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Borderlands as Physical Reality

Borderlands as Physical Reality: Producing Place in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

21-22 October 2011, King's College London

Organised by UNC-Chapel Hill and King’s College London

  • Chad Bryant (UNC-Chapel Hill)
  • Cynthia Radding (UNC-Chapel Hill)
  • Paul Readman (King's College London)

To register for the conference please email by 1 October 2011. Registration is free of charge, although places are limited.

Download onference programme: Borderlands as Physical Reality


Borderlands assumed a particular significance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Industrialization, the development of the modern city, faster means of communication, the further spread of imperialism and the rise of the modern nation-state meant that borderlands came to encompass and divide more people than before. Increased mobility enhanced the visibility and experience of national borderlands, while administrative developments – in local and regional government, for example – made and unmade intra-state boundaries. The expansion of continental and maritime empires created and destroyed boundaries, for the colonizer as well as the colonized, and did much to foster the idea of the borderland as frontier (in North America, for instance). Overseas trade, the technology and experience of war, exploration and the impress of Enlightenment-generated scientific readings of landscape also left their marks—both real and imagined—on locales around the world.

Not surprisingly, then, borderlands are of great significance to the historian of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Places of division, liminality, conflict, and identity politics, they have attracted a good deal of scholarly attention. The meaning of particular borderlands to particular groups, their textual and visual representation, imagining and re-imagining have been much studied. What we know less about, however, is the material reality of borderlands as physical places, territories that were lived in, visited, fought over and otherwise experienced by men and women. This is a function of the now notoriously well-known trend in scholarship towards the recovery and analysis of discourse more or less in isolation. While relatively few scholars have explicitly or rigorously followed the post-structuralist line that ‘there is nothing beneath the text’, the effects of the ‘linguistic turn’ more generally have been extraordinarily wide-ranging and pervasive. In historical writing on landscape, space, and place, the discussion of representations and the explication of meaning has at times been divorced from the physical world to which they refer.

This conference seeks to redress the balance, by emphasizing the materiality of borderlands and the ways in which this materiality made possible—or hindered—the making and unmaking of borderlands. While acknowledging that representations, myths, and the imaginary in general are as much part of reality as anything else, it assumes the existence of physical reality beyond the text. Specifically, it seeks to stress the significance of borderlands as territorial realities. And it begins with the assumption that physical realities present a range of possibilities for individual and collective actors in the production of bordered spaces. This is not to say that the conference will ignore discussion of borderlands’ various and contested meanings, which play an important role in these processes, but it is to put more weight on the ‘how’ and the diachronic, as opposed to the ‘what’ and the synchronic. In other words, the papers will not only discuss what borderlands were, or imagined to be, but how they were imagined, and how they came into being as places that were lived in, encountered, negotiated, blurred, and erased.

The conference will be held at King’s College London on Friday, October 21, and Saturday, October 22, 2011, with the panel sessions on the first day being followed by discussion sessions for participants on the second. The organizers aim to publish the proceedings of the conference as an edited volume.

Download onference programme: Borderlands as Physical Reality

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