The Birth of Territory review essay in Tulsa Law Review by Bartholomew Sparrow

9780226202570A thoughtful and generous review essay of my 2013 book The Birth of Territory has just been published – “Territory Delimited“, Tulsa Law Review by Bartholomew Sparrow (open access).

I was particularly pleased with these two general paragraphs, which follow a detailed survey of what the book tries to do:

The above summary does not do justice to The Birth of Territory. Elden offers us a rich, thorough, and instructive account of the dozens of conceptualizations of territory, evident in written texts, art, and oral tradition (such as Beowulf). The author’s close reading of the many philosophers, theologians, logicians, geographers, and other thinkers who articulate concepts of territory, but with whom many political theorists of the Western canon will be unfamiliar, is indicative of his ambition and erudition as a scholar, of the comprehensiveness of his research, and of the seriousness with which he conducted his study…

Another laudable quality of The Birth of Territory is the precision of Elden’s writing, notwithstanding the complexity of his subject, and the many evolving nuances—how two- plus millennia of philosophers, statesmen, and other figures conceptualized space, religion, and political power. Such clarity is by no means a given among political theorists or social scientists, and it is indicative of the thought and effort Elden has invested in the book.

Quite rightly, the piece then goes on to raise some critical questions. I don’t really understand the comment about anthropology and archaeology – while entirely correct that I don’t try to do that work, the intention was never to ‘slight’ them: it was a recognition of the limits of my ability, not a denigration of that work. It would indeed take academics with training in those disciplines to attend to “peoples who left little written record”. I really wouldn’t know where to start to answer the questions Sparrow raises here. In terms of the legacy of colonialism, I say a bit, and recognise some of these criticisms from other exchanges about the book. I’ve done my best to reply before, though I accept this is never going to be adequate to the complexity of this issue. (A full list of reviews and responses is here.)

The last, most extensive criticism is that the story stops with the late 17th and early 18th century, and doesn’t bring the story up-to-date. Well, that was never my intention here, and some of the most contemporary issues that Sparrow raises were addressed in detail in my 2009 book Terror and Territory, and a few related papers – where I discuss terrorism, the end of the Cold War, and globalisation. I don’t agree that territory has become less important in our global world, and I think it’s far too quick a conclusion to draw. But to answer these questions adequately would be another book or two at least; and perhaps most crucially, if attempted here would have prevented this book from doing what it does attempt, as the review goes on to recognise.

What Stuart Elden has accomplished is more than enough. The Birth of Territory constitutes research of immense benefit to scholars of political theory, intellectual history, geography, and political sociology. It stands as a tour de force of conceptual history.

My thanks to Bartholomew for these detailed engagement with the work.

This entry was posted in My Publications, Territory, Terror and Territory, The Birth of Territory, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Birth of Territory review essay in Tulsa Law Review by Bartholomew Sparrow

  1. Maria says:

    The birth of territory, the birth of tragedy (from the spirit of music), the birth of ‘the’ (play of the) trace … Anthropology and archaeology … Jensen’s Gradiva, Freud’s reading of it, Derrida’s reading of Freud’s reading of it in Archive Fever … She who walks beautifully … steps carefully on the stepping-stones … treading lightly … dreaming of blowing up the railway tracks of the enemy …
    I have not read the book – just in fact discovered it and looking forward to reading it.

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