Professor Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory and Geography, University of Warwick
As someone who has no expertise in polar-regions or ice more generally, I was very much an interested outsider in the discussions. My work has been concerned with questions of sovereignty, power and, especially, territory – from historical, conceptual and political perspectives. My contribution to the workshop – and potentially to future work – was to reflect on how this thinking on territory, wider debates on the topic, and ongoing and future work on what might be called geopolitical materialism, may be helpful.
I fully accept that standard definitions of territory are inadequate to conceptualizing water, or the water-land interface of which ice is a particularly striking example. They are inadequate in part, I think, because they are of limited use in understanding territory on land. Many of the issues raised about the complexities of ice seem to me to similarly highlight the complications of thinking about territory more generally.
But much recent work on territory has suggested that ideas of territory as bounded spaces with control exercised within them is at a best a partial definition that needs to be challenged. This might be done conceptually – such as conceiving of territory as a process rather than as an outcome, as something continually made and remade, as dynamic. It might be done historically – showing how the standard definition of territory is the product of complicated and contested histories, involving understandings with quite distinct lineages combined in complicated and challenging ways. It could be through examination of different political arrangements and settlements, highlighting the ever-contested nature of political-spatial relations. And it could obviously be done through a combination of these or more.
Ice was seen as particular example of the interrelation of water and land, and the dynamic nature of this relation. Yet there are other instances where this relation complicates static, fixed ideas of territory. River deltas, for example, or any landscapes affected by seasonal variation challenge a simple land versus water distinction. They can also blur the drawing of lines – in antiquity, some of the earliest geometers were sent out annually to re-survey the boundaries between farmland that the Nile flood had erased. River boundaries generally are a good example of the contrast between a supposedly fixed political division and a dynamic feature of the landscape. IBRU’s previous work on the International River Boundaries Database provided very valuable information on the challenges of using a natural feature to mark a political boundary. Similarly, there are boundaries in high mountain areas, sometimes straddled by glaciers, which will again be affected by the climate change results of global warming. Sea-level rise will change the boundaries of states on land and, by implication, their maritime claims as baselines change. In some low-lying Pacific islands, for instance, territory may disappear entirely. The particularities of polar-regions, therefore, may be extreme examples of more general trends of the difficult relation between politics and geography. How should the geopolitical take account of the geophysical? The question is to what extent existing work on territory is sufficiently attuned to these complexities, and whether the resources of the most useful of that work help us to make sense of them.
These questions relate to work I hope to undertake over the next several years on the geographical element embedded within the term ‘geopolitics’. There is something of a tendency to see ‘geopolitics’ as large international relations, perhaps at a global scale. The shift from old-style geopolitics, with its ‘geographical determinism’ and reactionary and regressive politics to ‘critical geopolitics’ in the 1980s, has again been transformed in recent years to the point where talk of ‘geopolitics’ no longer raises the old concerns. But in so doing, the specifically ‘geo’ element has increasingly been underplayed. I’m interested in exploring the ‘earth politics’ sense of geopolitics, through taking the materiality of these questions seriously. There are many people currently working on related issues. Such work might take various forms. One aspect has been the question of volume in relation to territory – thinking beyond a rather flat, two-dimensional, cartographic imagination, in order to think about the vertical, the aerial and the subsoil. Borrowing a term from cartography, I’ve explored this as the notion of the volumetric, a term I like because it links both the object of analysis – the volume – with the idea of a calculative, technical metric. I’ve also been thinking about the idea of ‘earth’ – both as a material element and as a descriptor of the globe – and the question of ‘terrain’. Terrain seems to be to be an underexplored question in political geography and related fields.
Ice and the land-water relation more generally provide a very specific challenge to political theory and political geography. In addition, as the workshop amply demonstrated, thinking about polar regions and ice provide a lot of helpful resources to thinking about territory and geopolitics in ways that escape static, ahistorical, materially insensitive and conceptually limited definitions. Conversely, I’d like to think that some of the recent work on territory and geopolitics would be helpful in shaping more appropriate responses to these kinds of challenges.