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No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

[ by Charles Cameron — borders and distinctions from Trump to Revelation, plus one ]

Donald Trump‘s “three core principles of real immigration reform”:

1. A nation without borders is not a nation.


G Spencer-Brown wrote of his book. Laws of Form, “The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart” — or as Heinz Von Foerster rephrased him, “Draw a distinction and a universe comes into being”. Indeed, his book opens with the words:

We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction.

He writes:

Distinction is perfect continence.

That is to say, a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example in a plane a circle draws a distinction.

Similarly, Gregory Bateson defines an idea as “A difference or distinction or news of differences”.


Borders are both physical and metaphysical: the border between the physical and the metaphysical passes through human beings, who are themselves both metaphysical and physical.

Borders may thus be heeded or ignored.

Smugglers don’t necessarily ignore them, they may take them very seriously, as do those who police them. Birds, however, ignore them, fishes, lizards, languages..

There are would-be states that straddle national borders, as the Basque peoples straddle the border between France and Spain:

Basque France Spain 600

There are also would-be states that literally erase national borders, as in the case of IS bulldozing thw border between Iraq and Syria:

Iraq Syria Border 600

Thus while borders may be tidy in separating one from a second, they are also untidy in straddling them, neither one nor two, yet (like Janus) both.. They are, in short, thresholds, limina. And so wahat we know of liminality applies to them. I have discussed tthis previosuly on Zenpundit in Liminality II: the serious part — suffice it to say here that limiality is a condition that exacerbates, intensifies.


The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, quotes Leviticus 19.19:

You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.

Why these disjunctions? Dougles notes the repeated refrain in just such contexts:

Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy

and points out that Ronald Knox correctly — if “rather thinly” — translates this:

I am set apart and you must be set apart like me

She then tells us:

Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order.

noting that:

The word ‘perversion’ is a significant mistranslation of the rare Hebrew word tebhel, which has as its meaning mixing or confusion.

and concludes

ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.


The upper image, below, is taken from my recent post on Matrioshka cartography, and waas taken in turn from Say goodbye to the weirdest border dispute in the world in the Washington on August 1st..

SPEC DQ maps

… while the lower image is from Welcome to Liberland, the World’s Newest Country (Maybe) in the New York Times Magazine, dated Aug 11


Lydia Kiesling, in her post Letter of Recommendation: Uzbek in the NYT magazine today, writes:

National borders can be risibly at odds with reality, especially in Central Asia, where Turks, Mongols, Persians and others roved and mingled, where ‘‘Uzbek’’ was, for a time, more of a descriptive antonym of ‘‘Tajik’’ — no­­madic versus settled — than an ethnic classification.

And why not?

They are, after all, distinctions drawn in the mind, lines drawn on paper. Thus the Sykes-Picot map:

Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916 600

Sykes was quite clear about the “lines dorawn on paper” part. He is reported to have said:

I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk

The map, in other words, is not the territory: the map is a map.

To take another instance of importance in today’s world, the Durand Line:

Durand_Line_Border_Between_Afghanistan_And_Pakistan 600

Not only is the map not the territory in this case — it can be seen, as one-time Afghan president Hamid Karzai said, as “a line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers” — Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Sympathies which exist across borders can be potent forces for their dissolution. In a poem titled “Their Eyes Confer Fire” written in the 1980s about Basque country, I wrote

We have
little time,
Marie explained,
for those
who, because
it is hard
to draw
across actual
carve up
this earth on

France, Spain:
we disdain
boundaries, borders,
and border guards.

A canny reader noted that the entire poem could be read not as a description of the Basques as they exist in reality, but as a paean to the corpus callosum joining the two hemispheres of the brain — and thus the two modes of cognition of which I so recently wrote.


Returning to Lieberland, or Gornja Siga as the locals call it, we learn:

Gornja Siga has come, over the last few months, to assume an outsize role in the imagination of many — not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East and in the United States. Its mere existence as a land unburdened by deed or ruler has become cause for great jubilation. There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation. All the most recent states — South Sudan, East Timor, Eritrea — were carved from existing sovereignties in the wake of bitter civil wars. Here, by contrast, is a truly empty parcel. What novel society might be accomplished in a place like this, with no national claim or tenant?

Consider one sentence alone as the key to that “outsize role in the imagination”:

There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation.

The apocalyptic yearning here and its kinship with the Amrican dream are hard to miss — it is like a conflation of Matthew 5.14:

A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

with Revelation 21.1-2:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.



4 Responses to “No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Great post, Charles!
    Just a small historical note: Stalin made sure that the borders of the Central Asian Soviet Republics were drawn to split areas of ethnic homogeneity to make it more difficult for those republics to unite. Those were the borders that continued when the republics became countries when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
    Good times.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Charles,
    I agree with Cheryl on both counts, great post and Stalin was a divide and conquer drawer of borders
    Stalin’s thankless tenure as Lenin’s Commissar of Nationalities taught him a loathing of would-be ethnic Bolshevik chieftains, starting with Sultan-Galiev whom he wished to curb by cultivating Soviet “nationalism” instead (which lightly papered over some nasty great Russian chauvinist roots). The Basmachi revolt didnt help much either.

  3. Grurray Says:

    Stalin must have learned a lot because his diabolical manipulation of the borders is worst around the Ferghana Valley. The valley is the territory of Uzbekistan, the entrance of the valley is the territory of Tajikistan, and the mountain heights ringing the entire rim of the valley are controlled by Kyrgyzstan.
    This patchwork now ensures constant instability over water and agriculture

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Coming soon, & relevant to borders & divisions:

    Dion Nissenbaum, A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem’s Alley of God
    It has been the home to priests and prostitutes, poets and spies. It has been the stage for an improbable flirtation between an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy living on opposite sides of the barbed wire that separated enemy nations. It has even been the scene of an unsolved international murder. This one-time shepherd’s path between Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been a dividing line for decades. Arab families called it “al Mantiqa Haram.” Jewish residents knew it as “shetach hefker.” In both languages, in both Israel and Jordan, it meant the same thing: “the Forbidden Area.” Peacekeepers that monitored the steep fault line dubbed it “Barbed Wire Alley.” To folks on either side of the border, it was the same thing: A dangerous no-man’s land separating warring nations and feuding cultures in the Middle East. The barbed wire came down in 1967. But it was soon supplanted by evermore formidable cultural, emotional and political barriers separating Arab and Jew.
    For nearly two decades, coils of barbed wire ran right down the middle of what became Assael Street, marking the fissure between Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem and Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. In a beautiful narrative, Dion Nissenbaum’s A Street Divided offers a more intimate look at one road at the heart of the conflict, where inches really do matter.

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