Reflections on International Space

Neal Ascherson

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.

James Fenton, ‘A German Requiem’

The topic of international space is like one of those monstrous catfish which used to loaf around the hot-water outfalls of the Berlin power stations. You could hook it, net it, spear it, or even seize it in your arms if it were not so heavy and slippery. In an effort to get some grip on international space I have followed James Fenton by asking, in three different ways, whether it might be between things – not the houses but the spaces between the houses. It could be looked at as a system of gaps, blanks or crevices between social or diplomatic entities. Or, in an Einsteinian space-time way, as the space which appears when a social or diplomatic house or houses fall down: a vacancy measurable in terms of power, geography and time – usually a pretty short time. Or, lastly, it is possible to understand it as a sort of air-pocket, like the spaces which preserved a few fortunate people in the Gujarat earthquake. What interests me is the space which opens out or is excavated under the reinforced concrete of a tyranny, and within which human behaviour can regain authenticity.

The international community, as we are still rightly reluctant to call it, is a cellular structure whose most obvious spatial component is the nation-state. Most people would probably prefer to hear about concentric multiple identities than about nation-states, but I am discussing international space, not subjective affiliations. Certainly, there is concentricity to be found in international space. Some states contain sharply defined political regions or are formal federations, while many – especially in Europe – are engaged on a programme of pooling sovereignty under a supranational council or commission. This is only part of the historic weakening of the nation-state, as its once absolute authority leaks downwards to the regional level and upwards to the transnational plane. But it is important to recognise that this weakening, which will eventually transform the texture of international space out of recognition, is only in its early stages. For the moment, the political world we inhabit is a cellular honeycomb of nation-states, though some cells are far bigger than others. In power terms, the cellular image can dangerously misrepresent the substance of international relations, in that it suggests a sort of fictional one-state one-voice equality, on the UN General Assembly or OSCE model: it does not illustrate the forces of penetration and control which one strong imperialist state or group of states can exert over others. But international space and its divisions have to be understood in the first place as a form.

Cells have walls. International space, in recent times, has presented a pattern of territorial boundaries, some artificially delimited and others – like the English Channel or the Drakensberg mountains – so-called natural boundaries. The important question is how permeable these cells walls are. At least, it has seemed the important question to Europeans and those under their influence for the last three hundred years or so, and to the post-colonial continents for the last century. This was plainly not always so. The notion of physical boundaries disappears into the past, but most of them were relative rather than total. Any pastoral community knows precisely the stone outcrop and the thorn bush where one common grazing ends and another neighbouring pasture begins, but the rules about where goats can go in such societies are not necessarily the same as the rules about where people can go. Again, Hadrian’s Wall was not the Berlin Wall – a total partition – but something more specialised, at once a motorway toll-station and a radar early-warning line made of stone, timber and earth. Roman emperors constructed similar barriers elsewhere, for example in Germany or the Danube Delta. But apart from obstacles like the Danube, the Alps or the High Caucasus, ancient empires were much less clearly demarcated than the close-packed small farms of Attica or Central Italy in classical times.

It would be a waste of time to narrate the hardening of the cell walls, the advent of the idea of physical frontier barriers which were more than just tollgates. That is part of the story of the early modern nation-state, a Eurocentric story whose most interesting and formative event was the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War, laying down the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. (There is a case for saying that Europeans lived in the Westphalian system until the ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Kosovo in 1999.) But it is interesting to watch the parallel development of what could be called a ‘cellular discourse’ outside the strictly political field, especially in the later 19th century.

Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) is mostly remembered for his proposition that human tissue was composed of cells. His most celebrated saying is that ‘omnis cellula ex cellula’ – every cell is derived from another cell. (Actually François Raspail said it first, but Virchow made it much more famous. On the other hand, Virchow has more streets named after him but none as intellectually majestic as the Boulevard Raspail in Paris.) What is less remembered about Virchow is that he was a political thinker – in Prussian 19th-century terms, a liberal. He thought of the human body as a republic of cells, sovereign and equal, and he fought for his republican ideas during the Revolution of 1848, the Springtime of Nations. Later he was elected to the Prussian Diet and then the Reichstag. Bismarck, who thought that international space was a pond full of luscious carp rather than a noble republic of cells, loathed Virchow and tried unsuccessfully to make him fight a duel.

Virchow was also an archaeologist, or more accurately, he was one of those fine old prehistorians for whom physical anthropology, ethnology and archaeological research could still form a single subject. The first true German archaeologist, who insisted that archaeology (Urgeschichte) should be an exclusive discipline out on its own, was Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931). Kossinna despised Virchow’s vision of a worldwide ‘prehistoric anthropology’. Instead, his interests focused on the material culture of the ‘Germanic’ past. He was much younger than Virchow, and – like Bismarck and for some of the same reasons – he detested him. Kossinna, a conservative right-wing nationalist, had no patience with the school of historians who wanted to fit Germany’s early past into the context of classical Greece and Rome, or with the Römisch-Germanisch archaeologists, based mostly in the Catholic Rhineland, for whom the only respectable aspect of German early history was the contact with the Roman Empire. A fervent racialist, Kossinna disliked both Virchow’s holistic approach to learning and his internationalism.

Kossinna, all the same, was another cellular man. The difference between him and Virchow was in a sense over Virchow’s ‘omnis cellula ex cellula’. For Gustaf Kossinna, the human cultures which mattered were not interpenetrating but autochthonous, self-creating. They did not derive from the impact of, or mixture with, other cultures (invaders, migrants, intermarriage across ethnic boundaries), but arose and developed as the consequences of innate biological forces in their own ‘blood’ or gene-pool. A healthy cultural ‘cellula’ had more or less impermeable walls and its contents were more or less homogeneous.

Christopher Hann, discussing what he called the ‘Malinowski period’ of early field anthropology, in Social Anthropology (one of the volumes in the Teach Yourself series), underlined the emphasis laid by Malinowski and his disciples and students on the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each society they inspected – especially small island societies in the western Pacific. ‘The world,’ Hann wrote, ‘was a mosaic of these bounded “peoples”, “cultures” and “societies”. This fitted with the idea of the nation, as it was then gaining strength in Europe.’

For ‘mosaic’, one could substitute ‘cloisonné’ – the technique in which each garnet in (say) the Sutton Hoo belt-buckle is enclosed in a tiny wall of gold. Kossinna, in his own version of the mosaic of bounded peoples, worked out what is still known as the culture-historical approach – his own term was Siedlungsarchäologische Methode, the settlement-archaeology method, which is much less explicit. In 1911, he summed up his method in a celebrated sentence: ‘Sharply-defined archaeological culture areas correspond at all times to the areas of particular peoples or tribes.’ In other words, a specific array of tools, ceramic types, hut-building techniques and so on revealed the presence of a specific ethnic group defined not only by its material culture but by inherited racial traits and by language – wherever that array turned up. Find a particular type of iron spearhead, a particular decoration on pottery and a particular way of setting timbers to support a farmstead, and you could exclaim: ‘This settlement was Germanic! These people spoke proto-Germanic. Here dwelt our ancestors!’

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in