Review of Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Territory

Elden's Birth of TerritoryReview of Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Territory (The University of Chicago Press, 201), 512 pages, $30.00

Reviewed by Dennis Crow


Elden deserves every accolade he receives for a remarkable book.  That phrase might suffice for a review, but it would hide the erudition that sets his book apart.  What is the territory of the Birth of Territory? The ostensible territory is stratified with texts, which figure “territory” as a concept and practice, or “technology” of political power.  Elden is not trying to find a mere intersection or conflation of geography and political theory.  Geography and political theory are intertwined with many crossroads in texts, political events, state rule, force, and economics.  We have not reached the terminus of this conceptual path.  Political power evolved to confine a state’s legitimate territory as a closed polygon on a map and borders on the ground;   while “territory” became a foundational concept of some political theory after the fact of states’ geographic reach.

Many questions frame the history of “territory:” (1) is “territory” a concept or a practice where there are not polygonal borders; (2) does politics and political authority apply to locations that are not circumscribed by polygonal borders; (3) how is “territory” represented in political authority where it may not be readily evident as the province of “territorial integrity”; (4) can there be borders where there is not a polygonal area that they circumscribe; (5) can attempted governance of “people” constitute the reach of authority or military presence rather than of polygonal territory; (6) does writing about the “birth of territory” imply the death of the need and capability of writing about geography when defining theory and practice of maintaining polygonal borders is challenged.  Elden’s extraordinary detailed scholarship is admirable as he interprets a history of political theory to address these implicit questions.

This powerful book is about words used as a political technology of power.  In the discipline of geoscience itself, it is as much about the work of labels in cartography as about that of figures in political theory. “Territory” is not a bounded concept but is “produced, mutable, and fluid.”(330)  it resounds with historical, geographical, and political questions.  Historical and literary rivers of this word circulate political power, authority, and administration, which often shaping them into maelstroms of destruction and suffering. As he depicts in Terror and Territory (2009) the word “territory’ is ambiguous– as sovereign political unit and/or as a bounded polygon of land –, and its multiple meanings can be leveraged by international forces to advance the suffering of others through “terrorism” or mistake intervention as the means of preserving sovereignty   In his wise attention to original sources in Greek and Latin, it is logical to acknowledge that these represent births already in progress and, ala Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 14), there is no straight line reading toward an original past or toward a calculable future. There is neither complete hindsight nor foresight about where the concept of territory leads.

Both Terror and Territory and The Birth of Territory frame questions of the “’spatial extent of sovereignty.’” (2009, 232) Elden’s book is a timely meditation on a contested concept when war over territory is hidden by political pronouncements, religious edicts, and sophistic punditry. Sometimes the conflict is over identifiable resources of oil, water, gold, uranium, etc and sometimes over the invisible and stateless capture of finance capital and debt.  Elden, in contrast, in his Terror and Territory  (Elden, 2009) notes that the relation of sovereignty and territory is one that demands renewed attention, both in terms of its conceptual, historical and legal background because of the changing nature of the relation today.” (177)

The many contradictions within phrases of sovereignty and territory as well as the untold number of breaches by states and groups underscore Elden’s concerns about what the word “territory” means.  The label of “territorial integrity” is rhetorically thrown about as if it had a meaning in political theory, law, or military action, especially one denoting what the general public understands.  “Sovereignty” is presumed to be kept inside the boundaries of “territory.”    How can territorial sovereignty be rendered contingent  and territorial preservation win out over territorial sovereignty, that is how can violating territorial sovereignty be construed as preserving territorial integrity (2009, 173)

While reading through the Elden’s well articulated analysis, one should keep in mind that the English word “territory” itself is surrounded with differences in translations, etymology, context, authentication, and all curiosities of philology. Elden is careful to acknowledge those as he moves along.  However, that makes the task of historical generalization and reconstruction difficult.  The celebrated Greek “polis” is not a specific place and its “demos” is not a group of people alone; the Roman “empire” did not have known boundaries; the historically broad Middle Ages did not culminate in rigidly bounded nations; and the concept of politics bounded by “territory” barely emerged in the 18th century.  This gestation and growing extent from point to polygon, arithmetic to geometry, and from loosely governed communities to nations’ absolutist states emerge with the “birth of territory,” as we are prone to think and exercise power over territory, since the 18th century

In the context of Greek culture, the name “polis” — taken as a concept, analogy, metonym, metaphor, paradigm, or model – in political theory assumed to be the cradle of “democracy.”  The polis is usually assumed to be a place.  With Elden’s elucidation, those notions are taken to task in terms of the relationship between people, political processes, and territory.  The presupposition that “polis” recalls a polygonal jurisdiction was, instead, a variety of points composed of groups and locations that bear little relationship to a single place, but was also a group of people associated with others associated with the same place; but that was not an enclosed space or adjacent closed spaces.

Elden provides a picture of the textual and historical indicators of what territory meant for the extent of the “Roman Empire” is often delineated on recent maps as if it covered or composed an array of polygonal territories.  The Roman Empire’s extension over time was marked by places and lines. Governance and defense of the empire were represented by lines of markers or military fortresses.  Walls, fortresses, and roads did not identify enclosures, but symbolized the presence of Roman authority and served as barriers.  Fortresses protected the roads along a route rather than enclosed a territory. Political authority spread with the power and spread of the church. Carving out loose configurations of polygonal boundaries, combinations of church authority, secular governance, and force enlarged territory even into unknown areas and unbounded territories.

At the end of his itinerary, Elden remarks that Rousseau accepted the fate circumscribing the relationships among territory, sovereignty, and people.  Rousseau acknowledged that ’individuals’ combined and contiguous pieces of become public territory and how the right of sovereignty, extended from subjects to the land they occupy, becomes once real and personal.’”  A person’s acceptance of sovereignty over that person’s residence is a sign of tacit consent.

The passages from Greece to England, from the classic age of the Greeks to the 18th century build up new vocabularies to explain and apply geographic terms. Elden surveys that trip and its changing signposts.  Analysis of the historical context of texts is coupled with the history of concepts required to document that history. The intertwined terms from geography, history, and political theory are place, politics, and people.  These are not reducible in their origin by assuming that political history is founded on the clear cut and enforceable authority over people who reside within a closed territory.  In comparison to Elden’s reading, the professional practice of geoscience seems to be a technological formalism.  However, that formalism gestated within the very concepts of land, ownership, and political authority represented through cartography and geosciences.   Whether symbolic or mimetic of the textual presentation of concepts of territory, arithmetic, geometry, and trigonometry grew into what we believe to be the science of geography today.

“Territory” with many translations or etymological derivations gave birth to the political technologies used to attempt to constrain sovereignty within confines of land boundaries that the term itself created. The term evolved in geographic and political vocabularies so such a degree that it grounded geography and political theory rather than the reverse. It is perhaps a word past its prime used in lieu of words we do not have and for on-going political and economic actions that we do not understand. Elden subtly implies at the very last sentence of the book that someone has announced an end of geography.  It is not geography that is at an end, but itinerary of our accustomed concept for it.   “Territory,” as a figure, is being washed away, while needing a rock to cling to, through political practices.  Politics, economics, and technology exceed our ability to conceptualize their ramifications in advance.

The political technology which is geography, as a scientific and administrative practice, has undone itself and has been transformed into a world of flows, drones, flights, lines, refugees, separatisms, and terrorisms both local and imperial. Just as the old geopolitical theories wreak their revenge on Central Europe, once again in support of subterfuges from West or East, the lack of a new vocabulary sinks chances for peace.  Elden notes that Althussias suggests that “’the territory of the realm is the bounded and described place, within which the laws of the realm are exercised.’” (2013, 283)

Elden quotes Tacitus discussing the extent of land and space (spatium): ““the distances were so great [distantibus terrarum spatiis] that the advice arrived after the event…”” (2013, 72)  Elden’s emphasis at this point and elsewhere is that territory and space depicted lines of distance, not a bounded polygon.  The advice would have had to travel this itinerary to arrive at its proper destination. On this journey, policy decisions arrived where they were needed too late to influence political outcomes, perhaps even too late to understand what had happened.  Similarly, according to Elden, Rousseau’s response to the coupling of territory and sovereignty came too late after it was well institutionalized and enforced by absolutist states. Even though he arrived too late to warn with his concept, Elden writes that Rousseau is a thinker of our time too.  In the cases of Tacitus, Leibniz, and Rousseau, a concept came too late to grasp the significance of of the political technology at work.

In addition to all the compelling analyses, Elden’s work teaches us a lesson that even now we are at a watershed of  needing a new vocabulary to address the fluid and liquid and transient movement of politics, administration, economics, and war.  Perhaps, the vocabulary of distance, itineraries, way points, and “lines of flight” will return when the extent of sovereignty can no longer be measured as an area of singular power.  In this case, the lines of distance and power will have been reduced to centimeters within the range of drones. Rather than the birth of territory being exhausted, transformation in a new round of, again too late, words, concepts, and figures is on the horizon.

Deleuze G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Elden, S. (2009) Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.


Dennis Crow is an Adjunct Instructor in Geography at Park University in the United States.  With an extensive background in political theory and critical theory, he has published two anthologies on urban planning, geography, postmodernism, as well as articles on critical public administration and numerous reviews on social theory.  He has taught geographic technology management at several universities.  While continuing his scholarly research, he has worked in geospatial analysis and geographic systems management for 30 years in the U.S. federal government.


Readers may also be interested in the following TCS material:

Andrea Mubi Brighenti

On Territorology: Towards a General Science of Territory

Theory, Culture & Society, January 2010; vol. 27, 1: pp. 52-72.


Dariusz Gafijczuk

Resonant Topographies: Central Europe’s Paradoxical Middle

Theory, Culture & Society May 2012 29: 52-71


Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson

Between Inclusion and Exclusion: On the Topology of Global Space and Borders

Theory, Culture & Society, July–September 2012; vol. 29, 4-5: pp. 58-75




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