We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

The Scale of Things Public Lecture Series: Towards a Political Theory of Terrain

6th February 2017, 18:15 to 19:15, Ken Wade Theatre, Calman Learning Centre, Professor Stuart Elden FBA (University of Warwick)

Terrain is an important concept in both physical and military geography. However the term is often used in a relatively unproblematic way to describe the forms and textures that define particular spaces. This lecture draws elements from both traditions but situates them within a more explicitly theoretical-political inquiry, that of thinking the materiality of territory. Terrain is important in understanding territory because it combines materiality, strategy and the need to go beyond a narrow, two-dimensional sense of the cartographic imagination. Instead, terrain forces us to account for the complexity of height and depth, the question of volume. Terrain makes possible, or constrains, various political, military and strategic projects. It is where the geopolitical and the geophysical meet.

All attempts at fixing territorial boundaries and shaping territories are complicated by dynamic features of the Earth, including rivers, oceans, polar-regions, glaciers, airspace and the sub-surface – both the sub-soil and the sub-marine. These complexities operate at a range of spatial scales, from the boundaries of nation-states to urban infrastructure projects. Taking the measure of these factors is crucial for a political-legal theory of territory more generally. Essentially the key question is: how can theories of territory better account for the complexities of the geophysical?

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Australia. He is the author of six books, including Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) and The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

His most recent work has been an intellectual history of Michel Foucault’s career, leading to two books - Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity Press, 2016) and Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity Press, 2017). He has edited and co-edited several collections of Henri Lefebvre’s writings, and collections on Foucault, Immanuel Kant and Peter Sloterdijk.

His current work investigates different ways that territory features in Shakespeare’s plays, and he is now returning to more contemporary concerns about territory, especially its relation to terrain. He is part of the ICE-LAW project run by Philip Steinberg and IBRU at Durham University (, and leads the sub-theme on territory.

His official site is at; and he runs a blog and personal website at

Listen to the lecture in full.

Contact for more information about this event.