“He wanted a territory. He felt the need for caution. But he felt more strongly the need that had brought him across the dry abyss from the other world, the need for communication, the wish to unbuild walls.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
I stopped for a smoke break on the side of a mountain cliff where the road curved further north. With an exhale of wispy blue I surveyed the valley down below. It had to be down there somewhere, out there on the grassy floor of the basin. But, where was it? I squinted my eyes and leaned forward off the side of my bike seat to scope out the land from my birds-eyed perch. It was a quiet beautiful green valley, besides a trickle of local traffic that would ease around the mountain bend going where ever they were planning to go. It’s somewhere out there, the invisible line running north to south, or south to north, depending on the directionality of your orientation. It was a line to distinguish some fiat limitation of east to west, or west to east, depending on what side you found yourself on. I considered that the boundary was possibly, most likely, the sleepy brook sliding along the breezy valley which was the furthest legal limit I was allowed to traverse given the documents in my possession. In an immediate sense, it made sense that the line had to be that shallow rocky stream, as my eyes caught the miniature white shack protruding out of the immense palette of green like a deep prick from a single needled thread. A lone white shack probably only big enough to house a single officiant whose only job was to filter local traffic across the small wooden bridge that was several meters to the east of the building. The official’s sole duty was probably defined by nothing more than checking documents, chopping down on a paper book with a rubber stamp, and walking out with a friendly chat to raise the red and white striped pole that functioned as a gate. The official probably took lots of naps too. The horizontal pole seemed a bit of superfluous bureaucratic flair given that no specific feature of the natural landscape blatantly designated an ontological sign for a clear marker between here and there—allowed and not allowed—but you know how they really love to pull out all the stops in matters deemed “official”.
Consulting Google Maps, as I had been doing all day, and checking my location pin I decided that given the few square meters of the white shack and pole-gate that that had to be the border crossing. It was a local border crossing and as an international I had no legal grounds to cross the bridge and traverse past the gate. Nor was I planning that day to transcend beyond the lands of Vietnam and go into Laos, even if all I wanted to do was just to hang out in the valley and smell the dirt and stare at the sun and smoke another cigarette. I squinted my eyes again in the late afternoon sunshine pushing through the clouds, looking back and forth between the map on the screen of my phone and the valley, trying to imagine exactly where the border line was in reality. To no avail all I saw was lush grassy valley and the border shack. After a few moments longer of pondering this conundrum, the shack became a significant contest to the lay of the land. There it was, a white nubby growth that ruptured my attempts to smooth out a political map onto the territory because there was nothing else there besides the shack to say that this was the limit of two governing bodies buttressed against each other. It was a single building, silent and alone, and what it signified in context of the valley became meaningless to the frontier space in the fact of me knowing full well that locals had free range to cross the threshold whenever they pleased. In this land it was the frontier. I had passed the sign a while back that let me know in English, Vietnamese, and Laotian that I had officially entered the frontier zone.
It was a feeble attempt for me to try to separate a space between two unequivocal units of differing nation states—to forcefully cleave a clean cut between people, space, and culture. If we look back to large swathes of history we know that people, spaces, and cultures do not rigidly manifest in such confined ways and that culture doesn’t stop at the face of a national border, especially now in the digital age when information is exchanged instantaneously. We seem to understand at some basic low key level that historically, peoples and cultures flow across these kinds of barriers, but, given that we are taught strict concepts of the super-ego as first order interpretation many let certain ideologies define the strict differences of in-group/out-group dynamics. So, in stubborn defiance of national identities, and at the behest of flows of cross-cultural group dynamics, I decided to play out deconstructive narratives upon the grass, brook, trees, and that damned border gate from my peanut gallery on the mountainside. I looked back to map, and back to land, I looked up at the sun smiling and laughed because I genuinely enjoy the pleasures of absurdisms when the need for absurdity arises.
The political realities of the border struggles snaking along the landscape are quite real and have been real for a long time. Since the jury was still out on the exact agreed upon border line, both nations consulting old French colonial maps in order to come to a border agreement for long stretches of this particular border, I decided to have a go at it myself and play along with the contest. I carefully placed my imaginary borderline onto the valley floor, extending it north and south from the border gate dead strait in both directions. I resisted the urge to curve the border at the most obvious natural features of the land, such as the meandering brook, and aimed the line towards an imagined infinite distance over the mountain-scape to the north and as far south as I could see. I knew at the time that this particular border, as aren’t most borders, wasn’t a nice and neat perfect straight line. It was a playful imagining for sure but it didn’t get me far in unearthing the magic of these immaterial boundaries. In my defense, these are problems that geographers spend lifetimes trying to figure out and resolve, and admittedly I am amateur at best about the science of surveying and delineating spacial separation by national borders. But, what I can say is that I have spent a lot of time over the last 5 years motorbiking around and often intentionally seeking out border areas to see these spaces for myself and to ponder our notions of borders in particular cultural and historical contexts.
With all the intensity of rigor I could muster on that mountainside, I refused to settle for the one-dimensional mapping of a line onto the territory from the map, no matter how practical an isoline may be in conveying specific sets of information. For example, it’s pretty damn cool to know from the altitudinal isolines on a map when you are cruising through the clouds along a mountain ridge at 1500+ meters above sea level, lost in the misty ambiguity of space and time. On a motorbike at those altitudes it really gives your life some perspective, especially if you are fortunate enough to hit the weather conditions at the right moment when you come soaring out of the clouds into a mountain valley rolling below you and before you the land bares a site that grabs your throat box and squeezes a resounding yell of awe into the wind. A vigorously heartfelt scream of “OH, SHIT! FUCK YEA! THAT’S FUCKIN’ AWESOME MAN!!! WOOOOOO-HOOOOO!!!” as you barrel down the road in a pristine moment of what just might be the closest we can come to pure freedom. The isolines and the map alone can never give you any indication to expect such visceral experiences. Nevertheless, I didn’t just drive hundreds of kilometers only for the fresh air and freedom of the road to escape the cyberpunk realities of urban decadence—like, who does that just for unadulterated fun anyways and neglects the multiplicity of these spaces’ contexts?
Anyways, a one-dimensional line was neither satisfactory nor sufficient for an expansive imaginative inquiry into the concealed nature of this border. I tracked the flow of the brook back and forth along the chiseled land scape and visualized the forces of time pulling the sediment and rock from the crevices of the northern mountains far upstream, rolling and tumbling these earthy artifacts along the banks to rest gently and worn in the subtle stillness of the valley. And what can be said of the resources tucked away under the territorial space delimited by a nation state boundary? Does the border extend downwards into the subterranean in a straight line all the way? But, how far? To some arbitrarily announced geological eon, or, to the edge of the mantle? There is currently no clear global agreement on such matters, and opinions vary wildly. Even in the 21st century countries are arguing over border intrusions due to mining operations that are just a little too close for the national comfort of ownership. Despite this, there hasn’t been, so far as my research could find, any recorded battles of stout bearded hominids bashing away on metal armor plates forged in the fires of earth’s sacred magmas, weaponizing their campaigns for rule of the under-regions. But, as one could rightly guess, above ground such subsoil claims have been hotbeds of heated conflict and blood spill for the rights of ownership over pockets of minerals, oil and gas. Since about the 13th century though, the general rule of thumb was the ad coelum doctrines. These mandates stated that the one who owns the land also owns what is sky above and dirt below without limits—all the way to heaven and all the way to hell. As the modern period blossomed new technologies such as air travel, space flight, subway systems, and underground particle colliders, ad coelum doctrines fell out of favor on legal grounds that the altitude or depth that such technologies operated in did not intrude on the value a surface-dwelling private property owner could get from regular use of their land. Still, we are left now with ambiguous assumptions about the extent of land ownership below.
Extending a second axis downwards into the valley’s soil still left this conundrum tangled. Letting go of such sub-terrestrial concerns, my mind’s eye wielded the valley border in a flash of red blade swing straight down through the inner earth core, sweeping out the atmosphere on the other side, cleaving the planet into two hemorrhaging hemispheres in one fell swoop. A world divided. As below, so above—ad coelum et ad inferos—the topsy-turvy world of border control. I turned my eyes to the blue clouded sky above me and stretched my vision as far as I could see into the refraction. At some point beyond the atmospheric partition the azure hue would reduce in scale and value, sliding away into a vacuum of black; all light in simultaneity. Yet, we know atmosphere doesn’t exist as a hard cut division between air and space, life and death, something and nothing—nothing is still some thing. And a border, a boundary, is still a thing. So, we move forward asking ourselves: “What kind of thing?”
I let myself play a little bit more with that border ribbon I laid out for kilometers on end upon the grassy floor. Like some mad sci-fi wizard orchestrating unknown tech to our current age, I raised a buzzing pink force field with my hands to the furthest reaches of the sky. Said force field would allow certain aircraft under certain conditions to fly across sovereign airspace at designated points of crossing while still allowing transcendence between spacial territories nonetheless. If no allowance of movement was granted to the vessel, the electric plasma hum would zap the plane to ash as easy as a misguided mosquito. Does life imitate art, or, does art imitate life?…. Such a question really wasn’t much of a concern to me on that particular day, on that particular mountainside, and I don’t particularly recall seeing any particular planes flying over that particular border valley I was scrutinizing that day.
We often seem to view flying as a particular kind of freedom liberating us from our spacial confines across borders and boundaries. Flying is always a liminal movement between spaces, neither here nor there, but always suspended in transition between two points on a line. It is an experience where time becomes a fuzzy compass of orientation in the fact that time becomes the primary point of an unstable referent. Spatial reference in flight becomes further removed from certainty in the scale of distance traversed at mass speeds. Time itself begins to break down in relative relation to point A and B and only functions according to the internal clock of the vessel time-traveling across temporal demarcations of latitude. On long flights, liminality can truly become a psychosis of limbo hell if one was to loose their bearings on the journey by slipping into half-asleep-half-awake states which converge towards agonizing delusions in discomfort. Or, jet fueled liminal rituals could be a moment of temporary freedom if the cabin crew would forgo the performance of keeping the cadence of the 500mph airship show and allow the audience more active participation beyond their role as passive observers bidding their time in always frontward facing seats. It is not always the case that airplane seats are forward-facing. We can see examples of this in private passenger planes, in new redesigns of the upscale business class seating, and some airlines in the past creating lounge style seats opening up the opportunity for real live human interaction and participation. Furthermore, there has been research done that says backwards facing seats are actually more safe in an emergency landing situation. As far as entertainment goes, some companies have even proposed turning unused parts of the cargo hold into entertainment or sleeping areas with games and activities for adults and children alike. Yet, we know the goal of the on flight show is to cram as many bodies into a hurtling steel tube to maximize the profit margins. The rites of passage across boundaries and borders, through paradise or hell, are granted to us depending if you can afford the ticket price.
Still though, back to the issue at hand, the question remains: how far up does my pink border force field go? 19 miles or 99 miles? It depends on who you ask and their intents and purposes. For my intents and purposes on that mountain side I let the wall go all the way up to the point of meaninglessness ends, past the clouds, further still beyond the aircraft fly zone, and past the point where the air thinned to vacuum, still further past the satellites perpetually falling in stasis, and beyond the great space trash sphere way up there with the spirit in the sky. Which countries are responsible for all that junk up there above us? Is a country responsible for the space garbage that exists above the territory of their land claims or is no state responsible since it’s absurd to extend territory rights that far away from the rock and soil and dense air above a nation’s homeland? At that moment, up above my mountain perch, starship cruisers battled it out in a declaration of war on grounds of intrusions upon outer territorial claims that began with finger-pointing refusal to take responsibility for the dilapidated metal science contraptions floating in neutrality out there. No one suspected US Space Force to justify their declaration of space war because of a 200 year old paranoia of outer space territorial rights that began in 1957 when a sliver Soviet sphere blinking a single signal just so happened to indiscriminately fall over the USA 7 times a day at 8km/s. Yet now, in the 21st century there are still superstructure institutions that squabble over territorial claims and ownership, justifying their rights on cultural and historical grounds dating back hundreds of years to times when humans had hardly just invented the wheel and stepped forward into the agricultural revolution. These claims are a bit weird to think about in context of the newness of most modern nation-states and the states’ monopoly of violence they used to kill off and enslave indigenous populations.
Wait… how exactly are borders going to work when space federations and planetary networks of space empires are fighting it out over territorial claims in a 3-dimensional infinitely directional space?……
I broke away from my imaginative sci-fi meanderings and looked from the sky above down along the border line to the south and remembered reading in the news about the ongoing border conflicts in the frontier zones along the Vietnam-Laos border—farmers conflicting against farmers for land use rights on account of the unresolved resolutions of the extent of each nations’ claims; farmers fighting for inches of soil on behalf of the state. I took a few pictures of the pristine valley as I finished my cigarette, reminding myself not to chuck the butt onto the grass and pocketed the trash in a small plastic bag. Swinging my leg over the seat of my bike, I gave the machine a kick to warm the engine again and geared up the throttle around the mountain bend. I wasn’t sure any more if there was any riddle to actually solve about borders, these seemingly non-thing things, but with rolling rubber to the asphalt I was thinking about what other boundaries might lie ahead.
*By the time of writing this article Vietnam and Laos have come to a more definitive border agreement over the areas that were contested
Pingback: Unbuilding Walls, Part 3: Passageway and Gatekeeper | Blue Labyrinths