On borders and a wicked bird

Published 15 October 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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On the morning I gave a talk on border regimes at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) in June 2013, a most interesting newspaper article appearing in a local paper struck me. I have subsequently used this article in my lecture to illustrate some theoretical implications of how ambiguous the conceptualization of border and especially state borders is.

The newspaper article reported a quarrel between local authorities in Germany and Poland about a bird (an eagle owl). The involved authorities of the two countries fought about whether or not the bird nested on one territory or the other, i.e. about whether the bird belonged to Germany or to Poland.

eagle owlNaturally defining the settlement of a bird that can fly constantly across borders is not an easy business but on this occasion identifying the bird’s nest as her settlement seemed plausible. The issue was that the bird nested more or less on the border. The nest was situated on a very small island exactly half way through the Oder river where the border between Germany and Poland runs. The two authorities were keen to claim the rare bird’s identity as German or Polish so they started a discussion about where the border actually is – down to inches.

But, what are we calling these crucial inches? Non- or extra-territory? Not Germany, not Poland, not EU but bird-land? This should not sound cynical. It points to the ambiguous and highly complex issue of how to understand borders and what the logic of inclusion and exclusion entails. It points to the phenomenon that not all objects or concepts in a physical or metaphysical world can be held apart, can be demarcated or be categorized. There are objects that Plato as well as Derrida and others called ‘undecidable’, i.e. you cannot decide if it is one or the other. Borders and lines of demarcation certainly help to categorize and help to order state systems, societal structures and the world out there as such. However, one needs to accept that some objects are either ‘undecidable’ or they need thorough consideration. The localization (Verortung, Schmitt) of these objects is therefore almost impossible.

Some scholars call such cases 'wicked problems'. However, these wicked problems are no more than ‘problems’ that make borders fluid (Bauman), contest borders or simply negate the border and its meaning. The bird nesting 'on the border', neither nesting on one side nor on the other, generated such a seemingly ‘wicked problem’.

Notably, the issue of problem-solving in this domain of political theory becomes even less amusing when considering the hundreds of people who died at borders and on borders – for decades and not only in the Mediterranean.