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One of the reasons I was so struck by China Miéville’s The City and the City (previous post) is that it attempts, as successfully as anything else I have read, to capture the very slippery nature of the boundaries we all live with and, to a very large extent, simply take for granted.  Boundary lines are incredibly useful things, of course, but they are also very powerful – it really matters who draws them, where and how, especially if you find yourself on the ‘wrong’ side of one without the means of crossing.

Miéville is not, of course, the only novelist to have explored boundaries in this way,  though he is unusual in that the boundary between Beszel and Ul Quoma is plausibly ‘real’.  Others that I have recently come across (and I’m sure there are many, many more) include Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon (indeed boundary lines figure in one way or another in a lot of Pynchon’s other work).  The boundary in Gaiman’s London runs through overlapping urban spaces in a way comparable to Mieville’s, except that Gaiman’s line runs between spaces that are vertically arranged – a ‘real’ London and a ‘London Below’.

Pynchon’s meditation on the drawing of the Mason-Dixon Line concerns the extraordinary line of demarcation drawn by two British surveyors between Pennsylvania and Maryland between 1763 and 1767.  Created to settle boundary problems emerging from the expansion of overlapping land claims in the American colonies, the Mason-Dixon Line was also one of the first, and most powerful elements in the rectilinear ‘gridding’ of the North American continent.  This was later compellingly described by political theorist Mike Shapiro as an exercise in ‘violent cartography’.

As one of Pynchon’s characters puts it:

“To rule forever,” continues the Chinaman, later, “it is necessary only to create, among the people one would rule, what we call…Bad History.  Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People, — to create thus a Distinction betwixt ‘em, — ‘tis the first stroke. – All else will follow as if predestin’d, unto war and Devastation.”  ”

(Mason & Dixon:p.615)

I have recently been thinking a great deal about these issues, not least because lines and their attendant ‘bad histories’ seem to be proliferating and hardening just at the moment when ‘globalization’ was expected to sweep them away.  The Israeli ‘peace wall’, ‘Operation Gatekeeper’, so-called ‘gated communities‘ and the many other securitised boundary-lines that are currently being created in the name of ‘our’ security are just a few examples of this.

All of these efforts to make the boundary line ‘real’, however, fail to address the fundamental nature of the line itself, which is socio-legal, cultural and/or political, and not a feature of the landscape itself.  The peculiar figure of the ‘magnitudeless’ boundary-line is a feature of language and representation systems, more that it ever has been or ever will be a feature of the territory it is expected to delineate.  For this reason I recently wrote a piece examining the semiotic aspects of the boundary line for the journal Social Semiotics which will be published later in 2011.  I can’t post the full text of it, but here is an extract from the conclusion to give a taste of what it’s about:

“What, then, is the semiotic status of the boundary line?  It is, of course, a symbol – a signifier with the particular (if evolving) communicative function of denoting, both directly (fences, walls, carpet-tiles) and indirectly (cartographic lines, textual signs), ends, beginnings, limits, pales, insides, outsides, here, there, us, them, in and out.  But […] the relation of the line as signifier to its purported signified – various forms of territorial relation – is far from simple.  Its analogic function has, as Barthes once put it, ‘crumbled’ along with any vestige of a dualistic relationship between signifier and signified.  As a graphical zero, a ‘not’ line, the linear boundary has the character of both sign and meta-sign – simultaneously indicating a set of concrete socio-legal-territorial relationships and the ‘global’ semiotic system through which those relationships are articulated.  Although there is clearly a tension between these two functions – not least because the supposedly ‘concrete’ relations of territory and location are distinctly fluid and are continuously being remade as they ‘sneak’ about – there is nothing new about it.  [T]he symbolic line-as-boundary is both an element within a ‘global’ carto-graphic semiotic and a metalinguistic rule about its system of representation.  From the very beginnings of the system of ‘global linear thinking’ the territorial line was always already fundamentally dis-located because it depended for its meaning and function upon socio-semiotic rather than physical relationships.  This is not to suggest that the physical relationships of territoriality are unimportant – the awful incidence and persistence of warfare gives the lie to that – rather that they are the product of the early interpolation of a spatial semiotic based on the line into an emergent (predominantly western) spatio-legal culture.”

(Cameron, A, 2011, ‘Ground zero – The semiotics of the boundary line’, Social Semiotics, forthcoming.)

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