Cutting nature at its joints: boundary-making


The Rhine near Cologne

Just a little curiosity; I had always thought that the phrase “cutting nature at its joints” was original to Richard Rorty (it was the kind of thing he liked to say) but as I should have guessed it is from Plato, Phaedrus:

Phaedrus
And what is the other principle, Socrates?

[265e] Socrates

That of dividing things [eide: forms] again by classes, where the natural joints [arthra: joint] are, and not trying to break any part, after the manner of a bad carver.

This was brought to my attention by a newly revised entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on boundaries. The entry, by a guy called Achille Varzi, brings in quite a few spatial and geographical examples and provides a link to IBRU at Durham. What’s at stake here is, among other things, the meaning of categories.

Boundaries (or categories) are paradoxical in the sense that they are both creative and destructive at the same time. Creatively, putting a boundary around something gives it a status and identity; it creates an opening for something to dwell within, a ground (excuse the slightly Heideggerian language). Or if you don’t like the “in” language because of res extensa, it gives ground for itself.

This is a somewhat different view than the one Varzi describes as the realist view, where boundaries are (fantastic phrase) “ontological parasites.” They come second after the thing being bounded rather than the other way round.

Destructively, boundary-making is a process of exclusion, define a dividing line between what is “in” and what is “out.” Boundaries, like social groups, produce identity through (spatial) difference. By providing a horizon of possibilities they allow some things but not others.

For example in Harvey’s book Spaces of Capital (2001, p. 213) he similarly notes that the “mapping of boundaries [and] the cultivation of some sense of national identity within those boundaries” has been an important factor in the formation of the state. But what kind of geographic knowledge is being produced? Harvey suggests it “depends heavily upon a Cartesian logic in which res extensa are presumed to be quite separate from the realms of mind and thought and capable of full depiction within some set of coordinates (a grid or graticule)” (p. 220).

Stuart Elden also discussed this in his 2001 book Mapping the Present using Heidegger’s ideas about space (Raum) as a freeing. Quoting from the lecture “Building Dwelling Thinking”:

the boundary is that from which something beings its essential unfolding. That is why the concept is that of the ‘ορισμóς, that is boundary.

Elden reads boundary–making in a Heideggerian sense as an “unfolding,” not where the boundary stops being, but rather where being can begin to unfold. We may add here the originary purpose of the boundary as a limit in the positive sense, not as a coming to an end in that it can go no further and breaks down. But rather end as “completion in the sense of coming to fulfillment [Vollendung]. Limit and end are that whereby beings first begin to be” and “for something to take such a stand therefore means for it to attain its limit, to de–limit itself” (Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 63).

These two sense of boundary-making therefore go together. By an act of creation there is also an act of exclusion (destruction of other possibilities). This double act is to me a source of great puzzlement, but also great resonance (think of the biblical story of the flood in which there is great creation and destruction, or think of how this argument might be used to justify Iraq…).

One of the underlying questions that motivates my work is to try and understand the way that forms of [cartographical] knowledge allow us to think, but at the same time limit the
very ways in which we do think. And whether having done this, there would become apparent other ways of thinking. Some examples are below:

–Must we think territory is politically boundable based on homogeneity and if so, with what effects? Can territory be non- or trans-bordered?

–Must we think governance as risk, eg., security as necessarily (and inversely?) tied to privacy and rights?

–Must we think mapping and GIS as res extensa?

–Must (geographical) knowledge be produced only by qualified experts or can it be produced by the unqualified “peasant” class?

One Response

  1. […] Jeremy Crampton, of Georgia State University PhD, describes borders as a paradox, being both creative and destructive at the same time. Creative, because the act of marking imbues identity and status, the making of ‘ground’; but destructive in the act exclusion that they perpetrate, the demarcation of ‘in’ and ‘out’. source […]

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