Recent news has featured many narratives about “land grabs”: battles over whether the Crimean peninsula and its people are Russian or Ukrainian, multilateral tensions in the South China Sea over new and old marine boundaries and resources, conflicting claims for offshore areas extending to the North Pole instigated by ice-free summers. Such events highlight how important territory is to modern states and peoples. Yet the meanings and practices of territory are often taken for granted in the media and academia alike.

In Stuart Elden’s new book, The Birth of Territory, the key question is “what is the relation between place and power?”11 He seeks to demonstrate the fluid nature of our concept of territory with an historical analysis of the ways in which people and space have been organized in different times and locations. The fluid nature of territory reveals that the present-day definition is not a timeless truth passed down from the beginnings of civilization. Even in our current geopolitical landscape there are many variations on the theme of territory. If observed in detail, this spectrum of themes manifests a variety of arrangements and articulations of land, people, and power. The dominant definitions of territory, as realized in bounded, sovereign nation-states, are certainly not monolithic or singular. Moreover, the great control and commonplace violence that states wield in procuring and governing the borders and interior of established territories, begs further interrogation of power and space. Elden contributes to this interrogation by arguing that “[t]he idea of a territory as a bounded space under the control of a group of people, with fixed boundaries, exclusive internal sovereignty, and equal external status is historically produced.”12

Elden is well positioned for this task. He teaches both political theory and geography at the University of Warwick. He is the author of several books, chapters, and articles on territory1 but also writes extensively on Foucault, Heidegger, Kant, Lefebvre, and Shakespeare. He also maintains a blog, Progressive Geographies. In all his prolific writing, an extreme precision and depth can be found to his historical research and the same is true in his tome, The Birth of Territory.

Geography scholarship has produced many detailed interrogations of commonly used geographical concepts such as space2, place3, scale4, and nature5, revealing inherent political and social valuations and constructions, as well as contentious and shifting meanings. Territory is an inherently spatial and political category and therefore fundamentally within the geographer’s sphere. Yet Elden’s book goes deeper in examining the concept territory than most of the preceding scholarship. Utilizing a Foucauldian methodology, tracing the genealogy of ideas through discourse analysis, Elden delves into a multitude of western historical texts to study territory as a concept that is “historically examined rather than simply differently ordered at different times.”13 Like Foucault, Elden is thoroughly centered on Western thought for this research, which he accounts for by stating “a study has to begin somewhere, and the kind of approach being offered here requires some limits of temporality, scope, and especially linguistic competence.”14 How non-Western thought contributes, or doesn’t contribute, to the historical production of territory is a question we can only hope future geography scholarship will address.

The contemporary understanding of territory, as “a politically and geographically bounded space belonging to, or under the control of, a state”,15 has commonly been traced back to the 1648 Westphalia Treaties. Elden starts his investigations much further back than this, with Ancient Greek ideas of polis, khora, demos, and autochthony, “the idea that men sprang up fully formed, born of the earth” as expressed in myth and tragedy, treatises and dialogues.6 His sprawling textual study is careful and precise, critiquing and retranslating other scholar’s translations, “[t]he polis and the khora are two terms that defy simplistic translation, and need to be understood in the different contexts of texts and time.”7 Such etymological attention is a key component of his method. Although this book is laid out chronologically, Elden traces many of the Greek concepts to later texts throughout the chapters. Texts and concepts are woven together across time and space to elucidate important relationships between spatial thinkers and their (pre)territorial thoughts.

Through the Roman Era and Middle Age texts of Aquinas, Dante’s Commedia and Monarchia, Papal Bulls and disputes, Elden maps out large shifts in thought, such as fundamental changes in the relations between the church and secular rulers or the rediscovery of Greek works. Yet, there is also time spent on details and tangential political thoughts, which adds a great deal of context to the discussion. But this also distracts at times. Portions of the book don’t feel like they are gaining much ground in tracing lineages that will benefit our understanding of territory and a reader feels a bit adrift in some of the finer points about the two swords of spiritual and temporal power or various disputes between kings, popes and political theorists. Nevertheless, these diverging paths are a tribute to the antiteleological underpinnings of the book: political thoughts and their material outcomes in time and space are not all leading to some inevitable modern era apex. Methodologically, this should be celebrated, even if in practice it seems tedious. Patience is paid off with the fourteenth-century synthesis of Aristotelian thought with Roman law brings together “two strands of ancient thought in a modern context [whose] importance is fundamental to the developments that followed from this time.” This leads to an understanding between territorium and jurisdiction, “territorium is the very thing over which political power is exercised; it becomes the object of rule itself” aligning it with something sufficiently close to our understanding of territory that it can be translated as such.8

The European “discovery” of the New World compelled new relationships between occupation and land ownership. Where lands are unknown, calculation works best to divide it and signatories to the Treaty of Tordesillas utilized increasingly precise longitudinal measurement to divide up oceans and continents. Elden proceeds onto Renaissance era texts to elucidate some Machiavelli’s and Bodin’s thoughts on territorial ordering and conquest as well as territory’s correlations with property, sovereignty, and politics. The seventeenth century writings of Althusius provide a definition of territory, which is a bounded place of where laws are exercised. After Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke offer modern early political debates, Elden ends with a brief section analyzing territory as a political technology. “[T]he notion of space that emerges in the scientific revolution is defined by extension. Territory can be understood as the political counterpart to this notion of calculating space, and can therefore be thought of as the extension of the state’s power.”9 It is here that the upsetting of territory as a fixed and stable concept finds a way to be operationalized as an opening to further study of “the nation and the technical” and Elden hopes that this book “will provide a historical and theoretical background to those studies.”10

The Birth of Territory is already being used for further studies (having been cited at least 47 times). It has also won the 2013 Association of American Geographers Meridian Book Award and was awarded an inaugural book award by journal Global Discourse. These are proof that such a volume on territory was in need of writing. However, it should be noted that the bulk of this book is most relevant to a subset of political historians that are territorial specialists. A larger audience will surely embrace derivative scholarship that utilizes Elden’s book in a more broadly engaging and distilled format.

  1. Stuart Elden, “Terror and Territory,” Antipode 39, no. 5 (2007): 821–845; “Land, Terrain, TerritoryProgress in Human Geography 34, no. 6 (2010): 799–817; “Thinking Territory Historically,” Geopolitics 15, no. 4 (2010): 757–761; “Thinking Territory Politically,” Political Geography 29, no. 4 (2010): 238–241. 

  2. Deborah Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005); Nigel J. Thrift, “Space,” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 2-3 (2006): 139–55. 

  3. Edward Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). 

  4. Sallie A. Marston, John Paul Jones III, and Keith Woodward, “Human Geography Without Scale,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30, no. 4 (2005): 416-432. 

  5. Noel Castree, Nature (New York: Routledge, 2005); Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991); Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). 

  6. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 22. 

  7. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 52. 

  8. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 220. 

  9. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 322. (Available online.) 

  10. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 323. 

  11. Elden, Birth of Territory, p.10. 

  12. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 18. 

  13. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 6. 

  14. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 21. 

  15. Elden, Birth of Territory, p. 39.