“Sovereignty, Territory and the Imperium” – review essay by Karena Shaw

An interesting review essay of John Agnew’s Globalization and Sovereignty; my Terror and Territory, and Ronnie D. Lipschutz’s The Constitution of Imperium has just appeared in Geopolitics (subscription required). Written by Karena Shaw of the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, it’s a generous, though not uncritical, assessment of what the books offer.

She frames the review with comments about what the books achieve, or don’t, taken in concert:

These three books will be greeted in many quarters with a sigh of relief: finally, some astutely focused correctives to debates stalemated by a failure to adequately appreciate the complexity of sovereignty… Fortunately, however, these books won’t only be greeted with a sigh of relief: there is much to wrestle with here as well. In addition to a corrective, each book forwards a reading of what is at stake in the current moment that requires and should inspire more sustained engagement….

Individually and together, then, these books make world politics more interesting by drawing attention to the nuance and complexity that characterise the really difficult issues at stake today, particularly in relation to the struggle over the political, itself inevitably bound up in practices of sovereignty. The analyses in the books roam across sites and practices of politics that have too often been excluded from analyses of world politics, or whose inclusion maintained their marginality. By taking sovereignty as a question rather than assumption, these books begin a process of framing analytical terrain that would enable them to be understood as instead constitutive of world politics. The richness that results is most welcome, although of course each book simultaneously encounters the intense challenges that arise when this assumption is breached. Some readers will be daunted by the disruption of intellectual boundaries that each work effects, and perhaps frustrated by the failure to tightly refocus the political through the analysis. The latter is inevitable; the hope is that these books will serve as provocations to engage, rather than reject, this richness.

In the middle there are discussions of the three books in turn. Agnew is probably praised the most highly. In terms of mine, she suggests:

The core of the analysis is embedded across several empirical sites: the complex territoriality of al-Queda; the territorialisation of responses to fear, terror and threat; the changing understandings of territory though the Iraq wars and their aftermath, and the complex geographies and wider implications of humanitarian intervention, as well as the war on terror, for the problem of territorial integrity. The most compelling focus that emerges through the analysis is the latter: the ways in which the war on terror and related practices have placed into stark relief the tensions around territory that are at the heart of understandings and practices of international politics…

And then, interestingly, suggests where the book doesn’t address things adequately:

Elden’s argument for the importance of territory in relation to sovereignty is more persuasive than his analysis of what it actually means to take territory more seriously. Perhaps ironically, the book suffers in particular from a lack of precision in the analysis of territory itself, which doesn’t yet rigorously engage the complex philosophical inheritances that give it meaning. Given the ambition to speak to tensions of capitalism and the state (p. xxi), for example, the concept of property is perplexingly absent; likewise a systematic engagement with the problem of boundaries, or indeed with the assumptions embedded in his claim that “territory is the spatial extent of sovereignty.” As this book is presented as a prelude to a more extensive work on territory, this suggests there is much to look forward to, as well as to grapple with here.

Yes, the fuller, historical and philosophical work is in The Birth of Territory. I debated a longer discussion of what she calls “the complex philosophical inheritances that give it meaning” in this book, but felt that what I already did was much more detailed than most accounts and that this book had a somewhat different purpose. (The more contemporary philosophies that shaped the analysis – Foucault, Lefebvre and Heidegger – were barely mentioned; that work was published elsewhere and simply referenced.) In terms of the production of the modern notion of territory, there is definitely much more to come. But while property and boundaries are of course discussed in that account, it seems to me that both have been seriously overemphasized in terms of understanding territory. Space, power, techniques and the law – of which property and boundaries are elements rather than their totality – frame the analysis, but with an attempt to allow all to emerge out of the historical material examined, rather than being imposed as frames of intelligibility or topics of examination from the outset.

This entry was posted in Boundaries, Henri Lefebvre, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, My Publications, Territory, Terror and Territory. Bookmark the permalink.

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