Corpography in No-Man’s Land

From its first entrance into the English language, designating a mass burial site for 14th century victims of the Black Death, no-man’s lands exhibit an often violent encounter between bodies and the materiality of the earth. So much so, that a distinction is no longer possible.

In his 1922 essay The Battle as Inner Experience, Ernst Jünger describes how the Fronterlebnis – life on the edges of no-man’s land – dissolves the boundary between body and space, transforming the soldier into an integral part of a frontline ecology: “There, the individual is like a raging storm, the tossing sea and the rearing thunder. He has melted into everything”.

The experience Jünger describes is not just a traumatic subjection of the body to mechanised war, but, as Jeffrey Herf notes, an almost erotic rebirth and transfiguration of men into a new, improved community of the trenches that will lead the creation of “new forms filled with blood and power [that] will be packed with a hard fist”. Rather than resort to nostalgia for a pastoral pre-industrialised era, in the no-man’s land Jünger discovers a landscape where body, machine and soil are fused to form “magnificent and merciless spectacles”.

The Card Players, Fernand Leger 1917

Others who encountered the realities of the traumatic amalgamation of the body and the earth found little heroism in this experience. In the Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, one finds the following:

“Just as I was beginning to forget there were such things as trenches and shrapnel and snipers, they told me a horrible story of two Camerons who got stuck in the mud and sucked down to their shoulders. They took an hour and a half getting one out, and just as they said to the other, “All right, Jock, we’ll have you out in a minute,” he threw back his head and laughed, and in doing so got sucked right under, and is there still. They said there was no sort of possibility of getting him out; it was like a quicksand. …

They told me another story of a man in the Royal Scots who was sunk in mud up to his shoulders, and the officer offered a canteen of rum and a sovereign to the first man who could get him out. For five hours thirteen men were digging for him, but it filled up always as they dug, and when they got him out he died.”

In an upcoming paper, Derek Gregory discusses at length this slimescape that became so inherent to the experience of the no-man’s land in WWI, the way the earth “became the medium in which and through which war was conducted”. Derek provides superb insights into the ‘haptic geography’ of the war, and uses these to reflect on the seemingly immaterial, optical, surgical and remote wars of the present. Rather than a purely technological killing space, these conflicts are still shaped by the “corpography” of war:

“a way of apprehending the battle space through the body as an acutely physical field in which the senses of sound, smell and touch were increasingly privileged in the construction of a profoundly haptic or somatic geography.”


In a recent blog post, Derek importantly warns:

“the imagery of the Western Front draws the eye again and again to No Man’s Land, but behind the front lines on either side were farms, fields, villages and small towns where people continued to live and work amongst the shelling, the gas attacks, and the billeted troops.”

In thinking about the corpography of no-man’s land we share similar concerns. However, if – as we argue – no-man’s land is not confined to the space between the trenches of the Western Front or to war in general, what form does this enmeshment of body and space take?

In Svetlana Alexievich’s remarkable book of testimonies from Chernobyl, the wife of one of the firemen who was exposed to extreme levels of radiation described the bio-chamber in which he was placed during his hospitalization in Moscow, and the extensive quarantine measures that isolated the man from the medical staff. To complete his dehumanisation, one nurse referred to the dying man as “a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning.[…] That’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor”. The radical unmaking of the human body to the extent that it is no longer distinguished from the original space of disaster, echoes the violent dissolution of distinctions between body and space that constituted the disastrous corpographies of WWI.

In the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a space that remains one of the quintessential no-man’s lands of the late 20th century, we find a different corpography: one that highlights the role of crude bureaucratic indifference but also intimacy, care and even political agency, as Adriana Petryna‘s work demonstrates.

Exploring these corpographies in a wide myriad of no-man’s lands is an essential part of our research agenda. Comments and ideas are, as always, very welcome.

2 thoughts on “Corpography in No-Man’s Land

  1. Thanks so much for this – I really look forward to continuing the conversation. I’m also deep into diaries and memoirs of nursing on the Western Front, but one of the most imaginative accounts of the Chernobyl exclusion zone that I know is Martin Cruz Smith’s superb crime novel (more choreography!), “Wolves eat dogs”, which is in part based on a visit he made there — apparently against all advice — in 2002.

  2. Pingback: Exploring No-Man’s-Land in the 21st Century — War is Boring — Medium | MYYCp

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