Contested Territories, Uncertain Sovereignties: Disputes over Spaces of Uncertainty in the Global Long Twentieth Century

AHA Session 163
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Dane K. Kennedy, George Washington University
The Audience

Session Abstract

From Michel Foucault to Peter Sahlins and Lauren Benton, scholars have long been drawn to the ways in which past actors sought to resolve enduring disagreements surrounding territory, striving to put to rest lingering uncertainties about its meanings and delimitations, and to settle competing claims to its control. This panel focuses upon the disagreement, discord and uncertainty generated by such contests over territory and sovereignty. It brings together papers from Andrew Arsan, on legal debates in the late Ottoman empire, in which provincial literati resorted to historical argument to craft persuasive claims for the protection of local ‘freedoms’ from the ‘despotism’ of central writ; Dan Haines, on the ways in which competing, uncertain claims to the Indus Basin persisted even after the apparent resolution of these disputes with the ‘partition’ of hydraulic resources by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty; Leslie James, on the ambiguity and ambivalence that plagued the influential pan-Africanist thinker George Padmore’s attempts to reconcile the principle of African union with the growing appeal of territorial nationalism across the continent in the 1950s; and Elisabeth Leake, on the debates which unfolded between 1947-55 on the status of the North-West Frontier – claimed by both Pakistan, within whose new borders the region lay, and Afghanistan, it was the subject of various territorial projects, from a mooted Pashtun state, to a broad federal scheme. These papers range, then, from the tense border regions of Cold War South Asia to the diffuse spaces of the African diaspora in the time of decolonization and the administrative offices of early twentieth-century Mount Lebanon. Moreover, they bring together different methodological and theoretical perspectives, drawing upon international and intellectual history, human geography and social anthropology. But, despite their apparent disparity, they all point to moments of particular tension over space, in which literal areas of dispute became the focus of debate between intellectuals and lawyers, diplomats and local dignitaries. It is perhaps no coincidence that these all occurred at times of uncertainty about the political future, from the fraught, heady days which followed the constitutional Ottoman revolution of 1908, which renewed calls for imperial reform, to the long hangover of partition in South Asia, whose new states struggled to establish a precarious independence, wrenching themselves apart from one another, and African decolonization, which both opened up new possibilities for self-determination, and closed down alternative visions of political community. More than simply highlighting such tense times, however, these papers attend to critical questions surrounding territory and sovereignty. How did various actors conceive of space, its natural features and man-made contours, developing particular understandings of rivers and mountains, continental masses and borderline regions? How did they map competing conceptions of political community and definitions of territory onto the world? And how did they resolve contradictions and conflicts, frame their arguments and justify their claims? To what strategies, rhetorical and political, legal and military, did they resort? We make no attempt to find definitive answers to these queries, but merely to invite reflection upon these continuing sources of uncertainty.

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