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Territorial Phantom Pains and Other Cartographic Anxieties

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The study of borders has traditionally been the remit of political geography. Territorial disputes in particular have frequently been approached in terms of their economic and geopolitical significance. However political geography has found it notably difficult to account for a nation’s strong emotional attachment to territories that are often small, with little material or geopolitical value. In fact, if territorial disputes are conceptualised as disputes at state level, resolutions are frequently hampered by the emotional attachment of ordinary citizens to these ‘tiny specks of largely uninhabited and essentially useless isles or peaks’ (Chung 2004). State leaders are forced to play a two-level game of negotiations, with the other country as well as with their domestic constituents.

Such emotional responses bear testimony to the intimate melding of individual and national identities. Socialised into seeing themselves as inherently tied to the nation in its current physical incarnation, individuals frequently perceive the loss of national territory as an assault on bodily integrity. In revisiting the common trope of the nation-as-body through inclusion of valuable insights from neuroscience, my paper will explore what happens when a lack of fit intervenes between the physical geographical extent of the nation and the mental map held by its inhabitants. Such a disconnect becomes especially visible when a nation loses part of its territory. ‘Lost’ territories, no longer included within the national body, remain nonetheless part of a previous national incarnation. As such, they frequently draw national sentiments and affect, producing what can be labelled ‘phantom pains’. Similar disconnects can also occur when a nation finds itself in rapid expansion: as the borders of the nation extend outwards to include more and more territory, the divide between self and Other becomes clouded, and the mental map of that nation’s citizens requires constant reframing.

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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