—even if it is 4,200 meters underneath the Arctic Sea, as Russian “explorers” did in 2007 (using a “rust-proof titanium metal flag”), in an effort to bolster their country’s claims to Arctic territory. However, it is quite another thing to actually maintain a land-claim, and indeed many, if not most land-claims, exist in a kind of constant pressure, with competing claims always threatening to undermine a territorial assertion. This is most obviously true in actively disputed places such as Israel-Palestine or the Crimea, but it is also the case in any settler-colonialist nation, such as my own country, the United States, whose territorial claims must counter almost countless claims by Native Americans.

            The (albeit profoundly politically incorrect) absurdity of Heaton’s claim to Bir Tawil calls attention to the fact that any assertion to territory is just that—an assertion that must be maintained according to certain protocols. As Jack Linshi’s Time article shows, Heaton’s claim to the creation of the “Kingdom of North Sudan” means nothing unless it is accepted by relevant authorities, including Sudan, Egypt, and, of course the ultimate guarantor of all legitimate identity in our current geopolitical world, the United Nations. The fact that Heaton claims to have “founded” a “nation” purely for his daughter, in my view, points in very interesting ways at how arbitrary and self-interested all national claims are. Whether it is in asserting often very fine distinctions between peoples (say, Ukrainians as non-Russians, or Scots as non-English and non-Welsh) or in asserting hostile control over the utterly dispossessed, national claims always involve bald assertions that merely seem less arbitrary with the passage of time.

             Once again, it is the combination of legality and sheer arbitrariness of Heaton’s gesture that intrigues me. I have always been fascinated by stories about individuals who, on occasion, seek to lay claim to parcels of real estate on other planets, with the Moon being the most frequent site of such claims (you can see a nice summation of these issues here).  As bizarre as these claims are, it is vital to place them in a legal context—particularly, that of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty (and do visit the IISL’s site to brush up on your space law). Even with that treaty in force, US astronauts still made gestures similar to that of Heaton in various moon landings, planting nylon flags in all of the Apollo missions (and, according to this analysis, all but the first are still there, if not waving). It is almost as if, even when there is agreement not to claim territory, humans who arrive in areas unknown to them feel compelled to mark it.

            A final note: the Heaton claim also brings to mind how creepy and outdated seems to me the continuing place of royalty in our society. As this BBC article shows, his daughter Emily now refers to herself as a princess and wears a crown. I have always been surprised at how prevalent princes and princesses are in our society, particularly in children’s programming aimed at a United States that is founded on a complete rejection of monarchical control. As I have noted elsewhere, the combination of legal status and arcane ritual involved in ongoing instances of monarchy seems profoundly out of place in a modern world, and it is the movement beyond imagining oneself a prince or princess in fairy tales to actually seeking a territorial claim to it that I find most disturbing in this story. But then again, perhaps the very absurdity of this may well cast useful light on how equally absurd it is that in advanced nation-states we still have the belief that some people are eligible to rule others due to their birth.


Push-Back against Spatial Privatization: Anti-App and Pro-Access Mobilization (July 15, 2014)

When activist-theorists such as Naomi Klein speak about the need to reclaim public space being increasingly appropriated by private interests, I consistently find the argument compelling. While the privatization of massive swathes of public space, such as those in involved in the natural resources industries, are the most obviously problematic, small-scale invasions of public space are ultimately just as problematic, since they feed into a system in which we simply expect every iota of space to be claimed and exploited by greater powers. Indeed, such micro-territorial claiming of space (a term I get from my reading of the work of the University of Worcester geographer David Storey) can seem the most damaging, because the fact that so many perfectly obvious, and hence shameless exploitations of public space going unchecked contributes to the sense that the system is rigged to protect the powerful. Whether it is California homeowners flouting the law by restricting access to public beach spaces (sometimes through the posting of fake “no parking” signs) or in the continued existence of “privately owned public spaces” such as Zuccotti Park in New York City (a site famous as ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street protests, as described by David Horvitz, and which has revolutionary roots going back to Sons of Liberty resistance to the Tea Act, as recounted here and here), private exploitation of public spaces is clearly a pressing problem across the United States (and indeed throughout the capitalized globe).

            It is always nice to hear some good news about those successfully fending off private poaching of public space. Besides Tony Barboza’s LA Times article on California finally possibly cracking down on property owners who illegally seek to restrict access to public space, there is excellent and uplifting news coming out of the San Francisco area. As BBC video journalist Franz Strasser shows here, an enterprising creator of a hashtag called #jerktech, Josh Constine, put a monkey-wrench in the gears of two predatory tech companies aiming to shamelessly cash in on public space—Monkey Parking, which aims to profit by selling off access to public parking spaces, and ReservationHop, which seeks to sell access to sought-after restaurant reservations. Both of these start-ups seek to make public space their territory, with the former exploiting physical congestion and the willingness and ability of some to pay for spots that should be available to any, and the latter exploiting congestion within private spaces that, nevertheless, depend upon only reasonably limited public access (as in, yes, you do need shirt and shoes here, but you don’t need to be a member of the 1% to get in). Watching the BBC video  made me feel delighted that so many see efforts to “monetize” all space as having crossed such a line that we need pro-active push-back such as Constine’s #jerktech campaign. Here’s to hoping that Constine’s successful actions—for both of the predatory companies he targeted are under social and, in Monkey Parking’s case, legal pressure—will inspire more resistance to shameless appropriation of public space.

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Somalia and Public-Private Anti-Piracy Measures (July 14, 2014)

This fascinating discussion of the severe drop-off in pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean (particularly off the coast of the Horn of Africa) has made me think quite a bit about how harmoniously private interests and state organizations can work when money is at stake and violence is fair game. For many years, as this Wikipedia discussion shows, both the politics and geography of Somalia (and its region) have made it a haven for pirates: with over 3,000 kilometers of Somalia being coastline, and with the profoundly destabilized and decentralized government of Somalia allowing for relatively easy weapons trafficking (including imports from Yemeni weapons dealers), money laundering, hiding places, and relatively undisturbed sites for holding ships and their cargo for ransom (see the Mike Pflanz article on basic pirate necessities). As Pflanz’s article details, piracy has been kept at a minimum in the area for about two years, primarily due to increased security measures that stem from both private contractors and state agents, with American and Russian navies exploiting their economies’ mutual reliance on the oil trade to inspire effective cooperation in the region.

            Ransom has probably always played a major role in human interaction. In the Western Middle Ages, ransom was not even something exercised merely by what we would call pirates, but was woven into the very fabric of standard warfare: any medieval military conflict featured the taking of prisoners to procure ransom, with military expertise including having the ability to recognize which opponents on a  battlefield would be ransomable. While we might associate ransom merely with criminal gangs or with violent peoples whose primary economic activity was through robbery and kidnapping, we would—as far as the Western Middle Ages is concerned—be entirely wrong. And this only become more obvious in the early modern period, with such notable state-supported pirates as Francis Drake playing a role in the rise of states that recognized the need to secure some degree of control over key shipping lanes and ports.

             Somali piracy seems a lot closer to the sophisticated sort seen in early and pre-modern Europe, making the sophisticated security measures brought to bear on it seem highly appropriate. As this Economist analysis on Somali piracy makes clear, Somali piracy is highly sophisticated, involving complex financing, discipline, and the negotiation of transnational market and currency practices. The response to such a sophisticated ring has been appropriately sophisticated, involving both the individual and coordinated actions of state-based agencies from around the world (and you can get a good sense of the wide range of these groups in this MARAD [US Maritime Administration] report, as well as the intense range of one state’s many interventions in this Japanese Ministry of Defense report, http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/somalia/ ), as well as a wide range of private security measures funded by shipping (especially oil) interests (see Ben Quinn’s Guardian analysis of British mercenaries in the security trade, Dan Harris and Dan Lieberman’s ABC news survey of the effects of such measures, Christopher Spearin’s discussion of private anti-piracy measures and their links with Canada, and Peter Chalk’s essay on the context for counter-piracy measures).

            It is intriguing to me that, even as the terrestrial Middle East is being massively destabilized by ISIS and its geographically unsettling efforts to destroy borders and establish an expansive caliphate, and even as Ukraine and Russia are rewriting their borders in a violent and unrelenting chaos throughout eastern Ukraine, the Persian Gulf and other parts of the Indian Ocean in proximity to the Somali Coast are becoming more stable. Will this tense harmony of state and private security measures become the norm in this transnational maritime space? Or is it, as Alan Cole of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says here, simply a matter of time before the cost-cutting instincts of the business world will lessen security measures and open the door—or should I say floodgates—to a new wave of piracy? The fascinating patchwork of state, state-based, and private organizations and firms, combined with the immense savviness and maritime skill of the Somali pirate networks, ensures that this will remain a very rich subject to examine.


Kurdistan and Ethnonational Fragmentation (July 11, 2014)

The acute instability in the Middle East continues to grow, with Kurdish forces’ recent assumption of practical control over two oil fields increasing the likelihood that Iraq will fragment into multiple states. As this BBC summary of recent commentary on Kurdish activity shows, there is great expectation that Massoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi province of Kurdistan, will call for a formal referendum for independence.

            As I have discussed elsewhere in the light of ISIS’s entropic activity in the Middle East, as well as in the context of the equally intense upheavals in the territorial stability of the Ukraine, our world seems to be in a period of intense rewriting of geographic borders. If the now semi-autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq becomes an independent state, there may well be much more geographic chaos. Much as ISIS’s efforts to create a caliphate that takes up swathes (if not all) of Syria and Iraq also, due to the ambiguity of the group’s name, threatens to include portions of Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Turkey, so would the creation of a sovereign Kurdistan threaten to unleash separatist impulses among Kurds living in areas such as Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Intriguingly, Turkey, which has had the most high-profile resistance to Kurdish separatism, may well become an ally, since, as Rebecca Collard and others write,Turkey is so unsettled by ISIS’s expansionist extremism that they would rather deal with the stable, rational quasi-state already functioning in Iraqi Kurdistan—and Turkey’s assistance, Firas Al-Atraqchi asserts, may be pivotal to the success of such a state.

            However laudable is the goal of a rational state, and however much a sovereign Kurdistan seems preferable to the mayhem and religious extremism being fomented by ISIS, I find it hard not to be equally troubled by how starkly Iraq’s fragmentation is falling along allegedly clear ethnic lines. While this BBC article makes the reductive decision to separate the groups as Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, such differentiation is hardly so stark: most Kurds, after all, are Sunni, so a distinction between Kurdish and Arabic ethnicity cuts across this tripartite division. It is hard not to worry if such fragmenting logic were to be followed elsewhere: will all states with multiple ethnicities begin to fissure? We already see this, as I have written about on this blog, in efforts by some Russian speakers to break away into separate sovereign states from Ukranian speakers, as well as in the very real possibility that Scots will break apart from the United Kingdom. The logic of such ethnonationalism, which most famously wracked the Balkans in the nineteenth century, always seems to me especially frightening—and when it adds to the horrors in such ongoing ethnonational conflicts as that going on in Israel and Palestine, it certainly makes today’s world seem an especially volatile place.

            The events of the very unsettling recent past have impressed upon me how there are strong counter-currents to such ethnonational entropy: the ongoing efforts of the European Union to work against national exceptionalism and produce a framework for collaborative action, seems to work very much in the opposite direction of the ethnonationalism we see wracking the Ukraine and the Middle East, and my own country, the United States— however unwelcoming much of its current population can be to immigrants—has always seemed to me to be defined by immigration, with its essence being an integrative, multiethnic one. I wonder if the deeply unsettling activity in the Middle East and in the Ukraine may work its way into such assimilationist projects, spreading what seems to me the ultimately destructive contagion of nationalism.

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Of Caves, Coins, Corieltavi, and Soldiers: National Trust Archaeology (July 7, 2014)

I have been gripped by recent reports surrounding the find, at Reynard’s Kitchen Cave in Dovedale (Derbyshire, UK), of a literal treasure trove—26 coins, with some being of Iron Age British provenance and with three being Roman coins. You can see some great photos of Reynard’s Kitchen Cave here: (my brief excitement that this may have been named after Reynard the Fox was deflated by the National Trust, which links its naming with a “recent” highwayman who used it as a hideout). Besides the inherent interest in a sudden historical find—these coins were found by a tourist enjoying the scenery of this famously scenic area—this story spoke to me due to the many layers of territorial control, which range from the geological to the geographical to the historical.

            The coins are thought to have belonged to some member of the Corieltavi tribe [aka the Corieltauvi], whose territory, as this Wikipedia article shows, included a large swathe of the East Midlands, including today’s Derbyshire. The cave itself has yielded few clues as to why it would have stored coins, though it is hard not to be intrigued by archaeologist Rachael Hall’s speculation that it may have been useful as a storehouse because it was a “taboo” site—hence, a sort of sacred, exceptional space.

            What most intrigued me was not the coins’ origins, but the site’s current jurisdictional setting and the various players involved in the excavation. The site is exceptional space, for it belongs, as does all of Dovedale, to the National Trust, an organization first incorporated in 1884, whose original mission statement was the “aim of saving our nation’s heritage and open spaces,” and who currently describe themselves as a “UK conservation charity, protecting historic places and green spaces, and opening them up for ever, for everyone.” That this organization conflates the historical and the natural, seeing both as possessions by the people and the state currently dominating the area—that is, by the nation—is clear from its full name, the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Much like the national park system in the United States—also originating from the 19th Century—it is an institution that invokes both the timelessness of natural beauty and the timeliness of places of historical value in order to justify control of space. Due to a number of statutory acts explained here, this “charity” is a quasi-governmental body, which seems to be especially curious: it invokes the nation in its core identity, yet it is not fully meshed with the nation-state itself.

            Perhaps the most striking player involved with this exciting coin find is the Defence Archaeology Group and Project Nightingale, a group who use “both the technical and social aspects of field archaeology in the recovery and skill development of soldiers injured in the conflict in Afghanistan.” Citing a “close correlation between the skills required by the modern soldier and those of the professional archaeologist,” the Defense Archaeology Group has created a fascinating means for both soldiers and archaeologists to benefit: the public good of safely and effectively recovering historical objects is aided by experienced veterans, who are able to make productive uses of their skill-sets for public service. While this goal is laudable, it is of course hard not to think of negative aspects of linking warfare and archaeology. One need only visit the British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/with its mind-bogglingly large collection of objects taken from all over the world, to see, as theorists such as Benjamin, Foucault, and Said have famously reminded us, how archaeology can be perceived as an instrument of empire.

            Since the National Trust clearly bases its claims on materials found originally on the land—and, in an intriguing recognition of the debates, ongoing since 1707 and taking on particular heat in the lead-up to the September 18 vote on Scottish independence, there is a separate National Trust for Scotland— it is interesting to speculate as to the point at which objects obviously from elsewhere but currently held in museums, such as the British Museum, will also become part of a “national” trust. While the Corieltavi may have gained the Roman coins through trade or perhaps through warfare, they clearly came from elsewhere and became part of this landscape. At what point might the caryatid from the Acropolis removed by Elgin, have stayed long enough on British soil to become part of its “national” trust? The Reynard’s Kitchen Cave hoard, having been being “cleaned” by experts at the British Museum and University College, London, will soon be placed permanently in the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, where they will, as archaeologically categorized objects, play an ongoing role in British state claims over all time, space, and place associated with their territory.