polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Territory and Transgression: An Interview with Stuart Elden

by Peter Sigrist

Stuart Elden, professor of political theory and geography at Warwick and one of the editors of the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, has published volumes of groundbreaking research on geopolitics and spatial theory over the past decade. His research addresses topics of critical importance to cities today, including globalization, territory, terrorism, power relations and place. It engages with the thinking of Martin Heidegger, Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, along with many of their lines of influence.

Demolition and redevelopment in Istanbul's Tarlabaşı neighborhood, a virtual theme issue of Society and Space dedicated to last year's protests in Gezi Park. Source: Tarlabaşı Istanbul (via Progressive Geographies)

Stuart is currently writing about urban geopolitics, the last decade of Foucault's life, the role of territory in Shakespeare's plays, and the notions of "earth" and "world" in relation to globalization. Examples of his work and other interests can be found at Progressive Geographies, the actively updated blog he started in response to the occupation of Middlesex Philosophy in 2010.

Over the past three months I've been sending one question at a time to Stuart by email, to which he responded with remarkable speed and detail. He'd been using this approach to conduct interviews at the Society and Space open site, but it was completely new for me. Each answer became something to look forward to, a rare opportunity to speak directly with someone whose work has been of great value to me in studying cities. I sent questions related to its many insights into topics found on Polis — from urban placemaking to open access, globalization to the arts, philosophy to geography, education to politics.

We appreciate that you make so much of your research available for free on Progressive Geographies. Based on your experience as an author and editor, how might the cost of academic publications become less restrictive while still allowing publishers of all kinds to be fairly compensated for their work?

I post as much as I'm able to post on Progressive Geographies, not always following journal protocols. I've never been asked to take anything down. Most academics can now post work in an agreed way to institutional repositories. We aren't paid for journal articles, so the compensation comes from our main academic salary. Many authors have rightly wondered why they don't retain control of their own work when they give it to journals for free — a license to publish is fine to sign, but a wholesale transfer of copyright is probably outdated.

There are a growing number of open-access journals, many of which have excellent editorial standards, and it's a shame that some fraudulent operations — ones that publish just about anything if the author pays — have tainted the overall move. It's a terrible problem that the open-access model has become associated with "author pays" monetization by publishers. There is no such thing as entirely free publishing — someone, somewhere invests labor in the process — but this doesn't justify exorbitant article-processing charges or putting the onus on authors to find funds from their institutions or elsewhere to publish.

Things are a bit different with books. The royalties on academic books are very low — I suspect a lot of people would be surprised at how little most academics make even on reasonably well-selling titles — but we do still appreciate getting them. Given the costs incurred in writing a book, I'm not sure about giving everything away for free. There are some excellent publishers who are breaking with the traditional model: Punctum Books and Open Humanities Press, to name just two. But I'm not sure the big university presses and commercial academic presses are too worried about losing their best titles just yet. For that to happen we would need more than just a change in publishing culture — the whole academic appointment, promotion and tenure system would need recalibration.

Brian Brush's cartographic explorations of territory and memory. Source: Seismopolite

Thinking back on your first book, Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History, what would you say are the most important contributions in Martin Heidegger's work for urbanists today?

I'm not sure there are clear and direct linkages to be made between Heidegger and urban questions. He is a really important philosopher for thinking about space and place; people like Didier Franck, Edward Casey, Jeff Malpas, Theodore Schatzki and others have written extensively on this. I've made some contributions to those debates, especially in Mapping the Present and, to a lesser extent, in Speaking Against Number. But Heidegger, while an exceptional philosopher on these questions, is much less useful in political and historical registers. I made the argument in Mapping the Present that Foucault takes forward Heidegger's analyses in thinking the role of spatial, geographical questions in his historical studies. There is a lot in Foucault that speaks to debates in urban studies — questions of surveillance, social control, regulation, circulation. I think that work is most useful if we think about the Heideggerian influence on his ideas.

Similarly, in Understanding Henri Lefebvre I make the claim that a lot of Lefebvre's work can be situated in relation to Heidegger as well as the three thinkers he claims most affinity with: Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. I think Lefebvre's work on space — in The Production of Space and elsewhere — is also indebted to Heidegger, even though he distances himself from many aspects. It's also there in other places, like his appropriation of Heidegger's notion of dwelling (wohnen), which Lefebvre reads as habiter but crucially situates in urban locations rather than just the rural. For Lefebvre, these are inherently political questions linked to the contested spaces of urban sites, the relation of the state to space, urban transformation and the right to the city, the role of the production of space in the survival of capitalism.

What all three thinkers share is a recognition of the power of the scientific revolution in how we perceive the material world. This rendering of the world as amenable to scientific measurement and control — what Heidegger calls the "world as picture" — is worked through in political detail most fully, for me, in Foucault's and Lefebvre's analyses. Lots of elements come up here: the role of power in organizing space, the role of space in supporting power, rhythmanalysis and the production of space as complementary analyses, the role of calculation as a political spatial question. I've tried to articulate this in the works already mentioned, in which I read Foucault and Lefebvre in relation to what they do with Heidegger.

My own work has largely applied these theoretical arguments to the question of territory. But some of this work has been considered alongside that of the more urban-focused work of Neil Brenner. Neil and I collaborated on the State, Space, World collection of Lefebvre's writings, for example, and wrote a piece on Lefebvre's thinking of state, space and territory (open access).

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Does it make sense any longer to think of specifically urban areas within a territory? Is territory becoming completely urbanized? What are the boundaries of the urban?

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At the moment, I'm beginning to think about territory and the urban intersect: Does it make sense any longer to think of specifically urban areas within a territory? Is territory becoming completely urbanized? What are the boundaries of the urban? Does it make sense to think of the territorialization of the urban — that is to say, are state spatial strategies that were previously directed toward the territory, and especially the borders of a territory, now focused increasingly on urban agglomerations? Some of this work will be done with the Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU, which I will be visiting for a term each year as part of my Warwick post. Brenner, Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre will be continual real or virtual interlocutors.

In light of your article "Rethinking the Polis: Implications of Heidegger's Questioning the Political," do you find value in the thinking of Bruno Latour and others who point to the importance of nonhuman actors in assembling a polis, or site of being? Is there a practical way to apply this perspective toward more democratic and discerning approaches to placemaking?

I've read some of Latour's work, and heard him speak once, but I've never been that influenced by it. I think this is due to being exposed to some of its application by others more than the work itself, at least initially, and finding some of it rather formulaic. That said, when I read Graham Harman's Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics I realized that there was much more going on than I'd given it credit for, and have been more open to it as a consequence. I'm looking forward to reading Latour's recent book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. There are some interesting developments of some of these ideas in geography, notably by Sarah Whatmore, Steve Hinchliffe and Andrew Barry. Barry's work is the most obviously political — in Political Machines and his new book Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline, which I read recently.

I've also been reading some other works that open up political questions beyond the human: Jussi Parikka's Insect Media, Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology and so on. I'm not sure what I'll do with these in terms of my own work, though I have been thinking about them. This has mainly been in relation to the concept of "earth" and how we might use this to rethink what we mean by "geopolitics." Rather than thinking of this as a synonym for global politics, what would happen if we took the earth and earth processes seriously? There are audio recordings of a few of my talks on this topic at Progressive Geographies, but I've not yet worked these into publishable form.

Eurasian cities, roads, railways, transmission lines and submarine cables. Source: "Cartography of the Anthropocene" by Globaia (via Progressive Geographies)

Another element in thinking about nonhuman actors is nonhuman animals. I wrote a paper titled "Heidegger's Animals" some time back, in which I thought through what Heidegger said about animals throughout his career rather than just the famous discussion in his 1929-1930 lecture course. That was an important paper for me, as I came across Charles Patterson's powerful Eternal Treblinka, which persuaded me to become a vegetarian (though I've since gone back to eating fish). I've not written anything else on animals — neither politically, philosophically nor geographically — but I do keep reading books on the topic. David Farrell Krell's Derrida and Our Animal Others reawakened my interest in this and I wrote a brief review of it. These seem like vital questions as we grapple with the implications of the anthropocene.

In your interview at New APPS, you mentioned early jobs at a county court, a town council and a research unit on local economic policy. Can you tell us more about this experience and how it may have influenced your thinking on territory and geopolitics?

These were all part of a sandwich degree at Brunel University: in the first three years we studied for two terms, and worked for six months. The advantage was that you graduated with eighteen months of work experience, got paid a bit and didn't have to look for vacation work. At the court and the research unit I did fairly mundane clerical work, nothing especially demanding. The county court was interesting, as this was in 1991, just after Margaret Thatcher had been replaced by John Major as prime minister, and seeing the financial problems people were facing — repossessed houses, defaulting on loans and so on — cemented a lasting concern for social issues.

The most rewarding of the placements, by far, was at Kensington Town Hall. I worked for the research unit of the social services division. Most of the time was spent researching and then writing directories of services for children under eight and for those with special needs. In a sense these were my first publications, though uncredited. I also did an assessment of the division's recordkeeping on child protection, which led to some changes in procedures.

I continued working for the town hall part-time in the first year of my PhD, alongside a job in central government, and learned a lot from this experience. Although the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is largely known for its affluence, there are pockets of severe deprivation — parts of Earls Court, for example, or Golborne in North Kensington.

Golborne Road in London, with Trellick Tower in the distance. Source: Pitty 107

The thoughts that came from this work were not, therefore, especially geopolitical or territorial questions but more general political ones, predominantly local. That wasn't really surprising — I was studying politics and modern history at the time, and hadn't really been exposed to more political-geographical questions. I guess these exposures to politics in action — both in local and central government, and in legal administration — were important in terms of shaping how I thought about politics generally. All that said, probably the central thing I took away from all this was that I wanted to be an academic — to write, to teach, to speak and, most importantly, to do these on questions I thought were important rather than being told what to research.

Based on the editing and translation you did for Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, how has Lefebvre's exploration of the everyday influenced your perspective on relationships between place and power in cities? Does this extend in any meaningful way to your recent work on place and power at global scales in The Birth of Territory and Terror and Territory?

This is an interesting question, because the work on everyday life in Lefebvre has probably been the least influential on my work. I think it was revolutionary for the time — he began working on these topics in the 1930s (the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life was published in 1947), reorienting Marxism towards cultural questions. These questions are there in Marx, especially in the early Marx, but they had perhaps been obscured by Marxism. By the time I came to write on Lefebvre, this work had been explored in more detail than his other key contributions. The chapter on everyday life in Understanding Henri Lefebvre was the shortest partly because I could situate this work in relation to existing concerns and then move on. It's similar with the treatment of The Production of Space in that book, which despite its importance to me, I also say less about than might be expected. This was partly to free up words to discuss less-examined parts of his work, such as the work on the state, or on philosophy and so on.

With Rhythmanalysis, the English title is not Lefebvre's — he wrote a book that would translate as "Elements of Rhythmanalysis," which is included in Rhythmanalysis along with a couple of related essays. The subtitle is a marketing choice, though it is hardly false advertising. Lefebvre saw this book as the informal fourth volume of Critique of Everyday Life, and the essays all treat the relation between space and time in interesting ways. That book is most important to me in that it shows Lefebvre was not just a thinker who introduced a spatial, geographical dimension into historical materialism, but a thinker who also wrote extensively on time and history. Rhythmanalysis gives a taste of that work, but other important texts — such as La somme et le reste and La fin de l'histoire — remain untranslated, with the exception of little bits in Key Writings.

Pictures of Henri Lefebvre from the cover of Łukasz Stanek's Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory. Source: Graham Foundation

How all this influences my thinking in the books on territory is a good question. I was gently chastised for having written a theorist's book on the "war on terror," concentrating on elite actors and documentation rather than other perspectives in Terror and Territory. That's fair enough, though one book, and one person, can only do so much and I wasn't aiming to be definitive. Similarly, I can imagine critiques of The Birth of Territory for privileging the textual, the theorists of political power, and the actions of kings, emperors and popes. That's not the whole story I tell, but it is the focus for large parts of the book. How would the history of the concept and practice of territory look if we told the story "from below"? It would be a fascinating account, but I suspect it would need to be told within a much narrower time-frame and probably on single territories rather than the broader scope I set out. That has been done for some states and territories in the past (I reference many of these studies), but that would be a very different book.

Lefebvre was influential for my territory work because of his theorization of politics and space, and of the state. I really think that his contributions to political theory have been neglected, and the State, Space, World collection was partly intended to begin that conversation. Lefebvre leaves a lot unsaid, and he wasn't a very careful scholar with regard to missing references, citation dead ends and misrepresentations, so his work is generative rather than definitive on these questions. But it is enormously suggestive of work to undertake and things to follow up on. The range of things he wrote about is extraordinary: from Rabelais to Diderot to Hegel, culture in pre-war France to nascent globalization, rural and urban transformations, May 1968. In writing Understanding Henri Lefebvre, I grappled with them all and tried to find a way to organize them into a semi-coherent narrative. I suspect his work will give me renewed inspiration in future projects.

It's interesting that you've remained — at least to my knowledge — relatively silent on the right to the city as invoked by Occupy proponents against the injustices of a "neoliberal order." Even your essay "V for Visibility," an insightful reflection on the Guy Fawkes mask, touches on Occupy without going much into the aspects of global capitalism that give rise to it. But that essay does highlight, as you put it, "the use of the tools of capitalism against capitalism" — people's appropriation of smart phones, laptops, online social networks, the media and highly visible urban spaces to undermine political and economic processes they see as unjust. Based on your study of how the concept of territory came into being, do you see any conditions today that could make way for a restructuring of national borders, resource allocation or governance worldwide? In visibly transcending boundaries — both physically and by way of media — could assertion of a right to the city open possibilities for a collective right to the earth?

I'm not sure I have much to contribute to these kinds of debates — there are others much better suited to making those kinds of connections. David Harvey and Don Mitchell have been doing some work in that register, for example. I do find Lefebvre's idea of the right to the city interesting, but I haven't written about it other than in Understanding Henri Lefebvre.

What I think is important and not fully developed is how Lefebvre understood the right to the city in his later work. It doesn't disappear from his thinking entirely. I think it gets worked through in a broader set of questions around the notion of territorial autogestion, which is sometimes translated as "self-management." In the introduction to State, Space, World, Neil Brenner and I make the claim that we should not translate autogestion — it has multiple resonances, including what we would understand as grassroots democracy.

Lefebvre makes the argument that autogestion should be understood in at least two ways: as the workers cooperatives springing up in France and elsewhere (in the famous LIP watch factory, for example), and as the potential for collective movements to run the city or other spaces (which he calls "territorial autogestion"). Mark Purcell's recent book The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy is probably the most creative use of Lefebvre's ideas in this register, linking them to his later work on the "new contract of citizenship" that encompasses rights to difference, to the city, to information and to autogestion. The question is to what extent these are to be provided by the state, and to what extent they are to be claimed and enabled by people themselves.

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The uprisings in Egypt, or more recent protests in Turkey, were not just demands for democracy, but democracy itself. Democracy is not an end-point to be reached, but a process, and wrestling back popular control of all elements of politics is crucial.

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What Purcell's book does well is to highlight the impoverished sense of democracy that we exist with and leave largely unquestioned. The uprisings in Egypt, or more recent protests in Turkey, were not just demands for democracy but democracy itself. Democracy is not an end-point to be reached, but a process, and wrestling back popular control of all elements of politics is crucial. In the UK there has been some recent debate about this, though it's a shame that it took Russell Brand, a millionaire comedian who doesn't even live in the UK, to get this onto the front pages. But he raised some interesting points about voting, the spurious legitimacy that the elective process gives and the lack of viable choice between the main parties. I would never advocate not voting, but spoiling your ballot by writing "none of the above" or posting a blank ballot seems at least an attempt to show a rejection of the choices. I know you get lumped in with people who didn't read the instructions properly and so on, but that's better than being seen as someone who didn't care enough to go to the voting station.

The right to the city should not be taken as a narrow, urban question, but as one about politics more generally. I think this is how it is in Lefebvre, and how those taking up his ideas can perhaps best use them. Whether this can be taken further, scaled-up, to a right to the earth, is an interesting question. I think there is some work being done on indigenous land rights that might be a contribution to these kinds of debates. Teo Ballvé is doing some important work on this, and I have a new PhD student, Mara Duer, who is working on related questions. My work on territory could be of some use in thinking through these issues, not just the more explicitly political aspects but also the historical.

Replacing the name "Musgrave Park" with "Aboriginal Land" in Queensland, Australia. Photo by Bob Weatherall. Source: State Library of Queensland

One of the reasons for writing the history of the concept of territory was to show that it has not always been thought of, and practiced, in the same way. It's very easy to think that we've always had territory (as a concept) and territories (as a practice), but just had boundaries in different places, different ways of dividing. On the contrary, I think it is a relatively recent concept with different ways of organising the relations between place and power at different times in the past, and with a lot of conceptual and political struggles to get to where we are now. Seeing alternatives in the past might open up new ways of thinking in the future.

I've been working on the concept of "earth" to explore how we might think about geopolitics as a politics of the earth. I think an element within that should be a more popular politics of the earth, which might take into account these kinds of questions, but I've not really begun to think about it in that register as yet.

Showing how territory isn't an eternal given is also a reminder that capitalism is a relatively recent concept realized through political struggle, and that political struggle can lead to alternatives. The essay on Peter Sloterdijk that you wrote with Eduardo Mendieta comes to mind — especially the parts about "being-alongside-others ... as a making of worlds" and about today's "globalisation of saturation, brought about by the rapacity of capitalism but also the collapse of space-time leading to simultaneity and proximity of everything and everyone in an almost unblinking present." How has Sloterdijk influenced your thinking on place and power? Does the notion of "being-alongside-others" offer any useful insights into political struggle?

Sloterdijk is an interesting but problematic thinker. I find much of his work inspiring, but he is equally infuriating, and many of his recent political suggestions have been unpalatable. What I like most in his work is the extension and critique of Heidegger, especially in terms of space. His Spheres trilogy, for example, is immensely suggestive. The monumental ambition (and conceit) of writing what he calls "the great unwritten book of Western philosophy," Being and Space, is admirable. To do that he has to break with what Heidegger expressly denies in Being and Time, which is that the "in" word in being-in-the-world can be understood spatially. Sloterdijk works through in detail the implications of that "in" as a spatial question, but he also develops what Heidegger called Mitsein (being-with) and Miteinandersein (being-with-another or being-alongside-another). Especially when Sloterdijk thinks about the idea of "foam" as interlocking spheres, he is spatializing Mitsein in an interesting way.

It took me a while to realize that Speaking Against Number is really a book about Mitsein — about the politics of connection, both with those things that share our mode of being and with those that don't. (At the time, I was unaware of what Sloterdijk was doing with these questions — I only knew his Critique of Cynical Reason and his book on Nietzsche Thinker on Stage.) Heidegger's political involvement can be traced through the way he thinks about political community, which is there in 1920s lecture courses on Aristotle, when he talks about being-in-the-polis. And his work on technology can be understood as a means of trying to make sense of modes of connection in the world. Sloterdijk is interesting to me in those registers, though he's approaching these ideas from a different angle and doing very different things with them than what I've tried to do.

Measuring the bubble coalescence in sea foam. Source: Australian National University

I began working on Sloterdijk, in part, through the prompting of Nigel Thrift, who was co-editor of Society and Space at the time. There wasn't much of Sloterdijk's recent writing available in English — this was 2007 or so — and so Eduardo Mendieta and I thought we should do an issue of the journal on his work. This led to a few translations — a couple of excerpts from Spheres, plus the "Rules for the Human Zoo" piece — and a number of commentaries and reviews. It was an attempt at a somewhat different way of engaging with a thinker than waiting for other disciplines to do the intellectual labor of translation and interpretation. It led to the idea of an edited book on Sloterdijk's work, with some of the same people involved but wholly new essays. The people at Polity press were keen to do this, and the resulting book was Sloterdijk Now, which I think serves as a good introduction to his range of work. Now almost all of his books are either already available in English or in the process of being translated — quite a remarkable turnaround from the way things were in 2007 or 2008. In that sense, I think Nigel, Eduardo and I were somewhat ahead of the curve — something Nigel is regularly very good at being.

I admire the Spheres trilogy and find Sloterdijk's book on globalization, In the World Interior of Capital, inspiring for my work on the concept of "world." His pluralization of this idea is intriguing for me. But I'm not sure he's the place to go for an understanding of political struggle. For that I'd be more inclined to turn back to Lefebvre — or to Foucault, whose political activism is still underappreciated. (Marcelo Hoffman has recently addressed this in Foucault and Power.) There are also things in Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, and perhaps in Louis Althusser, that are useful here. I'm thinking through these on somewhat different questions at present — less so with Sartre. One planned project is to do an edited collection on Althusser, especially given the translation of On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Maybe I'll then have a better answer to this question.

In philosophy, as in many fields, writers sometimes look to art for insight into workings of the world. You've written about literature and film — Beowulf, Coriolanus, King Lear, for example — and I imagine you've read many compelling studies of art by others. Do any people from the past or present stand out in your mind for their writing on works of art?

I'm certainly very interested in literature in relation to political spaces. I wrote about Beowulf and King Lear in The Birth of Territory, as well as Antigone and some other smaller examples. There are also some other works of art that I discuss in that book — paintings, the Boscoreale Cups, and some of the maps are as much artistic as technical. My Shakespeare interest is certainly continuing. The Coriolanus reading was developed into a book chapter and, along with a much more detailed reading of King Lear, will be part of the book I'm planning on Shakespeare and territory.

Over the past few years I've been reading a lot more novels, and some have been revealing on how we might think about political spaces. The obvious examples are the remarkable Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on the Biafran war, or Every Day is for the Thief and Open City by Teju Cole. I was reading these and other African novelists while visiting Nigeria in 2011-2013. I'm not sure I will ever write about these books, but they are certainly related in important ways to politics and space.

Film has tended to be one of my escapes from academic work, and with the exception of a review of Ralph Fiennes's version of Coriolanus, I've not written about cinema. I do sometimes use clips of movies when teaching, not because they necessarily represent an accurate historical view of an event but because they can be useful for provoking discussion. In a course on territory and geopolitics I used a variety of films, from Gladiator to Even the Rain. I used Gladiator partly to understand the nature of Rome as a parasitical city, and I can imagine using films like Cyclo to think about the urban in Vietnam, or Crash — the Paul Haggis movie, not the David Cronenberg one! — to think about Los Angeles.

Warwick has regular film screenings introduced by faculty and students in the Politics and International Studies Department, and I hope to get involved with this. I've also been reading quite a bit about staging for the Shakespeare project, and one of the things I like about being in the Midlands is the proximity to Stratford-upon-Avon. I've seen some very powerful productions there in the past few months.

There are plenty of good examples of people using literature, film or other arts to think about political and geographical questions — Michael Shapiro, Jenny Edkins, Louise Amoore and Maja Zehfuss have all done interesting work in this sphere. Louise's very recent book, The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability (the introduction is available here), does some really creative things with novels — from Giles Foden and Jennifer Egan to John Updike and Thomas Pynchon. I'm certainly very interested in what the arts can tell us about territory, geopolitics and so many other aspects of life on earth.

Returning to Foucault, who also wrote memorably about literature and other arts, you mentioned that his activism remains underappreciated. Which contemporary academics do you find inspiring or otherwise notable for their activism, and — broadly speaking — are the professional responsibilities of academics today any more or less compatible with this form of engagement than they were in the past?

I think Foucault's work on literature is underappreciated — he wrote some very interesting pieces in the 1960s, which are perhaps somewhat neglected today. There is quite a bit in Dits et écrits that isn't translated, but also a new collection of previously unpublished work titled La grande étrangère: À propos de literature. His work on other arts is also relatively neglected in geography and political science. But on his activism there is the Hoffman book [Foucault and Power], which will hopefully reinvigorate interest in that aspect of his work. And there have been a couple of French collections on his work with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons, which would be good to get translated. Generally, Foucault’s collaborative work — both academic and activist — has been rather neglected in English-language debates.

I think there are some good examples of academics who find the time to combine their publishing and teaching careers with activism. Any list I give will inevitably be partial, but I'm thinking of some of the Israeli scholars I know who are involved in really important work on challenging the occupation or other state policies. Oren Yiftachel, for example, does some very important work with Bedouin people in the Negev, and Haim Yacobi and Tovi Fenster set up the NGO Bimkom, which works on planning-rights cases in the occupied territories. In my visits to Israel/Palestine I've been able to see things through their work and contacts that would have otherwise been difficult to access — informal settlements in the Negev, E1 in the West Bank, various other sites around the wall. Eyal Weizman's work in this area is also very impressive.

A Bedouin settlement near the Israeli Ma’ale Adumim development in the E1 zone northeast of Jerusalem, photographed by 'Ammar 'Awad for Reuters. Source: B'Tselem

Neil Smith's death last year was a loss not just for the academy, but for the many activist groups and artists he worked with in New York and elsewhere. When we were putting together tributes to Neil’s work for Society and Space (open access) we included a number of these people alongside academics and his students. Neil was one of the key voices in geography responding to the "war on terror," alongside David Harvey, Derek Gregory and others.

At my first Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting there was a session organized by Derek and Allan Pred. A semi-official AAG publication — with many key officers and past presidents contributing — titled "The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism" was drawing a lot of criticism for its attitude toward the Bush administration, namely: How could the skills and tools of geography help in the struggle? I especially remember Allan's thunderous denunciation of the book for its uncritical engagements and complicity. Those sessions were an early version of what became an important collection of essays, Violent Geographies, aimed at setting a different agenda. Neil, Derek and David Harvey all wrote influential books about the "war on terror," and Terror and Territory was intended as a contribution to these debates.

Writing can be a form of activism, rejecting the false distinction between the two – Marx's eleventh thesis has a lot to answer for in this regard. You could also point to the work of people writing about gentrification — Neil Smith is crucial here too, of course — and how much of that work comes out of engagement with specific sites and as part of particular struggles. Participatory Geography is oriented toward bridging this gap in many ways. There are good examples out there, and these could be multiplied many times over. With the exception of the "war on terror" work, I've not done much in this register and I greatly regret that my work with Al Quds Bard Honors College in Abu Dis couldn't continue beyond what I did earlier this year.

The time you've spent in Israel and Palestine seems to have been transformative in many ways. Can you tell us about the work you were doing at Al Quds Bard?

Yes, it's been extremely important to me. The link to Al Quds Bard came about as part of the Open Society Institute's Academic Fellowship Program, which provides support for scholars who were trained in North America or Western Europe to return to their home countries as part of plans to support universities and, more broadly, civil society. It was set up initially in post-Soviet states, but has broadened to include Myanmar, Sierra Leone and Palestine. As part of the scheme, returning academics have a more senior academic working with them to provide support, guidance and career development. I was delighted to be asked by Maha Samman and Nadim Khoury to serve in that capacity.

The Honors College is based at the Abu Dis campus of Al Quds University, which has other campuses in Jerusalem/Al Quds and Ramallah but these are logistically difficult for students to get to. Abu Dis is a town cut in half by the West Bank wall, and while I'd visited both sides of the wall several times before, it was only on this trip that I really experienced its impact on the everyday life of people.

Getting from East Jerusalem to the campus is a much longer and more circuitous route than before the wall, passing several Israeli settlements on the road towards Ma'ale Adumin, past E1 on the hilltop, then doubling back to end up close to where we started. Palestinians who have Jerusalem ID papers can use the roads and faster checkpoints, but if they have a West Bank ID with a Jerusalem residence permit they need to use a checkpoint on foot. I travelled with two Palestinian academics every day, and the trip was very complicated because of their different residence statuses. We had to drop off one at a different checkpoint and then drive around to collect him at the other side. This can also be a very difficult journey for students coming from different parts of the West Bank, so there isn't a culture of asking why people are late for class.

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The campus was interesting in itself, as the wall cuts through it, and there is a fascinating museum named after Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) that focuses on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The design of the building replicates the West Bank wall and checkpoints — made all the more striking by the real wall only meters away.

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The campus was interesting in itself, as the wall cuts through it, and there is a fascinating museum named after Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) that focuses on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The design of the building replicates the West Bank wall and checkpoints — made all the more striking by the real wall only meters away. The exhibits are very powerful, and on the top floor there is an archive with letters, photographs and other material.

While at Al Quds Bard I attended classes led by Nadim and Maha on political theory and urban studies, ran a small workshop on publishing and gave a lecture about my work on territory. I also participated in meetings on teaching, planning the degrees and so on. The position was renewed for a second year, but logistically it was just not possible for me. My new role at Warwick takes me to Australia in term two and to New York in term three, and my wife works in international development, currently in Ghana. A life on four continents is complicated enough, but to try to work out times for regular trips to Palestine as well was just too difficult, especially given the complications and hassles of Israeli border bureaucracy.

Earlier visits had been through Ben-Gurion University, where geographers and political scientists are among the most critical voices in Israeli academia and receive a lot of criticism for precisely that. They recently managed to block attempts to close the Ben-Gurion Department of Politics and Government for largely political reasons. Returning to your previous question about activism, one thing that is perhaps surprising is how ineffective university academics have been at challenging things going on in their own universities and within the higher education sector as a whole. So many people are critical, but collective organization has been very poor — at least in the UK. You could point to increased workload, to a breakdown in collectivity, to changing political and economic conditions (the economic mobilized to justify a lack of political alternatives). It is striking that there has been so little debate about, and pressure against, what universities have become.

You made a good point earlier that writing can be a form of activism, yet so much of an academic's time must be directed towards educating relatively privileged students, applying for grants, publishing in journals with high prices for public access, presenting at conferences attended by people who already have free access to these publications. I'm interested in "what universities have become" — the emergence and influence of tenure, rankings, endowments or other characteristics that you may have in mind. The points you've made here encourage the perception that academia hasn't always been the way it generally is today, and that alternatives are conceivable. The Internet has made new forms of education possible but has also contributed to misunderstandings that provoke criticism along the lines of Ray Brassier's "online orgy of stupidity" comment. Reflecting upon your active engagement with broader publics online as well as your experience in academia, how might the Internet be used to more effectively generate, finetune, transfer and archive knowledge?

I think it's important not to think everything that has happened has been for the worse. That clearly isn't the case. I don't know enough about the history of tenure and so on to be able to say how systems have changed in detail, but I think it's fair to say that expectations have increased for academics overall. In 1999, when I finished my PhD, expectations were tough and opportunities were very competitive, but it is harder now. Even with teaching, which might appear to be a constant, things have radically transformed. I don't necessarily mean content or quality in an absolute sense, but meeting expectations like multimedia presentations, for example, takes more time to get right. Research assessment, while not as quantity-dependent in the UK as widely assumed, still weights articles as equal to books and makes some people overly focused on publishing in specific journals. There are also expectations related to grant income and the so-called "impact" agenda. The way different research requires different funding and some lends itself much better to a more-than-academic audience is only slowly being worked through. Then there is the increase in administrative work — much of it triggered by external pressures.

But you asked about the Internet. It's interesting to think about the purpose of a blog. I use Progressive Geographies for at least three purposes: as a public notebook that alerts people to new books, articles, interviews or videos that I find interesting; as publicity for my own work, public talks, etc.; and as an informal way of talking about what I do. The way I see it, I blog about my work, I don't blog my work. For example, I posted various updates on the writing of The Birth of Territory and am currently doing the same for a book I'm writing now, Foucault’s Last Decade. I think blogs can be very useful in complementing, promoting and enhancing other publication formats. Although I put finished articles on the site, I haven't tended to share early drafts of papers. I do put up audio and video recordings of lectures, which are works in progress, and share some of my working tools: the annotated bibliography on Boko Haram, for example, or brief translations of Foucault. People seem to appreciate these kinds of things — I certainly do on other sites.

Aftermath of a raid by Boko Haram militants in Benisheik, Nigeria. Source: Ideastream

Brassier's point is interesting, but I suspect it has more to do with philosophical disagreements and personal relationships fracturing. I don't think it is an indictment of the whole medium. It's helpful when publishers make sample material available online, and for older books there is some excellent material available in repositories. There is also much newer material available, often illegally uploaded, which I'm less keen on for reasons discussed earlier.

Audio recordings by the Backdoor Broadcasting Company are very useful, and the availability of academic talks on YouTube is excellent. There has been a discussion recently of the Internet becoming a replacement for lectures, as the same content can be delivered to a much larger audience through the so-called Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). I guess it depends on the purpose of the lecture, but even if there is some opportunity for dialogue, a recording is never going to replace being there in person. I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to hear Derrida speak a couple of times before he died, and I wouldn't trade the chance to see contemporary thinkers in person for a recording.

Archiving is an interesting question, particularly for blogs. It's an issue we've been trying to address with the Society and Space open site. They say that you can never entirely delete something on the Internet, but I'm not sure that is quite the case. I do know that the British Library is looking at projects related to online archiving, and there was the recent furor about the British Conservative Party deleting some of its pre-2010 election pledges. There's such a vast proliferation of material out there, it can be difficult to navigate. Archiving may help in this sense as well.

The Boko Haram material you shared is a great asset, and I've enjoyed following Foucault's Last Decade as it unfolds. In A Thing of This World, Lee Braver mentions evidence that Foucault was "on the verge of a very important new conception of agency before he died." What do you make of this?

I'm certainly very interested in what Foucault does in his last writings, and I'm hoping that as I progress with the book I'll be able to make some connections. What I'm trying to do is write an intellectual history of Foucault's The History of Sexuality. As is well known, he published three volumes of this, but the second and third came out eight years after the first, very shortly before he died. A fourth volume on the early church, The Confession of the Flesh, remains unpublished even though a manuscript exists.

When Foucault published the first volume (The Will to Knowledge) in 1976, he envisioned a plan for five more: on the body and confession, on children, on women, on perverts, and on population and race. Crucially, the confession volume was going to address a quite different time period than that of the later fourth volume. We know from various sources that Foucault completed drafts of some of these originally planned volumes but moved to a different plan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are numerous plans, not just two, as well as different configurations of material and other volumes he says he planned to write: on psychiatric expertise in penal affairs, on hermaphrodites, on torture and truth, on techniques of the self. It's not always clear whether or not he intended these to be part of the sexuality series. I'm trying to use all available material to trace the project from inception to near completion.

The title Foucault's Last Decade came about because we know he was working on The History of Sexuality from 1974 — he apparently started the first volume on the very day he completed Discipline and Punish — until his death in 1984. The lecture courses in 1973-1974 and 1974-1975 give some good indications of work he was doing on hysteria, confession, masturbation and perversion. In many later courses we see him exploring related material, and can thus track some of the transitions in his thinking. There are also traces of the project much further back, of course, and I'm including these in a couple of introductory chapters.

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Reading what Foucault says about power and resistance from the early- to mid-1970s complicates a lot of the straightforward ways his work is presented and criticized. As he says, the way around the problem of the subject was to write a genealogy of it. This is why so much of the sexuality work is only about sexuality in a very broad sense, and why he is so interested in ideas about freedom, the self, techniques, governance.

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While I've worked on Foucault quite a bit, I'm finding it very revealing to return to the texts in chronological order, encountering links and relations that I hadn't seen before. The updates on the blog have been opportunities to talk about the process rather than the content of what I've been doing. It might appear that I've gotten a little sidetracked by some things that seem to be minor issues — when Foucault was in various places, when he lectured on specific topics, when exactly he wrote a text, and so on — but they are parts of the puzzle I'm trying to reconstruct.

At the moment I'm at around 1976, not an especially good position to answer the question about his very last works. I suspect that rereading all that material after the fascinating courses of the late 1970s and early 1980s — some of which are only just out in French or still to come — will be illuminating. Reading what Foucault says about power and resistance from the early- to mid-1970s complicates a lot of the straightforward ways his work is presented and criticized. As he says, the way around the problem of the subject was to write a genealogy of it. This is why so much of the sexuality work is only about sexuality in a very broad sense, and why he is so interested in ideas about freedom, the self, techniques, governance and, I suppose, agency. Still, I'm a little reluctant to use that word to describe Foucault's thinking — he would probably be more inclined to talk of freedom, care of the self, techniques of the self, and resistance. That seems to be what Lee Braver is getting at.

We can see that Foucault was trying out ideas in lecture courses two or three years before they appeared in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. With the later volumes, Foucault wrote the books in a different order to how they were published, or at least wrote versions of the books in a different order. But the lecture courses show him trying out ideas, discussing different source material — in the mid-1970s often cases of individuals, in the 1980s more commonly texts from the tradition — that would sometimes make their way into the writings he chose to publish in his own lifetime. One thing I'm trying to be very careful about is respecting the distinction between different types of writing. There is a longstanding debate about the use of Nietzsche's notebooks alongside his published books, and this is discussed a bit in relation to Heidegger with lecture courses and manuscripts. The debate hasn't happened to the same degree with Foucault, but I do think it's important. I sometimes hear people referring to his "book" Society Must Be Defended, for example, and imagine what it must be like for someone whose first introduction to reading Foucault is a lecture course. There are significant differences in wording, mode of argument, presentation of material, authorial voice. Nonetheless, the resources we now have are so interesting alongside the books that I think we can do valuable work with them.

What do you foresee as the enduring value in the work you've done and the work you plan to do?

In a sense this isn't for me to say, and it's hard to predict the way ideas by anyone are taken up and used. The positive reaction to Terror and Territory surprised me, for example, as I didn't think it was my best work. That undoubtedly has to do with topicality, though I hope it also has something to do with the book's accessibility and arguments. State, Space, World — published in the same year — seemed to me a more valuable contribution. I also thought Speaking Against Number had the potential to make a bigger splash than it did, given the ongoing interest in Heidegger and politics. With the Lefebvre translations, Key Writings made relatively little impact despite providing an overview of Lefebvre's work and being the only source in English for a sampling of his philosophical writings; Rhythmanalysis received much more attention. So, it's hard to predict the likely interest and contribution of things in advance. All that said, I certainly hope that The Birth of Territory will be seen as the best book I've done so far.

The other thing that I think is an important contribution is the editorial and translation work. Some is in Society and Space, then there are the three Lefebvre collections and the translations in books I've edited or co-edited on Foucault, Kant and Sloterdijk. Most of this is commissioned rather than done by me, but still enabled by the project. It's not terribly well recognised in some of the bureaucratic assessments we discussed earlier, but it's important in opening new possibilities for application by others.

Looking forward, it's even harder to say. I'm certainly excited by the Foucault and Shakespeare books I'm currently writing, and hope they will come to be seen as good contributions. The earth/world work is still in its early stages, as with the urban, but I think there is something to say there. I certainly hope my best work is some ways ahead of me, not yet planned or even anticipated.

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