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The Borders Between Us

January 12, 2017

The Borders Between Us

January 12, 2017
in Harvard Gazette

To read Charles Maier’s new book, “Once Within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging Since 1500,” is to take a bird’s-eye flight across five centuries of geopolitical history, to witness how societies have regarded and apportioned space on this planet.

As concepts of boundaries and territories are reconceptualized in the 21st century, with wars and political campaigns sometimes waged over them, the notion of what it means to be part of a particular society is taking on new dimensions. For most people, traditional concepts of nation, state, and territory remain deeply ingrained in their sense of self and belonging.

Maier takes readers on a meditative journey through the “fitful evolution of territorial organization,” and reflects on how science and technology have expanded concepts of space, authority, and sovereignty. He asks readers to consider the many ways in which human societies have claimed borders and territories to consolidate power, wealth, and group affiliation — and how those borders have shaped people’s consciousness through time.

The Weatherhead Center discussed the topic with Maier, the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard and CES Resident Faculty.

Q: What inspired your interest in borders?

A: It’s a fundamental fact that we don't have one world state. And once you don't have one world state then the fact of borders follows tautologically, almost—so it seemed worth reflecting on that. For this book, I was struck by living through globalization rhetoric for a decade. People who talk about globalization, like Tom Friedman, say that technology has a lot to do with it. I have a materialist bias in some sense. For example, railroads allowed control of space that you didn't have before. The telegraph collapsed time to convey ideas. And when you have air travel, you see the concept of space differently.

Then I started wondering, is there a politics of space?

In my earlier book, Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood, which is part of a global history, I was struck by how many countries became more cohesive and centralized in the mid-nineteenth century, which is not thought of as a period of epochal change. I thought to myself, but it is, really, and it's based upon being able to control space to a much greater degree. And finally, I was interested in the concept of Empire, in part because I was worried about America.

Q: Why did you choose 1500 as a starting point?

A: Territorial organization is simply something that’s accompanied the modern period. And it seems to me that around 1500 is when people started rethinking borders. The advent of a decisive innovation in military technology—cast-iron projectiles for artillery—leads to the reconstruction of fortifications all over Europe and a heightened sense of state frontiers and the domains within. Medieval Europe did have borders, but it’s not clear they amounted to the same thing. 1500 is also a representative date for the European encounter with the societies of the Americas and Asia, which means a huge conceptual leap in the sense of geographical space and how it is organized.

At the end of my chapter on the “Space of States” I talk about the cognizance of borders that appears later in fiction. You have popular nineteenth-century novels set in the seventeenth century (such as The Three Musketeers and I Promessi Sposi) that depict how their protagonists were acutely aware of borders but were trying to transcend them at the same time.