Stuart Elden: Territory, terror and sovereignty

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (January 2010) Tags: Terror Territory Sovereignty Spatial Extent Territorial Integrity United States Robert Kaplan Thomas Barnett Al Qaeda Radical Islamism

Stuart Elden

Stuart Elden

Book cover Stuart Elden

Stuart Elden is Professor of Geography at Durham University. He obtained a BSc (Hons) in Politics and Modern History in 1994 and a PhD in Political Theory in 1999, both from Brunel University.

Professor Elden is editor of Society and Space (Environment and Planning D) and one of the founding editors of Foucault Studies. He is also Associate Director of the International Boundaries Research Unit.

Professor Elden’s research interests include European political theory and philosophy, territorial integrity, territory from a historical perspective, the politics of calculation, territorial aspects of the ‘war on terror’ and Western Marxism.

For more information, please visit his personal web page:

Personal page of Stuart Elden

In this interview, Professor Elden elaborates on his new book, “Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty”. Why did he start writing the book? Which thinkers have inspired him? And do the conclusions of his book leave room for further research?

Questions and Answers

What was the political purpose in writing this book?

I began work on the book in late 2004. I’d just finished the manuscript of my previous book, “Speaking Against Number”, which was a highly theoretical reading of Heidegger and his politics. I needed a complete break from high theory and had intended to go back to the manuscript of a book under the working title of “The Geometry of the Political”, which traces the history of the concept of territory. It was a project I had been working on for some time, and for which all of my previous three books had helped develop the conceptual tools I needed.

This was the time of the 2004 election though, and Bush being re-elected was a real shock. It felt that it was clear that the first Bush term had not been a simple aberration—the result of a poorly fought election by Al Gore and dodgy electoral practices in Florida—but something that a significant number of US citizens were willing to support. For me this was the real moment of change: even though I’d been in the US on September 11th 2001 and had been going to anti-Iraq war protests before.

I began to think that I shouldn’t be writing about political or social/spatial theory in detachment from what was actually going on; but rather I should try to engage with the contemporary moment a bit more. Because my work was on territory, it seemed like there I perhaps had something to add: how did using territory as a focus shed light on what was happening? This wasn’t entirely new for me: I’d written a piece about globalisation and territory; and with a couple of colleagues one about the territorial aspects of the EU’s constitution.

But the first concentrated work I did on the ‘war on terror’ was in early 2005, when I wrote a piece that I gave as a lecture in a few places and then sent to Environment and Planning A. The purpose of that piece was to show how the term ‘territorial integrity’ was being invoked by Bush, Blair and their allies. Even as they were invading Afghanistan or Iraq they were stressing the importance of maintaining their territorial integrity. It was clear that they simply meant this as the maintenance of their existing territorial extent; their spatial limits and pre-existing boundaries.

It was designed to say that while the regime would be changed; the polity itself would remain intact. This was important for regional stability, so they thought, and—especially in the case of Iraq—for keeping neighbouring countries on-side or at least not actively opposed. This is territorial integrity as territorial preservation.

Yet territorial integrity in international law, and the UN charter which was continually being referred to, also means territorial sovereignty: the idea that within its boundaries a state is sovereign and no external interference allowed. This was clearly not what was being meant by Bush and Blair. So I tried to show how this term had been split apart, not simply in the ‘war on terror’ but in a range of previous conflicts in the post-Cold War world, including, notably, Kosovo.

This one piece led to some other lectures, a couple of other pieces including ones on the legal aspects of the British case for war, and one on the framing of the new Iraq constitution, and by early 2007 I realised I had enough material to form the basis of a book.

The book tries to show how territory remains a crucial factor in global politics, and to interrogate this from a range of angles. I look at US strategies for understanding the world, and ways that threat is imagined in spatial terms—reading people like Thomas Barnett and Robert Kaplan, and the Project for a New American Century.

I critically interrogated the idea that al-Qaeda or radical Islamism more generally was a ‘de-territorialised’ network by examining the spatial ideas of the base, the camp and the caliphate, as well as reading bin Laden’s speeches for their spatial aspects.

I looked at the idea of ‘weak states’ and how they were repositioned as security threats and often targeted. The aim here was to look at places other than just Afghanistan, including Somalia, Pakistan and Lebanon. There is a long treatment of Iraq, but mainly concentrating on the post-conflict period; and then there is a discussion of the international legal aspects, concentrating on territorial integrity and the notion of contingent sovereignty: the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility to follow certain norms of behaviour.

How does it relate to your theoretical interests?

I made a deliberate attempt to write this book in a more accessible style, more political engaged and less obviously theoretically driven. That said, the thinkers that I had worked on previously—Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre—are all present in this book in varying ways.

Heidegger was useful in thinking through notions of connection and disconnection, comparison and contrast. There is a discussion of the way the term ‘with’ in the phrase ‘with us or against us’ functions as a mode of integration; and how the word ‘like’ in the ‘Axis of Evil’ speech allows quite different conflicts and problems to be rendered as effectively the same.

Foucault was of interest not so much because of his interest in biopolitics—which has been discussed elsewhere in the literature—but because of his works on the interrelations of power and space.

Lefebvre was perhaps the key figure for this book. I wrote this book in parallel to co-editing a collection of Lefebvre’s political writings with Neil Brenner, and so Lefebvre was a continual reference point. Lefebvre’s ideas about the state, space, world and the violence inherent to territorial settlements feature throughout the book, especially in the introduction.

So I’d say that all these things are present, but not always overtly. The references are made, and the notes pay due respect, but it was less direct than it perhaps could have been. I would say that I couldn’t have written the book without having done that earlier work, or the work I’d done on the concept of territory.

What do you think the most important conclusions are, and what work remains to be done?

A key aim was to show how territory features as a continual theme in contemporary global politics. As such it’s a direct challenge to arguments about deterritorialisation under globalisation. Rather I try to show that territory is continually being reconfigured; spatial relations are continually in the process of remaking.

If the book is able to show that ‘territory’ is a much more complicated term than is usually assumed; that the ‘war on terror’ is part of a wider challenge to the relation between state, sovereignty, and territory; and that political geography can have something to say to contemporary politics, then it will have succeeded.

In terms of what needs to be done, for me there are two further parts of this wider project. The second is the completion of the book on the history of the concept of territory. This is about two-thirds complete and I hope to finish it by the end of 2010.

I then want to write a book about the relation between globalisation and territory, but from a more philosophical perspective, looking at a range of thinkers that have examined the notion of the ‘world’. These include the fairly well-known like Heidegger and Lefebvre, and the less well-read in English like Eugen Fink and Kostas Axelos. There will also be discussion of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, on whom I am editing a book of essays in 2010. The key question will be to ask, ‘what is the space of the world’?