Thursday, September 25, 2008

No Man's Land

We've tossed around word like "neutrality" and "arbitrariness" and "objectivity" on this blog a fair amount. I've been arguing that the value of "the Grid," the "neutral" framework on which we compile common knowledge of the world, is that it provides a pidgin, a non-native language of commerce. It provides common ground, so to speak.

The phrase "no man's land" popped into my head this morning, and I find it resonating.

What the phrase evokes most of all to me is the dreadful no-man's-lands of World War I, the muddy, bloody plains of death. No man's land is not a place to live in, it's a place to separate peoples who cannot live together. Instead of creating a shared space, it creates an unclaimed space. To be blunt, there is no love there.

I was trying to conjure up an alternative to the scientific, objectivist way of finding common ground, asking "what other common grounds are there?" The obvious one is personal contact. The way you make the stranger into a non-stranger is to spend time with him/her. Host and guest. Or neighbor and neighbor. Not that I really know my neighbors all that well, but communion can be achieved through common work, even among strangers.

The opposite of no man's land then is "the commons" where we all graze our livestock— "we" in this case meaning the shareholders of the commons. Not everyone everywhere, but everyone in the village, everyone working on the same project.

How does a no man's land become a commons? I think of this literally happening in the story of Christmas 1914 in the trenches of World War I, where the guns stopped and soldiers from opposite trenches met, traded songs and cigarettes and played soccer. The story brings tears to my eyes still, like the hopeful/exhausted refrain of the Decemberists' "Sons and Daughters": "here all the bombs fade away..." [actually the lyrics sheet says "Hear all the bombs, they fade away," but I hear otherwise] but that's another blog entry.

But to think of it, Christmas 1914 depended on the majority of soldiers sharing a common religion. They both celebrated Christmas, neither side wanted to be shooting when they would rather have been home with family. I'm guessing things would have been different if the Gallipoli campaign had happened in 1914. But no, a truce to allow clearing of bodies did happen. So sometimes you can appeal to commonality as a species.

No-man's-land implies the opposite of itself—territory. I need to do some studying about the evolution of modern ideas of property and territory, because they clearly aren't universal. Nomadic tribal societies, while they wanted to keep their own hunting grounds for themselves, did not allocate land to individual "owners." And many settled societies have had owners as equivalent to rulers (see lords and serfs). As small freeholdings became more common in Europe, how did the idea of territory change, and when did "commons" arise as an alternative to private property (or is that how it worked at all)? Like I said, I need to learn more. (I note with interest a reference in the wikipedia discussion page on the article Property to "Richard Schlatter's by now classic Private Property: The History of an Idea. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1951, or for a more current perspective Laura Brace's The Politics of Property. Edinburgh University Press, 2004")

So how do you get from no man's land to commons? And (to get back to the general theme of things here), where does the cool light of "objectivity" fit in? The question, I think is to what end neutrality is invoked. By itself, "neutral territory" can mean the no-man's land of World War I; or its cold modern alternative, the DMZ; or Switzerland, or the town common. Is the difference a matter of scale and dispute, or is there something else going on in the range of possibilities?

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