Production of Territory

Brenner, Neil, and Stuart Elden. 2009. “Henri Lefebvre on State, Space and Territory.” International Political Sociology 3(4): 353-377.

I have read this incredibly important article enough times that I hardly need to be writing notes on it. It’s pretty engrained in my mind. Maintaining Lefebvre’s funny obsession with triads, Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden explain they will explore Lefebvre’s writing on space and the state—that is, Lefebvre as a theorist of territory—by tracing “three key dimensions of his approach to state space as territory—first, the production of territory; second, state territorial strategies; and third, the ‘territory effect,’ namely, the state’s tendency, through its territorial form, to naturalize its own transformative effects on sociospatial relations” (353). Their analysis explicitly hangs on the notion of “state space as territory” (354).

They contend that these conceptual formulations can elide what Agnew called the “territorial trap” by critically examining that which in international relations theory is taken as a given: the territory of states. Wihtout examining these uninterrogated assumptions, researchers would be merely perpetuating a naturalized notion of territory as a pre-given, rather than understanding how territory is itself produced and reconfigured by political-economic forces and other socio-spatial relations. Quoting Joe Painter they note, “…the nature of territory itself—its being and becoming, rather than its consequences and effects—remains under-theorised and too often taken for granted” (Painter 2009: 2).

They show how Lefebvre’s notion regarding the way abstract space was both a medium and product of not only capitalist social relations, but also those of state formation. Abstract space is a process of both a spatialized state and a spatialized capitalist economy. “In this way, abstract space permits continuous, rational economic calculation in the spheres of production and exchange, as well as comprehensive, encompassing control in the realm of statecraft” (358). As Lefebvre would have it, capitalist expansion and the state’s political predicates are both based on a process of spatial “homogenization, fragmentation, and hierarchization.”

Building on Marx’s “trinity formula” of land, labor, and capital, Lefebvre conceives of “land” both in terms of its natural components, including water and resources both above an under the ground, as well as the spatial articulation of the state. Brenner and Elden explain:

Lefebvre’s account of land-as-soil and land-as-territory also informs his critique of classical liberalism, as elaborated in the passage quoted earlier. This tradition, Lefebvre argues, obliterates the territorial diversity of the land controlled by the state, conceiving state institutions not just “extra-territorially,” but even non-territorially (ex-territorialement). Within such a framework, a matter as fundamental as the spatial extent of the law or state sovereignty is consistently underplayed; it is presupposed but not properly interrogated, for instance, within Max Weber’s famous definition of the modern state. (362)

Here, they add the quote I like by Lefebvre about the state and territory being “mutually constitutive.” Applying Lefebvre’s triadic conception of social space to territory, the authors explain how this helps understand territory as a particular historical product and not a general one. And one that is only understandable through its relation to the state and processes of statecraft. The way that territory is leveraged toward particular political goals and processes means that it needs to be thought of in terms of tactical-strategic imperatives. The state and (by implicit extension territory) thus operates as “a site for contested processes, projects, and strategies; it is a social relation that is produced and transformed through continual struggle” (364).

“Our claim here is simply that, for Lefebvre, state space and territory are mutually constitutive politico-institutional forms. Lefebvre’s remarks about the local, scalar, networked, and environmental geographies of state space thus necessarily presuppose the role of territory as the site, medium and outcome of statecraft” (365). They explicitly make the association of state space as territory, but my question then is: are all territories state spaces?

I guess that since there is a claimed monopoly of terrestrial space by states, the “hypercomplexity” of social space and its superimposition and interpenetrations, as Lefebvre would say, means that all spaces are at least in some way produced by elements and ideas of stateness (even if the state is merely a referent of how that space is differently constituted/conceived) at least in the present historical situation. But I’m not sure… Autogestión (in Spanish), as a concept, certainly has a non-state—as well as anti-capitalist—implication or ring to it.

In any case, territory is produced via dimensions that are simultaneously perceived, conceived, and lived etc etc. Interestingly, the use the example of Israel/Palestine to illustrate an application of these theories, but I think one implicit drawback—at least, as illustrated in the example—is that the focus remains on the “edges” of territories. I’m much more interested in the so-called “internal” characteristics of the production of territory (still he approach of course, so there is no loss of its utility). That is, the way in which the state matters (or is made to matter) for people in their everyday lives. This is one reason I think the notion of hegemony helps to beef up the concept of the production of territory.

As for my project, particularly, the idea of spatial strategies as applied to territory seems particularly relevant for what I’m calling “territorial masquerades”—the title of my project and this blog. In a way conceptually reminiscent of Donald Moore’s book, they sum it up like this:

Within this conceptual framework, spatial strategies represent powerful instruments of intervention for all social and political forces concerned to mobilize state power as a means to reorganize sociospatial relations (Brenner 2004). Most crucially here, Lefebvre’s account of the politics of space suggests a fruitful basis for extending the conception of state space as territory introduced above. It generates an analytical perspective through which to investigate how the territorial spaces inherited from earlier rounds of state regulation, capital accumulation, and political contestation are continually appropriated, rewoven, and transformed through diverse strategies, both institutional and extra-institutional, across a range of geographical sites and scales. (368)

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