Space, Borders, territoriality
Cultural Anthropologist | Geographer
Tang Center for Silk Road Studies
Institute of East Asian Studies
University of California, Berkeley
1995 University Avenue, Suite 510
Berkeley, CA 94704
I am currently working on three pieces of research on the subjects of borders, territoriality and sovereignty.
Somatic States. The first of these projects, on the critical gap between cartographic representations and cultural imaginations, is the focus of my second book. The book is a theoretical reflection on the conceptual link between nationhood and the body. It expands on a premise outlined in a paper published in 2014 where I drew a parallel between territorial loss and phantom limb pain. Taking as its starting point the everyday metaphors of mutilation and dismemberment to refer to territorial loss, I argued that this language is not simply poetic or metaphoric but that it reflects a genuine association of the individual body with the national outline, and that this identification has been greatly facilitated by the emergence of the national map. In revisiting the common trope of the nation-as-body through inclusion of insights from neuroscience, the article explored what happens when a lack of fit intervenes between the physical geographical extent of the nation and the mental map held by its inhabitants. It argued that “lost” territories, no longer included within the national body, remain nonetheless part of a previous national incarnation and elicit an affective force resembling “phantom pains.” In the book I extend the discussion to other types of disconnects between national borders and the territorial imagination. I introduce for example the notion of “prosthetic territories” to analyze the ways in which cities or regions beyond a nation’s borders can constitute extensions of the national self and become crucial sites where national dreams and aspirations are mobilized, deployed and (re)animated. A second chapter focusing on the metaphor of border-as-skin was recently published.
Volumetric boundaries. While Somatic States seeks to problematize the discreteness of national entities, depicted in maps as coherent and wholly detached from their neighbors (what Benedict Anderson has referred to as “logomaps”), the intention of this second project is to challenge the horizontality of cartographic representations. The collaborative project, with contributions by anthropologists and geographers, proposes volumetric boundaries as an analytical framework to theorize the actual operation and management of territorial sovereignty. The current obsession with border walls, both in the United States and elsewhere, projects an imaginary of the nation-state that is essentially flat, but such attempts at bordering lose all potency when facing challenges that take place above or below that surface. In foregrounding the materiality of intangible spatial configurations such as dust, wind or radio waves, the project seeks to bring more-than-human spaces into analysis and hopefully make a critical intervention in contemporary border studies.
Topology. The third part of what is really a series in a larger project seeking to challenge the cartographic imagination, will problematize the fixity of maps by looking at the contribution topology can make to border studies. Unlike topography which is Euclidean and geographically bound, topology gives precedence to the relational, to vectors and rhizomes. A topological space (in the words of geographers Virginia Blum and Anna Secor) is “not defined by the distances between points that characterize it when it is in a fixed state but rather by the characteristics that it maintains in the process of distortion and transformation (bending, stretching, squeezing, but not breaking).” This topological model is something I find very exciting as it resonates exceptionally well with my field site at the Russia-China border, and more generally with the management of political space in Russia.
I was previously research coordinator of a multisited and multidisciplinary research project running at the University of Cambridge, UK (2012-2015). The specific aim of the project (“Where Rising Powers meet: China and Russia at their North Asian Border”) was to investigate the differing political economies of the two countries and their trajectories in the post-1991 era. With each state exercising full sovereignty right up to their border, there is no better place to compare the two remarkably dissimilar ways that economic development, the rule of law, citizen rights, migration, and inequality are managed. The region is also home to many ethnic groups who straddle the border, such as the Mongols, Buryats, Evenks and Koreans. When the border reopened in the early 1990s, these groups were able to re-establish old connections as well as open new links, processes which the project explores. My own research within that project focused on Blagoveshchensk (Благовещенск) and Heihe (黑河), two cities located right on the Russia-China border. Though only 500 meters apart, they were completely isolated from each other for over two decades when the border was hermetically sealed in the late 1960s. When the border opened again following the collapse of the Soviet Union, old ties were renewed and trading activities suddenly blossomed. Today the two cities are nearly of equal footprint and population, but they have a dramatically different look and feel. Heihe resembles countless other cities in China while Blagoveshchensk would not be out of place in Eastern Europe. Crossing from one to the other is disorienting—in the space of a few minutes it can feel as if one has travelled from one continent to another. My research about the urban evolution of these two cities has been published in several articles and is also featured in a book I am co-authoring with Caroline Humphrey, under contract with Harvard University Press.
My work prior to that, for my doctoral thesis at Cambridge, focused on race and ethnicity in the context of East Asia, specifically Mongolia and China. A revised version of my doctoral work at Cambridge was published as Sinophobia: Anxiety, Violence, and the Making of Mongolian Identity (Hawai’i 2015). The book is a study of the anti-Chinese sentiments currently widespread in Mongolia. Graffiti calling for the removal of Chinese dot the urban landscape, songs about killing the Chinese are played in public spaces, and rumors concerning Chinese plans to take over the country and exterminate the Mongols are rife. Drawing on extended fieldwork, interviews, and a wide range of sources in Mongolian, Chinese, and Russian, I argue in the book that anti-Chinese sentiments are not a new phenomenon but go back to the late socialist period (1960–1990) when Mongolia’s political and cultural life was deeply intertwined with Russia’s. An in-depth analysis of media discourses reveals how stereotypes of the Chinese emerged through an internalization of Russian ideas of Asia, and how they can easily extend to other Asian groups such as Koreans or Vietnamese. Sinophobia presents the argument that the anti-Chinese attitudes of Mongols reflect an essential desire to distance themselves from Asia overall and to reject their own Asianness. The spectral presence of China, imagined to be everywhere and potentially in everyone, thus produces a pervasive climate of mistrust, suspicion, and paranoia.
I have just completed Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World, an edited collection in collaboration with Sören Urbansky. The book is forthcoming , also with the University of Hawai’i Press. Yellow Perils is a study of global anti-Chinese narratives in the contemporary moment. Building upon the richly detailed historical studies of the Yellow Peril already published in the context of the United States and Europe, this collection seeks to offer a broader view of the mechanics that underlie this discourse by looking at its cultural deployment and repercussions worldwide. As the contributors to this volume show, Yellow Peril narratives constitute cultural vectors of multiple kinds of anxieties, spanning the cultural, racial, political, and economic. Extending well beyond a Euro-American context—with chapters on Italy, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and China itself—the collection illustrates the heterogeneous character of these anxieties. The contemporary focus and ethnographic breadth of Yellow Perils also make it a unique and timely project. Bringing together distinct bodies of literature such as historical studies on specific experiences of Chinese migration and diaspora, historical reflections on the discourse of the Yellow Peril in China, and contemporary analyses of the global reverberations of China’s economic rise, Yellow Perils offers an analytical overview of the ways in which anti-Chinese narratives play out globally.
Under contract. On the Russia-China Border (co-authored with Caroline Humphrey). Cambridge: Harvard University Press
2015 | Sinophobia: Anxiety, Violence, and the Making of Mongolian Identity. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Forthcoming . Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World (co-edited with Sören Urbansky). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press
2012 | Frontier Encounters: Knowledge and Practice at the Russian, Chinese and Mongolian Border (co-edited with Caroline Humphrey and Grégory Delaplace). Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.
2016 | “Cartographic Anxieties.” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, Vol. 21.
2017 | "Skinworlds: Borders, Haptics, Topologies.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Prepublished October, 5, 2017, DOI: 10.1177/0263775817735106
2016 | “Introduction to ‘Cartographic Anxieties’” in Cartographic Anxieties, Cross-Currents, Vol. 21, pp. 1-18
2016 | “Cartographic Embrace: A View from China's Northern Rim,” in Cartographic Anxieties, Cross-Currents, Vol. 21, pp. 88-110
2016 | “Futurs non linéaires: Modernité et imaginaires géopolitiques à la frontière sino-russe”. Études mongoles et sibériennes, Vol. 46
2016 | 模仿性竞争:以中俄边境城市的建筑演化为例 [Mimetic Rivalry: On the Evolution of Sino-Russian Border Architecture,] 俄罗斯研究 [Russian Studies], Vol. 3 (June), pp. 122-138
2016 | “Phantom Pains in Manchuria: Dreams, Loss, and Projection,” in Northeast Asian Borders: History, Politics and Local Societies, edited by Yuki Konagaya and Olga Shaglanova. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, pp. 63-79.
2014 | “Territorial Phantom Pains (and Other Cartographic Anxieties)”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (1): 163-178.
2014 | “Surface Modernities: Open-Air Markets, Containment and Verticality in Two Border Towns of Russia and China”, Ekonomicheskaya sotsiologia No. 15:2 (March), pp. 154-172. Published simultaneously in Russian as “Sovremennost' v prostransvennom izmerenii: otkrytie rynki, germetichnost' i vertikal'nost' v dvukh prigranichnykh gorodakh Rossii i Kitaya” pp. 76-95.
2013 | “Indirect Interpellations: Hate Speech and ‘Bad Subjects’ in Mongolia”. Asian Anthropology, 12:1, pp.3-19.
2012 | “Predstavlenia o granitse v Kitae i Rossii: Popytka kontseptualizatsii problemy.” Zhurnal sotsiologii i sotsialnoi antropologii, Vol. XV: 3(62): 155-172.
2010 | “Sounds and Scripts of Modernity: Language Ideologies and Practices in Contemporary Mongolia”. Inner Asia, 12(2) (2010): 231-252.
2010 | “Different Shades of Blue: Gay Men and Nationalist Discourse in Mongolia”. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Vol. 10, Issue 2: 187-203.
2009 | “Cooking the Mongols / Feeding the Han: Dietary and Ethnic Intersections in Inner Mongolia”. Inner Asia, 11 (2009): 231–56.
2008 | “Faced with Extinction: Myths and Urban Legends in Contemporary Mongolia”, Cambridge Anthropology Vol. 28 (1): 34-60.
2016 | “Bright Lights Across the River: Competing Modernities at China’s Edge,” in The Art of Neighbouring : Making Relations Across China’s Borders, eds. Martin Saxer and Zhang Juan. Amsterdam University Press, pp.33-56.
2014 | “Nationalism, Sexuality and Dissidence in Mongolia” in Routledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia, eds. Mark McLelland and Vera Mackie. London: Routledge, pp.162-173.
2014 | “Batu Khan” in Dictionary of Chinese Biography, ed. Kerry Brown. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, pp.748-760.
2012 | “Concepts of the Border in the Russian and Chinese Social Imaginaries” in Frontier Encounters: Knowledge and Practice at the Russian, Chinese and Mongolian Border, eds. Franck Billé, Caroline Humphrey and Grégory Delaplace. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, pp.19-32.
I am the co-editor of a new book series at Amsterdam University Press, North East Asian Anthropologies.
This series presents groundbreaking anthropological research on North East Asia, a vast region encompassing the Russian Far East, Siberia, northern China, Mongolia, Japan, and Korea.
Despite its strategic significance, studies of North East Asia remain fragmented and pigeonholed within the academic traditions of Eastern European, postsocialist and Asian studies. The series seeks to address this gap by publishing innovative monographs and edited volumes spanning the region beyond national boundaries. Ranging from migration and crossborder trade to urban development and climate change, the series foregrounds contemporary and emerging issues, and makes critical interventions in both regional studies and in the field of anthropology.
Manduhai Buyandelger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Bruce Grant, New York University
Liu Xin, University of California, Berkeley
Madeleine Reeves, University of Manchester
Sonia Ryang, Rice University
For further information, questions or to submit a proposal, get in touch with me through the contact form.
[ Coming soon ]
2011 PhD Social Anthropology, Cambridge
2002 MA Social Anthropology, SOAS, London
2001 MA Chinese Studies, SOAS, London
1999 BA Hons (Russian and Arabic). University of Westminster, London
Current position (since March 2017)
Program Director, Tang Center for Silk Road Studies, University California, Berkeley
Previous positions held
2015-2017. Visiting Scholar, Mongolia Initiative, Institute of East Asian Studies, UC Berkeley
2012-2015. Project Coordinator, Where Rising Powers Meet: China and Russia at Their North Asian Border project, Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge, U.K.
2014-2015. College Research Associate, King’s College, Cambridge