James Crawford’s The Edge of the Plain review – Beyond Borders | history books

Owhat a border means depends on who you are. The reopening of international borders after the Covid lockdowns has been hailed as a return to normality, at least for the world’s wealthy travellers. At the same time, British politicians, boasting that they had “taken back control of our borders” after leaving the EU, embarked on the surreal punitive wheeze of outsourcing asylum to Rwanda. For the lucky ones, a border may just be a queue at an airport; for those who are less so, a real wall between their home and their place of work.

Borders have often been seen as the skin of the body politic: a defense against external infection. Thus, 19th century theorists such as Friedrich Ratzel argued that just as an organism’s skin can stretch to accommodate its growth, geographical boundaries can also shift outward to give nation sufficient living space, or “Lebensraum”. We know where that led.

Meanwhile, some Russia watchers suspect Vladimir Putin, who is currently trying to violently redraw borders in Ukraine, has spent the lockdown poring over maps of the former Russian empire. The Russian equivalent of Google Maps, Yandex, announced in June that it was removing all borders from its app, supposedly to emphasize “natural objects”. “Imagine there is no country”, as the song goes. “It’s not hard to do.”

Of course, many national borders follow the course of “natural objects” such as rivers or mountain ranges. But these are not as reliable as they once seemed, as one of the chapters of James Crawford’s richly essayized travelogue explains. The border between Italy and Austria moves every year because the glacier that defines it melts. An interviewee recounts how he entered an inner bureaucratic sanctuary to discover that Italy’s borders with Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland and France are all defined on official documents kept in three sturdy filing cabinets, slowly becoming obsolete as the climate changes.

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In George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, members of the Black Watch guard a vast wall separating the kingdom from the snowy wasteland to the north and its dangerous inhabitants. Roman soldiers also occupied Hadrian’s Wall and then the Antonine Wall. Our author visits the latter and remarks: “It was bordering on a great performance […] a 37-mile-long symbol of the Roman ability to tame the desert and nature.

But why build a wall? In Crawford’s account, the Romans’ desire to set a physical limit to what was once considered a limitless empire was born out of a crisis of insecurity. The same could be suggested for electronic walls that enclose citizens of authoritarian countries in an attempt to block access to the internet at large. Keeping barbarians out is one of the functions of borders; another is to keep the citizen-hostage inside. The Great Firewall of China, and its Russian equivalent, set up a sort of epistemological quarantine.

The Alien films starring Sigourney Weaver are about quarantine and the consequences of not respecting the boundary between the ship and the unknown outside. (If everyone had listened to Ripley, there would never have been a problem with space monsters.) And so the ultimate boundary is between the organism and its environment, as Crawford discusses in an excellent chapter on the pandemic of Covid. Your body, he reminds us, “is a landscape that is constantly under attack and always has been. A landscape that never ceases to watch its perimeter in search of incursions or unauthorized entries. Scientists who study pathogens must work in “biosafety” certified laboratories with borders impervious to the outside world. Covid-19 in particular is causing such havoc because it triggers an overreaction of the immune system. As Crawford darkly comments: “The system becomes obsessed with the entry of foreign bodies, and it tears itself apart trying to keep them out. It is tempting to suggest that there is no virus more appropriate in our current times.

The so-called separation wall built by Israel, which at first tried to get everyone to call it a “fence”, is not unrelated to its effects. A glimmer of slight relief is provided by Crawford’s observation of a graffito on the fence: “Make hummus not walls. He buys a spray paint can and brings his own graffiti: a stenciled recreation of the Sumerian expression meaning “no man’s land”. Sociologist Baha Hilo explains to the author the effect of the wall. “This wall doesn’t really separate the Palestinians from the Israelis, you know,” he said. “Because there are Palestinians and Israelis on one side and Palestinians and Israelis on the other. But the wall is an obstacle. Is this an obstacle for a Jewish Israeli? No. A Jewish Israeli does not pass through a checkpoint. They greet you, give you a nice wave. It’s a checkpoint for them. As a Palestinian, it’s something else. The wall is an obstacle between Palestinians and Palestinians. The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz, for his part, wrote that it was time for his country to “finally wake up from the hypnosis of the map”.

Without any borders, mind you, there would be no way to distinguish ‘here’ from ‘there’, and political theorists tend to agree that national borders are essential to the functioning of welfare states. . Even traditionally stateless peoples, like the Sami of northern Scandinavia interviewed by Crawford, can accept borders as long as they provide legal protections and fishing rights.

Would it nevertheless be possible to rethink borders as non-violent, even pleasant things, like garden borders? There is the beginning of a “Great Green Wall” of trees across the African continent, intended to combat creeping desertification. Crawford’s star witness here is a Cameroonian agroforestry activist called Tabi Joda, a scholarly eco-warrior who is skeptical of remote planning in airy UN offices but nevertheless insists on the possibility of a future. better. “As Africans,” he says, “we live within many artificial borders, imposed borders. And I really don’t think Africa, but I think the whole world needs to redefine what we call borders. The whole world should see itself as an entire ecosystem. As Lennon sang, it’s easy if you try.

The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Lance B. Holton