From a philosophical viewpoint, Elden’s book is most interesting for the question it poses yet leaves unanswered: what is the relation between power and place? Taking for granted that there is a relation between the two terms, Elden goes ahead to painstakingly trace one specific way in which this internal connection obtains concrete historical form: territory. This ambitious historical inquiry is philosophically very modest, to the extent that its driving assumption remains largely unjustified. I would say, however, that this is its virtue, rather than its shortcoming. By insisting on the historically determinate way in which territory articulates power and place, Elden does a twofold service to political philosophers who would seek to unpack and justify the internal connection between place and power. On the one hand, and precisely because territory is one of the ways in which this internal connection manifests itself, political philosophers will find in his historically rich account of territory a manifold of clues as to the nature of the general relation between place and power. On the other hand, and because it is but one of the historical permutations of this general relation, he puts philosophers on guard against reifying as a conceptual necessity features of that relation which are in fact historically contingent. If Elden’s strong thesis, a thesis I happily endorse, is that there is a necessary relation between power and place, then the challenge confronting contemporary political philosophy is to understand whether and how processes of globalization instantiate a specific relation between power and place in a way that is both continuous and discontinuous with the territorial state.
The book is also reviewed in Progress in Human Geography by Marco Antonsich. Despite some generous praise at the beginning and end, the bulk of the review is quite critical. That isn’t unexpected, since we had an exchange in Progress a few years back about my piece ‘Land, Terrain, Territory‘, which was a draft of this book’s introduction (see here and here). What’s disappointing, and I think surprising, is that he continues to make similar points about the book that he did about that text. If the book were just about words, as he charges, it would have been a much shorter book, and would have taken much less time to write. And if the book looks superficially similar to “other books on the history of political theory”, I’d say that if such books really did cover the same ground it would also have saved me a lot of time. I taught political theory for several years before joining a Geography department, and the book was in part intended to bring a geographical focus in the study of its history. In part that was because I felt it wasn’t already there.
Some of his other criticisms have been raised by other reviewers, and I’ve discussed them in some of the responses to review fora on the book – full list of reviews and discussions here. There are many things I would amend if given the chance, and taking the story forward would indeed require me to engage with different issues, including what he calls the “operationalisation” of territory. But that was never intended to be the focus of this book.