Stuart Elden on Territory

Here’s his new article in Progress in Human Geography:

This paper outlines a way toward conceptual and historical clarity around the question of territory. The aim is not to define territory, in the sense of a single meaning; but rather to indicate the issues at stake in grasping how it has been understood in different historical and geographical contexts. It does so first by critically interrogating work on territoriality, suggesting that neither the biological nor the social uses of this term are particularly profitable ways to approach the historically more specific category of ‘territory’. Instead, ideas of ‘land’ and ‘terrain’ are examined, suggesting that these political-economic and political-strategic relations are essential to understanding ‘territory’, yet ultimately insufficient. Territory needs to be understood in terms of its relation to space, itself a calculative category that is dependent on the existence of a range of techniques. Ultimately this requires rethinking unproblematic definitions of territory as a ‘bounded space’ or the state as a ‘bordered power container’, because both presuppose the two things that should be most interrogated, space and boundaries. Rather than boundaries being the distinction between place and space, or land or terrain and territory, boundaries are a second-order problem founded upon a particular sense of calculation and concomitant grasp of space. Territory then can be understood as a political technology: it comprises techniques for measuring land and controlling terrain, and measure and control – the technical and the legal – must be thought alongside the economic and strategic.

(He says it’s available free online, though it doesn’t come up for me. I’ll have to try to grab it later on my library’s server.) As someone who just completed a book on sovereignty (or actually completed much of it some time ago), Elden’s work is really good on this. I had this really bad experience with Elden’s work: I had this bad habit of coming upon some article by him after I had finished a particular chapter: thus, for example, I saw only one of his articles on Foucault before I had completed that, but not the most relevant ones, and later on I found a handy article on the Greek demos well after I’d written about that.

If you’ve been following his blog, then you know Elden’s continuing work, which he began some time ago on early modern conceptions of territory, which, as any newspaper will tell you, are not exactly ideas of the past. Interestingly, though many have written about the use of “terror” in sovereignty (Hobbes, Spinoza, etc.), few connect that to the specific sources on territory, which has the same root. More pertinently for my concerns, Elden teases a Foucaultian (to simplify) genealogy and historical embedding of this concept, rather than relying on formalisms on loan from analytic (in the Kantian sense) teasing out of the definition of territory. This has happened for far too long with sovereignty, which is not wrong per se, but does feel rather airy and dried out of the politics.

In other words, my task as I took in my book on sovereignty (I’ll announce the release date when I get it) was not abandon the self-conceptualization of sovereignty, or simply give myself over to a vague historicism, but rather to follow  the conceptualization of the history of sovereignty in Arendt, Foucault, Agamben, and Rousseau (my chapter on Derrida is the shortest of the work). In other words, Arendt offers an archaeology of the Greek arche, Foucault offers various strands on the modern biopolitical state, and Agamben offers a history of homo sacer, and I follow them to the roots of these considerations, though Elden would more likely be found in the archives working on various less known proper names. And I think that’s largely right: in philosophy we tend to have a very neat history, as if Hobbes came from nowhere, etc. As Derrida rightly notes in his Beast and the Sovereign lectures, what we have are both philosophical texts about sovereignty and texts mounting strategic and polemical movements in the sovereignty of their day.

More on this at another time, but simple moral of the story: read Elden on territory.

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