Contemporary political theorists continue to question the normative value of the nation state which, since the seventeenth century, has served as the fundamental unit of political and territorial organization. Given the inability of certain states to protect basic human rights and the continuing plight of stateless refugees, theorists study alternative forms of political organization, including international non-governmental organizations and supranational bodies like the European Union, offering normative critiques of the state of international play. Stuart Elden tackles a more basic question than the failings of the nation state in The Birth of Territory through a historical and textual study of the central geographic concept of territory. Elden’s book is more a contribution to the study of geography than to political theory, but it will be useful for scholars in both fields.
Where previous authors have tended to discuss the word territory in stagnant terms, Elden offers close readings of key Western thinkers to show that the word has evolved in meaning and relevance. Territory, Elden explains, is an oft used, but little understood concept that underlies historic debates about political power from the ancient to modern worlds. He describes his work as a “genealogical account” as that phrase was used by Foucault. That is, while he proceeds through historical study of key texts that use the word territory (and its semantic predecessors), he does not assume that the meaning is constrained by authorial intent. Instead, the term gains meaning both through the intent of individual authors in their writings, as well as through the term’s use in the broader scholarly and political community. He seeks the definition of territory not merely in given texts, but in an atmosphere in which those texts are debated across centuries. Elden explains that “[t]he approach employed is thus both textual, with all references traced back to their original languages, and contextual, in which texts are resituated in their time and place. . . it is avowedly political, undertaking this work as part of a wider project that aspires to be a ‘history of the present.’” (8). In telling that history, Elden reflects upon debates about politics, religion, space, property, and origin from ancient Greece to early modern Europe.
Elden structures the book chronologically, developing a lexicon of terms and a list of concepts that shape modern understandings of territory. Chapter 1, “The Polis and the Khora ” attempts to discern concepts of territory from ancient Greek texts, focusing on authors like Homer, Euripides, Aeschylus, Plato, and Aristotle. Elden begins his analysis with a study of the concept of autochthony, the idea that man springs naturally from the earth, as a way to explore the relationship between location, the person, and polis. He begins to build a vocabulary that includes concepts of place, boundary, community and politics. Chapter 2 focuses on Roman authors, including Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Tacitus. Elden examines the use of terms ranging from imperium to territorium, focusing on how Roman authors explore concepts of private ownership and geography during both the republic and the empire.
Chapters 3-6 explore the medieval period to show how concepts of territory were tied together with concepts of religious power and political sovereignty. “The Fracturing of the West” provides a survey of early medieval figures from Saint Augustine to Isidore of Seville to the author of Beowulf. Describing the world after Rome’s fall, Elden explores new ideas of exchange, political conflict and identity. In “The Reassertion of Empire,” Elden ranges from discussing concepts of territory in the false Donation of Constantine and political ritual under the reign of Charlemagne, to an examination of the rise and evolution of cartography. In “The Pope’s Two Swords,” Elden explores the idea of the body politic through the work of John of Salisbury and the distinction between secular and church power. He then continues his exploration of the split between secular and temporal power, and the rise of temporal theorists like Dante and Marsilius of Padua in “Challenges to the Papacy.” Chapter 7, “The Rediscovery of Roman Law” adds jurisprudence to the equation, looking at how the concept of territory grew out of the codification of Roman law under Justinian. Elden continues his discussion of the political nature of territorium by focusing on how the law helped to establish clear sovereign boundaries over territories.
As Elden turns to the Renaissance and early modern period, his focus shifts from debates between church and state to debates about how to accommodate the expansion of maps from Europe to the New World. Chapter 8, “Renaissance and Reconnaissance” surveys the writings of authors ranging from Machiavelli and Thomas More to Erasmus and Shakespeare. Finally, Chapter 9, “The Extension of the State,” extends the conversation to the scientific revolution, discussing figures like Spinoza and Descartes, and social contract theorists like Hobbes and Locke. In his Coda, “Territory as a Political Technology,” Elden reiterates his basic thesis that territory should be understood as an evolving term, best expressed in the modern world as a “bundle” of political technologies which act as the “extension of the state’s power.” That is, territory reflects various ways in which the state expresses itself. It is “not simply land, in the political-economic sense of rights to use, appropriation, and possession attached to a place; nor is it a narrowly political-strategic question that is closer to a notion of terrain” (322-23). Instead, territory seems to be space not merely in a physical sense, but in an intellectual sense—it is a space in which various historic political, military, economic, and geostrategic debates play themselves out.
Elden’s book is filled with engaging insights about a number of authors. Unfortunately, as the book progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to find a clear narrative thread. He achieves his stated purpose, of showing that territory as a concept has evolved in the West, but at a clear cost. By the time Elden has moved to the middle ages, it is difficult to glean more than scattered insights into individual authors. Those insights, of course, are valuable on their own. Nevertheless, the book often feels choppy and in his movement between authors and time periods, the book ends up feeling more like a survey of Western political thought than a sustained argument about the idea of territory. Elden does reveal the diversity of views about territory throughout Western history and makes a compelling case for revisiting the basic terms that define the international political system. The value of Elden’s book may only be revealed, however, if (as they should) political theorists begin to grapple with questions of geography and territory in a more systematic way.