May 2017: Workshop Report from Territory in Indeterminate and Changing Environments (Amsterdam)

Workshop on Territory in Indeterminate and Changing Environments

Territory Subproject

The first meeting of the Territory subtheme was held on 12 May 2017 at the University of Amsterdam, hosted by ACCESS-Europe.

This workshop explored the extent to which political-legal concepts of territory depend upon an assumption of a stable and dry land. How are these complicated by indeterminate and changing environments? Such environments might include oceans, sea-ice, glaciers, rivers, the submarine and the subterranean. While commonly understood as a bounded space under the control of a group of people, territory embodies a complex bundle of relations – political, geographical, economic, strategic, legal and technical. Questions of the materiality of territory – what might be called the question of terrain – remain underexplored. While the question of ice is at the heart of this project’s concerns, many of the issues raised apply to other parts of the Earth, and indeed to an adequate political-legal theory of territory more generally. Essentially the key aim of this workshop is to begin thinking about how theories of territory can better account for the complexities of the geophysical.

The participants were Luiza Bialasiewicz (Amsterdam), Johanne Bruun (Durham), Stuart Elden (Warwick), Juliet Fall (Geneva), Marieke de Goede (Amsterdam), Moriel Ram (Warwick/UCL), Isobel Roele (Queen Mary), Rachael Squire (Royal Holloway), Philip Steinberg (Durham) and Darshan Vigneswaran (Amsterdam).


After a brief introduction to the project and sub-theme from Stuart Elden, the first session was chaired by Marieke de Goede. Juliet Fall presented on ‘Biosecure Territories’. Her paper explored the way that native and invasive or alien species of organisms, especially plants, become objects of governance, and can either be seen as in need of protection or eradication. As she asked, “how does the biopolitical imperative to create identifiable objects to be governed link up to the often messy and paradoxical nature of these species that are only identified as problematic because of their location?” The paper linked to her earlier work exploring and challenging ideas of ‘natural borders’, and explored the relation between territory and nature, especially the idea that invasive species had to come from somewhere.

Philip Steinberg gave a paper entitled ‘The Territory of Sea Ice’, which explicitly contested the land-water distinction that underpins the Western legal-political tradition. Blurring both geophysical state and geopolitical relations, in icy regions the relation between land and water is highly variable, both seasonally and in the longer term due to climate change. Ice exemplifies the dynamism and mobility, in both time and space, which the ‘Indeterminate and Changing Environment’ aspect of this project seeks to examine. The paper clearly showed that the definition of ‘ice’ is not straight-forward and often disputed. Looking at efforts to define and map sea ice, for political, resource or other issues, the paper demonstrated the contested nature of the division.

In the final paper of this session Rachael Squire discussed her work on ‘Sub-marine Territory and Terrain’, looking particularly at US undersea bases in the Cold War. This was the Sealab project, which examined the possibilities and challenges of living on the seafloor for days or weeks at a time. The paper examined in particular detail the idea of ‘silt’, the suspension of solid matter in water; and the complications of pressure on the human body. It proposed the notion of ‘cyborg territory’ to theorise “the enmeshing of technology, bodies, and elements in the extreme space of the sea floor”. This provided a valuable insistence on the importance of thinking about the body in the terrain or territory, especially in such extreme environments.

The second session was chaired by Luiza Bialasiewicz. Johanne Bruun gave a paper entitled ‘Militarising the Greenland ice sheet’, which looked at the work of US military scientists in the 1950s. The focus was on Project ‘Jello’, a glaciological study of the ice sheet. This example showed the interrelation of science and politics, and the way that the physicality of the ice sheet as terrain complicated the surveyors’ work. Again there was an insistence on the relation of bodies to these environments, of geographies and corpographies.

Finally, Moriel Ram presented on ‘Snow matters: The Geopolitics of Snow in the Golan Heights’. Concentrating on the militarised Mount Hermon ski site in the Golan Heights which Israel occupied from Syria in the June 1967 war, the paper explored the way that snow held various political and social resonances. While Mount Hermon has become a popular ski resort, it has required forced population removal and settlement, and other economic, military and political transitions. The paper explored colonial aspects of the site, along with the way whiteness matches both the materiality of snow, and the racial project.

The final session was a roundtable chaired by Stuart Elden. The aim of the session was to bring in people with a less direct relation to the theme, but with an interest in the topics from their own work. Isobel Roele works on property and public international law, global governance and the UN Security Council. Her comments looked at the materiality of the environments being discussed, and the notion of the human in relation to nature. She noted that the law has always worked through the human and their activity in relation to the environment.

Marieke de Goede works on politics and political economy, and recently has been examining issues around data, risk and security. Her comments raised the question of the mobility of law and its perfomative nature, thinking about the idea of jurisdiction and the materiality of its application. One of her examples was Louise Amoore’s work on geographies of the ‘cloud’, suggesting this might raise different questions about the material architectures of terrain.

Darshan Vigneswaran has interests in migration, ethnic studies and territory. He noted the language of calculation which had been explored in a number of papers, and wondered if the suggestion was that this was a response to the ‘indeterminate’. He noted that the Anthropocene had largely been absent from the discussions, despite the focus in the ICE-LAW project generally. He also raised some further questions about the law.

The papers and roundtable discussants were chosen to exemplify a number of themes. Ice, then, was understood in both a specific sense of frozen water, and the expanded sense of ICE – indeterminate and changing environments. While the workshop did not provide any definitive answers, it did show the fertility of the diverse empirical work being done, and the usefulness and limits of the theoretical terms being discussed. At one point Phil Steinberg wondered if the project was moving from the ‘Territory’ subproject to the ‘Terrain’ subproject. ‘Terrain’ is becoming a focus of my own work, as a way to make sense of the physical materiality of territory. It seems that the term may be useful to continue thinking along these lines, without that yet becoming the explicit focus.

The next workshop of this theme will be held at the University of Warwick in the autumn of 2017. Some of the closing discussion began thinking about its focus and possible speakers.


About the Speakers

Luiza Bialasiewicz is Jean Monnet Professor of EU External Relations at the University of Amsterdam. She works on the political geographies of European integration and European borders. She is the editor of Europe in the World: EU Geopolitics and the Making of European Space (Ashgate 2011) and co-author of Spazio e Politica: Riflessioni di geografia critica (CEDAM 2004).

Johanne Bruun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, Durham University. Her thesis explores the role of science in constructing territory across a range of geologic volumes in Greenland during the Cold War. The specific focus is Danish explorations, which focused on digging down to obtain extractible resources, and US activities which were much more concerned with exploring how an icy environment can be interpreted and constructed as terrain. Her work has been published in Polar Geography and Geography Compass.

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick. He works on various historical, political and conceptual aspects of the question of territory, and on twentieth-century French thought, especially Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre. Among his books are Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) and The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Juliet Fall is a Professor of Geography at the University of Geneva. She is a political and environmental geographer working within political geography on political boundaries and nature; in political ecology on protected areas, biosecurity, invasive species, and ecosystem services; in visual studies on filmmaking and on comic books; and in the history of ideas within geography and social science. She is the author of Drawing the Line: Nature, Hybridity and Politics in Transboundary Spaces (Ashgate, 2005).

Marieke de Goede is Professor of Politics at the University of Amsterdam, with a focus on ‘Europe in a Global Order’. She is currently working on funded projects concerning data, risk and terror, and on art and cultural politics in post 9/11 Europe. She is the author of Virtue, Fortune, and Faith: A Genealogy of Finance (University of Minnesota Press, 2005) and Speculative Security: The Politics of Pursuing Terrorist Monies (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

Moriel Ram is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London, and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London. His research interests lie at the intersection of militaristic geographies of death, urban geopolitics of faith and medical spatialities of health. His work on Israel and Northern Cyprus has been published in Antipode and Political Geography.

Isobel Roele is Lecturer in Property Law at Queen Mary, University of London, and deputy director of QMUL’s Centre for Law and Society in a Global Context. She works on themes including public international law, global governance and institutions, and collective security and the United Nations. She is currently writing a book for Cambridge University Press entitled Collective Security and its Infra-Law.

Rachael Squire is a Lecturer in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is completing her PhD. She works on a critical geopolitics of undersea spaces, exploring the function of concepts like territory and terrain beyond terra, the interplay between the human body and extreme environments, and the role of the non-human in characterising territorial volumes. Her work has been published in Area, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and the Routledge Handbook of International Political Sociology.

Philip Steinberg is Professor of Geography and Director of IBRU: Centre for Borders Research at Durham University. His research focuses on the historical, ongoing, and, at times, imaginary projection of social power onto spaces whose geophysical and geographic characteristics make them resistant to state territorialization. These spaces include the world-ocean, the Arctic, and the universe of electronic communications. Among other books he is the co-author of Managing the Infosphere: Governance, Technology, and Cultural Practice in Motion (Temple University Press, 2008) and Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North (I.B. Tauris, 2015).

Darshan Vigneswaran is Co-Director of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam. He is one of the editors of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, author of Territory, Migration and the Evolution of the International System (Palgrave, 2013), and co-editor of Mobility Makes States: Migration and Power in Africa (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) and Slavery, Migration and Contemporary Bondage in Africa (Africa World Press, 2013).