Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stuart Elden's Terror and Territory

While I was preparing my talk for the RPA (yeah, I'm going to stop talking about it pretty soon), I read Stuart Elden's Terror and Territory (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). As I've been revising the paper, it has become clear that I've left much of the sovereignty talk behind, which means I won't be discussing this book in that essay. I highly recommend reading Elden's book, and here's why...

In general, much of this discussion of sovereignty, as it's been framed after Agamben has been, at least for me, has been conceptually suffocating. Too much sovereignty and theology, as if there weren't other important problems lurking behind the sovereign. Elden, to his credit, avoids this kind of talk. From my essay:
Insofar as territorial integration is part of the globalization and intensification of capitalism, Stuart Elden’s Terror and Territory shows how an analysis of sovereignty (both its projection and its collapse of absence) can be compatible with a critique of capitalism, when he reconstructs both how the ‘logic of integration’ (as shared—or coerced— political, economic, or ideological commitments) has been gradually accepted within international law, and how the use of humanitarian and military intervention has been normalized as a technique to maintain territorial integrity.
His account is more nuanced than Agamben's; Elden points out that Agamben’s incomplete account of the state “demonstrates a more significant weakness in account for the relation of sovereignty to territory." Because he proposes the camp as “the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity,” Agamben’s analyses focus on the intensification of sovereignty, without pursuing the consequences of “the absence or weakness of sovereign power.”

By contrast, Elden shows how the 'dialectic' of state sovereignty and its absence has lead to the contemporary 'logic' of intervention. He shows that intervention has been justified on three grounds. First, there is the inability of a state to protect its population from political and environmental catastrophe (including genocide, war, famine, and inability to protect refugees); these failures can result in humanitarian intervention. Second, a state may fail to exercise a monopoly of violence, which allows non-state actors (increasingly classified as terrorists) to operate within its territory. Third, a state may fail to control its borders, which leads to an increased threat of regional or global instability. Increasingly these distinctions have been collapsed through the “clumsy equivalence” (p. 172) of justifying intervention.

I would give this a stronger political (neo-Marxist?) twist: that intervention has also been used to prevent or interrupt challenges to hegemonic powers through the transformation or, if a cumbersome turn of phrase can be pardoned, the trans-integration of political, economic, or ideological commitments, the redistribution of the means of production or the attempt to integrate within an alternate regional economic system of distribution. One need only think of how the US interferes in Latin America under so-called democratic pretenses. This geographical zone is beyond the limits of Elden's inquiry, but it might help provide a fuller picture of sovereign relations outside of the framework of the war on terror.

I would suggest, for a reader with a background in philosophy, that you start with the fifth chapter, "Territorial Integrity and Contingent Sovereignty," to get the historical background on the problems raised by Elden's analysis, and then return to the start. You might also find the first chapter, analyzing the rhetoric of the Bush adminstration and other neo-cons a bit too historically close to home, for we are familiar with much of the details (though it's there to contrast with the territorial strategies of Islamism). However, historians and geographers will one day need to see what progressive thinkers thought about such rhetoric--and for those of you familiar with one of the talks at the RPA--it's better Elden than Bob Woodward.

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