Interview with Stuart Elden on the History of Ideas

logo95x95“Exercises in the History of Ideas”: An Interview with Stuart Elden

Interview by Dale Leorke and Suneel Jethani

Stuart Elden (Photo by Babette Babich)


Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography in the Politics and International Studies department at Warwick. He completed his PhD in 1999, after earning a graduate teaching assistantship at the end of his first year and a part-time teaching position at Royal Holloway College at the University of London in the final year. After earning his doctorate, Elden took a teaching position at Warwick for a temporary post that lasted three years. After that he got a lecturer post at Durham University in North East England in 2002, teaching in the Geography department, which he held for eleven years before his return to Warwick. As well as his five single-authored books, Elden has also edited or co-edited several collections on a range of thinkers, including Lefebvre, Foucault, Kant and Sloterdijk. He has also been the editor of the journal Society and Space (Environment and Planning D) since 2006. In addition to his many journal articles, book chapters and translations, he also keeps an extraordinarily prolific blog Progressive Geographies.

This interview with Elden was conducted by Dale Leorke and Suneel Jethani in March, 2014. It was recorded in Melbourne while Elden was visiting Monash University as part of the Monash-Warwick alliance. The interview recording was transcribed and Elden was given the opportunity to revise the text. It has also been updated in May, 2015 for this publication on the Theory, Culture and Society website. A link to an extended version of the interview, with a lengthy outline of Elden’s background and work, can be found here. The interview begins with a discussion of his approach to researching, reading and writing. It then focuses on his relationship with Lefebvre, before moving on to Elden’s current research projects, particularly his work on Foucault, geopolitics and the relationship between territory and urbanism.


Dale Leorke: If I had to describe a common thread between all your books, I’d say it’s an ability to unpack specific writers – whether it’s Heidegger, Lefebvre, Foucault – or concepts in immense detail, while relating their work back to its broader historical period and context. Can you talk a bit about your approach to research, reading and writing? What techniques and processes do you use to keep a handle on the vast volumes of material you discuss – which sometimes span across multiple millennia, as in The Birth of Territory?

Stuart Elden: I think that’s a nice way to put what I try to do. It is very much a close reading set of techniques. It is about reading texts in contexts and I put quite a lot of importance on engaging with the text itself and tracking back to the original language as much as I possibly can. This is why my work has tended to restrict itself to Western Europe and Western European thought. With French, I’m able to read texts without translation. German and Latin are harder. And then with other texts, I’m usually reliant on translations to give me the way into working with those texts, even if I do go back and look at them in terms of specific details. And that obviously takes a lot of time, because it multiplies how many texts you’re reading because you’re trying to read them in both languages.

In terms of techniques, you mean things like how I take notes, how I write, how I build things up? Okay, I take notes almost exclusively on a computer now. And if I do take notes on paper, then I type them up fairly soon afterwards. So I build up quite big files of material, of quotations, of references, that then I can use as the material to turn into writing. And quite often those note files get re-saved as first drafts and I write around the quotes, I put them together, I add things. So texts sort of build up or accumulate through commentary around quotations. That’s quite often how I work. Occasionally I will sit down with a completely blank screen and just free write, possibly with a book next to me for references and so on. That’s how I write book reviews – I don’t tend to take all the notes then try to write the piece, I have a sort of sketch of where I might go with it and then just start writing. But most of the time I work in a different way, I begin with note files and then build up texts. So it’s very much the text emerging from sets of notes and so on.

I keep a lot of working files. So for the Foucault work I’m doing at the moment I’ve got quite a few sort of “tools” or “reference” files that I have. So one of the first things I did was to build a chronology, a sort of a timeline, which used Daniel Defert’s chronology from Dits et écrits as a beginning. But it also filled in all the details I could find of when he’d given specific interviews, lectures and when other key events had happened. Then I’ve been adding to that as I’ve been going. It’s been very useful in terms of what I’ve been trying to do chronologically with Foucault. That’s to think, “Ok I’ve been working here on this text, but there was this interview that he gave at the same time and that’s a useful perspective on that.” I’ve seen some discrepancies in existing accounts as a result, or noticed other things.

Elden’s writing space
Photograph of Elden’s writing space, taken on the day he completed The Birth of Territory. Source:

So this has been quite useful for me, to build up references and bibliographies and other things like that as tools to use as I’m working. So that’s something else that helps me to keep a handle on things. But the advantage of having everything on computer is that you can search, you can find everything that way. Whereas the way I used to work in the PhD, say, was paper notes: much harder to locate things after the event, something you wrote from six months before or something. So does that help in terms of the sorts of things I’m using?

DL: Yes, definitely. You started out by talking about the challenge of reading texts in both their original language and English translations. How important is this for you?


SE: I think it’s essential. I think one of the problems that I’ve criticised other people for is this claim that they’re doing a close reading. But if they’re not reading things in the original, I find that difficult to understand. Having done some translation myself, particularly with Lefebvre, translation is always a compromise between possible translations. Some translations you find have got straightforward errors, but more often translations are focusing on specific things. So for instance, there’s a term that comes up, they’re trying to work out a way to translate this. It’s probably consistent throughout the work as a whole because they don’t want to keep translating key terms with different words because that gets confusing. So they have to come up with some kind of compromise. A lot of translations are very good for the general purpose of being used for a class text if you’re teaching something, or you’re someone who’s just interested in the thinker in terms of the key ideas. But tracking specific concepts or specific claims you might want to make about why did this thinker choose this particular word to signify this particular concept? I think that becomes harder when you’re trying to do that work on them if you can’t go back and find out what the particular word that they’re using is.

So another example from the Foucault work recently is History of Sexuality Volume 1. One of the key terms that Foucault uses in that is the notion of the dispositif and it’s a term that’s been picked up by a lot of thinkers. So Giorgio Agamben wrote the essay “What is an apparatus?”, “Che cos’è un dispositivo?”, Deleuze did similar in a slightly earlier period. The choice that was made for the term in English I think was problematic. The main way it’s translated by Robert Hurley is “deployment”, which is a strange translation. But if it was consistently translated as deployment you could simply read the text in English and know that every time the word deployment comes up that the concept is dispositif, except that’s not what he does. He translates it as “deployment” most of the time, but also as “apparatus”, “mechanism”, “layout”, “organisation”, these very different terms. Now those are used also to translate other French words. So it’s impossible to understand what Foucault is doing with that key concept if you’re simply reading it in English without the ability to go back to the French.

With The Birth of Territory, almost always I found something in going back to the original that made it worthwhile to put that effort into it. So for example if you read Plato, say The Laws, or Aristotle’s Politics or Caesar, if you read them in English the word “territory” appears all over the place. If you go back to the Greek or Latin you realise that the words being used are not straightforwardly what we understand by the modern concept of territory. So what words did they use? And what might they be implying with those words – concepts and practices? So that’s something I spent a lot of time working on and I think it was nearly always worthwhile. Occasionally you find something and you think, “yeah, that’s what I expected it to be.” And I think often with a good translation if you know something about the thinker you should be able to read the translation and work out roughly what the key concepts in that sentence or passage would be in the original language. But often I was surprised: “oh, that’s the word they used”, they didn’t use this one you might have expected, and so on.


DL: In researching these scholars, to what extent do the details of their personal lives and relationships factor into your analysis, as well as your general sense of them as individuals? For instance, the title of the book you’re currently writing, Foucault’s Last Decade, implies that it will provide a certain insight into his personal circumstances during that time in his life, even if your focus is on his writing and lectures. How much of Foucault’s personal life beyond academia figure into your discussion in that book?

SE: It depends. I’m not writing biographies in a standard sense. They are more exercises in the history of ideas or thought, or perhaps intellectual biographies. With Foucault I’m very interested in his political activism outside the academy, and I think closely situating that within the chronology of his teaching and writing can be very revealing. So, the Groupe d’information sur les prisons, for example, began its campaign at the time Foucault was delivering the Lectures on the Will to Know course in early 1971. There are some similarities in the language and motivation between the course and the Groupe’s statements that I think are revealing. His later engagement with events in Poland and Iran has recently been discussed in relation to the work in Marcelo Hoffman’s Foucault and Power, and I’ll try to make related points in my study. So, the public life outside of lectures and books, definitely, but I’m not so interested in the personal life beyond that.

Elden’s chronology of Foucault’s History of Sexuality project
Elden’s chronology of Foucault’s History of Sexuality project. Provided by Elden


With Heidegger, this is of course a key question given his membership of the Nazi party, his holding of political office at the University of Freiburg, the speeches that have been available for some time and now the posthumously-published writings. Here the personal life and the academic work blur, and this raises a host of important questions. These have become starker recently with the “Black Notebooks” and their anti-Semitic comments. I’m interested in the interrelation of the work with the politics, and don’t think you can make sense of one without the other. That was what I tried to explore in Speaking Against Number. But I’m not so interested in his affairs or those of his wife. With Lefebvre, I was grateful to get some insight into his life through his correspondence with Norbert Guterman, which is archived at Columbia University Library. But while he had an interesting life, it’s only interesting because of the work, and that for me remains the key focus.

DL: Before we discuss some of your current research, we were wondering if we could ask a few questions about your thoughts on Lefebvre. Following the recent publication of his book The Architecture of Enjoyment in English, what other important works of his remain to be translated? Are there still more valuable books of his yet to be published in English, or has his repertoire been exhausted do you think?

SE: The editor of the English translation of The Architecture of Enjoyment, Łukasz Stanek, did an excellent job of editing that book, which he discovered in the personal archives of Marco Gaviria. I interviewed Łukasz about the project for Society and Space’s open site, the journal I edit. The book is interesting because Lefebvre is obviously important in urban studies and in spatial studies, and some architects have picked up on some of his work. There are a few pieces that were published in his lifetime on architecture. For example he contributed a piece to a collection studying a kind of house called a “pavillon” (a suburban house), and this piece is in Key Writings, but much of Lefebvre’s work has not talked about architecture explicitly. The best place to look is Łukasz’s own book Henri Lefebvre on Space.

In terms of Lefebvre generally and how much more is there to be discovered? There’s a huge amount, and only a fraction of it is in English. Even though over the last 20 years or so quite a lot more has been translated, there are still probably about two thirds of his books that are not translated. There’s an element of sort of diminishing returns in some aspects, as he wrote a lot of books on Marx and Marxism and we’ve probably got most of the key important messages from Lefebvre there already. But his work on philosophy, for example, is almost completely untranslated. Verso will be doing a translation of his fundamental book Metaphilosophy, for which I’ll be writing an introduction. It’s a sort of a theoretical framework that helps make possible The Production of Space and the Critique of Everyday Life – the subtitle of the third volume of this is called Towards a Metaphilosophy of Daily Life. It was an important conceptual frame for his more slightly applied work on space and everyday life.

Some of his works on philosophy are of historical interest to be honest. So he wrote a kind of hatchet job on existentialism in 1946 which was on behalf of the Communist Party. This was when lots of people on the left seemed to be gravitating towards existentialism at the time of Sartre particularly. So Lefebvre was sent out to do a critique of the problems with it. He wrote a more interesting book on structuralism as a critique of Lévi-Straus and Althusser in the 1960s. I hope that Metaphilosophy can be followed by at least his book Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche. Adam David Morton and I are beginning some work on Lefebvre’s rural writings, the first piece of which will appear in the journal Antipode.

The other work I still think has been under-exploited is his very political writings. So Neil Brenner and I did the collection State, Space, World which was to try to show how Lefebvre was an important Marxist state theorist. There’s a spatial element within that work but this state work is important around these kind of questions. Then there’s the work on “the world” which we tried to link in there. But if I ever get the time to do another collection of Lefebvre’s writings…there’s the editing work and possibly translation, but also the single biggest work is doing the notes, the footnotes. Because Lefebvre almost never referenced things properly and a lot of the references are obscure and so need to be corrected or clarified. So if I ever get the time to do another one I’d like to do a kind of “writings on politics”, or writings on politics and the urban. So this would collect all of the other urban writings of Lefebvre that haven’t been translated – there’s still some very interesting ones, some of them are political, some about social classes and the city for example – and do some of the more explicitly political writings alongside that. University of Minnesota Press are doing a translation of Marxist Thought and the City, so it would be the remaining things after that. But after that State, Space, World book Neil and I said we probably could have written a book together in the time it took us to do that. So there’s the issue of what do you do with your time.

Suneel Jethani: You’ve written extensively on Lefebvre’s affinity not only with Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche but also to Heidegger and Foucault. Given the centrality of the body that runs through much of Lefebvre’s work, how does Lefebvre’s conception of the body go beyond these thinkers, for instance through his engagement with Merleau-Ponty and Sartre?

SE: It’s a good question and I’m not sure I’ve got a very good answer to it. Merleau-Ponty is probably more important than Sartre. Lefebvre and Sartre had a difficult relationship and that existentialism book I just mentioned is an obvious example of why they didn’t get on terribly well. Sartre was a few years younger than Lefebvre but they are the same kind of generation and so there was some rivalry there. They had some kind of reconciliation later on in life. So in Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre says the key person to read on dialectics is Lefebvre and his approach to dialectics is “beyond reproach”. And Sartre picks up what Lefebvre calls the regressive-progressive mode of analysis and Sartre uses that in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. But Lefebvre never, as far as I know, returned the favour in the sense of more careful engagement with Sartre’s work. I can’t remember any references where he goes into the Critique, for example, in detail and he was very sceptical about the early Sartre.

Merleau-Ponty I think is a more interesting example, but again it would be tangled up in the politics of how did they relate to the French Communist Party and particularly Les temps modernes, the journal, and the slightly prickly relation Lefebvre would have had with that journal. So, yes, where does he get the work on the body? It’s not through Heidegger, whose neglect of the body is well-known. I suspect it’s probably through Nietzsche: that would be the most obvious place for him to have found those kind of things and there are some references. There’s another book of his on philosophy that I think should be translated, it’s a book called Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, where he talks through how those three thinkers are very important to him and what he takes from each of them. With Lefebvre’s reading of Nietzsche it’s around kind of ideas of creating, creation, rather than just production. But also the body and interesting questions of works of art and so on. So I’d suspect it’s Nietzsche rather than those other writers that he’d be taking and developing some of those themes from.

His relation to Foucault, just to clarify: Lefebvre couldn’t stand Foucault, he found Foucault problematic in all sorts of ways. Foucault, as far as I know, only mentions Lefebvre once in a recently published interview, and it’s a throwaway, dismissive comment. It’s interesting that you sometimes have these people that…now, reading Foucault and Lefebvre together has become quite common. These people can reinforce each other and this has been done in some creative ways. You can date it back to Edward Soja’s work for example in the 1980s, or in French a Swiss geographer called Claude Raffestin who writes a book in 1980, Pour une géographie du pouvoir, “For a Geography of Power”, and he’s reading Lefebvre and Foucault together and now that’s quite common. But in 1980 that was highly unusual. So you do get people trying to put them together today, but almost everything Lefebvre says about Foucault is critical, there are references in various places. It’s strange how some of those French thinkers are very close and always engaging with each other, and other times people are working almost entirely apart from each other. So Derrida, for example, never mentions Lefebvre; it’s kind of strange isn’t it?

SJ: I wanted to talk a bit about rhythmanalysis and particularly its relation to Lefebvre’s conception of the body. Much of the analytic potential of rhythmanalysis stems from its unfinished nature. What directions do you see rhythmanalysis being taken in? Are there particular contemporary social practices where you see rhythmanalysis being particularly valuable in understanding hidden mechanisms of power or poorly understood political nuances of the body and of space?

SE: It’s interesting to me that Rhythmanalysis has been picked up more than any other book of Lefebvre’s that I’ve been involved in. It’s sold the most copies and it’s certainly had the most references compared to Key Writings or State, Space, World. I thought this was a little bit unusual because it’s an interesting book but it is unfinished, it is a little bit clumsy in places and it’s not really fully worked through. You know, we don’t know quite how much Lefebvre felt he needed to do on the manuscript when he died and it was published after his death And it’s a complicated thing because he co-wrote a couple of pieces leading up to it with his wife, Catherine Régulier. The book, though, comes out only under his name so it’s not entirely clear how much he wrote, how much she wrote and is unacknowledged, how much was done by René Lourau who did the editorial work after Lefebvre’s death. So it’s a kind of ambiguous text compared to ones Lefebvre finished. Also, he was writing this in his late 80s and early 90s. So it’s a slightly ambiguous text in a whole range of ways and that’s possibly why there’s a lot of potential to open up and exploit it. Though people have certainly found his everyday life work and The Production of Space productive too, even though those were works that he published earlier in his career. Although we tend to forget he was 73 when The Production of Space came out and we tend to think of that as an earlier writing, but it’s actually quite late writing by most people’s standards.

Where is it going? What I think is interesting is that there’s not been an enormous amount of work that’s picked up and used it. It quite often gets referenced, but I’ve not seen huge numbers of appropriations of it. There are a few places: there’s a book called Geographies of Rhythm that Tim Edensor edited a couple of years ago, it had a couple of essays that were trying to sort of pick up and develop it. Some other geographers have written about the question of rhythm and Lefebvre is one of the people that they’ve discussed, although others like Deleuze and Guattari also come in for thinking about these questions. As for how useful it is… well, for me what I thought was good about it was that it was a book that would open up the fact that Lefebvre wasn’t just interested in space and challenging the ways we thought about space. He was also interested in thinking about time differently and you can find that in a number of places in Lefebvre’s work. So he does work on the question of “the moment” and how we think about these kind of moments of change. He does that particularly in a book called La Somme et la Reste, “The Sum and the Remainder”, which is a kind of intellectual autobiography of the first 55 years or so of his life and career that he writes at the moment he’s leaving the French Communist Party. So it’s a sort of summation of where he is and an opening to the new direction, “freed from the party shackles” kind of thing. He writes an interesting book about history in 1970 called La fin de l’histoire which talks about history and historical temporality and so on. And then Rhythmanalysis with the idea of rhythms and challenging linear notions of time and the cyclical.

So there’s quite a lot in Lefebvre where he does work on time and rethinking and challenging calendar time, clock time. And some of that ties to Marx, the working day, the rhythms of the working day and so on, that goes to what we now call cultural studies-type work. So I hope there is quite a lot potential but it’s for others to do. Lefebvre didn’t give us more than is included in that book, which included two related essays, though there’s one piece on music “Musique et sémiologie” that I wanted to include in Rhythmanalysis but it was not possible in terms of what the contract allowed. But apart from that I can’t really think of any other places where Lefebvre does this, so it’s almost for his readers and a new generation of people to pick up. You know, is this useful, can we do things with it? And I think people are starting to do that, but it’s not something I can imagine I’m going to do much with. This is one of the things about translation – this is why I don’t want to be seen as knocking translators, or the great need for translations – because translation makes possible appropriations. And you’ll find this with any number of translations, what’s interesting there is what people can then go and do with it. So I’m interested to see what people can do with rhythmanalysis even though that’s not where my work is going to go.

DL: You’ve mentioned on your blog a future project that aims to take the idea of geopolitics seriously by extrapolating the concept of territory not just to countries and regions, but also to the level of the Earth and the processes of the land and global politics. Although this project is in the early stages, can you talk about how this will work? The field of international relations has long been concerned with questions of post-nationalism and global governance, but it seems like you’re reaching towards something more in the realm of materialism and “deep time” geology than this?


SE: I had the thought for a number of years of doing something on…it was originally the concept of world. So “world” as it appears in a number of thinkers working after Heidegger. So Eugen Fink was one of the thinkers that I did some work on; Kostas Axelos was another. The world is important in terms of what I’ve done around Lefebvre. So I had this idea at one point of bringing these interests together and if I could develop something around the way that the concept of world is being thought and if I could extend it to more contemporary thinkers: Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Peter Sloterdijk. So, people that are thinking about the world or the global as a concept and then how I could put that work into dialogue with all this work on globalisation and global studies more generally. I thought for a while about how I could do this. I thought one of the problems with all that global literature was that it wasn’t very good on concepts. And yet, you’ve got all this philosophical work that isn’t very good on anything to do with the world: it’s good on the concept of the world but it’s not very good on global politics or the world today as we imagine it.

So I had one version of this as a project that I tried to get funding for to allow me to do this. I didn’t end up getting funding, so I put the project to one side. But the idea with that was to take specific concepts or specific practices and try and stage a dialogue between some of the philosophical work and some of the more contemporary kind of “political detail” work. And so I had various bits around this. I had a paper on the concept of the fossil which Quentin Meillassoux picks up in his work and says this is one of the reasons why a lot of philosophical work falls down: because it can’t deal with something that precedes human existence, precedes human cognition. So this is the critique of what he calls “correlationism”. So in this paper what I tried to do is to say that actually there is a significant amount of philosophical work around the question of fossils. The three people that I picked were Leibniz, Kant and Foucault, all of whom discuss fossils in different places. So it was an attempt to say that Leibniz was pre-Kantian, a kind of pre-correlationist. Kant is the first person who puts it in the frame that Meillassoux does. Then Foucault is one of the people who seems to be, on that reading, problematic for those kind of readings. The idea was to say that they all talk about fossils and if you recognised this, could you then have a different dialogue between these contemporary thinkers and some of the historical ones? I haven’t submitted this paper anywhere but have given it as a talk a couple of times.

Then I had ideas of doing things on the notion of volume, of space in three dimensions not two, which I did publish as a paper; on the notion of violence, on the notion of play, and so on. So the idea was picking these concepts and practices and studying this relation between contemporary debates and historical conceptual debates. But I didn’t end up delivering on that project, partly because I didn’t have the funding and partly because it started to mutate into something different which is where I’m thinking at the moment. This is that there’s a lot of interesting debates about the notion of the “geo”, as in the earth or the world. So people like Elizabeth Grosz within philosophy. Some geographers have also started to engage with her work. People like Nigel Clark, Arun Saldanha, Kathryn Yusoff have all picked up on what Grosz is particularly doing with this and asking “could we call this political geology” or something along those lines? In a way the notion of geo-politics ought to be able to speak to a kind of politics of the earth and yet geopolitics today has often been effectively turned into big international politics. It’s evident in some of the things that you just mentioned in terms of global governance, post-nationalism and so on. It’s not that that work isn’t valuable, it’s just not particularly where I’m interested in thinking about this. But coming from having eleven years in a Geography department and now being back in a Politics and International Studies department, I’m thinking what would happen if we took the “geo” in geopolitics seriously? How could we think about some of these questions?

People like Simon Dalby are doing work on this on geopolitics of climate change. The geopolitics of climate change has to be something that takes earth-processes seriously. But could we think also about this kind of geopolitics in terms of states and their boundaries? So rivers are often used as boundaries between states, but rivers are a dynamic feature of the landscape rather than a static one. Or could you think of something like what Phil Steinberg at Durham is doing around the idea of ice as a material element on which people live, on which property over land is asserted, particularly, say, in frozen parts of Canada. But with global climate change ice is becoming a much more dynamic feature of the landscape. So if you’re going to take ice as something, rather than solid land or water, but as something that moves between them at different times of the year and has different temporalities and materialities and so on: how do you then think about the geopolitics of ice in particular? So I think there’s something to be done around those kinds of questions and some of my work is starting to point in the direction of those ideas. In particular, in dialogue with the anthropologist Gastón Gordillo, I’ve begun thinking seriously about the concept of terrain. But I’ve got so many other projects on the go at the moment and I’m prioritising certain ones.

DL: So do you imagine this might be a book project or something more research-based? Can you envision yourself doing any empirical work for this project, for instance?

SE: I’m thinking of it as a book, and after I finish two Foucault books, and hopefully one on Shakespeare, it may be what’s next. I’ve already got some material to draw on, such as the “Secure the Volume” piece I published in 2013, and some talks on terrain and the geophysics of borders and territory.

As for the second question, it depends what you mean by empirical. The “Volume” piece, for example, discussed a whole range of theoretical and empirical studies by others, and tried to develop a conceptual vocabulary to make sense of all this. But the talk was also illustrated by a number of photographs I’d taken when in Israel/Palestine – in Jerusalem, in the West Bank in places like Area E1, and on the border between Israel and Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra. Some of those images made their way into the published text, and I discussed the places as examples to show what I was doing with the analysis. I’ve also used some photographs I’ve taken from visits to Hong Kong and on the Hong Kong/China border in talks I’ve given on the relation of territory and the urban; or examples from the trips I made to Nigeria in lectures. The river boundaries work is informed by the work of the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham, who I used to work with; and they are now doing this work on ice that I’ll be involved with. I am thinking that there might be a discussion of urban spaces in this project, and what I do in New York with the Centre for Urban Science and Progress as part of a partnership with Warwick may link to that. So there will certainly be engagements with specific places to illustrate the themes, and in that sense it will likely be more empirical than much of my work, though Terror and Territory has elements of this kind of work too.

DL: Recently there’s been a lot of attention paid in urban studies to the idea of analysing and reclaiming ‘abandoned’ and underutilised space in the city. What possibilities for resistance and empowerment in the less regulated, contested parts of contemporary cities do you think still exist? How do the shifting boundaries and power relations of cities figure into your current research on territory and urbanism?

SE: I think there are some interesting things to be done on what you might call different ways of utilising spaces in the city. There are ways that we are supposed to experience the city, ways that we are regulated in terms of flows that are allowed, flows that are channeled through particular spaces, say transit areas and so on. There are particular routes that authorities want people that are traveling to take. Then there are a whole set of other routes that people that are involved in maintenance, cleaning and security will use. It’s kind of like the aristocracy’s old houses, where you’d have all the servants’ corridors and quarters hidden away and you would have that all existing in the same overall space of the building. But you would do it in such a way that people don’t interlink unless they’re actually supposed to. There’s a little bit of that in how shopping centres are constructed, transit areas – train stations, subways and so on.

And there are people who are doing interesting work around, in a sense, opening up of those standard spaces that you’re not supposed to get into to. So people like Bradley Garrett, for example, who is a geographer at the University of Southampton, has written a book on exploring – what he calls “place hacking” – the city. The title of the book is Explore Everything. A lot of this is him and other people doing this urban exploration-type thing, but again getting into spaces which exist to make cities possible, infrastructures. They expose some of these places that are closed and now entirely locked away, like the Mail Rail in London which is an underground railway that used to be used to deliver parcels and letters through the city. They’re getting into this and opening it up as another space. Or you could look at abandoned bunkers for security purposes. So one of the things I tried to do in the “Secure the Volume” paper, for example, was to think about how a lot of this work on vertical geopolitics, aerial bombardment, aerial surveillance and drone flights by people like Stephen Graham, Eyal Weizman, Peter Adey, Derek Gregory and others can connect up to some of this work on urban exploration, the underground, the subterranean. So it was an attempt to say, “Okay, so we need to go up in that volumetric way of thinking about territory and space generally and we also need to go down: could you connect up these different literatures?”

Photograph of the disused Mail Rail in London, discussed in Garrett’s book Explore Everything. Source:
Photograph of the disused Mail Rail in London, discussed in Garrett’s book Explore Everything. Source:

So I think there are people who are thinking about those different ways of thinking about challenging and controlling and regulating cities that are different from the ways that organised power wants us to experience those kind of places. So there are projects looking at people who live underground, who have reclaimed infrastructure as a different form of home or housing environment. Occupy was also an interesting phenomena, in that “occupy” is obviously a very spatial term. As far as I know the only place that protestors didn’t want to call it “occupy” in was Israel, for obvious reasons. But occupying a space, a public space and reclaiming public space for the public. And one of the interesting things about the London one was the question of what was public space in that area? The place that they originally wanted to occupy was by the stock exchange and the Barbican centre, but they were denied that because it isn’t public space, it’s privately owned land. There are public rights to access it ordinarily, but these can be revoked and that’s why they ended up at St Paul’s Cathedral, because it was as close proximity to the space that they might have otherwise occupied.

So there are all sorts of interesting issues around that. I had a PhD student at Durham, Chaoqun Liu, who was working on public space as an issue and the question of land, particularly land rights, within cities. She was looking at London and Beijing to think about those kinds of questions. So there are people doing interesting work on this, although this is not particularly where my work is, other than that “Volume” paper. But there are lots of potentials for these sort of abandoned or reclaimed spaces. There’s a specific word, “spandrel”, that architects use for small spaces that are left over after a building has been completed, like the gap between a curved arch and a rectangular frame. Could that work at a larger scale? So maybe there’s some structural feature where its design leaves something almost like a void or vacuum-type space: could those be opened up and experienced in different ways?

DL & SJ: Thanks very much for talking to us Stuart and taking the time to answer our questions, and best of luck with your future projects!

SE: A pleasure. Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting questions.


Many thanks to Benjamin Nicoll for his help in copyediting this paper.


Suneel Jethani is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the media and communications program in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Suneel has an undergraduate degree in genetics and postgraduate qualifications in both marketing and media and communications. His current research looks at technologies that assist perception and track activity with a focus on their relationship to politics of space, time and body in the network epoch. His broader research interests include: critical disabilities studies, locative media, sensory studies, science and technology studies, philosophy of body and new media art. Suneel has published work in M/C Journal and The International Communication Gazette.


Dale Leorke is a PhD candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His thesis examines location-based gaming and play in public space, drawing on case studies of games and artistic projects that use mobile and locative media to bring digital play into physical spaces. His most recent work can be found on his research page:

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