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The world is a garden: Nomos, sovereignty, and the (contested) ordering of life

  • Simon Mabon (a1)


Traditional approaches to questions about nomos in IR typically focus upon either its establishment and the formal structures that emerge through interaction within a clearly delineated spatial area, or an exploration of US hegemony in the post-2003 world. In this article I posit a different approach, building on the ideas of Giorgio Agamben, which grounds nomos as a spatialisation of the exception within conditions of neoliberal modernity. I suggest that within the global nomos are more localised nomoi. These localised nomoi are a consequence of the spatialisation of the exception and a fundamental tension between localisation and ordering. I argue that while sovereign power has been a source of contemporary scholarship, such explorations have paid scant attention to the regulatory power of normative values and their capacity to create order within space. Such norms allow for a greater awareness of how sovereign power can be mobilised in and of itself as a form of contestation. Locating such debates in the Middle East, I explore the concept of nomos to understand how struggle over the localisation and ordering of space helps us to better understand contemporary political life.

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1 Schmitt, Carl, The Nomos of the Earth: In the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (Candor, NY: Telos Press, 2003).

2 Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 166.

3 Chryssostalis, Julia H., ‘Reading Arendt “reading” Schmitt: Reading nomos otherwise?’, in Drakopoulou, Maria (ed.), Feminist Encounters with Legal Philosophy (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013), p. 162.

4 Ostwald, Martin, Nomos and the Beginnings of Athenian Democracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 20.

5 Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). This concept is deeply problematic, removing all forms of agency and contingency, yet it is beyond the scope of the article to address this in detail here.

6 Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 19.

7 Criticism of the Schmittian understanding of ‘the political’ is well known and is beyond the scope of this article to set out.

8 Jurkevics, Anna, ‘Hannah Arendt reads Carl Schmitt's The Nomos of the Earth: a dialogue on law and geopolitics from the margins’, European Journal of Political Theory, 16:3 (2017), p. 349.

9 Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, p. 42.

10 Ibid., p. 47.

11 Chryssostalis, ‘Reading Arendt “reading” Schmitt’, p. 172.

12 See Axtmann, Roland, ‘Humanity or enmity? Carl Schmitt on international politics’, International Politics, 44 (2007), pp. 531–51; Hooker, William, Carl Schmitt's International Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Legg, Stephen and Vasudevan, Alex, ‘Introduction: Geographies of the nomos’, in Legg, Stephen (ed.), Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos (London: Routledge, 2011), among others.

13 Hannah Arendt, Marginalia, p. 49, cited in Jurkevics, ‘Hannah Arendt reads Carl Schmitt's The Nomos of the Earth’.

14 Odysseos, Louiza and Petito, Fabio, ‘Introduction: the international political thought of Carl Schmitt’, in Odysseos, Louiza and Petito, Fabio (eds), The International Political Thought of Carl Schmitt: Terror, Liberal War and the Crisis of Global Order (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 117.

15 See Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Carl Schmitt in the age of post-politics’, in Mouffe, Chantal (ed.), In The Challenge of Carl Schmitt (London: Verso, 1999), pp. 1837; Stirk, Peter, Carl Schmitt, Crown Jurist of the Third Reich: On Pre-emptive War, Military Occupation and World Empire (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005); Shapiro, Kam, Carl Schmitt and the Intensification of Politics (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008); Prozorov, Sergei, ‘Generic universalism in world politics: Beyond international anarchy and the world state’, International Theory, 1:2 (2009), pp. 215–47; Slomp, Gabriella, Carl Schmitt and the Politics of Hostility, Violence and Terror (London: Palgrave, 2009).

16 Behnke, Andreas, ‘Terrorising the political: 9/11 within the context of the globalisation of violence’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 33:2 (2004), pp. 279312; Mouffe, Chantal (ed.), On the Political (London: Routledge, 2005); Werner, Wouter, ‘The changing face of enmity: Carl Schmitt's international theory and the evolution of the legal concept of war’, International Theory, 2:3 (2010), pp. 351–80.

17 Michel Foucault, ‘Governmentality’, in Ideology and Consciousness 6, 5:2 (1979); Foucault, Michel, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality – Volume 1 (London: Penguin, 1976).

18 Part Three, Chapter Seven of Homo Sacer is entitled ‘The Camp as the “Nomos” of the Modern’.

19 Belcher, Oliver, Martin, Lauren, Secor, Anna, Simon, Stephanie, and Wilson, Tommy, ‘Everywhere and nowhere: the exception and the topological challenge to geography’, Antipode, 40 (2008), p. 499.

20 Ek, Richard, ‘Giorgio Agamben and the spatialities of the camp’, Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography, 88B:4 (2006), pp. 363–86; Gregory, Derek, ‘The black flag: Guantánamo Bay and the space of exception’, Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography, 88B:4 (2006), pp. 405–27; Minca, Claudio, ‘The return of the camp’, Progress in Human Geography, 29 (2005), pp. 405–12; Minca, Claudio, ‘Giorgio Agamben and the new biopolitical nomos’, Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography, 88B:4 (2006), pp. 387403; Reid-Henry, Simon, ‘Exceptional sovereignty? Guantánamo Bay and the re-colonial present’, Antipode, 39 (2007), pp. 627–48.

21 Deuber-Mankwosky, Astrid, ‘Cutting off mediation: Agamben as master thinker’, Acta Poetica, 36:1 (2015), p. 55.

22 Legg and Vasudevan, ‘Introduction’, p. 13. See also Belcher et al., ‘Everywhere and nowhere’, p. 499; F. Debrix, ‘The Nomos of Exception and the Viruality of Political Space in Schmitt and Agamben’, paper presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Toronto, 3–7 September 2009; Minca, ‘Giorgio Agamben and the new biopolitical nomos’.

23 Agamben, Giorgio, State of Exception (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005), p. 23.

24 Ibid.

25 Agamben, Homo Sacer.

26 Ibid., p, 170.

27 Ibid., p. 37.

28 Minca, ‘Giorgio Agamben and the new biopolitical nomos’, p. 390. See also Dilken, Bulent, ‘Zones of indistinction: Security, terror and bare life’, in Franke, Anselm and Berlin, Kunst-Werke (eds), Territories: Islands, Camps, and Other States of Utopia (Berlin: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2003), p. 43.

29 Agamben, Homo Sacer.

30 Ibid., p. 169.

31 Aradau, Claudia, ‘Law transformed: Guantánamo and “the Other Exception”’, Third World Quarterly, 28:3 (2007), p. 492.

32 Dilken, ‘Zones of indistinction’.

33 See Legg (ed.), Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt; Minca, Claudio and Rowan, Rory, On Schmitt and Space (Oxon: Routledge, 2016); Minca, ‘Giorgio Agamben and the new biopolitical nomos’, p. 388.

34 Agamben, Giorgio, The Use of Bodies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

35 Dilken, ‘Zones of indistinction’.

36 Edkins, Jenny and Pin-Fat, Veronique, ‘Introduction: Life, power, resistance’, in Edkins, Jenny, Shapiro, Michael, and Pin-Fat, Veronique (eds), Sovereign Lives: Power in Global Politics (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 9.

37 Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 105.

38 See Rabinow, Paul and Rose, Nikolas, ‘Biopower today’, BioSocieties: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of the Life Sciences, 1:2 (2006), pp. 195218; Ziarek, Ewa Plonowska, ‘Bare life on strike: Notes on the biopolitics of race and gender’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 107:1 (2008), pp. 89105; Cadman, Louisa, ‘Life and death decision in our posthuman(ist) times’, Antipode, 41:1 (2009), pp. 133–58; Zembylas, Michalinos, ‘Agamben's theory of biopower and immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers: Discourses of citizenship and the implications for curriculum theorizing’, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 26:2 (2010).

39 Szanto, Edith, ‘Sayyida Zaynab in the state of exception: Shi'I sainthood as “qualified life” in contemporary Syria’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 44 (2012), pp. 285–99; Owens, Patricia, ‘Reclaiming “bare life”?: Against Agamben on refugees’, International Relations, 23:4 (2009), pp. 567–82.

40 Agnew, John, ‘The territorial trap: the geographical assumptions of International Relations theory’, Review of International Political Economy, 1:1 (1994), pp. 5889; Agnew, John, Globalization and Sovereignty (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

41 Smith, Neil, American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003); Woodward, Rachel, ‘From military geography to militarism's geographies: Disciplinary engagements with the geographies of militarism and military activities’, Progress in Human Geography, 29:6 (2005), pp. 718–40.

42 Agnew, ‘The territorial trap’.

43 Agnew, JohnSovereign regimes: Territoriality and state authority in contemporary world politics’, Annals, 95 (2005), pp. 437–61.

44 Walker, R. B. J., After the Globe, Before the World (New York: Routledge, 2010).

45 Minca, ‘The return of the camp’.

46 Gregory, ‘The black flag’, p. 405.

47 Debrix, ‘The Nomos of Exception and the Viruality of Political Space in Schmitt and Agamben’, cited in Legg (ed.), Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt, p. 7.

48 Belcher et al., ‘Everywhere and nowhere’.

49 Legg (ed.), Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt, p. 14.

50 Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 37.

51 Legg (ed.), Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt.

52 Evans, Brad and Hardt, Michael, ‘Barbarians to savages: Liberal war inside and out’, Theory & Event, 13:3 (2010).

53 Mountz, Alison, ‘Political geography I: Reconfiguring geographies of sovereignty’, Progress in Human Geography, 37:6 (2013), pp. 829–41.

54 See Berger, Stefan, ‘The study of enclaves – some introductory remarks’, Geopolitics, 15:2 (2010), pp. 312–28; Falah, Ghazi-Walid, ‘Dynamics and patterns of the shrinking of Arab lands in Palestine’, Political Geography, 22:2 (2003), pp. 179209.

55 Among many others, see Brown, Wendy, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010); Budd, Lucy, Bell, Morag, and Warren, Adam, ‘Maintaining the sanitary border: Air transport liberalization and health security practices at UK regional airports’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36 (2011), pp. 268–79; Johnson, Corey, Jones, Reece, Paasi, Anssi, et al. , ‘Interventions on rethinking “the border” in border studies’, Political Geography, 30 (2011), pp. 61–9.

56 Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), pp. 9–11.

57 Agamben, State of Exception, p. 50.

58 Mabon, Simon, ‘Sovereignty, bare life and the Arab Uprisings’, Third World Quarterly, 38:8 (2017), pp. 1782–99.

59 Ibid.

60 Hansen, Thomas Blom and Stepputat, Finn, ‘Sovereignty revisited’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 35:1 (2006), pp. 295315 (p. 305).

61 See, for example, Adelkhah, Fariba, Being Modern in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Hansen, Thomas Blom, Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), Boeck, Filip de and Plissart, Marie-Francoise, Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City (London: Ludion, 2006). A brief distinction between formal and informal structures must be drawn at this point. I take formal structures to be those legal, normative, economic, and social that have been enshrined within the institutional fabric of the state, in statutes and constitutions. Informal structures are those that are not, stemming from norms, custom and tradition, which regulate life but are not legally binding. Competing legal structures evoke ideas of legal pluralism, the sense that a range of different structures operate concurrently, challenging the formal legal structures that compose governance structures. While certainly compelling, this approach struggles to differentiate between legal and normative structures, along with broader jurisprudence questions about the nature of law. An alternative approach would be to refer to hybrid sovereignties and the struggle between de facto and de jure legal structures. Again, however, this focuses upon the more formal aspects of political and legal life, of states and institutions rather than communities and people. While this remains of paramount importance, our inquiry seeks to focus more explicitly on normative values and ideas found in religion, tribalism, and culture, which may challenge the established political order. For a discussion of this in the Middle East, see Bacik, Gokhan, Hybrid Sovereignty in the Arab Middle East: The Cases of Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

62 Humphrey, Caroline, ‘Sovereignty’, in Nugent, David and Vincent, Joan (eds), A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 418–36 (p. 420).

63 Blom Hansen and Stepputat, ‘Sovereignty revisited’, pp. 295–315 (pp. 306–08).

64 Massey, For Space.

65 Jurkevics, ‘Hannah Arendt reads Carl Schmitt's The Nomos of the Earth’, p. 347.

66 Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998), p. 190.

67 Ibid., p. 63.

68 Hannah Arendt, Was ist Politik? Fragmente aus dem NachlaB, cited in Lindahl, Hans, ‘Give and take: Arendt and the nomos of political community’, Philosophy & Social Criticism, 32:7 (2006), p. 882.

69 Ibid.

70 Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2006), p. 275.

71 Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 1:82.

72 Berger, Peter, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), p. 3.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid.

75 Ibid., p. 22.

76 Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 207.

77 Ibid., p. 197.

78 Ibid., pp. 197–8.

79 Cornford, Francis M., From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation (London: E. Arnold, 1912), p. 30.

80 Rabi, Hamid, Suluk al-malik fi tadbir al-mamalik: ta'lif al-‘allamma shihab al-Din ibn Abi al-Rubayyi’ (Cairo: Dar al-Sha'b, 1980), p. 218.

81 Ayubi, Nazih N., Over-Stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995), p. 32.

82 See Mabon, Simon, ‘Kingdom in crisis? The Arab Spring and instability in Saudi Arabia’, Contemporary Security Policy, 33:3 (2012), pp. 530–53.

83 An obvious criticism emerges when considering the application of a Western theory, couched in Christianity, to the Middle East. Initially, such an attempt may fall foul of intellectual neocolonialism and essentialism, yet when looking at the work of Wael Hallaq, particularly in The Impossible State, one can make the case that the metaphysics of states in the region share a number of characteristics with states across the world. See Hallaq, Wael B., An Impossible State: Islam, Politics and Modernity's Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

84 Hinnebush, Raymond, The International Politics of the Middle East (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

85 Arendt, The Human Condition.

86 Khadduri, Majid, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1955), p. 14.

87 A great deal has been written on this point, which is beyond the scope of this article. See Piscatori, James, Islam in a World of Nation States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 46. Such debates are found across scholarship both in the Middle East and the West. See Lapidus, Ira, ‘The separation of state and religion in the development of early Islamic society’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 6:4 (1975) and al-Raiz, Ali Abd, ‘Message not government, religion not state’, in Kurzman, Charles (ed.), Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

88 Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edn (London: Luzac and Co., 1960), s.v. dar al-Islam, p. 127.

89 Parvin, Manoucher and Sommer, Maurie, ‘Dar al-Islam: the evolution of Muslim territoriality and its implications for conflict resolution in the Middle East’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 11:1 (1980), p. 5.

90 Ibid., p. 11.

91 Mandaville, Peter, Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (London: Routledge, 2001); Roy, Olivier, Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006). See also the introduction (and ensuing Special Issue), Jones, Carla and Mas, Ruth, ‘Transnational conceptions of Islamic community: National and religious subjectivities’, Nations and Nationalism, 17:1 (2011), pp. 26; Cesari, Jocelyne, Why the West Fears Islam: An Exploration of Muslims in Liberal Democracies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

92 Jones and Mas, ‘Transnational conceptions of Islamic community’.

93 Robert Cover, ‘The Supreme Court, 1982 Term – Foreword: Nomos and Narrative’, Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 2705 (1983), p. 10.

94 Ibid., p. 9.

95 Ibid., p. 8.

96 Ibid., p. 5.

97 Ibid., p. 12, citing Joseph Caro, Beit Yosef at Tur: Hoshen Misphat 1, trans. R. Cover.

98 Quran, verses 4:105 and 6:115

99 Quran, verse 4:105.

100 Quran, verse 6:115.

101 Quran, verse 2:173.

102 Quran, verse 5:3, ‘Surah of Al Mai'dah’.

103 See Nevo, Joseph, ‘Religion and national identity in Saudi Arabia’, Middle Eastern Studies, 34:3 (1998), p. 50; Al-Rasheed, Madawi, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002), p. 144.

104 Bayat, Asef, Life As Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

105 Judith Resnik, ‘Living Their Legal Commitments: Paideic Communities, Courts and Robert Cover’, Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 757 (2005).

106 Barth, Karl, ‘The Christian community and the civil community’, Community, State and Church, 149 (1960), p. 151.

107 See Sand, Shlomo, The Invention of the Land of Israel (London: Verso, 2012).

108 See Abowd, Thomas Philip, Colonial Jerusalem: The Spatial Construction of Identity and Difference in a City of Myth, 1948–2012 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014) and Jadallah, Dina, ‘Colonialist construction in the urban space of Jerusalem’, Middle East Journal, 68:1 (2014), pp. 7798, among others.

109 Weisman, Eyal, Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007).

110 Ginsburgh, Rabbi Y., On the Way to a Jewish State: Israeli Politics According to Kabbalah (US and Israel: Gal Einai, 2014).

111 See Ruttenburg, Ariyeh and Amichai, Sandy, The Etzion Bloc in the Hills of Judea (Kfar Etzion Kfar Etzion Field School, 1997).

112 Allweil, Yael, ‘West Bank settlement and the transformation of the Zionist housing ethos from shelter to act of violence’, Footprint: Spaces of Conflict (2016), pp. 1336.

113 Shafat, Gush Emunim.

114 Zvika Slonim, ‘Daf Lamityashev’ (Gush Emunim, 1980), pp. 1–2, cited in Yael Allweil, ‘West Bank settlement’, pp. 13–36.

115 Ezra HaLevi, ‘Mass Prayer Against Expulsion at Foot of Holy Temple Mount’, Arutz Sheva (9 August 2005), available at: {}.

116 Mabon, Simon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015). See also Hashemi, Nader and Postel, Danny, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (London: Hurst, 2017).

117 Kepel, Gilles, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009).

118 For consideration of how this shapes the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, see Mabon, Simon, ‘Muting the trumpets of sabotage’, British Journal of Middle East Studies (2018); Simon Mabon, ‘End of the Battle of Bahrain’, Middle East Journal (forthcoming).

119 Darwich, May and Fakhoury, Tamirace, ‘Casting the Other as an existential threat: the securitisation of sectarianism in the international relations of the Syria crisis’, Global Discourse, 6:4 (2016), pp. 712–32.

120 See ch. 6 of Mabon, Simon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013).

121 Including from colonial actors, Syrian forces until the Cedar Revolution of 2005, and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

122 See Fuller, Graham, ‘The Hizballah-Iran connection: Model for Sunni resistance’, Washington Quarterly, 30:1 (2006); Louer, Laurence, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London: Hurst, 2008); and International Crisis Group, ‘Lebanon's Politics: The Sunni Community and Hariri's Future Current’, Middle East Report No. 96 (26 May 2010), p. 2.

123 Ian Black, ‘Fear of a Shia full moon’, The Guardian (26 January 2007).

124 See Mabon, Simon, Houses Built on Sand: Sovereignty, Sectarianism and Revolution in the Middle East (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2020).

125 Ibid., ch. 5.

126 Mabon, Simon, ‘The circle of bare life: Hizballah, Muqawamah, and rejecting being thus’, Politics, Religion and Ideology, 18:1 (2017). See also Wastnidge, Edward, ‘The modalities of Iranian soft power: From cultural diplomacy to soft war’, Politics, 35:3/4 (2015), pp. 364–77.

127 Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

128 Alhasan, Tariq, ‘The role of Iran in the failed coup of 1981: the IFLB in Bahrain’, The Middle East Journal, 65:4 (2011), pp. 603–17.

129 In 1981, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain sought to overthrow the Al Khalifa ruling family with support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Coprs. See Kasbarian, Sossie and Mabon, SimonContested spaces and sectarian narratives in post-uprising Bahrain’, Global Discourse, 6:4 (2016), pp. 677–96. See also: Louer, Laurence, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London: Hurst, 2008).

130 See Mabon, Simon and Kumarasamy, Ana Maria, ‘Da'ish, stasis and bare life in Iraq’, in Erikson, Jacob and Khaleel, Ahmed (eds), Iraq After ISIS Iraq After ISIS (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Mabon, Simon, ‘The Apocalyptic and The Sectarian’, in Clack, Tim and Johnson, Rob (eds), Upstream Operations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Matthiesen, Toby, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Matthiesen, Toby, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013); and Valbjørn, Morten, ‘Unpacking a puzzling case: On how the Yemeni conflict became sectarianised’, Orient, 59:2 (2018), among others.



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