Posted by: bluesyemre | February 18, 2022

What to Read: Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is navigating no-man’s-land

This week, we interviewed Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, who writes Terra Nullius, a publication that explores the world’s unclaimed territories and in-between spaces.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Terra Nullius is about the places above, below, and between nations, where the rules and laws aren’t always what you think.

What inspired you to start a publication about the world’s “no-man’s-lands”?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by liminal spaces. I’m sure a big part of that comes from growing up in Geneva, a city full of consulates, international organizations, duty-free shops, tax-free warehouses, and other jurisdictional oddities that operate under a different set of rules from the city proper. I’ve also spent loads of time in airports, which are their own kind of in-between.

When I started working on my second book, which is on the same subject, I began noticing lots of more “newsy” developments in this space that might not make it into the final manuscript but that I wanted to comment on. That ended up being particularly true of news about outer-space commerce, and jurisdictions like Dubai, where things change really quickly and suddenly. I’d recently left my job at The Nation for pandemic and baby reasons, and I didn’t have an obvious outlet for something this offbeat, so I thought a newsletter would be a good medium for it.

What do these spaces—outer space, freeports, tax havens, international waters—have in common, and what do they say about our world?

A huge misconception about these places is that they represent libertarian utopias. That couldn’t be further from the truth! The places I’ve chosen to focus on exist because nation-states (often with the help of consultants) made them this way, whether through decisions on the national level or international treaties. It sounds more sexy and dangerous to say things like, outer space is the new “Wild West” or that the oceans are somehow “lawless.” And on some level, it’s true that actual regulatory oversight in these places is harder, for obvious reasons. But they aren’t without rules. I’m also really skeptical of this false binary between nationalism and globalization, and I think (slash hope!) the places I talk about in the newsletter illustrate that these ideologies aren’t mutually exclusive.

Your post on seasteading calls it “a seemingly ridiculous idea that raises urgent questions about what a country could or should be.” Can you expand on that for those of us hearing about seasteading for the first time?

love seasteading! Not because I’d ever want to live on a seastead (I don’t even have the stomach for a road trip, let alone the aquatic life) or because I necessarily share the political views of its supporters, but because it’s such a wonderful thought experiment.

Seasteading is, for the uninitiated, a movement that seeks to establish new countries on floating platforms in international waters—that is, parts of the ocean that no country can claim sovereignty over because of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (and a bunch of older legal theory too). The mere idea of a new floating country challenges so many arbitrary assumptions in our everyday thinking about the world: that there can only be 200 or so countries, that these countries have to be on what we think of as solid ground, that they ought to have a permanent population and an army and their own currency and fixed homegrown laws. In fact, none of these conventions are set in stone—many of them are less than a century old—and seasteading reminds us that humans choose their rules, not the other way around.

“The mere idea of a new floating country challenges so many arbitrary assumptions in our everyday thinking about the world.”

The seasteaders are definitely not the first people to point this out by taking a more ocean-centric view of the world—there’s a long and rich history of thinking about land and sea as a continuum, particularly in the Pacific region—but to me, these guys represent a contemporary, tech-aware take on these old ideas.

Read: Cruise ships? In this economy? A seasteader’s odyssey

What are the big questions you run into again and again in this line of inquiry?

Something I want to convey in my work is that territory, or land, isn’t the be-all and end-all of politics: the archetypical “Westphalian” nation-state where land, law, and people are unified within a nation’s fixed borders is one that barely existed in the first place, and is unraveling perhaps more aggressively than ever in the weirdest and most interesting ways thanks to changes in technology, law, and politics. The questions I always come back to are: What is a place, and what does it mean to be from a place? How is that being redefined? I’m also obsessed with legal fictions and how they shape the way we perceive the world. What is a legal person? What is even real?

What is your favorite “weird” jurisdiction?

The Free City of Danzig is definitely up there. Danzig was part of Prussia before the Treaty of Versailles established it as a free city under the protection of the U.N. Its freedom lasted only nine years before Hitler invaded, but during that time it was able to do almost all the things ordinary nation-states do, including create its own maritime flag under which foreign vessels could be registered and sail.

Meanwhile, Standard Oil wanted to avoid having ships held by its German branch be seized as reparations for the First World War. This created the perfect conditions for an ingenious jurisdictional hack. Following the advice of the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, Standard Oil transferred its German ships to Danzig; re-flagged them there; and was able to essentially dodge postwar sanctions through this new, weird, and ultimately temporary jurisdiction. The company ended up with 32 Danzig-flagged ships and, when the jig was up in Danzig, transferred them to Panama. The historian Rodney Carlisle has a wonderful paper on this history, if you’re interested in learning more.

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?

I love Drawing Links by Edith Zimmerman. I am not a particularly visual thinker, and I’ve read maybe three comics in my life, but I find her work really disarming and sweet, and it always makes me smile (maybe it’s because everyone in her sketches looks like a cute, tiny, scribbly ogre?). I also open Why is this interesting? 100% of the time, and read more than half the posts until the end. It’s a similar experience to picking up a magazine you wouldn’t normally read when you’re at the airport and just digging whatever random stuff they’re on about.

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