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Regarding sovereignty in the reading connected to Yarimar Bonilla and Max Hantel’s “Visualizing Sovereignty” project.

When imagining the possibilities of spatiotemporal models to depict a new world view, consider the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s understanding of sovereignty as part of a family of words described as “North Atlantic universals” – concepts that do not seek to merely describe the world but to constrain it’s possibilities.

Bonilla and Hantel argue that a foundational code of mapping as we know it is the notion of political development along an evolutionary timeline, a discourse which “produces a naturalized view of the nation-state”. The presumption of the importance of the nation-state is one critical element of understanding the authors’ point that cartography “spatially produces and reproduces political-economic arrangements while retroactively naturalizing them.” But varied cultural groups have varied ideas of, and relationships to, autonomy. The nation-state model is but one emerging from an eccentric minority on Earth (a tiny political class in Western Europe, not even representative of the full range of perspectives found in their own territories).

I’m reminded of, German anthropologist, Adolf Bastian who emphasized the concept of Psychic Unity (a common ability to learn and think across all cultures). Bastian was scorned by his peers for suggesting, in the mid 19th century, that European supremacists delude themselves by assuming that Europe is more advanced than other societies and that this position causes them to misrepresent reality. He further suggests that questions of human nature (which inform questions of human social organization) ought to be approached by studying the majority- noting that, from this lens, European intellectual tradition constitutes a minority culture.
In a similar light, American anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, would later demonstrate the inaccuracy of categories like “pre-state societies”, noting the disingenuousness of evolutionary political discourse. Sahlins points out that some societies are simply non-state, and others can even be considered state averse (see: “The Original Affluent Society” by Sahlins)

Bonilla and Hantel also suggest that places without “ordinary sovereignty” can be “fertile site[s] from which to contest, disrupt, and reimagine notions of sovereignty, autonomy, freedom, liberty, and self-determination beyond the canon of political theory.” A good example of this is Kurdistan.

Kurdistan is the largest nation on Earth without a state (approximately the size of Italy) and the Kurdish people are an ethnic group living across a naturally defined mountainous region spanning 4 nation-states (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey). An agreement between Britain and France during the first World War employed a map and a ruler’s straight edge to arbitrarily separate regions formally controlled by the Ottoman Empire, after it’s dismemberment (See: Sykes-Picot agreement). The process created new political entities relegated to colonial spheres of influence. Much like the colonization of the Caribbean, the borders enforced by colonial powers did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground – and the Kurds’ territory was formally cut apart. Partly due to this history, Kurds organized one of several anti-state models asserting their nationhood on the foundation of an alternative ethics. As the nation state is viewed as a failed historical option, a confederation of municipal governments and committees is prescribed. Similarly, as patriarchal domination is viewed as an obstacle to legitimate self-determination, feminism is prescribed (See: “Democratic Confederalism, by Abdullah Öcalan). There’s a practical embrace of multiculturalism which incorporates the region’s most marginalized groups, historically excluded by other democratic projects. This includes women, homosexuals, transgender individuals, anti-statists and minority ethnic and religious groups alongside men, heterosexuals, communists and members of majority ethnic and religious groups (See: “Charter for the Social Contract of Rojava. January 29, 2014”).

Two more inspiring examples of autonomy and self-determination which “contest, disrupt, and reimage sovereignty”:
– The Zapatista Movement, an active indigenous resistance in Chiapas Mexico
– The Mondragon Corporation, a federation of worker cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain.

All this is food for thought when thinking about
1. Just how many dimensions of reality are missed by the “North Atlantic universal” language of sovereignty,
2. What spatiotemporal models could work (or already do work) outside the ideological coordinates of “Western” thought,
3. What spatiotemporal models can grasp and even utilize Sylvia Wynter’s posited “new opening” made by “the current collective challenge… to symbolic representational systems”, and
4. What precautions and visual techniques can be applied to investigate or, better yet, counter a viewer’s internalization of tacit ideological leanings contained within a map.