Trump chose to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, in a disarmingly valedictory way, to offer a summing up of his achievements as chief executive, that combined the ceremonial fanfare with which he had visited the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, but as if he was now inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. In a visit of the U.S. President that to some might recall the triumphal visits to sites of real estate developments, Trump announced in Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” transformed what was but a “development project” to border wall sections in either “construction or pre-construction,” whose existence he seemed intent to observe before he left office. The visit marked an end to his attempts to remap the border in the public imaginary of Americans, and to entertain myths about the border, at the same time as to situate the southern border still more prominently in the national discussion.
But if Trump was a reactionary in returning to a national system of mapping, fending off global mapping tools that promised to erase borders in a network of global coordinates, Trump’s long campaign offered a way of remapping the nation. We dismissed as vanity the bizarre comparison of the wall as a project of national infrastructure comparable to the Eisenhower National Highway System survives as a personal legacy for national development, rather than as compromising national ideals. Before he took to signing the plaques of sections of border wall, the comparison to the earlier infrastructure project elevated the border wall to a central place of the national map. And Trump’s visit was an affirmal of the place of the wall in the nation.
Trump long imagined the border wall would be a sight of national grandeur and historical memory. He had introduced it as comparable to how Eisenhower, mesmerized by the banks and multi-lane Autobahn he had witnessed in Germany as commander of Allied Forces, had commissioned 41,000 miles of interstates Eisenhower as the largest public works project of its time. But Trump must have realized the highway system had changed not only the national topography but all Americans’ relation to space in profound ways, as he had lived through it: surfaced road mileage almost doubled after World War I, 1914-26 from almost 257,000 miles to almost 522,000, the Federal-Aid Highway Act promised to pave 41,000 miles of interstates.
Eisenhower developed deep convictions of the benefits of better roadways after driving in an often perilous Transcontinental Motor Convoy from Washington DC to San Francisco in 1919, leading him to prioritize resurfacing; the nation by 1991 had completed paving of 46,876 miles of interstates in one of the largest infrastructure supported by a dedicated fund. Trump’s image of the border depended not on traveling its 2,000 miles, but epic films of border fantasies–among them, John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” which cast defense of the border as a sacred mission and a border fortress as national shrine: “The Alamo” showcased defense of the mythic San Antonio garrison in the Texas Revolution as a mythic border whose defenders played a foundational role in American democracy.
The expansion of 5,000 miles beyond Eisenhower’s mandated 41,000 miles of interstate had long offered a major point of comparison in Trump’s life. When Donald J. Trump sought to refurbish his political identity, he not only added a middle initial–like Dwight D. Eisenhower–but modeled himself after Eisenhower in “America’s Infrastructure First,” a forgotten promise to “implement a bold, visionary plan for a cost-effective system of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines in the proud tradition of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who championed the interstate highway system”–but his marquis project of a Border Wall System exhausted the budget and federal funds available. Eisenhower mandated the highway system be federally funded as a national defense program in 1954, linking the need for roads to imminent the fears of nuclear attack, as much as for transportation needs. Was it a coincidence that the Eisenhower Highway System had cost the United States $101 billion, far beyond the original federal bond that Congress had approved? Yet cost was now on the table: stopping construction on the border wall would save the incoming administration $2.6 billion, and free up funds for needed projects of national health.
While the cost of the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation are still being ironed out by the Army Corps of Engineers, Trump felt that the particularly complex Border Wall System by the Rio Grande could be a deeply personal legacy to the nation’s security that could be presented as a capstone to his basic campaign promise. After all, the notorious meander of the Rio Grande had created a deeply problematic basis for engineering a national divide: the massive geo-engineering of the flow of the river was chosen, despite the warning from 1857 by the surveyor general Major William H. Emery that if the river is chosen as the line for drawing an international boundary line, as rivers run by different meanders and in different beds, any change of course would mark a change in boundary and no mere “survey nor anything else can keep [the course of the river] from changing,” and constitutes “itself a more apparent and enduring monument of the boundary than any that can be made of art.” Despite awareness by surveyors of the difficulty of taking the historically shifting nature of the Rio Grande’s meander made the deepest point of its channel a poor proxy for an international boundary-line in surprisingly accurate early twentieth-century maps of its meander–
–Trump seems to have followed how the United States government, in search for a stable boundary, had pursued the attempt to rectify its natural meander as the International Water and Boundary Commission at the start of the century sought to remake the course of the river by the channelizing it to match the crisp lines mandated by boundary law, that continued aspirations to construct a concrete-lined cannel in 1962, despite longstanding acknowledgment the course changes with flooding and rainfall. Trump’s visit appeared to celebrate that concrete levees might grant permanence to a riverine border, as if to transcend natural change that had complexified the idea of a riverine border, so difficult to determine by fluvial geomorphology known for over a hundred years.
which sudden shifting of the riverine course of the Rio Grande rendered a less fixed boundary-line between states than the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ascertained in 1848, when it determined that the international boundary would run along the river from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico by the deepest point of the channel until it met the southern border of New Mexico, as if the river’s course would be a proxy for the boundary, as was fixed by the first construction of a concrete-lined channel in 1962, despite the historical difficulties of drawing a boundary along a fluvial meander.
Or was it only that? Something deeply personal was going on for the builder of Trump Tower who was trying to frame a political brand that transcended nature. As President, Trump acted Presidential by treating the border wall as a basis for sovereignty, almost as a form of absolutist understanding of presidential authority in a personalized manner, imagining the border wall commemorate his image of American sovereignty and adopt his name–as the Eisenhower Highway System celebrate the acknoweldgement of the nation’s interstates as a form of national defense. Trump mused “Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,” early in his candidacy in August 2015, as if appreciating the power the Presidency might bring; by December 2015 he described the “Trump Wall,” as a platform of his candidacy long before he was elected, again imagining the project would be “someday named after me” in mid-July 2016. Rather than a forward-looking, the valedictory visit was a personal salute to his legacy of border defense, the trademark promise Trump made as an American politician, a retrospective epideictic of the boast to Make America Great Again, a conceit of a mythical defense against “illegal aliens” on the southwest border, integral to his logic of Presidential authority.
In the actual South Texas Wildlife Complex, the expanded concrete levees would interrupt protected sensitive areas, and be built north of the meander of the Rio Grande, if at time abutting its waters, that seemed to privilege the rhetoric of a feared “flood” of migrants over the seasonal flooding of the river that long enriched riverside “resecas” by water bearing loamy soils, that imposition of dikes, levees, and dams for water diversion had already substantially reduced, by expanding the sheer concrete of a border wall just above its banks, in close contact with multiple wildlife refuges and preserved sensitive habitat for protected species.
Perhaps the visit was in fact occurring not at the border wall, but at the site of the namesake of the border town he visited–Alamo, TX–and the place of The Alamo in the historical imagination as a final line of defense of Texian revolutionaries against Mexican sovereign claims. Trump claimed he intened to curtail “illegal” migration from the start of his first candidacy, prioritizing “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border,” five days after inauguration, as a pivot in immigration policy to “get back control of our borders.” The claim was removed from any actual map, but it seems fitting the final visit to Alamo TX celebrated a border wall in an imagined and real geography, more than on a map. If the visits to the US-Mexico border became a basis to perform his identity as a President, with little familiarity of the situation on the ground, one couldn’t help but think that in he relished the visit shortly after the Capitol Riots to return to that interface between real and imagined geographies of the border.
The visit to the border was a final salutation to the very issue that had began Trump’s political career and seemed to be equated with his sense of sovereignty: there is no such thing as a state, as Trump had it, without a border, and the border had been sacralized as a claim to sovereignty in the Trump administration. If the Trump administration had expanded border wall contracts on private land in a Declaration of Taking in the Rio Grande, however, some fourteen incomplete projects of border wall construction left to a Biden administration provided an occasion to affirm a personal promise and pledge to Customs and Border Patrol as if they would be preserved against the specter of illegal population movement that he had painted as a deep danger to national security. While Texas congressman Filemon Vela of Brownsville hoped that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi would with Senator Schumer “draw a line in the sand and oppose money for even an inch of border wall construction,” Trump rallied a different border imaginary of ‘a line the sand’ in visiting Alamo, a line which he drew with a Sharpie on the Border Plaque, rather than on the Texian sands with a sabre, symbollically affirmed his Presidential authority and identity, as he was leaving office and entering civil society, with little sense of what was ahead.
The sense that Trump lost sight of the broader context of his mismanagement and disengagement from the actually pressing threat of COVID-19 that had engulfed the country on his watch was apparent only if you pulled back, placing the crises he had manufactured at the border in the unprecedented threat of a pandemic which he had also cast as a problem of border policy.
We followed with intense interest and hope the gripping story of the teenage soccer team who had entered the dangerous complex of narrow caves in North Thailand. We focussed on the possibilities for their rescue as we watched the narrow entry ways into the remote complex where they were stranded on rocky shoals, over two miles into the Tham Luang complex and over a mile underground. Before the maps of the narrowing cave, we could only imagine the excitement of their entrance into the cavernous passage where they left bikes, and to imagine the conditions where the U-16 team waited with their committed Assistant Coach, as we tried to get our heads around the dangers the team faced in the darkness, licking water from its walls over two weeks.
The deeply compelling story of the “lost” team attracted the global attention from their sudden disappearance, discovery by two divers, to their rescue gained huge interest and dramatic power, as we tried to move into the narrow confines of the cave themselves. Despite the immense power of the human story, and the endurance of each team member of the Moo Pah, or “Wild Boars,” the global scale of attempts to locate the team so remotely stranded were as historic, as we all tried to place the “Lost Thai Cave Boys”–all of whom nineteen divers have now thankfully rescued or extracted from the torturously narrow cave, whose cavernous opening narrows into one of the most labyrinthine of complexes of as one progresses into its passage ways. Lost both to sight, above ground tracking, and to global attention, the small group of soccer players compelled attention of the entire global media. The intense bond that existed for the team–who practiced with their coach who understood the sort of haven he was offering to them all too well–created the sense of solidarity that, in the end, trumped the dangers of being “lost” to a state or to public view.
As they were lost to tracking, GPS, or other means of geolocation, the drama became one of the inability to map in an era when mapping technologies seem to have expanded throughout our lives. While the lack of GPS or wifi made navigation or consultation of instruments used in mapping of little value, cross-sections of the deep cave from forty years ago provided only the roughest of guides to the torturous paths of often slippery ground that threatened to fill from southwest monsoon rains–sudden rains already pressed the team deeper into the caves. As the teenage team was removed from all contact with the world, or abilities of geolocation, the rest of the world depended on maps to imagine the possibility of contact with the kids who were suddenly known, in a bizarre trending topic, as the ‘lost cave boys’ as if to foreground the increasingly uneven global distribution of technical expertise.
We needed maps to keep them in sight, as it were, and to imagine the very possibility of their survival: even the most schematic maps of the caves’ dimensions, abstract cross-sections drafted thirty years ago, offered a sense of contact with the team that was removed from GPS, so far removed to be out of contact, for over two weeks over a mile underground.
While the multi-national effort helped to guarantee the rescue effort was miraculous, it is also a testament to the sheer force of globalization that the former Buddhist monk who led twelve teenage soccer players–several of whom were stateless ethnic minors–became a compelling focus of international attention after being tragically trapped while exploring a cave complex. The young team, stranded two miles into a six-mile long complex, with limited food and air, were almost abandoned, until the surprising accidental discovery that the teenage members of the Moo Pa team–the “Wild Boars”–were all found alive with their Assistant Coach by a group of British underwater divers, apparently on holiday, exploring another branch of the vast flooded cave complex, who first photographed the team, smiling at having contact after ten days. If not for the fortuitous sighting and discovery–and perhaps if not for the lit photograph the divers managed to take of them in the cave’s depths, they may well have tragically perished. But what else is more emblematic of the globalization of the media than the ability to turn all attention to one spot in the world, that suddenly seems the only spot that cannot be otherwise mapped?
The happenstance discovery that was made a week and a half–ten full days–after the team members had after they disappeared was relayed around the globe, more a miracle of endurance as much as of modern technology, though the two were conflated. Able to capture them by cel phones, the image of their survival in the darkness underground survival mapped an odd snapshot of globalization. While the cave was visited several times by the Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the statelessness of the players or assistant coach who helped found the Moo Pa team was not mentioned. As global attention turned to the cave, and divers arrive from the United States, Britain, Australia, Finland, and Canada, the search almost became almost a spectacle of state theater, as the Royal Thai Army undertook to map and track the location of the “lost cave boys” in the mountainous remote province, as global attention shifted to the Tham Luang caves, newly prominent in international headlines as an engrossing topic of social media.
June 28, 2018
July 7, 2018 (Rungroj Yongrit/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock)
The complex of caves in which the team members were stranded was abstracted from what was an area of widespread statelessness, divided between different warring factions, the possibilities of their rescue the focus of global attention. Such a heroic narrative was able to conclude, for one, in a far more satisfactory way than a focus on borderline events, or the fate of the stateless along the Thai border.
1. The efforts to discovery the team had already attracted help While U.S. Pacific Command had sent a rescue team to help in the search for the twelve players between twelve and sixteen and their coach, searching with Thai military using remotely operated underwater vehicles and heat-seeking drone, the absence of any indications in the complex Tham Luang Nang Non caves was puzzling. The mystery of their apparent disappearance was broken by an unexpected image of the smiling soccer team, on a ledge deep into the cavernous complex of caves, taking refuge from rising waters, far beyond the gear and cycles they deposited near its entrance, and indeed beyond the “beach” where those exploring this branch of the complex pause to rest, some four km into the cave. The flooded waters that had already begun to rise with the arrival of the monsoons that fill the cave annually, further imperiling the group. (The rains may have been a bit early this year, due to climate change.)
As the Thai army worked hard to locate the group for two weeks, the embodied problem of achieving the remote extraction of the soccer players focussed global attention; being trapped on a ledge in darkness by rising water when you don’t know how to swim was the stuff of universal nightmares. But the graphics of their rescue through the caves, now lit by lamps and accompanied by divers with head lamps and oxygen, provided a miraculous rescue narrative leading to their emergence.
The image of the smiling teens taken by British divers became something of a clarion call to expand technologies and tools for their rescue. While what is paramountly important is that the “Thai Cave Boys” are coming to light and to their families, even as the rains are beginning to fall heavily, the global spread of the news of their disappearance and accidental spotting and the massive media response that both triggered helped coordinate a rescue effort up to a thousand meters underground with oxygen tanks, headlights, a team of divers, ropes to allow steep uphill climbs of wet caves, once drained but in need of more pumping before monsoon rains intensify, and time for the team to take a crash course in diving; Dawn Cai successfully stitched together an elegant GIF of the trek to recovery that captures the confines of the remote cave, and the deeply embodied ways we all struggled to imagine the scenario we replayed in our minds, but this time casting the focus on the tools of rescue, from the position of rescue cable to the waiting helicopter and ambulances at the cave’s entrance to ferry the kids to safety.
The nail-biting drama of the survival of the boys for two weeks in the narrow Tham Luang Caves, two and a half miles deep into their interior and 800-1000 meters deep underground, attached global attention first as what a feared tragedy, resolved only with difficulty. What became a nail-biting drama of the “cave boys”‘ fate was the focus of global media; the gripping difficulties of the teenagers suddenly involved multiple states, directing more attention than ever to a remote cave in North Thailand.
Looking at maps of the cave, the weird sense that we had in following the story that this could be a site anywhere–a cave that often seemed eerily disembodied from its environment or a specificity of place, or its location in the mountains near its border with Myanmar, site of thousands of the over 400,000 stateless refugees, displaced ethic minorities, stateless not yet granted asylum by Thailand, an area beset by drug trafficking, human trafficking, and malarial outbreaks. The relatively retrorgade region of the Golden Triangle divided between the Shan State North and South and United Wa–has become a site for high-tech mapping, however, as if to affirm the unity and control of a region divided by different local internal conflicts–and contested boundaries the had created refugee flows. The fact that it was normal for most children in the region to be stateless–as many of the soccer players were–made it all the more paradoxical and complex that the appellation of the team as “Thai”–and the involvement of the Thai military–were assigned a dominant role in mapping and locating the team in global media, as if the responsibility to track and locate them devolved around the nearest state to claim responsibility over the area–even if the players themselves lacked nationality. The
–which were determined the stories of the lives of the Assistant Coach and his charges. Ethnic strife was obscured by the tools of tracking the boys’ location and safety. The shift of global media attention to the lost boys seems to have led to efforts of the Thai Royal Army to create the impression that the team was safe–and the situation in Chiang Rai province controlled.
2. The first sightings of the team fed a range of credible attempts to locate and extract the twelve kids from deep in the cave, past a rocky shoal known as “Pattaya Beach” and through its narrow openings, was planned: we only had a sense of the depth of their location in the cave complex after the first sighting of the team that occurred ten days after their disappearance into the dark cave’s mouth. Planet Labs
The news of contact and communication made global headlines, and served to reorient global attention immediately to humanitarian offers to assist in rescue efforts in an age when humanitarian impulses appear globally in short supply; the image of twelve young members of the Moo Pah team, wearing brightly colored jerseys, on a perch on a rocky ledge deep underground, relayed around the world, seems a partial miracle of the ability to capture imagery in almost all places, as well as a reminder of the challenge of ever locating them on the map. If the terrifying nature of finding no response on your teen’s cell phone has long ceased to be purely a First World Problem, the alarm of loosing any contact with one’s teen seemed to foreground the terror of how quickly any trace of their presence had disappeared.
Despite the miracle rescue by which they were “found safe” inside the complex, as the monsoon rains were just about to begin, the mapping, and tracking the young Moo Pa team was a drama hard to get one’s head around that gripped the world, and lead to a huge exultation at the emergence of the first six players from the cave complex became a cause for global celebration, even as the former monk, the valiant Aekkopol Chanthawong who is their Assistant Coach, remains trapped with the rest of his charge and team, teaching them the virtues of stoicism and patience as well as techniques of breathing and meditation that had more than anything else to survive, presumably, kept them in good spirits and alive for over two weeks. Helped in part by the recession of the waters, but also by the shallow breathing techniques that allowed survival in an oxygen-depleted caves, the dedication of Aekkopol to the boys he trained not only in soccer, but to dwell in the dark stands out. The coach was practiced in long meditation retrains, and arrived as an orphan at the War Phra Thet Doi Wao monastery, only leaving training to be a monk after ten years. Where his own advice about meditation and calmness a crucial importance to reducing the team’s panic, as well as the trust he had gained?
(Is the broadcast of plans to ordain eleven of the boys as monks as novices and their coach as a monk occurred after their rescue, lighting candles at Wat Phra That Doi Wao monastery, consolidating and combining the international broadcast of their rescue with a traditional Buddhist coming of age ceremony?)
Wat Phra Tat Doi Wao monastery, Chiang Mae province in Golden Triangle
The techniques of meditation and focus that he used, no doubt developed on meditation retreats with little food or water in the forests surrounding the monastery, were obscured by the focus on the range of technologies that were imagined to perform a rescue operation able to bring the boys from the cave. While knowledge of the possibility of their rescue, the survival of the team fed their survival past ten days, their survival was the other story that was masked by the amassing of international efforts, helicopters, diving equipment and cables to find and extract members of the team from the cave complex, equipped with oxygen canisters and lights. What is celebrated as a high tech adventure rescue depends on the focus of the former monk who, despite his statelessness, has become something of a national hero–but also for the techniques of survival he imparted, more important than the anti-anxiety medications that the multinational team of divers brought when rescuing them.
The unfolding involvement of a global commitments to locate and extract the thirteen teens seems a modern counterpart to the myth of Princess Jao Mae Nan Nong who fled her parents with her love to the complex of caves after their forbidden love was discovered, and still serves as its protector. Princess Jao Mae was said to have stabbed herself in the complex of caves where she had fled her parents with her lover, after he was killed by soldiers her father sent in pursuit, and her blood forms the waters that fill the caves, providing a powerful link between the caves and the afterlife. The Princess’s spirit still is venerated as protecting those who enter the cave complex in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province; indeed the altar of the pink-robed Princess after the boys disappeared attracted attracted many offerings, incense, and candles with other offerings as raining and flooding slowed the search, and her role as a powerful bridge between the living and the dead and guardian of the caves in northern Tahailand gained power as a focus for hope of intercession.
The story of the fate of the “lost boys” became a parallel tale of the turning of global attention turning to the caves in Northern Thailand, to provide a different form of intercession as rescue efforts grew The stories of Jao Mae shifted, to be sure, to new mapping technologies as the members of the team were located and found, as if in response to the efforts of collective prayer, and a variety of possible new schemes for locating and saving the lost team became a truly international affair, unexpectedly turning all attention to Northern Thailand for evidence of reasons to hope. To be sure, the rise of an emphasis on technologies of tracking and mapping the caves may have displaced the prominence of breathing techniques and meditation practices that played a large role in the Wild Boars’ team’s survival underground for ten days. “In the cave,” deep beneath the surface of the ground, as military soldiers combed the mountainside with maps, remembered the head coach Nopparat Khanthawong, the assistant coach had “taught the boys how to meditate so that they could pass the time without stress,” as they waited in the darkness, without food or any sense of the passage of time for ten days, in ways that “helped save their lives” by techniques learned asa novice fat Phra that doi wao temple where he arrived as a refugee orphan from Myanmar. Aekkopol often meditated with monks of the temple and the surrounding forest for days at a time with only a small reserve of food. And he was the last to leave the cave, shortly before the pumping apparatus that had drained the caves of rainwater failed. Yet the entire affair and rescue was shown and described most often as an instance of modernization, supervised by the Prime Minister, in which the Royal Thai Army played a major role in securing the area, developing strategic approaches, as well as draining the cave.
3. Tracking the site of the lost team had riveted global attention and indeed become a project of global mapping over the week plus since the tragedy of their June 20 disappearance unfolded in the news, from the first incredulous attempts to track their location in the torturous complex of underground caves to the more recent imagining of rescue attempts by diving, drilling, or any other means of extraction, as the under sixteen soccer team learned new techniques of breathing, meditation, and perseverance from their dedicated Assistant Coach. We collectively communed with them, and contemplated their chances for rescue as we south to orient ourselves to the unfolding development of what we didn’t want to imagine was another human tragedy through our maps. As we needed to believe they were alive–as they thankfully were–maps were an affirmation of their existence, and a logic of collective action.
Paper maps provided a surprisingly important point of reference above ground, as the position of the boys was considered and contemplated in previous days, as if to preserve or imagine a virtual tie to their remote location.
Despite the diminishing hopes of teenager’s survival after the first week they went missing, their survival of the children has become something of a test-case to find if there is any area of the world that cannot be mapped–and for rescue technologies, as well as a drama of locating hope underground in a darkening above-ground world. For global attention to the video taken by British divers of the group of teenagers who were trapped by unexpected rains while exploring the complex with their Assistant Coach after practice, and the possibilities of international cooperations to locate the small group was nourished on social media, if it had already electrified much of the nation. What was already a state concern of Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the often unspoken if unseemly question of whether Thai soldiers and policemen had the necessary technology or skill to locate the lost team, as hope at their discovery gave way to fears of how to extract them from the cave, or return them through underwater passages,–either by drilling into the soil or squirreling them through often narrow caves. But the fears of altering the structure of caves were balanced with the difficulty of navigating within its dark, narrow passage-ways.
What became a local exercise that the boys to explore the cave complex that the rising of the waters suddenly trapped them became an international affair, as the the world wide web focussed global attention on images of their fate, as a grainy photograph of a few smiling team members on a tablet became a cause for unexpected jubilation and offered a sort of technological reassurance even as their fate was unclear. Images of relatives praying near the caves’ entrance with offerings of incense, garlands, and an eventual altar were balanced with images of high-tech mapping of the paths that the team took. The utter joy one parent showed at the arrival of the image of team members on a tablet triggered a global effort to locate and save the team members believed lost, who truly seem to have shown more resilience than the rest of the world. The sudden burst after the confirmation of their survival was a sort of miracle—they seemed healthy and even well-off while deep underground!–but the sense of a miracle was conflated with technology of the image relayed above ground.
The sudden alarm at loosing contact with one’s teen’s cell phone would have perhaps set off alarm world wide, even if the team was not found to be located at such a remote remove. Is it a coincidence that in an era when few children are encouraged to wander far from home, or explore their local ravines and neighborhoods without worry, that the attention of the world was turned on the team stranded in the cave? Most on the internet wondered what in God’s name the team was ever doing in the cave, or on the warning sign posted at its entrance cautioning about entering as monsoon rains approached. The flooding of the cave where the team members were stranded was glossed as a tragedy, a race against time, and as an international challenge for sustaining hope, as the former monk became a true hero, teaching his team techniques of shallow breathing, meditation, and focus with self-sacrifice that gave them strength and perseverance in the face of terrifying danger. He was the last to leave the cave, and soon after his departure the pumping apparatus that had drained the flooded caves broke.
Wat Phra That Doi Monastery, norhtern Thailand
The complex of caves in northern Thailand became something of a final site for nature, and struggling against natural forces, without wifi or GPS, even as the sense of why a team would go exploring the network alternated with worries rising waters complicated their rescue. As an international effort grew, as new technologies were mapped onto the essentially quite human, all too human effort to locate and save the under-sixteen team and its dedicated Assistant Coach beneath the mountainous terrain.
Hope transformed to preventing a terrible tragedy as possible rescue missions are contemplated or planned, and attempts to map their fate. The difficulties of their extraction riveted global viewers to the fate of teenagers hailing from borderlands of Myanmar and Thailand, who were chosen for their interest in soccer, as forces from the Thai Army to Elon Musk to the former Navy SEAL diver who died in doing so have tried to understand how to extract safely, in what a real-life drama that dramatically surpassed the World Cup, and offered a narrative of international cooperation to save the teenagers feared lost, who were themselves stateless, as their relatives continued to bring offerings to the Jao Mae shrine venerated as able to bridge the cave and otherworld. The story of the post-practice exploration of the complex by twelve U-16 teenagers aged twelve to sixteen–the age of my daughter–seems one of the technically difficult of situations processes, but most unfair as the story of a lost school group has grown as posted photographs of the twelve kids has provided a ray of hope, despite fears of future flooding of the caves by rains, and the perpetual threat of diminishing oxygen.
The complex’s narrow walls and rather torturous network provided what seemed the only remaining thread by which they could be saved or captured, and the specific difficulties of negotiating a rescue in the cave, after multiple divers had already tried to move along narrow passages to explore the caves, and unsuccessfully attempted to drain them with pumps, as the team was found farther into the complex–and up the hill–from where soldiers had earlier searched, and consideration of the place of Pattaya Beach–near where they were found, but in a delicate and narrow section of the caves.–and around the sections of the hill that soldiers examined above ground as they discussed the possible routes of their rescue.
4. While the cave entrance remained large fairly deep after its entrance, the problem of following and mapping the progress of the boys into its sections grew more concrete after it was discovered how deeply in they had travelled, just past the raised area known as Pettaya Beach. And so we turned to the most apparent exact records of the openings of the torturous cave complex where the team and their Assistant Coach were stranded, to imagine our proximity to them in a time of need.
Tracked by the latest mapping technologies and relayed on media circuits since the news of their discovery erupted, the plight of members of the Moo Pa Thai soccer team trapped in the six-mile long Tham Luang cave complex has been a focus of global attention and mapping efforts. The mapping and remapping of the site is of course both a testament to the dire nature of the situation of a group trapped deep within the cave, with limited oxygen, as well as food, buoyed by the miracle of their discovery after nine days and were stranded after they began exploring the cave and the difficulty of drilling from above-ground or navigating the dark cave itself to locate the team of teenagers trapped within, suffering the stuff of nightmares, as well as the problem of extorting them while negotiating narrow often underwater passage-ways. Despite their actual inaccuracy, the apparent exactitude of the cross-sections created an imagined tie to this otherwise multiply removed area of the world, neither satisfactory mapped or governed.
As rising waters threatened to fill the narrowest of cave walls, unable to accommodate air tanks, and attempts to pump water from the complex failed, mapping truly seemed the least of it as the extraction of the team faced the pressures of rising waters, malnourishment, and oxygen lack. (Elon Musk boosted hopes by tweeting his team was developing a narrow child-sized submarine pod able to navigate the hairpin turns in the cave complex, as if the pod would quite miraculously be able to be constructed and arrive on time–and even travelled himself to the cave system, seeking to promote the value of his oxygen engine to the Thai team.) The collective ensemble of efforts, spurred by the problems of locating a group of boys who didn’t know how to swim or dive as the waters ran into the cave complex, was a logical problem, in many ways, that demanded resolving problems of entering the cave underwater, illuminating the passage way, and guiding the boys out, as well, it seemed, as draining the water that had already entered from growing rains.
But the challenges of mapping their location, and the sense that they had traveled to a place so remote where they were not able to be mapped and tracked. The problem in part created a level of tension that riveted the world. The human drama of the young members of the Moo Pa team, became a subject nand symbol of national as much as provincial pride, as the problems of skills required to achieve their rescue became debated. The discussion and debate seemed a parallel story in itself, even if the possibly deadly adventure of the group of teens was intensely involving. The Thai Army that sought to ascertain routes of their rescue looked over maps of the cave’s veins that snaked under the mountain ranges, as if to plan the underground rescue–focussing on the cave complex they knew so well, but with less of a sense of how to extract the kids trapped within by drilling from above ground.
Despite the actual insufficiency of maps, we have tried to map the incredibly narrow contours of the cave complex, as if to puzzle over how they might be located and saved, and somehow track their course along the narrowing width of the complex from its opening–as if to map the difficulty of the job to the scale of a five-foot tall teen–to craft a more experiential record of speleological cross-sections of the mines through which the teens had traveled. based on the first surveys of the cave of 1987 of its narrowing cross-sections, now assembled in a more interactive form, as if in a flip-book–
–that helped to embody the experience of being trapped in such narrow confines so deep underground where they were trapped. The apparent accuracy of these speleological cross-sections was suddenly enlisted to create a sense of imaginary connections to the team whose fate we could not imagine, as if the insertion of a five-foot tall surrogate teenage icon helped capture the embodied experience of surviving in the cave and calibrate the difficulties of their rescue.
Images borrowed from the largely structural maps of cavers who had explored the narrow Tham Luang complex–and from the exact field of speleology–the visualization sought to pose the options for rescuing the team members in the narrow caves where they were stranded, learning how to negotiate with limited oxygen and rising water. The interactive map in the Taimes invites observers to imagine their narrowness, but minimized the complications of locating the team within the cave,–it elicited wonder at how the team had managed to climb so deeply into the complex as the water rose.
5. But the “map” reamined oddly abstracted form crucial information about the underground setting–failing to suggest the real problem of rising water and ground conditions, as while tracing the path of complex with accuracy, it strips a 2D sense of location from the context of rising waters and difficult ground conditions in a cave from which water needs to be pumped. But perhaps the point was to capture the compelling embodied experience of their in the remote cave. The Interactive graphics nicely reproduced the difficulties of moving along and negotiating the narrow turns, some requiring kneeling, swimming horizontally, or crouching to pass as if to experience the narrowing of its amazingly twisty course, as if in a video game, tracking the tortuously narrow course of the caves, through which the team progressed to try to avoid rising waters, in a nightmarish situation with all to real consequences.
But we were linked through the miracle of interactive mapping to pray for the futures of the teenagers, with their schoolmates and Buddhist monks who assembled at its entrance, as if to restore them to a map. Even as we cringed at the near-impossibility of establishing their location, after already one diver who attempted to locate them lost his life, contemplating the entrance into the narrowing passageways of the caves and the team’s itinerary as well as the possibilities of their future rescue.
While watching forecasts for raises that can boost the already rising floodwaters, teams of divers have contemplated maps, and the rescue camp locate near the mouth of the cave provided only a possible site of salvation, in hopes that they could be moved there. Is the cave’s mount a more apt site of prayer, or of recovery?
The misfortune of the soccer team had converted the mouth of the cave to the site of an altar that was sort of shrine, and a site of prayer for divine intervention, as worries turned to what thin, depleted oxygen the team members might still have access during the two weeks after they disappeared, their bicycles found, partly washed away, near the cave entrance, while the classmates of the team-members participated in large collective prayers, and Buddhist monks gathered near the Tham Luang caves, juxtaposing the science of mapping their location with a perhaps more credible collective prayer.
Were the major efforts in mapping not serving as their own sort of prayers, if of a modernist variety, and hopes for a miracle of intercession before the waters rose and the oxygen depleted in the stretch of the rocky cave complex? While the maps did show the human story of the position to which the teens had arrived, and posit and frame the problems of their rescue, thankfully underway, the maps seemed as important as framing, sustaining, and affirming a sort of tenuous empathy to their fate, allowing access to the remote cave system. If they created the possibility of the necessary conditions for their rescue they also became a kind of guiding light for those of us who followed the spectacle so intensely from our own backlit screens.
When running for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump already betrayed a shaky knowledge of the territory. He didn’t want you to think that a wall had already been built along the southwestern boundary of the United States. Now occupying the Oval Office, he seeks to convince the nation that it is in fact being built, and that the need for a permanent, impassible “wall” exist, despite Congress’s refusal to allocate new funds for a “border wall.”
But the massive show of force of cyclone fencing, regular patrols, and bullet-proof barriers set a precedent of border fencing since the 1990s, and something like a precedent for redrawing the nation in ways that are designed to resist changes in a globalized world. In ways that Trump has put on steroids as a racist divide between outsiders and “Americans,” and used as a vehicle for an “America First” agenda, as filling a need to remap strong divide between nations that would replace an “open border,” able to protect the nation, the “border wall” has become fetishized as a paradigm of the unilateral mapping of global space–in terms of actual sovereign bounds, and as a way to remap the nation’s involvement in the world and shuns international responsibilities. If the rhetorical role of the “border wall” has replaced its actuality, and mapped the proximity of the nation to the border in both duplicitous and quite dangerously simplified ways, only by returning to the border, and viewing the existing scars on its lived landscape and the traces of the migrants who have crossed it, can we unmapped the mental mapping of the border.
The effectiveness of the current complex of bollard fencing, barbed wire, steel fencing, cyclone fence, prison-wall like bars, and other obstacles has become one of the largest collections of military surplus in the United States, an accumulation of military materiel that appears designed to remind those who see it of their absence of rights. As much as a defense against globalization or immigration, the border wall stands as a fiction. Although some Americans lend credence to the idea that a barrier along the border could prevent “unlawful” entry of the country, whether such entry is in face unlawful–and what sort of balance of justice would be reinstated–is unclear. The frontier is constructed as site for denying justice, and a denial of human rights, both embodied in the a massive build-up of military material and show of force in its regime.
The construction of the border as a region that denies civil and legal rights–a “negative space” of sovereignty and liberty–has redefined its relation to the state. While the project of a wall seems to mirror the lines of a map that would separate two countries, the simple division of national zones and spatial division more of a fiction in the transborder region. The compulsion to create a map that was present on the earth–a sort of scar between two regimes–depends on defining a space outside of either state, overseen by someone who has no interest in securing rights of its inhabitants.
In this sense, Donald Trump is the perfect messenger of a circumscription of personal rights. When Trump urges the nation that no choice exists save a wall– “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier”–citing that any agreement with Congress for “a fair deal” to be far off, he invokes a notion of fairness and justice that he argues it would create a sense of security–and promote a sense of national security as well as personal security–but relies on evoking the sense of fear and vulnerability that “open borders” conjure. Without any clear statistics or evidence for its value, save the magnification of border security, the need for a border wall is only a fantasy, based on an imagined. As someone who defines himself outside the political classes, and apart from an interest in preserving civil rights–or a sense of the role of government in the preservation of the nation’s liberties–Trump is perfectly suited to define himself in terms of the border wall, which he seems to be set on developing as a property.
1. The sense of justice or security is altogether absent from the landscape of the wall, and from its already heavily militarized region. The absence of place along the border is particularly striking as the accumulation of increasing obstacles to cross-border transit seem designed to preserve a sense of the integrity of the nation–and the safety of our own sense of place–in a world increasingly defined outside of the nation-state as a category, where “states” have decreasing presence or meaning for many American citizens, and most inhabitants of the globe.
In an era of the continuous extent of global space, where borders of nations are to a large extent rendered arbitrary in the virtual space of the meridians of the widely adopted Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system–
–there seems an urgency that is more easily created of the need to define a boundary line, and to believe that the ideal border line of a national map can conjure the antiquated entity of the “nation”and defend it against the danger of migrating threats. Invoking the fear of the dangers of cross-border movements are so often epeated by the America First movement–“bad hombres,” rapists, murderers, or criminal networks, drug cartels, and multi-nationals that go beyond the current systems of state-based law enforcement, that seem designed to suggest threats that only a clear partition of territories can stop,
Migratory Routes of White Pelicans in the United States Originating from the Gulf of Mexico
Historical and Current Sites of American Black Bear in Mexico
In ways that echo the growth of border walls world-wide–only fifteen existed in 1990; there are beyond seventy–the US-Mexican border barriers already constitute one of the most massive investments in wall-building–and the most massive project of wall-building that exists. Rather than offer a spatial division that can serve to protect the nation, or reassure us of the possibility of law enforcement, the complex created around the militarized complex serves only to suspend individual rights, as much as to guarantee the law. Ie exists in an atmosphere of compromised legality, if not lawlessness, in the name of security.
Rather than see to create a secure spatial division, the border has been transformed into a deeply hostile landscape, a site seeking to erase or obliterate any sense of individuality, however much the wall is identified with justice or national protection against the threat of criminal elements. The rhetoric of wall-building that invokes justice indeed obscures the utter injustice of its construction. The 2,500 mile barbed wire fence that India is building to separates itself from Bangladesh, the US-Mexico border wall would be by far the longest such wall in the globe, as if a bald rebuttal to globalization and a declaration of American self-interest: if intended to illustrate American strength against the specter of the threat of the cross-border movement of workers, criminals, or lawlessness, it claims the ability to remove surgically the territorial United States from the dangers globalization has wrought.
In this sense, the project of wall-building is a promise to protect the sense of “place” of the nation. At the same time as our sense of the nation and our sense of place has dramatically altered for reasons beyond any individual nation, the wall reified the nation as an entity, even as the distinct nature of the nation is unclear. John Berger observed grimly, but surprisingly presciently, toward the end of his life, after touring the Occupied Territories in the Middle East, that “The present period of history is one of the Wall,” shortly after 9/11, he foretold the policing of border-crossings and humanity, ” . . . concrete, bureaucratic surveillance, security, racist walls.” The new definition of walls that are defined to separate hoary categories of race or ethnicity are increasingly evident in all too frequent attempts to create barriers of regional protection. They are based on the sense that national survival depends urgently on such massive projects of enclosure, as if such projects could be isolated from their huge effects and psychological consequences for those who might confront them on the ground.
The current emptying of words–emergency; invasion; criminality; violence; human-trafficking–make them tags to activate the border within the political imaginary, but conceal the actuality of the borderlands where the military is already present, and the lands are already quite secure–and quite vacant of habitation.
2. The place of the amassing of materials and military materiel along the US-Mexico border seems designed to create a new experience of the border, and to make it scarily real for those who might seek to move across it or to regard it as part of a zone of permeability. The exquisite photographs portraits of the wall by west coast photographer Richard Misrach has worked to document the extent to which border barriers have changed experience of the border crossing.
The barriers progressively built on the southern border of the United States reveals a new heights of the costs of bureaucratic surveillance in the name of border security. As if in a second episode of his classic Desert Cantos, begun in the 1970s, which, Geoff Dyer noted, “record the residue of human activity inscribed in these apparently uninhabited lands,” in an attempt to explore “the multiplicity of meanings in the idea of desertness.” The residue of the human is even more haunting in Misrach’s new project, and the photographs that result of human traces on the border, because they are emblems of the disenfranchisement of the borderlands that hauntingly parallel their military build-up. One might even say Misrach interrogates the landscape in his work–if the word didn’t tragically resonate so closely with the state-security apparatus on the US-Mexico border. Misrach dwells on human traces that lie around the militarization of the borer regions–from the cultural detritus left by cross-border travelers, left on migrations, the security apparatus encountered at border, and the hollow loneliness of the massive redesign of its landscape capture the expanded military-defensive complex at the border.
This evacuated land is the region that Donald Trump has come to champion as a basis for defense from national emergencies. The argument that the border is understaffed erases the rewriting of the transborder landscape that has already occurred. Misrach’s contemplation of magnificent vistas, broad traces of the inscription of authority at the border, and the reduction of the human, are truly Kafkaesque in their nightmarish reduction of the individual before the inscription of authority in its landscape.
3. For since the definition of the US-Mexico borderline as a line of passage monitored by the border patrol back in 1924, the expansion and militarization of increasing sections of border wall is in part a spectacle of state. Their growth reflects increasing concern not only with the border, but the militarization of a border zone. But increasingly, such a zone seems sealed off form much of the country, and is rarely fully comprehended or seen, but rather invoked as a specter that needs to be expanded to establish national safety and economic security, even if its expansion has already occurred in a hypertrophic fashion, long before Donald proposed to build a “beautiful wall” to prevent crossing the US-Mexican border. If the expression reveals a lack of compassion, its problematic nature is even deeper: it reveals Trump’s peculiar identification with an apparatus of border protection, and of human containment, and the removal in his eyes of that apparatus from a discourse of rights.
Trump has celebrated the wall as if it were a new hotel and building project–asserting that he has the needed expertise to build and design it. Trump presented himself to the American press that he was perfectly suited to such a task, since building is what “I do best in life.” “I’m a great builder,” he assured his audiences, with considerable self-satisfaction, to suggest his suitability to the position as chief executive, despite his lack of political experience; defining himself apart from other political candidates in the vision of the nation that he supported, Trump added with evident satisfaction, “Isn’t it nice to have a builder?”
Precisely because he came from outside the political sphere, and outside the government that preserves and respects individual rights, he has been presented as a perfect fit for a region that lies and has developed as outside the securing of individual rights. By having a “builder” of the nation and the nation’s identity, he suggested, rather than a politician, he could guarantee the increased presence of the military along the nation’s southwestern border, and indeed promised to dedicate an increased amount of the national budget to the defense of this borderland. Precisely because Trump lacks interest in guaranteeing or preserving the rights of migrants, or rights of asylum to the nation, he is a perfect custodian and symbol of this over-militarized zone without rights. As a man without military experience, but cowed by military authority, he has become, as President, the perfect surrogate for the stripping of rights for people who try to cross the border.
Trump’s promise is that the continuous wall, to be payed for only upon completion, would remove deep worries about border security. Widespread national concern about cross-border movement since the 1990s have led to the investment to making the border more physically and symbolically present to potential migrants than it ever was–no doubt reflecting an inflated fear of illegal immigration and the dangers of their immigration by fortifying what was once an open area of transit and rendering it a no-man’s land. The number of US Agents stationed along the border has almost tripled from 1992 to 2004, according to The Atlantic, and doubled yet again by 2011, even as the number of US federal employees shrunk. Investing in the border by allocating over $4 billion each year created a concept in our spatial imaginaries we have not fully digested or mapped, or assessed in terms of its human impact, despite increasing appeal of calls for its expansion and further consolidation–even as the further consolidation of the border zone has made migrants depend on drug smugglers and other illicit trade in hopes for guarantees of cross-border passage. And in an era when a large portion of Americans seem to interact with government through the TSA—Transportation Security Administration–or NTSB–National Transportation Safety Board–the fear of external threats to the public safety seem incredibly real.
The inspired gesture of a monumental wall to be built across our Southern Border with Mexico, if a sign of weakness far more than one of strength, obliterating hope for the promise of a future, as Berger noted, intended to overwhelm and oppress as a monument to decadence and American insularity. Outfitted with not only walls, fences, and obstacles but checkpoints and surveillance cameras, the US-Mexican border has become a pure hypostatization of state power. And although Trump’s promises to build a “beautiful, impenetrable wall”–“He’s going to make America great, build a wall and create jobs,” folks repeated on the campaign, as if these were causally linked to one another–the massive construction project has been revised, as the “great, great wall” promised at rallies was scaled back to a fence and confined to “certain areas”–with the odd reassurance that “I’m very good at this, it’s called construction,” while acknowledging that the wall was “more appropriate” only in “certain areas.”
Does Trump have any sense of the massive investment of capital that already exists on the border. The promise of dedicating as much as $26 billion–even $30 billion–to such a soaring, precast concrete monument along the border, standing as high as fifty feet, was a mental fantasy, and election promise, but filled a need for ending perceptions of its permeability grew so great that his advisers see the need to warn folks “it’s gonna take a while,” but promising the ability to do so by fiat and executive order and reallocating funds for immigration services; others demur, “it was a great campaign device.”
At the same time as deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants now deemed “illegal,” the Department of Homeland Security has effectively rendered the border a militarized zone, interrupting what had been as late as the 1980s was a relatively porous transit zone on which both countries’ economies had depended: the accumulation of capital on the border has expanded what was once a simple line to create obstacles to human movement challenging for viewers to process from a distance, or to map as a lived experience. Of course, the existence of the wall has created a blossoming of illegal trafficking, as migrants are forced to depend on smugglers to help them in their quest to cross the imposing border, augmenting the illegal activity that occurs along its path, under the eyes of the many employees that guard the expanded border zone, in a far cry from the border patrol of years past.
The accumulation of obstacles for human transit contrast sharply to the old border fences that they have long rendered obsolete. The growth of the border zone dates from 1986, when granting of “legal” status to Mexican immigrants in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) had the consequence of redefining Mexican migrants as “illegal.” The investment in increased construction of the border over thirty years to the “illegal” immigrants who were surveilled by the U.S. Border Patrol at the highly monitored militarized border, designed to thwart unregistered immigration. The argument that the old border fence is now outdated, and contiains gaps–
AP/Gregory Bull: Border Agent Jerry Conlin looks out over Tijuana beside old border fence
–has been demonstrated repeatedly in maps. And since the Customs and Border Protection agency dedicated to “securing the nation’s borders” has come to expand the border between the United States and Mexico to prevent any possibility of human transit, reifying frontiers in ways that are nicely stated in one side of the pin worn by the very officials tasked to secure the border by regulating cross-border movement. The mandate for U.S. Customs and Border Protection–“Securing America’s Border and the Global Flow of People and Goods”–is fulfilled by a range of devices of detection, surveillance and apprehension–attack dogs; choppers; drones; visual surveillance; horseback; speedboats; binoculars–that seem to expand an impression of total mastery over space in ways that are oddly ignore the human targets of the Agency.
The division of Border Services that is dedicated to secure the US-Mexico border has attracted a level of investment that multiplied the increasingly inhumane terrifying ways, as “securing the border” has encouraged a material surplus and hypertrophic expansion of the border as militarized region that exists to obstruct human transit that is undocumented. The border-zone assumes an increasingly prominent place within the spatial imaginary of Mexican migrants, as it has become increasingly accepted as a militarized–and naturalized as such–within the United States at considerable costs. What are the consequences of such acceptance of the frontier as uninhabited lands? How can one confront the consequences of its built-up construction from the perspective of the border-crosser? How can one measure the human consequences of the expansion of this outright militarization of a space between two countries who are not officially at war?
The separation of customs enforcement from border protection led an increased amount of resources to securing the material border, independent of the enforcement of customs, with effects that can be witnessed in the broad expansion of the border’s expansion as an uninhabited policed area needing to be secured in the abstract–independently from the human traffic that passes through it.
It is difficult to process the expanse or scope of the expansion of the border or the imposing barriers to border transit that is intended to prevent unmonitored migration and indeed terrify migrants from crossing the border . The experience of the surplus on the border is especially difficult to capture from an on the ground perspective, distinct from the abstract definition of the border on a map as a simple line. For the investment in the border obstacles and barriers that have themselves created the terrifying idea of sealing a border to human transit, and protecting the entry of those newly classified as “illegal”–a category that was the consequence of the IRCA, and legislation that criminalized the presence of “undocumented” Mexicans in the United States, and the growth of apprehensions of migrants after the increase in the monitoring of the border after IRCA– and the later increase of border patrols from 1994, in response to the inhumane balancing of needs for Mexican workers with fears of an increased number of Mexican immigrants, as the number of “undocumented” migrants multiplied nation-wide to new levels. The increased militarization of the border to monitor all and any cross-border transit has created a massive expansion of border fortification under the Homeland Security Dept.
The result has been to create a shocking dehumanization of border crossing as attempts to cross the border in search of a better life have grown. And the response of Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo to recuperate the human experience of border crossing that is erased by most maps. Recent explorations by Misrach has called renewed attention to the expansive construction of the border as a human experience migrants face and encounter, and the new landscape of border-crossing that has been created across a new no man’s land. His attention to the remains humans have left along the wall–abandoned detritus and intentional markers of cross-border transit–remap the construction of the border zone so challenging to capture in a territorial map, and capture a new sense of urgency to confront the human rights abuses that have grown with the border’s senseless expansion, and the overbuilding of border barriers and borderlands as a militarized space.
For the accumulated military surplus along border boundary is less a clear divide, than a means of creating a territory of its own within the growing border area: Misrach’s recent photographs map intensive fieldwork of the region of the border that try to comprehend the scale of its presence for those on its other side or who traverse the border zone–an experience entirely omitted from even the most comprehensive maps of its daunting scale and expansion, which reveal the growing presence that “the border,” border area and the growing expanse of trans-border regions have already gained–a scale that can in part capture the heightened symbolic role that the debates about a border fence or barrier have gained in the 2016 United States presidential election. The notion only a wall could fill the defensive needs of the United States must be protected from those Donald J. Trump labeled “bad hombres”–we stop the drugs, shore up the border, and get out the “bad hombres”–is laughable, but was a lynchpin to fashion himself as a strong male leader.
The grandiosity of the wall as a project of Trump’s megalomania led the architects at the Guadalara-based Estudio 3.14 to propose a version in hot pink, stretching along the 1,954 miles of the border, based on the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán. The wall, including a prison to house the 11,000,000 deported, a plant to maintain its upkeep and a shopping wall, seems specially designed both to daunt migrants and offer eye-candy for Americans.
Indeed, such a “Prison Wall” reflects the deeply carceral function of the space of the border, whose systems of surveillance systems and technological apparatus make it less a space of transition than a site of expansive investment going far beyond the notion of border protection, both as a spectacle and expansion of territorial control. The hot pink wall offers a good substitute surpassing the expansion of border security in recent decades.
4. Indeed, as the transborder region has dramatically expanded with the expansion of cross-border trade since NAFTA in 2004, the expansion of the trans-border region has been widely neglected, and rarely mapped. The attention the photographic mapping of the human experience of border crossing–evident in the abandoned detritus and remains of cross-border transit–present a ghostly counter-map to the expanded border region.
This human map is all too often unfortunately overlooked, even with increased attention Republican presidential candidates have paid to remapping a closed border and constructing a border wall, a project that seems to erase or remove the broad area of cross-border traffic that occurs within the immense region that surrounds the physical border–whose sociological expansion is so oddly conveniently erased by any project of wall building along a region demanding to be recognized as being part of the United States.
Most boundaries between states are regularly rendered in maps by dotted lines, as if to recall milestones–miliaria–placed at regular intervals on perimeters of lands or counties in earlier times. But the borer strip that is embedded in an expanded border area is a site of increasing surveillance that seems to engrave itself on the land. To map the proposed building of a fence along the 2, 428 mile border between Mexico and the United States reveals a the expansion of the policing of the national borderspace, erasing its past status as a transit zone across which people and goods easily moved.
In an age of globalization, borders are increasingly not only policed, but managed at a distance from their crossing lines–and increasingly invoked in Presidential elections as if they have become the primary charges of governmental management. Constructed to symbolize and symbolically represent sovereign authority, the overbuilt border seems staged a spectacle to impede human movement and to monitor and erase, individual experience, and to bolster the appropriately faceless authority of the state. Borders once the creation of shared conventions, are colonized by an apparatus designed to impose state authority on helpless people, and constructed at massive cost as artifacts that seem to exist to violently intersect with actual lived experience, confronting the cross-border motion or migration of populations, and concretizing the need for a fixed frontier as a need of the nation.
5. The huge popularity of advocating construction on a continuous border wall within Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign to seal the frontier along Mexico’s sovereign territory reveals the degree to which borders become a means to assert failing claims to sovereignty–even as it is an attempt to reassert the authority of an individual nation-state by unilaterally asserting its own abilities to police its bounds. How the border gained such broad purchase on the national imaginary is unclear, and may require another post–but the incommensurability of the alleged solution and the situation on the ground demands empirical evaluation. Revisiting the spectacle of the border and the suffering it creates engages broad advocacy to the continuous wall advocated alike by such presidential candidates like Trump and Ted Cruz–and the explicit violence they serve by of subjecting social life of border-crossing to surveillance in the name of national security.
And so it is apt that, in Border Cantos, a recent collaboration between photographer Misrach and Mexican-born composer Guillermo Galindo, the amassing of capital on the US-Mexico border is so eloquently documented and revealed as the brutalizing landscape that it is. More than any map is able, their collaboration bears witness to the expansion of the border’s imprint on the lives of migrants in incredibly moving ways, by asking viewers to evaluate the costs of the overbuilt structure of the fence, and assembling the artifacts and unintended traces that were found and collected about the border–traces accidentally left by actual migrants from backpacks to sneakers to books to children’s clothing and dolls to the spent shotgun shells that targeted migrants or the bicycles used to overcome border barriers–to reflect their social experience. These remains are human traces that do not appear on any actual map, of course, but are the remains of the violence that is enacted on how national boundaries are mapped–and the continued violence of the experience of border crossing that intersects with the broad security apparatus on either side of the border fence. As if to accompany Misrach’s photographs of the human geography of the borderlands–a largely empty space with few humans and only scattered human markers and material possessions–Galindo fashioned musical instruments whose playing is able to generate sounds in his own scores, specific to the surreal fraught space of the overbuilt borderlands, an eery score to accompany Misrach’s haunted landscapes, and remind us of the human presence that is so often necessarily absent from the images.
Such ephemera pale in contrast to the experience of migrants, to be sure, but offer both avenues of empathy and proofs of the brutality with which sovereign authority intersects with the mundane everyday at the border walls, in the built space that runs across the emptiness of the desert borderlands.
Mortality is mapped to gain a grasp of geographical distributions of illnesses over space. The mapping of death helps to embody the pathways of disease, and allow us to see otherwise inapparent vectors of transmission, which have historically provided crucial ways to assign meanings to a disease’s effects and pathways. In ways, the map manufactures and embodies the pathways of a disease’s infectious spread: the rise of deaths in the borderland between the United States and Mexico can only be mapped as a dereliction of national responsibility that charts an erosion of civil and moral codes. The recent erosion of civil law and attacks on immigration law conceal a longstanding withdrawal of responsibility along the border, opening the way to creating the borderland as a military jurisdiction—rather of civil law.
We have long mapped diseases to grapple with their causation. Even before the bacillus of a disease might be known or seen, the founder of modern epidemiology, John Snow, critiqued miasmatic theories of contagion by mapping the distribution with which cholera spread across London neighborhoods during the 1854 London epidemic, visualizing the disease as a social network of contagion by a dot map of neighborhood outbreaks that used a dot map to as proof that “nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump” whose water was a vector of transmission. The distribution of mortality around public fountains provided a basis to demonstrate vectors of contagion for Dr. Snow, and by mapping all deaths from cholera to have occurred in recent years in relation to one pump on Broad Street in relation to London’s thirteen city wells by a voronoi diagram.
By locating each and plotting the distribution of deaths from cholera in the city in relation to the significant incidence of deaths form cholera near specific street-pumps revealed a way to grasp infectious transmission from the Broad Street pump that embodied a new notion of contagious diseases that challenged miasmatic transmission—making for the first time a clear spatial argument about how disease existed and moved in an urban environment, and presented a second map, with clearly traced polygons to indicate routes of transmission to the local parish showing routes of walking by which the disease was transmitted—using the recent mapped deaths from cholera in London Edmund Cooper tabulated—
—in hopes to encourage a level of civic engage about the origins of cholera infections that had plagued Londoner’s for twenty eras in the city’s fabric.
The source of deadly infections that this famous data visualization revealed suggests the communication of fatalities by a clustering that indicated clear routes of the spatial communication of a viral infection, focused on a large subset of deaths in close vicinity to the Broad Street pump, even without bacteriological or microscopic evidence.
The exact distribution Snow organized contrast to the terrifying distributions of the deaths of migrants seeking passage across the border, which resists any extraction of an explanatory framework or conclusion, but raises questions about the inhumanity of the terrain we have created.
Dot maps of migrant deaths follow no such clear distribution, and has no sense of transmission form a single site. It forces us to acknowledge the deep problems of the criminalization of immigration on the Mexican-US frontier by charging its human costs. The sites of mortality from hunger and thirst are tragically dispersed over a far great undefined space, but embody the human costs of existing border policy, even a decade before Donald J. Trump used the management of the southwestern border as a campaign talking point to pole vault into public politics.
No similar diagrams can be drawn to elucidate the range of dead bodies discovered in the desert of migrants who were attempting transit into the United States for better homes: can one better explain their deaths b a virtual miasma of cruelty that fills the air of the border zone. Their deaths were caused by dehydration and starvation, as well as cold, but suggest nothing so much as a miasma of neglect. The distribution of deaths of migrants in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve, and O’Odham Reservation already illustrated a dereliction of national responsibilities.
The map is a deeply tragic reminder of the loss of life that is forgotten in the dry expanses of these deserts where the border, such as it is, lies, and the distinctly disturbing regime of a lack of interest or care for human fate that—even with the mortality of children in detention camps at the border—still can stretch incredulity at the evidence it offers of a large theater of cruelty. They recall the denial of burial to the bodies of enemies in the ancient world, left as prey to dogs and vultures: the Enlightenment jurist Giambattista Vico faced considerable difficulty explaining to his readers that there was a time when the bodies of anyone was left unburied in an earlier age in his Scienza Nuova, “an inhuman custom—so contrary to what the writers on natural law of all people’s claim to have been practiced among any nation— . . . which [once] prevailed among the barbarous peoples of Ancient Greece,” described in Homer’s Iliad, and at which he marveled as “crude, coarse, wild, savage, volatile, unreasonable and unreasonably obstinate . . . and foolish unreasonable customs,” far removed from his own age and from the imagination of his readers, so “discordant” was it with our own civil age. Yet the unburied dead whose bodies have been located in states of extreme decomposition along this border zone reveal a discordant reminder of the return of such an inhuman custom on the borders—and within the borders—of what we consider is a region that is distinguished and administered by civil laws. Whether this region can be rightly considered a region of lawfulness or civility seems to be raised and put on the front burner by the discovery and attempted identification of the human remains discovered lying in the desert, often dramatically decomposed, of migrants’ bodies dating from the administration of George W. Bush.
If Vico could scarce imagine the barbarity of leaving bodies exposed to the elements even in war—and the spectacular cruelty of the dragging of the body of Hector around the perimeter of Troy three times—among those who “were held to have spread humanity across the world,” given the sheer physical disgust of leaving the body unburied, and given that “all gentle nations certainly concur that souls [of the unburied] remain restlessly on earth, wandering around their buried bodies,” from Guinea to Peru to Mexico to Virginia to New England to Siam, the readiness of Christians to leave the dead unburied by the border, if not intentionally, haunts the border region with its own inhumanity. The violence of this early heroic age was before the age of laws of nations, for Vico, and belonged to the age of “violent and impious men who dared to enter the cultivated fields  in pursuit of the weak who had fled thither to escape them,” and belonged to “the vulgar customs of the barbarous Greece” of Homer’s day, and adequate burial in fact constituted one of the three institutions of human society—with marriage and religion—in ways that betray the huge remove of a heroic era, which incredibly lacked burial customs or rites, from our own.
Yet the abandonment of unburied bodies has returned in the no-man’s land of the US-Mexico borderland, where the abandoned bodies of would-be migrants fall between governing bodies and accepted customs. Migrants that were stopped during the course of their attempts to reach a new life in the US were clustered at a distance from the border but reveal the amazing distances many undocumented migrants travel before they collapse, without food, and most often out thirst and dehydration–leaving them exposed as “prey to dogs and vultures” in the very horrifying ways that Vico was so horrified. The recent spatial distribution of such abandoned cadavers and corpses, left without any rites of burial, force the viewer to scrutinize its mute surface of dots against a deceptively pastel base map as if they might magically be able to glean or recuperate the silent, forever-lost stories of migrants who lost their lives attempting to cross the border, and the stories of whose travails and travels can never be told. The ends of their lives, reduced to the finality of a bright red circular dot in the data visualization, out of scale, arrests attention but is disarmingly and alarmingly flat, resistant to any further narrative or even identifiable name. Over 2,000 dead migrants whose bodies were retrieved at a significant distance from the border suggest their desperation to make their way across the border by clandestine routes, and the extreme climactic difficulties that they face, with few adequate provisions for crossing deserts whose expanse they feel forced to travel to search for jobs–risking their lives to do so.
If the many migrant deaths of those attempting to cross the border between the United States and Mexico are often expressed by crosses that are hung on sections of the fragmentary “border wall,”—
—the precise distribution of the dead in sites of their death is rarely preserved in public memory, and the archive of dead migrants who did not survive passage is rarely assembled as a geospatial record.
The number of the dead remains but a fraction of those who have actually died attempting to travel north, leaving detritus and lost objects in their wake that only beg deciphering as images. For although their overlap suggest something like a clustering that might belong to an external infective agent, the alarming nature of the red points call attention to the human costs–and the anonymity of lives lost–that are the victims of the intense dangers of border-crossing that migrants accept and undergo, who we have forced to accept and risks of dehydration, heat stroke, hyperthermia, and starvation which have killed them.
If the deaths of those attempting to cross the border will probably never be know with precision—and is often lost to oblivion—the recovery of human remains affords a grim picture of the actuality of recovering the dead, and the attempts to name, identify, commemorate and memorialize their fates as well as prevent the loss of their identities, despite the jarringly abstract geospatial symbology of this map, and the minuscule proportion of those remained that have been so far identified.
This project of memory and memorialization, echoing the imagery of northward passage in the famous Underground Railroad taken by fugitive slaves taught to recognize the handle of the Big Dipper to follow the North Star to find their path to freedom, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” the symbol of the constellation has been adopted by the Humane Borders organization which has identified remains and sought to allow them offer needed geospatial assistance to migrants in their search to find a path north.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!