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Ground Zero: on the semiotics of the boundary line

An exploration of the relationship between the cartographic convention of the linear boundary and the function of the numeric zero as an empty signifier.
by

Angus Cameron

on 9 March 2012

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Transcript of Ground Zero: on the semiotics of the boundary line

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Ground Zero:
the semiotics of the linear border
Sometimes noisily and sometimes sneakily, borders have changed place. Whereas traditionally, and in conformity with both their juridical definition and “cartographical” representation as incorporated in national memory, they should be seen at the edge of the territory, marking the point where it ends, it seems that borders and the institutional practices corresponding to them have been transported into the middle of political space.

(Balibar 2004:109)
Perched on top of a primary semiological system, myth resists transformation into symbols (which makes it hard to put into words, hence…hard to talk about). As a legend or a map or a photograph, it retains always the fullness, the presence, of the primary semiological system to which it is endlessly capable of retreating.
[…]
Not seen as a semiological system: this is the heart of the matter. Of all the systems so not seen, is there one more invisible than the cartographic? The most fundamental cartographic claim…is to be a system of facts, and its history has most often been written as the story of its ability to present those facts with ever increasing accuracy.

Denis Wood (1993:104-5)
The Sneaky Edge of Essex
The Bisected World 1493
The Line of Tordesillas Sneaking About
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Zero is not an absence, not nothing, not the sign of a thing, not a simple exclusion. If the natural numbers are signs, it is a signifier. It is not an integer, but a meta-integer, a rule about integers and their relationships.

Wilden 1981:188
Not only has the boundary line – in the form of yellow carpet tiles – sneakily moved a long way from its ‘putative reality’, it has, in Rotman’s terms ‘disrupted’ and ‘displaced’ (p.5) the prevailing system of signification – the analogue. However, it has not destroyed that language, but appropriated its image into a new visual semiotic which manages to create an entirely digital system of signification within the syntax of the analogue. The fact that, as noted above, that analogue between the carto-graphic sign and the landscape never existed does not perturb this system. We all act as though the border narrated in this way, excessively, even ridiculously, itself has substance and thus an analogue relationship to ‘real’ space.
…modern space was conceptualized as isotropic (as everywhere the same) and as reducible (or already reduced) to a formal (that is, empty) schema or grid. Partly as a consequence, abstract space was symbolically and materially associated with homologies: seriality; repetitious actions; reproducible products; interchangeable places, behaviours, and activities.

Poovey, 1995:29
The salient feature of these linearizations of phenomena […] is that they correspond in the metaphysical sphere to the laws of motion Newton laid down in the physical sphere: they are uniform, dimensionless and self-repeating. They refer to a time which displays no temporal variation, to a space that like the grid of the map projection pretends to have no effect on the objects it contains. Their continuation, their extension in any direction, does not signify an attractive force acting on them locally but an innate propensity to self-reproduction. The result is a geometrical analogue of the doctrine of Progress, and irresistible forward movement which poses as the unchanging repetition of an initial impulse.

Carter, 1999: 127
And should, perchance, the said line and bound from pole to pole, as aforesaid, intersect any island or mainland, at the first point of such intersection of such island or mainland by the said line, some kind of mark or tower shall be erected, and a succession of similar marks shall be erected in a straight line from such mark or tower, in a line identical with the above-mentioned bound. These marks shall separate those portions of such land belonging to each one of the said parties; and the subjects of the said parties shall not dare, on either side, to enter the territory of the other, by crossing the said mark or bound in such island or mainland.

Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494
Boundary demarcation has to take account of the fact that international boundaries have no width, and reference points used in the treaty have no magnitude.

(Blake 1995: 46)
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The first attempts in international law to divide the earth as a whole according to the new global concept of geography began immediately after 1492. […] These sprang from what I call global linear thinking, which represents a chapter in the historical development of spatial consciousness. It began with the discovery of a “new world” and the start of the “modern age”, and kept pace with the development of geographical maps and of the globe itself.
Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth: 87-8
The line between presence and absence is not in fact a line at all. If it were, there would be some way of showing a negative identity between presence and absence. But there is no such identity in nature as such, whether in homogenous closed or in heterogenous open systems, since identity is a pure digital concept. That is to say, it is also a rule about digitalization, like ‘not’. With either/or (on/off) and a rule about identity, any digital logic can be constructed.
Wilden, 1980: 186
Angus Cameron
University of Leicester
RGS/IBG Annual Conference, Sept. 1st 2010.
Because exteriority is not defined by the boundary line, what lies beyond the boundary in a digital system of signification is a matter not of logical extension (the symmetrical two-sided line) but of purposive and expedient construction [...]. Thus it is that despite the appeal to the simple semiotic of the analogue line, the Stansted border has multiple edges. The digitalization of the boundary line has permitted a radical asymmetry to appear not so much between different similar spaces (though this also remains true of course), but between different orders of spatiality altogether, each marked by different rules of identity.
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