Sassen: Territory Authority Rights

Sassen, Saskia. 2006. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

I could not get into this book. Saskia Sassen’s broader goal in this book is to show the emergence of national and global scales and how these entities have always existed, in complex and changing ways, “inside” of each other. She uses the dictionary definition of assemblage to describe these ever-changing configurations by tracing the tension-filled combinations of territory, authority, and rights within particular historical conjunctures. In her narrative, “capabilities” come together at particular “tipping points” (conjunctures) in ways that suddenly allows them to “jump tracks and get lodged in novel logics, projects, or path dependencies” (28).

One assemblage provides traction for a new refigured, emergent assemblage. In other words, she’s tracing shifts in socio-political orders with particular attention to scalar articulations by looking at how older configurations determined the scale and scope of what came later. And there are no clean breaks.

In Part I of the book, the combination of feudalism, church, and empire, for instance, provided the conditions of possibility for the nation-state form by showing the determinant emergence of secular notions sovereignty and the growing political-economic importance of towns in which the proliferation and secularization of the law was also important, particularly in setting class relations.

In Part II she claims that the nation-centric era had to be somehow “disassembled” for a properly “Global” era to emerge. Yet, even here, the global era “consists partly of global systems evolving out of the capabilities that originally constituted the territorial sovereign state; some of the capabilities of the national sovereign state, with its territorial fixity and exclusivity, eventually came to enable the formation or evolution of particular global systems that require neither territoriality nor exclusivity” (407). This section is the weakest in the book, because it’s mainly reviewed to get us to the “global” era, rather being taken to account on its own terms.

The Third and final section of the book describes the emergence of global digital assemblages that “refigure critical aspects of territory, authority, and rights in that they partly function outside the frames of state authority and the frames for various rights” (414). And yet, this digital global age remains “profoundly rooted in local specifics and often derive much of their meaning from nondigital [and still national] domains” (414). One need only think of the Arab Spring.

One thing I did find interesting is the way she traces the changing legal structures that are constantly coming up against these assemblages and dissassemblages. While not buying the neo-medievalist arguments, she does note how private actors (then and now) have reasserted their capabilities of setting legal agendas and norms, meaning that the entanglements of global-national governance are increasingly managed by unaccountable, private actors.

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