Saturday, 23 May 2015

Reassembling geopolitics—a brief synopsis of my long-term project

For the past 8 or 9 months, I've been plotting and planning the long-term research project that, one way or another, I will pursue for the next several years. (In fact, this plan has been more or less complete since January but I'm just getting around to sharing it now.)

It takes Bruno Latour's work on geopolitics as its starting point but also departs from it in various ways. My recently published article Back down to Earth: reassembling Latour's Anthropocenic geopolitics is essentially a (very) long preface to this larger work.

The project is divided into six parts, each of which are substantially independent but also follow on from each other:

1. Earth and Cosmos
2. Geopolitics and Environment
3. Spherology and Fortification
4. Diplomacy and Territory
5. Possibilism and Possession
6. Geohistory and Geodesy

The first two parts suppose that if we are to reimagine what geopolitics might mean 'in the Anthropocene' or 'facing Gaia,' etc. then we really need to understand what some key terms mean (and have meant) in a broader historical context: Earth, first and foremost, but also the inherited Latin and Greek parallels of that Germanic term, terra and geo. Following on from Peter Sloterdijk's grand conceptual histories, Earth also has to be understood in its historical geo-ontological relation with cosmos. Geopolitics, as I've written in Back down to Earth, was coined in 1899; however, it has to be related to the much longer history of geography and then, in turn, to the entangled histories of words such as environment, climate, milieu, and so on. By the end of these first two parts/chapters, the various conceptual-historical issues surrounding 'geopolitics in the Anthropocene' should be well understood and a thorough reconstruction should therefore be possible.

The middle two parts focus on different sorts of techniques and technologies and how these produce differing configurations of exclusion and belonging. Techniques of fortification—walls, fences, barricades, etc.—carve up space and cement geopolitical arrangements. We are used to understanding such constructions along borders and on strategic high grounds as being geopolitical but increasingly it is not only humans that must be kept in/out: flood defences, dykes, geoengineering projects—these are all geopolitical forms of fortification in the new sense that I would like to articulate. Diplomacy, meanwhile, is not a technique of exclusion but a 'technology of belonging,' as Isabelle Stengers puts it. How differing forms of territory are negotiated (or not) is crucial to understanding the possibility of new forms of coexistence given mounting Anthropocenic pressures.

The final two parts investigate the role of the sciences in this nascent geopolitics in more detail, particularly focusing on problems of calculation, possibility and deep time in relation to matters of land, dispossession and resistance. Possibilism is a term taken from the historian Lucien Febvre. He opposed it to the alleged environmental determinism of the previous generation of geographers from Germany, such as Friedrich Ratzel. Linking to abovementioned investigations, I also want to think about compossibility in the sense of Leibniz and the concept of compossibilism as a diplomatic form of thought about possibilities of coexistence. Possession I take to mean both possession of and possession by—I want to relate geopolitics particularly and inextricably to matters of expropriation but also to mass movements and political passions. Geohistory I mean both in the sense of Fernand Braudel's geographical histories and of Martin Rudwick's history of the geological sciences. Related to the latter, geodesy is a somewhat archaic term meaning the science of measuring the shape of the Earth. However, etymologically the '-desy' also suggests division, which relates back to matters of apportionment, appropriation and nomos, in the sense of Carl Schmitt.

There is an enormous amount of work to be done on all of the above; however, I've already made a start on some of it.

My work-in-progress paper Varieties of diplomatic experience (with particular attention to the problem of territory), presented at a workshop in Windsor this week, investigates the conceptual side of the diplomacy/territory conundrum. I intend to do more empirical work on these issues, taking Richard White's The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 as a starting point; however, working out some of the conceptual problems is a first step.

On possibilism and determinism, I've arranged a roundtable conference session at RGS-IBG in Exeter later this year: Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation. I'm hoping to assemble a variety of geographers and environmental scientists to talk through these issues from different perspectives and to form, however modestly, a research agenda on these topics that are so crucial for political geographers and earth-concerned thinkers of all sorts.

As the project develops over the coming months/years it'll be interesting to see how it changes relative to this initial envisagement!


  1. any hope that you might do for governance/diplomacy/etc what bruno and co. did for lab-life?

  2. The plan is for the empirical side of things to be primarily historical. However, I am certainly interested in looking at 'diplomacy in action' and my diplomacy and territory paper that's currently in progress will draw on some ethnographies/first-hand experiences of negotiations in various fora. It's not a great undiscovered continent quite like the laboratory was back in the '70s but I'm definitely trying to take the empirical (in the strong sense of the word) seriously.

  3. Somebody give this man the funding! :)