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Staat und Raum.


Jrg Schoder
To cite this article: Jrg Schoder (2015) Staat und Raum., The AAG Review of Books, 3:3,
131-134, DOI: 10.1080/2325548X.2015.1050768
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2325548X.2015.1050768

Published online: 17 Jul 2015.

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Staat und Raum


[State and Space] Bernd Belina,
ed. Series Staatsdiskurse No.
26. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz
Steiner Verlag, 2013. 188 pp.,
bibliography. $68.00 paper (ISBN
978-3515103466).
Reviewed by Jrg Schoder,
Department of Geography and
Geology, University of Salzburg,
Salzburg, Austria.
After 11 September 2001, many claimed
that the nature of international conflicts and military interventions would
change. The year 2014, however, seems
to have witnessed a return of rather
old-fashioned geopolitical affairs. The Crimea conflict
between Russia and Ukraine, the ChineseJapanese rivalry over Pacific islands, and the ongoing conflicts in
the Middle East serve as examples. At the same time,
during the writing of this review, France suffered from
severe terrorist attacks. This suggests that there has not
been a sequential change of conflict modes, but rather a
coexistence of geopolitical conflicts and terrorist attacks.
In either case, states have a role and spatial implications
are obvious. Although the contributors could not foresee
these precise developments when this work was published
in 2013, this edited collection offers important insights
on these contemporary issues.
In his introduction, Belina outlines the aims of the book.
The primary goal is to present the state and status of political geography in the German-speaking scientific community. This status has emerged after about fifteen years
of renewed debates. Belina admits that it is impossible to
comprehensively portray the theoretical and empirical
work within the field in the limited scope of this book,
but each contribution included in the volume is specific

in the way it addresses the relationship between state and space. Emphasis is placed on the way in which
space becomes relevant in these different approaches. Also the potential
of the underlying notions of space to
contribute to the understanding of the
state and its actions is addressed. According to Belina, political geography
can contribute to interdisciplinary debates on state and space relations in
the following ways: reconstructing notions about the right ordering of the
world, criticizing deterministic ideologies and spatial fetishism and, finally,
understanding spaces as discursive and
socially produced.
Before discussing individual contributions in the book, some general remarks can be made.
First, the contributions, nine in total, are organized in
reverse alphabetical order (except for the first contribution by Schultz on the history of the discipline). On the
one hand, it is typical that contributions in collections do
not build on each other and can be read separately following personal interest without running the risk of missing
some context. On the other hand, a more content-related
ordering would have been possible, as a later discussion
shows. The selection of articles should be understood
against this background. Second, and admittedly counter given the deconstructionism underlying the majority
of contributions, one wonders how a German-speaking
political geography can actually be defined against the
background of increasingly international scientific communities.
Although Schultz does not make this point, the relevance
of this question is implicit in Schultzs brief history of
geographic thought. Indeed, German-speaking geographers early contributions to the field seem to have been
largely contained within the German-speaking realm.

The AAG Review of Books 3(3) 2015, pp. 131134. doi: 10.1080/2325548X.2015.1050768.
2015 by Association of American Geographers. Published by Taylor & Francis, LLC.

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Nevertheless, they seem to have influenced their AngloSaxon colleagues with a time lag before the spatial-quantitative revolution and the following sequence of turns
set in. These latter developments have in turn laid the
foundations for the debates in the German-speaking
community in combination with the fact that encapsulation with respect to language areas seems to be of much
less importance these days. In other words, when reading
the book, it did not become clear to me which discussions
are specific to the German-speaking community, except
for the critique of critical geopolitics and, maybe, some of
the empirical examples provided.
Overall, the article by Schultz does not really present any
new ideas. Nevertheless, the article is worth reading for
reasons related to the philosophy of science. The geographical deterministic ideas of Ratzel and his colleagues
appear rather bizarre from todays standpoint, yet they
can be seen as a documentation of the constructivist nature of territories and the role of Zeitgeist in the sciences.
This leads to the question of whether the pendulum today
might have swung to the other extremeat least given
the dominance of (de)constructivist approaches in this
book. The only ostensible exception is the contribution
by Belina. Finally, Schultzs chapter can be related to the
position of geography in academics pecking order and its
relevance for the political discourse. In this respect, the
strong narrative of human geography in the first half of
the twentieth century seems to have been of substantial
importance. This does not at all mean that we should go
back to the ideas of Ratzel and the like; nevertheless, perhaps today more than ever a narrative is important for positioning an academic discipline in academic and political
discourses, as the prestige and dominance of economics
demonstrates.
In his essay, Reuber argues that critical geopolitics has
gained importance in the German geographic community since the turn of the century, and, hence with the
typical time-lag compared to the Anglo-Saxon geographic
community. In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon context,
however, Reuber argues that the German-speaking community has not only employed the approach in empirical
works, but also simultaneously analyzed its conceptual
problems. A key weakness is seen in the conceptual heterogeneity, borrowing elements from various and partly
incommensurable grand theories. More specifically, reference to action theory is made to understand geopolitical measures taken by political actors, whereas discourse
theory is invoked to analyze the role of certain images
and geopolitical representations in the discourse. To the
critics, one of the most central compatibility problems in

132

terms of theoretical stringency arises with the concept


of actors. To simplify, framing actors as self-interested
optimizers and maximizers contradicts the postmodern
skepticism regarding rationality and, hence, intentional
and strategic behavior. To overcome some of the problems
of blending light versions of fundamentally incommensurable paradigms, Reuber observes the following research
approaches: (1) Redepennings attempt to invoke system
theory, and (2) poststructuralist conceptions that refer to
the political aspects in a more fundamental way. Specifically, he mentions poststructuralist approaches building
on the works of Laclau and Mouffe and Foucault. Two
such poststructuralist approaches are also included in the
book, namely the articles by Dzudzek, Glasze, and Mattisek and by Hannah.
Dzudzek, Glasze and Mattisek refer to the discourse and
difference theory by Laclau and Mouffe and decentralize
the state by introducing the concept of discourse shaped
by antagonisms. The latter serves as a concept to deconstruct the Marxist idea of class and is directly related to
the idea of identity. Following difference theory, identity
results from demarcation of the other. Similarly, demarcation of society, territory, and state becomes a hegemonic
yet contingent discourse. Specific territories and states are
no longer origins of political bargaining, but temporarily
and inherently unstable results of this process.
In his article, Hannah builds on Foucault and his notions
of power, namely disciplinary power, biopower, and governmentality. He argues against the frequently encountered conclusion that an understanding of the state using
Foucaults terminology of power offers no room for discussing territory. On the contrary, the concept of territorial calculability and its (inter)relation with sovereign,
disciplinary, and biopower, as well as governmentality, has
gained some importance in human geography in recent
years. Hannah has contributed to this discussion with his
concept of calculable territory. Calculable territory consists of layers of inscriptions that serve all of the previously
mentioned notions of power, but are themselves always
outcomes of earlier articulations of these powers. Hannah
elaborates on four such layers of inscriptions and gives
some examples. One such example is his interpretation
of the U.S. NEXUS program, which, he argues, is in the
area of conflict between territorial security and neoliberal
needs to reduce barriers for the movement of people and
the exchange of goods. To Hannah, this leads to an unequal treatment of normal people and capitalist businessmen. This might sound plausible against the background
of Hannahs theoretical approach, but there are other
equally plausible interpretations. One such explanation

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could be a rather pragmatic view that the desire or need


to protect the border of an allegedly free and open society (the self-image of the United States?) requires strict
control by Customs. NEXUS might be interpreted as a
process of reputation building for people not representing
a threat to society. In an anonymous society this process
is necessarily bureaucratic and thus costly (time, knowhow, etc.) for those who need to provide documents, fill
out forms, and so on. Therefore it will only pay off for
those who frequently cross borders. It might simply be a
coincidence that these people are typically not tourists
but businessmen. Hence, there is no necessity to invoke
an unequal treatment required by neoliberalism as an explanation for NEXUS.
The examples given in the articles by Dzudzek, Glasze,
and Mattisek and Hannah are undoubtedly and plausibly compatible with the theories, but I have two major
reservations. First, there is a lack of empirical strategies
to provide further evidence in support of these theories.
Second, it remains unclear to me why a reference to the
(strong) poststructuralist theories is needed.
Working out an empirical strategy is certainly not a trivial task, but the book offers no thoughts in this direction.
Instead, real-world observations are simply framed in a
certain way compatible with the theory. This framing is
often tendentious in my view, which might also be owing
to the current Zeitgeist. I already gave a counterexample
to Hannahs interpretation of NEXUS. Strvers article
provides another example in this respect. In her article
on the relationship among the state, gender, and space,
she also draws on Foucaults concept of governmentality
and exemplifies her ideas in the realm of the care debate.
To Strver, the neoliberal restructuring of welfare states is
unmasked as being gender-specific because it reproduces
old patterns of dividing labor between men and women.
To blame neoliberalism for a (certainly and unfortunately) persisting gender-role model is, in my view, an undue shortcut that supports my earlier assertion: a tendentious interpretation lacking sound empirical strategies.
With respect to my second point, the question is whether
value is really added by the explanatory power of poststructuralist approaches, justifying the acceptance of the
heavy burden implicit to this theoretical branch. It seems
to me that approaches like the one by Schlottmann, who
builds on action theory and language pragmatism, can
keep up in terms of explanatory power, but without a need
to encounter the strong side effects of poststructuralism.
To support this argument, I would like to refer to the discussion by Weichhart (2008). To him, poststructuralist
geography is not willing to accept the strong implications

of radical deconstruction and, most important, the neglect of rationality. There are good reasons for this reservation because, strictly speaking, a neglect of rationality
would in turn question the whole scientific enterprise.
But, following Weichhart on this important point, the
consequence of this reservation is that geographers typically pick up concepts and ideas from poststructuralist
authors in a rather eclectic and selective manner (Weichhart, 2008, 375). This could be interpreted as a pragmatic
approach, but strictly speaking it contradicts the principles of poststructuralism (352). Moreover, the question
remains: Where is the added value in comparison to approaches like the one by Schlottmann in this book?
Deconstruction undoubtedly has its merits, but it naturally lacks (constructive) decision guidance for practitioners and politicians. Perhaps more important, it also suffers from serious theoretical blind spots. One such blind
spot is the disregard of the physical world, bringing us
back to the beginning of this review where I invoked the
metaphor of a pendulum.
The contribution by Belina allegedly addresses this issue
by taking a Marxist and, hence, materialist approach. Referring to materialistic state theory, he suggests a rather
broad understanding of materiality not only confined to
the physical world, but also encompassing institutions and
routines for the forming of social practices. Materiality in
this understanding expresses a notion of permanence and
stability. This concept directly feeds into radical geography and one of its central contributions: the understanding of space as being both socially produced and acquired,
but simultaneously being material and carrying meanings. These properties also apply to territories and scales,
which can be seen as notions of space, but also to means
and strategies of coercive power and conflict settlement.
Belinas goal is to point out the value added through this
understanding of space compared with approaches underlying self-imposed restrictions to discourses and assignments of meaning. His theoretical discussion is, however, not particularly enlightening in this respect. The
ambivalence of space as simultaneously constructed and
material, which he elaborates on with reference to various
authors and concepts, is not able to convince me of an
additional explanatory power. Stated differently, it seems
to me that it is in essence a rather small shift in focus or
perspective between the permanence of materiality and
the antecedence or prediscursive existence of institutionsthe latter being a view that seems to be shared by
many deconstructionist authors. My reservation concerning the value added compared to alternative approaches
discussed in the book is not mitigated by the examples

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Belina gives in support of his approach. Among others he


refers to the securing of borders and territories (p. 171ff),
the contradictions of post-9/11 homeland security, and
the call for neoliberal free trade, citing a study by Coleman on the U.S.Mexico border. The example and interpretation is strikingly similar to the NEXUS example by
Hannah mentioned earlier.
In the end, the book has the most to offer for readers interested in theory. For practitioners there is not much to
gain from this book, owing primarily to the dominance of
deconstructionist approaches. Among the exceptions in
this respect is Belinas discussion about rescalings of the
state and his critique of new regionalism, which should
also concern practitioners. The book can certainly not
be recommended to undergraduate students because one
needs a solid background knowledge to grasp the key
ideas of each contribution. Rather sophisticated language
that is even difficult for native speakers also complicates
the understanding of the book. Some articles give reason for suspecting that the authors seek to hide rather
trivial ideas behind a veil of complicated language or
try to separate their works from others by mere language
games. The extent to which such articles can really contribute to scientific (or even practical) knowledge is, in

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my opinion, rather limited, but a final assessment shall be


left to the reader here. The goal of the bookmapping
the state of German-speaking political geography with an
emphasis on the relation between state and spaceis, in
my view, not entirely realized. The collection might offer
an overview of various strands of the literature on political geography, the majority of which can be categorized
as being postmodern approaches; however, the specificity
of the German-speaking debate does not always become
clear, nor does the alleged fundamental distinctness of
approaches. Another critique is the ordering of contributions in reverse alphabetical order. A more contentoriented ordering would have been preferable because at
least those I have reviewed here offer many connections.
Despite this general critique and depending on personal
interest, portions of the book will be of value and interest
to a disparate readership.

Reference
Weichhart, P. 2008. Entwicklungslinien der Sozialgeographie: Von Hans Bobek Bis Benno Werlen [Development
paths in social geography: From Hans Bobek to Benno
Werlen]. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner.

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