"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, September 13, 2013

On "Territory," "Canonical" and Otherwise

For many years now, even before finishing my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, I lamented the lack of serious attention being paid to the often polemical and always tendentious concept of "canonical territory" being bandied about in Eastern Europe, chiefly (and incoherently) by the Russian Orthodox Church. In a globalized world, it seems to me, the geographic imaginary behind the ancient canons must be seriously re-thought. I have long thought that what we needed was not merely an examination of the canons in light of contemporary geopolitical realities, but a deeper study of the whole notion of territory, sovereignty, and how and why, if at all, we should accept that the boundaries of the modern nation-state are necessarily coterminous with those of any so-called autocephalous church.

Set for release later this month is a book that sounds as if it will pick up at least part of this challenge: Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013), 512pp.

Territory is one of the central political concepts of the modern world and, indeed, functions as the primary way the world is divided and controlled politically. Yet territory has not received the critical attention afforded to other crucial concepts such as sovereignty, rights, and justice. While territory continues to matter politically, and territorial disputes and arrangements are studied in detail, the concept of territory itself is often neglected today. Where did the idea of exclusive ownership of a portion of the earth’s surface come from, and what kinds of complexities are hidden behind that seemingly straightforward definition?
The Birth of Territory provides a detailed account of the emergence of territory within Western political thought. Looking at ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and early modern thought, Stuart Elden examines the evolution of the concept of territory from ancient Greece to the seventeenth century to determine how we arrived at our contemporary understanding. Elden addresses a range of historical, political, and literary texts and practices, as well as a number of key players—historians, poets, philosophers, theologians, and secular political theorists—and in doing so sheds new light on the way the world came to be ordered and how the earth’s surface is divided, controlled, and administered.

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