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The Birth of Territory: A Response from within International Relations Theory

by Charlotte Epstein on April 8, 2015

Last month the University of New South Wales hosted a one-day workshop entitled ‘Geopolitics, Geopower, Geometrics’, with Stuart Elden (University of Warwick) including a focus on his award-winning book The Birth of Territory (11 March 2015). The roundtable included Scott Sharpe (ADFA)Brett Neilson (UWS), and Charlotte Epstein (University of Sydney). This is the text of Charlotte Epstein’s presentation.

territoryI’m very pleased to have this opportunity to engage with this rich and heady book. The Birth of Territory takes the reader on a genealogical journey upstream into the making of that ever pertinent political object, territory, whose emergence Elden traces by crossing together the two lenses of power, on one hand, with that of place, on the other hand. Territory and the genealogical mode of enquiry happen to be very much on my mind as well, for reasons I’ll hint at later, and so I readily embarked on this journey as fellow traveller-cum-genealogist, recognising the moves, the interrogations the text raises, and the answers. But also as someone who was genuinely curious to see what Elden had come up with, I am interested in regard to his nailing the origins of this key political concept, territory.

The book’s problématique – setting out to find the birth of territory – is, quite simply, one of those ‘but of course!’ ideas that, as a researcher, you kind of wish you’d come up with first . . . So I learned a lot. The erudition and, indeed, the footnotes are impressive.

What I’d like to do here, in order to create a space of engagement around the book, is fourfold. First, I try to set up an exchange across disciplinary perspectives, bringing the lenses of my own discipline, International Relations (IR), to bear upon The Birth of Territory. Second, as a fellow Foucaultian, I’ll comment specifically on Elden’s take on Michel Foucault, which for me is one of the book’s important methodological contributions. Third, I will offer some points of critique or disagreement on a few of the authors I know better, but also more substantially on Elden’s use of the term ‘politics’. And, finally, I’ll offer some suggestions that came to mind while I was reading the book, which are simply different prongs for piercing the material, or food for further territorial thinking.

Setting up the inter-disciplinary exchange

The concept that appears somewhat missing from the problematisation that Elden sets up at the beginning (in Chapter 1), from an IR perspective, is sovereignty. Now, it’s there, of course, throughout the rest of the book, and resurfaces recurrently. But in the introduction, it works like an absent presence, to make a Derridean point. To be clear, my point here to not merely to pick on something Elden hasn’t done, which would be not very interesting, or indeed rather desperate (given the breadth of the work), or simply petty (one can always find something that’s not there); but rather to try and draw a bridge from where I stand, in the discipline of IR, whose approach is not simply the perspective of geopolitics. So someone who seems to be missing specifically, is R. B. J. Walker. Again, this is not simply to be petty, but rather because Walker’s 1993 book, Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, in particular was pivotal in carving out the division of labour between political theory, on the one hand, and International Relations theory, on the other. And he does so – surprise, surprise – in explicitly spatial terms. It differentiates between the inside of the state, which is traditionally the space of political theory, and this new and discrete space that was taking shape, the international, and co-extensively with it a new discipline, that sees the state quite differently, from without. This, properly, is the space of IR theory.

WalkerI insist because political theorists, and geographers, have been a bit slow, or straightforwardly reluctant, to grant IR a seat at the table of respectable – hear: intelligent – disciplines. Now, I have my gripe against IR as well; I don’t come from the discipline originally but, rather, from philosophy and literature, in fact. And I, too, find IR to be a very young; excessively US-centric discipline in its origins (although this is no longer really the case); and in need of acquiring a bit more theoretical ballast. But I’ve recently come to think that IR is, all-in-all, more curious towards other disciplines, more open to conversations, than, certainly, political theorists have been towards it.

Hence IR is the discipline that envisages that space above, or beyond, the state, and not simply this fuzzy idea of ‘world’ or indeed ‘the global’, which is sociology’s extending out beyond the state, but rather as a discrete political system. This is the international system whose units are states. Now, we can discuss the merits of only foregrounding states as shapers of the system, and indeed this state-centrism is contested within the discipline, but my point here is to underline the different way of envisaging the state that is ushered in, namely, from without, on the one hand; and on the other as part of another political system, albeit one characterised by the absence of centralised political authority, or anarchy. So, one of the questions IR asks itself is what are the distinct ordering mechanisms of this system. Or again rephrased in terms from Carl Schmitt, and for my bridge-building purposes with political theorists and geographers, what does this system’s nomos look like, how does it work.

There are, moreover, some geographers who, in Walker’s wake, did take up this challenge seriously, and who are cited, namely John Agnew, but this cross-disciplinary conversation seems to have all but petered out; and yet it seems to me especially important to continue for any spatial thinker.

So IR scholars won’t take much convincing that territory is important. But the IR perspective also shifts the problematisation slightly. Specifically, for IR, classically, territory is but one of the two constituent components of sovereignty, the other being of course population (a state in international law is a territorial entity that possesses a territory and a population). It is as though Elden has blown up one of the two components, but, from an IR perspective, this automatically conjures up sovereignty as well, which therefore stands there kind of looming in the background. This is why, from my perspective, articulating those two concepts, territory and sovereignty more explicitly upfront, in the first chapter – instead of having sovereignty crop up recurrently in the body of the genealogy – would better draw in the discipline of IR.

Now I want to latch on to the other component of sovereignty, namely population, as a transition to move to my reflections on Foucault, because, of course, the very emergence of population as a political object was a core concern of Foucault’s, particularly his lectures in the 1970s at the College de France. This therefore is a way of underlining the natural synergies between IR and Foucaultian political theorists.

On Foucault

I particularly enjoyed the direction the book is taking us into, with regards to the reading (not to say ‘the use’) of Foucault that it offers. I say this explicitly in relation to what I would call the ‘biopolitical’ turn in Foucaultian scholarship, which has tended to turn ‘biopolitics’ into something of an all encompassing, indeed hegemonic concept, that ends up obscuring more than it reveals. Together with its cognate, ‘life’, these two signifiers seem, indeed, to have taken on a life of their own, to the point that they sometimes leave me puzzled as to what they actually mean.

FoucaultSo, what I like about Elden’s work is, instead, that it restores weight to that other vitally important dimension of Foucault’s lectures, maybe again, from an IR perspective, meaning that moment in Foucault’s thought that stands just before he nails ‘biopolitics’, the moment (in 1976-1977) that is pregnant with it, namely, that incredibly productive tension between sovereignty, the old concept that Foucault seeks to move away from, and governmentality, the term he coins as a counterpoint to sovereignty, AND in order to try and pivot beyond it. That Foucault himself sought to shake off the old conceptual yoke of sovereignty, and that, in the process he actually gave us the means to do so, with this concept of governmentality—which, by the way, is the overarching concept, under which biopolitics falls, not the other way around—should not make us simply take him at his word, and simply forget about sovereignty. Which is what I feel a lot of Foucaultian scholarship has done (even that which would have us forget about Foucault), when it seeks to locate the work exclusively in the space of governmentality; which in turn is how biopolitics has become hegemonic.

Instead, for me, the tension between sovereignty and governmentality remains the productive tension; and I feel that, by casting our focus on territory, that component of sovereignty, Elden’s work is reminding us of this.

For my part, and to put my cards on the table, the work I am undertaking at the moment is a genealogy of the role of the body, something indeed that Foucault taught us to look at, but in order to go where he wasn’t interested in going, namely, in the founding of modern sovereignty, and specifically, in constituting the relationship between the sovereign and the subject, more specifically still, in 17th century England. The broader motivation is the phenomenon of surveillance and the forms of power it implicates. I’ll just these leave these two elements unconnected because I’m not here to talk about my work but rather Elden’s.

Points of Critique

At present I’m going to hone in on a few authors and époques that I know a bit better than some of the others, from my IR standpoint, and for the sake of not agreeing with Elden completely. So, the moment I’ll focus on is the Westphalian moment, if you will, the 17th century—the century of the birth of modern sovereignty. In particular, I’m not convinced with Elden’s efforts to try and undo the traditional narrative and stretch Descartes into being a thinker of the political. I think Elden makes too much of a leap here, via his biography; and I do think that we have to take seriously the fact that he, a man who had ventured into many other subjects, explicitly chose NOT to venture into this one. I think I also have to take seriously the explicit links between Descartes and that other committed Cartesian, Hobbes, who knew his debt towards Descartes, and explicitly brought geometry to that brand new terrain, that of politics.

Hence I think Elden is right about the importance of Descartes to spatial thought, but the link to the political is overdrawn. Moreover, I actually disagree with the spatial rendering of Hobbes: Hobbes’ spatial concern, it seems to me, in his quest for a strong sovereignty, was with a centrifugal concentration of sovereignty into one central point, that of the sovereign, not with an absolute, limitless sovereignty.

This however, serves as an example to draw out the deeper issue that I have here, which is with Elden’s wielding of the term the ‘political’ itself, which I do find left undefined, taken for granted, and yet, given that ‘power’ is one of two lenses, it would seem to be important. And I say this because of the way it sometimes crops up and confuses other important distinctions, from a Foucaultian perspective. Specifically, to bring to bear here that earlier binary that I keep saying is so productive, if we follow carefully the distinction between sovereignty and governmentality in Foucault, the two components of sovereignty—so now, in Foucault, not in IR—are territory and the law. Territory is of course Elden’s central object, and this is how he brings us back to this key Foucaultian binary. The law (legal practices) are everywhere in the book: in the recovery of Roman law, the tensions between canon and civil law, and the ways in which the resolutions of these tensions yield territory, little by little. So for me, Elden fleshes out this pole of sovereignty that lies dormant in Foucault.

But then Elden also suddenly slips, almost inadvertently, into the language of political technology. Now, to retrace it in the writing, it surfaces in his discussion of Romain Descendre, but whom he is very critical of. Then Elden never quite nails or appropriates ‘political technology’ in his own terms, yet it suddenly becomes the title of the last chapter.

Now, technology, in my reading of Foucault, belongs to the other pole, the pole of techniques and strategies, the pole of governmentality. And precisely one of Foucault’s observations is the trajectory of governmentalisation, where he sees these—techniques, strategies, technologies—increasingly replacing the traditional markers of sovereignty, and gutting out the law in particular. Now, what I like about Elden’s work is that, contra Foucault, he renders all its importance to territory. But he also lumps together terms that are not so easily lumped together, with the effect of weakening his use of the term ‘political’.



More creatively now, I just want to throw Elden’s way two somewhat random thoughts that his book prompted, which may or may not be fruitful.

The first is that, recalling my days as a student of the history of philosophy, it occurred to me that one incredibly important line that seemed to be running implicitly through The Birth of Territory, and which could therefore be drawn out to become a different way of cutting through it, is that distinction between a finite and infinite world. Specifically, I remember being awestruck by that key ontological reversal in the valuation of infinity that was so decisive to the emergence of modernity.

To speak less cryptically, the Ancient Greeks had no time for infinity, infinity was a bad thing; it simply meant unfinished, and therefore formless, without form, which of course for both Aristotle and Plato, was no good thing. Yet, by Descartes, infinity becomes the proof of God’s existence, the place where to put God.

Now politically, this reversal coincides with the shift from hierarchy to anarchy as an organising principle—the shift from Empires (the concentric circles) to the tight territorial unit that is the modern state. Hence this reversal in the valuation of infinity seems to be another possible storyline to weave through the tale of territory.

The second suggestion has to do with where we are speaking from, right now, here, in Australia and the resources this entails with regards to stepping out of our own, Western understanding of territory. My own coming to Australia has confronted me with aboriginal understandings of territory and of place, of course, which are so completely different from Eurocentric understandings. In particular, and I’m going to fumble here because this is not my area, but the idea of songlines, that sing the world into existence through travelling across it, and stage such a completely different relationship between humans and their territory. These seem to me to be unbelievably rich resources for anyone thinking about territory that I just wanted to share that with you.

Charlotte Epstein
Charlotte Epstein is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. She is currently writing a book on surveillance and power in International Relations. Her interests are in the areas of International Relations theory, particularly in post-structuralist approaches and discourse theory, critical security studies and global environmental politics, and she has published on these themes in International Organization, the European Journal of International Relations, and International Political Sociology, amongst others.

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