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”.
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.