“The City and the City” and Public International Law

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City and CityThe City and the City. It is, at its core, a novel about jurisdiction, and its setting is one of Miéville’s most fascinating creations. Miéville himself is no stranger to international law, being the author of Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (2005). His novel demonstrates an unsurprising interest with the possibilities of law and its relationship to society and culture.

Superficially, The City and the City is a police procedural. In Besźel, a declining city-state somewhere in Eastern Europe, inspector Tyador Borlú finds a murdered woman. The suspicion is she was murdered in the neighbouring city-state of Ul Qoma. The extraordinary part of the novel is the relationship between these two cities. They are legally separate sovereign nations occupying the same physical space. While some “total” streets or districts belong entirely to one nation or the other, many are “crosshatched”. In these areas the two cities physically coexist alongside each other but legally their citizens may not interact, nor in any manner acknowledge each other’s existence, nor respond to events occurring in the “other” city. This difficulty is managed by the cultural practice of “unseeing” those things one is not legally entitled to see. (Given a moment’s thought this is less implausible than many speculative or weird fiction premises. Most of us unsee things of greater and lesser importance in our urban environment we find inconvenient to acknowledge: the homeless, the mentally disturbed, those collecting for charity, tedious acquaintances, etc.)

In Besźel and Ul Qoma, when illicit interaction occurs across the legal and cultural boundary between the cities it is called “breach” – and it is a crime. At its most trivial, it is momentarily seeing something one should not; at its most serious it involves physical contact. If you live in Besźel but the house next door is in Ul Quoma, throwing something into your neighbour’s back yard is breach irrespective of whether what you throw is drugs, or a hammer, or garbage. Inspector Borlú, in a maudlin moment, commits a minor, untraceable form of breach by staring at the elevated railway that passes his house – but which he may not see because it is in Ul Quoma. These crimes are dealt with by a sinister agency outside the police – an agency also called Breach. The principal sanction for breaching, it seems, is disappearance. Those taken by Breach are not seen again.

There is only one legal border crossing between the two cities, a set of shared check-points where one may pass into (and see) the other city which is otherwise constantly around one but deliberately unseen. Smuggling across this legal border is not breach, though it may otherwise involve a crime in both cities. Miéville creates a witty vocabulary to describe this legal situation. The same physical street may contain a very different district in each city and will certainly have a different name: these distinct but co-located streets are said to be “topplegangers” and the buildings in them which legally exist in different cities are “grosstopically” adjacent.

So what does the setting of this novel say to public international lawyers? The obvious legal-historical parallels of divided cities (Berlin, Jerusalem, etc) or officially bilingual cities with duplicate street signs are scoffed at by the characters themselves. The ideas being played with by Miéville are broader than that. First, the novel obviously says something about the coexistence of sovereigns and the way states are both legal realities an act of collective imagination. In Brunée and Toope’s terms law here is portrayed as an interactional and socially collaborative enterprise. The border between the two cities exists only because the citizens on both sides will and enact its existence, and their elaborate non-interactions (which are of course a form of interaction) reinforce this social rule and legal norm. From an Allottian perspective, we have here a case of law shaping social reality (the legal constitution impacting on the real constitution of society), or perhaps vice versa.

We might, however, think that any parallels with international law are readily overstated. After all, an independent agency, Breach, polices this border. Thus, the legal world portrayed in the novel does not suffer from the “Austinian handicap” of public international law. Here we have a command that is obviously backed by a sanction. At the same time, however, it’s made clear that the resources of Breach are, like those of a superpower or terrorist organization, ultimately limited. Breach is effective because the rules are generally obeyed without sanction and in a crisis Breach’s ability to maintain order relies on the tacit cooperation both cities’ citizenry.

Further, while seeming at first a completely extra-legal agency engaging in a species of rendition or enforced disappearance, Breach is in some ways a quaintly legalistic organisation. Its legitimacy ultimately rests on a delegated authority from the two cities’ “oversight committee” (a tiny international organisation that manages certain joint resources). Breach’s sphere of authority is also circumscribed by law. It can only act in situations where the omnipresent border between the two cities has actually been violated. While its powers are extreme and extra-legal, the cases in which they can be deployed are tightly limited. (Although the question of who shall guard the guards themselves is clearly raised by the end of the novel.) In Breach we thus see hints of the war on terror and recent constitutional and international law debates about who holds the power to decide the exception.

Finally, two major turning points in the story involve a gunshot being fired across a border in a fairly clear nod to the classic (or clichéd) starting point to a lecture on jurisdiction.

I’ve only really scratched the surface here, and haven’t even ventured into the possibility that the plot centers on: that there is, concealed in spaces between the two cities, a third city entirely. It’s a fascinating novel which could only really be faulted for a somewhat rushed final exposition of whodunit and why.

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Jens Iverson says

October 16, 2013

Wonderful review. For another, perhaps goofier book that plays with overlapping, tiered, and "franchised" sovereignty, see Snow Crash.