The Birth of Territory

In this post Stuart Elden describes his research into the issue of territory – territory as a concept and as a practice – and the origins of the modern understanding of territory. His most recent book,  The Birth of Territory, won the AAG Meridian Book Award for Outstanding Scholarly Work in Geography this year, while his previous book, Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty won the AAG Globe Book Award for Public Understanding of Geography, and was recognised by the Royal Geographical Society with the Murchison Award ‘for publications in political geography’ in 2011.

Ongoing events in Ukraine have brought territory to the forefront of global political concerns once more. Yet for all the talk of a borderless world that accompanied the post-Cold War ‘end of history’, the issue of territory has never disappeared. The question of where borders are, what they mean and what they enclose – the straight-forward definition of territory – has been a recurrent theme of international politics. Recent examples where ‘territory’ has played a role include the Joint Task Force against Boko Haram in northern Nigeria; the debate over intervention in Syria and the impact of that conflict on its neighbours including Lebanon and Jordan, and questions about control and surveillance of airspace that have arisen in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370. A recent map in The Atlantic suggested that nearly every state in the world is involved in a territorial dispute of some kind, though these include maritime issues – some relate to relatively small technical details of boundaries yet to be demarcated, and others relate to overlapping claims in Antarctica, which have been ‘frozen’ since 1961. My previous book, Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) addressed some of those contemporary issues.

In my most recent book, The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013) I continue this research, but with a longer historical perspective. My big question is why is the world divided territorially? Of all the different options for organising the relation between place and power, between geography and politics, how did we end up with the nation-state and its territory, with attempts to fix boundaries and the myth of internal sovereignty and external recognition?

I study Western political thought to discover how the concept and practice of territory emerged. Taking texts from Antiquity and the Middle Ages through to the Seventeenth Century, I map the strands that make up the modern understanding of territory. I use four registers to examine the relation between place and power – the economic, the strategic, the legal and the technical. I use these registers to understand how political-geographic relations – which give rise to territory – have been understood in different times and places,.

The history is long and complicated, and took me into areas of political thought I’d never examined before, notably the Middle Ages, which ended up being the focus of more than half the book. I discuss prominent names from the tradition, such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Rousseau, but also devote time to less well-known figures, including Bartolus of Sassoferrato and Andreas Knichen. I also highlight relatively neglected political writings by famous figures, like Dante or Leibniz.

What I’ve tried to do with this work – both the contemporary study and this longer, historical one – is to show how and why this particular form of political space matters. The recognition given to The Birth of Territory by the Association of American Geographers (which follows their and the British Royal Geographical Society’s recognition of its predecessor) is, of course, enormously gratifying and flattering. I hope that the books appeal as much to political theorists and international relations scholars, as they do to these esteemed geographical associations, in that they seek to show that territory is not just the background to or stake of political struggle – that is, complicated in practice – but that territory is also a complicated concept, with a long and contested history. Territory and other spatial, geographical questions demand wide attention within political studies.

Stuart Elden blogs at Progressive Geographies


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