Q&A with Stuart Elden: A new look at the concept of ‘territory’

Stuart Elden is professor of political geography at Durham University, UK. He is author of Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, which has recently won the prestigious 2009 AAG Globe Book Award for Public Understanding of Geography (see below for more info).

“In this deftly argued and richly emprical book, Elden shows how, in responding to 9/11 as an act of war, the US government, through its association of al-Qaeda with the Afghan Taliban and in its pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, directly undermined the very territorial integrity norm that the terror of 9/11 was held to have violated. In this way, ‘terror’ sheds light on the continuing political importance of territory.” —John Agnew, author of Globalization and Sovereignty

Q: The AAG Globe Award supports books that enhance the public’s understanding of geography. How does Terror and Territory make current events (and their inherent complexity) accessible?

The recognition of the book’s potential to make an impact outside of academia was a very pleasant surprise. I’d certainly aimed to make this book accessible to a wide audience. Compared to my previous work, which had largely been on French and German political philosophy, the subject matter certainly made a difference. I’d made a decision early on that that the theoretical issues—which certainly informed the analysis I offered—would be fairly muted in this book. There is enough in the book and especially in the notes for those interested to follow up the lines of thought. But in terms of the complexity of the events discussed in the book, there are several things to say. It’s clear that certain parts of the media simplify contemporary events, either through a belief that their complexity needs to be muted in order for their audience to understand things, or for more explicitly political reasons. In contrast to that simplification, I try to offer a sense of the complexity, and the conflicting perspectives surrounding such events, but I aimed to be clear in how I did this. Attempts at clarity, and I hope accessibility, don’t mean simplification. Indeed, I’d like to think that readers of the book would come away with a sense that things were actually more complicated than they perhaps thought before. I make special efforts to set the ‘war on terror’ in a broader historical context; to look at places like Lebanon, Somalia, and Pakistan alongside Afghanistan and Iraq; and to discuss some of the issues behind ideas of radical Islamism, ‘weak states’ and international law that are often presented in ways that lack sufficient nuance.

2: How has the ‘war on terror’ complicated notions of territory?

I try to show how events since the end of the Cold War have seen a challenge to ideas of territorial sovereignty—basically the idea that within its boundaries, a state is sovereign. This was initially for reasons of humanitarian intervention over the treatment of civilian populations. Examples would include Kurdistan following the 1991 Gulf War, protections ineffectively discussed in Rwanda and Bosnia, and then this being used as rationale for the war in Kosovo. I argue that a very similar logic can be found in the neo-conservative argument about ‘contingent sovereignty’, that sovereignty was a responsibility dependent on certain codes of behavior, now including harboring of terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Yet at the same time, the preservation of existing territorial settlements was insisted upon—the idea that Iraq could be allowed to fragment along ethnic or religious lines was strongly resisted; similarly the issues around Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions; the breakaway parts of Somalia, and so on. In international law the idea of ‘territorial integrity’, which is enshrined in the UN charter and insisted upon in almost all Security Council resolutions, supposedly combined both of these things: that borders were fixed, and that within them a state was sovereign. So I tried to show how these senses were being split apart today, and often in the very same places. What was interesting was not the simple violation of territorial sovereignty, but the explicit argument against it, often at the very same time that territorial preservation was being insisted upon. I think the ‘war on terror’ has made this more apparent, but the earlier interventions showed this too, and events in Gaza and Georgia since the book was written have demonstrated similar things. There are other arguments in the book of course, about territorial control in so-called ‘weak’ or ‘failed’ states; how territorial or geographical issues feature in the writings and speeches of the neo-conservatives and bin Laden; to challenge ideas that al-Qaeda operates as a ‘deterritorialised’ network by examining the spatial ideas of the base, the camp and the caliphate, etc. More broadly I try to show that ‘territory’ is much more complicated as a concept than is generally acknowledged. My ongoing work tries to provide a historical account of the emergence of the idea of territory in Western political thought.

3: What is one little-known thing everyone should know about your book?

That this is only part of the work I want to do on territory. There is the historical book I just mentioned, which I have been working on for a decade and is now nearing completion, and a planned third volume on philosophy, territory, and globalization that will probably be called The Space of the World.


Stuart Elden will receive the 2009 Globe Book Award for Terror and Territory on April 18th at the Association of American Geographers conference in Washington, DC. You can find out more about the book at Elden’s author-meets-critics panel at 10 a.m. April 18th at AAG.

AAG attendees: Visit UMP in the book-exhibit hall at booth #1109! You can find our hours of operation here.
We also encourage you to visit Edward W. Soja’s author-meets-critics panel at 12:40 p.m. April 17th at AAG. Soja is author of Seeking Spatial Justice.

Not able to make it to AAG? You can still download a PDF of our Geography sale catalog here.

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