Technology is political because politics includes the technological

I’ve been thinking some more on Stuart’s apothegm that I reblogged yesterday about the relationship between politics and the technical. Here it is again from his post:

One of the previous presenters had made the claim that there was nothing political about some of the techniques. While I made the comment that we could say that there is always a politics to the technical, I was most interested in turning his claim around, rather than disagreeing with it: suggesting that the political is always technical. I’ve made this claim before in relation to territory as a political technology, as dependent on all sorts of techniques for measuring land and controlling terrain.

What this does, for me, is rather than to dogmatically oppose people who say that the technical is not political (a position I’ve encountered frequently in reading and writing about mapping for instance) it opens up possibilities for investigation. How is the political technical? What does that mean? What technologies are involved? Specifically exciting is that it invites on to the field of inquiry (I can imagine) all sorts of cartographies and mappings. It has the secondary purpose of enrolling the first speaker in the search as well, rather than disallowing their position or telling them they’re wrong; hence of actually persuading people, assuming you do a good job of demonstrating how the political is technical.

Long-time readers of Stuart’s work are well familiar with this move of his. In Mapping the Present (2001), the first major book of his I read, he makes a similar argumentative move, claiming that “space is political because the political is spatial” (eg., p. 6). This might seem at first to be a tautology, but Stuart is not equating the two per se. What he’s getting at, is that in order to understand how mapping is political (say), you have to understand how the political enrolls technologies such as mapping. That’s your opening into the circle.

Another one from the same book is the need to both “historicize space and spatialize history” (p. 3). In this case there’s more of a productive tension or dialectic perhaps.

One of my favorites, that again is disarmingly provocative, is when Stuart does a reversal of the usual understanding of territory and territoriality. Where typically we have seen people starting with notions of territoriality and saying that this produces territory, Stuart reverses this (Elden, 2010). Later he says “In other words, while particular strategies or practices produce territory, there is a need to understand territory to grasp what territoriality, as a condition of territory, is concerned with” (2010, p. 13).

This allows him to inquire what is territory historically, or slightly more precisely to provide a genealogical account, defined as “a historical interrogation of the conditions of possibility of things being as they are” or a history of the present (Elden, 2010, p. 2).

(Vikki Bell recently gave a similar definition of genealogy “the idea that when we’re studying things historically, we’re doing so in order to study the values that we hold today. So genealogy submits our present truths to historical scrutiny and locates them at the level of practices, asking what’s happened.” From a BBC interview on the program “Thinking Allowed.”)

All of these are aspects of his claim that “territory is a political technology” explored in most depth in his most recent book The birth of territory (2013).

Elden, S. 2010. “Land, Terrain, Territory.” Progress in Human Geography. DOI: 10.1177/0309132510362603.

(12/18/13 Updated to correct citation.)

4 responses to “Technology is political because politics includes the technological

  1. Pingback: Jeremy Crampton on my ‘the political is always technical’ comment | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Territory, the continental shelf, and ice – my comments to the ArcticNet conference in Halifax | Progressive Geographies

  3. Pingback: Camera obscura, ideology and Guy Debord’s spectacle

  4. Pingback: Key terms in Foucault (update) | Open Geography

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