Edward Boyle’s report on the Political Geography Speciality Group pre-conference at Harvard University (4 April 2017) and the AAG’s Annual Conference in Boston (5-9 April 2017)

The Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers was held this year in Boston, and for the 30th year was preceded by a pre-conference organized by the Political Geography Speciality Group of the AAG, this year held in the hallowed halls of Harvard University. The latter event has expanded substantially in recent years, a fact rather lamented by many of those participants who had long attended, but one that certainly testifies to the perceived importance of the political in geography and its wider resonance at present. The expansion in the platform provided in this preconference is down to the hard work of Natalie Koch (Syracuse University) and Kenneth Madsen (Ohio State University), who also found occasion to distribute cake and supply fantastic 80s sunglasses to the participants, contributing greatly to the friendly atmosphere generated at what remains a collegial event.

Edward Boyle’s paper, “Border Layers: peeling back the India-Bangladesh border”, appeared in Session V on ‘Borders’, chaired by Reece Jones and consisting of five papers. Mia Bennett’s (UCLA) look at infrastructural nationalism in Russia zoomed in on infrastructure being planned and constructed around Yakutsk, capital of the vast Sakha Republic in Siberia. Beautifully mapped and illustrated with the presenter’s photos, the talk sought to bring out the role of nationalism within infrastructural development occurring in Russia’s remote East, while emphasizing the contradictory results of Crimean annexation, which have seen an upsurge in nationalism together with a decline in an ability to fund the nation’s crumbling infrastructure in other parts of the country. Edward Boyle’s paper was also decorated by photos taken at the India-Bangladesh border, and sought to illustrate how the spectral presence of the borderline is recreated at the various scales in which this border functions, or is made operable. Rather than seeing the border as existing differently at different scales, the presentation sought to go back to this line as providing the ontological foundations for broader discourses invoking this national border. Galen Murton’s (University of Colorado, Boulder) look at Chinese hydropower investment in Nepal similarly focused attention on the different scales at which the same border appeared to exist, while Peter Wood’s (Universidad Federal de Minas Gerais) look at interventions on the Brazilian border also emphasized the transnational existence of the national border across a variety of issues. Finally, Jasnea Sarma (National University of Singapore) and Evan Centanni’s (Political Geography Now) effort to map the shatter-zone of the China-Myanmar borderland sought to provide a more accurate picture of an area of unchecked insurgencies and investment at China’s edge.

The growth of the event meant an increase in overlapping sessions and therefore a greater number of hard choices to be made regarding what else to take in, but excellent presentations abounded. The post-event dinner provided a great way to further interact with those similarly engaged with questions of space and power, and discussions continued long into the night.

The following day saw the opening of the annual conference of the American Association of Geographers in Boston, with Edward Boyle part of the session organized by Sarah Salazar Hughes (UCLA) and Josh Watkins (UC Davis) on “(Extra)territoriality: re-examining territorial control within and beyond state borders”. Opening somewhat brutally at 8am on the first day of the conference, this first section of the session looked at ‘Occupation, disputed territory and geopolitics’ and consisted of a set of papers digging in to questions of the new materiality of territories and how they should be bound. Johanne Bruun’s (Durham University) polished paper looked at the manner in which the dynamic environment of the Greenland ice sheet was constructed as a fixed territory of military operations under the aegis of the 1955 US scientific expedition in the context of the Cold War, extending the notion of territory down to the molecular level. The presentation by Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway) and Chih Yuan Woon (National University of Singapore) offered the opening stages of their new project on China’s dredging up territory in the South China Sea, with the different territorial conceptions and contestations between them coming into focus as a new geopolitics. Christine Carolan (University of Oregan) looked at the transfer of Lough Neagh our of private ownership to one owned by the community as being celebrated by Sinn Fein as a ‘winning’ of territory in the context of continued contestation over Northern Ireland’s political destiny. Edward Boyle’s “Inaccessible yet integral territory: Japan’s territorial disputes and their sovereign implications” also offered glimpses of a project at an early stage, which sought to analyse the implications for notions of territory that stemmed from Japan’s recent prosecution of its island disputes. Sara Hughes’ examination of territorial control in the West Bank similarly spoke to the reconfiguration of territory as ‘unbound’ in the context of the Israeli occupation.

Moderated again by the long-suffering Reece Jones, the panel offered an excellent introduction to the session, which was followed by two more sections examining ‘Migration, refugees, and securitization’ and ‘tourism and other industry, zones of encounter, and the role of the state’ in turn. Particular highlights from here included Kira Williams’ fascinating application of Elden’s notion of imperio to search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, pointing to how, far from being excluded from the legal order in the manner suggested by Agamben, a process of legal inclusion was necessary for their subsequent exclusion from limits of the state, and Francis Collins’ examination of the bureaucratic encounters by migrants as indicating the spaces within which contemporary citizenship is made. As a whole, the session offered a particularly effective examination of shifting territorial practices within the modern world, a fact which reflected the hard work of the two organizers in putting the session together. In particular, efforts to examine the fluidity of territorial notions and their reflection through patterns of movement dovetailed with the timely and necessary concern of the AAG as a whole with questions of migration and its current political mobilization in Europe, the United States, and beyond.