Today’s New APPS interview is with Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Geography at Durham University and editor of Society and Space (Environment and Planning D), one of the leading geography journals. From February to May 2011 he is on research leave at the Humanities Research Centre at Australian National University.
Thanks for doing this interview with us today, Stuart. Let’s start with your personal practice of scholarship. What are the pleasures and pains of intellectual work for you?
I’ve done most of my work on my own, and even most of the collaborative work has been written in solitude. I enjoy working on my own and am quite happy with this. Especially while living in London I did quite a lot of work in libraries, mainly the British Library and the Warburg Institute, but most of the writing has always been done at home. Collaborative projects have been generally worthwhile, and I’d be interested in more in the future. There are a couple of people I’d really love to work with again but haven’t proposed ideas recently as they are too busy. I’d really like to read the books I know they should be writing without giving them another distraction.
Tell me more about your collaborations. Did you work by email, or together in the same place?
While we’d sometimes meet to discuss things, most was done by email. The only person I’ve ever written with in the same room is Neil Brenner, which was an amazing and incredibly intense experience. We’d work long days whenever we could be in the same town together—sessions in places like LA, New York, Cambridge, MA, and Amsterdam—both writing into a laptop on sections for a couple of hours, and then swapping pen drives and hacking into each other’s work before swapping back. We’d sometimes break for coffee or a meal and continue intense discussions. I was wiped out by this but Neil would be up early doing his triathlon training before we’d start again. We did this for the Lefebvre translations for State, Space, World, building on the initial work of Gerald Moore, and often then working over things line by line and word by word together, and then carried it forward into the introduction and the spinoff piece we wrote. I learned a huge amount from working with Neil, and would love to do that again.
How about conferences?
Conferences I find are a mixed experience, and while I’ve been to some very good ones, I tend to prefer smaller workshops or giving invited talks to the big set-piece events. I still get quite nervous before giving a talk, and find some of the conference rituals a bit intimidating. It’s become easier as I’ve got to know more people in the areas in which I work, and as I’ve become a bit better known. The moments standing around with no one to talk to is less common now, but there are still some odd encounters.
Nobody likes that! Anything else that bugs you?
One of the things I like least is when someone you don’t know makes assumptions about you, your research, career stage, your institution etc. when they begin the conversation, and you’re in the awkward position of not knowing whether to call them on it, or try politely to keep the conversation going even though you know you’re being patronized.
How kind of them to help you out like that.
Yeah right! Though I do have to say as my writings have been better known I’m also finding it difficult to know how to deal with the ultra-earnest student who finds you with a beer in your hand in the evening when you think you’re off duty and wants to engage in a very intense conversation about your/their/someone else’s work. I’m quite happy to meet up with people to discuss these things in the day during breaks, but I’m not able to sustain that round the clock like some people at conferences can.
Yeah, I find myself talking sports as much as anything at nighttime events. After a while my brain just shuts down. Not that you can’t be serious about sports, but I find myself gravitating to nice chit-chat about the World Cup or what have you as a way to relax. Speaking of energy levels and workloads, what is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine? How do you get yourself in the mood to do research?
I have an ideal day, but ideal means it is frequently not real as much as it is perfect. It would be to work for two intensive blocks of time, maybe three to four hours, but with a bike ride in between. The bike ride, especially if I can get out into the country, really helps with clearing my head and although I don’t actively think about what I’m writing sometimes things come together less consciously. I’d then do emails, journal work, and so on around that. I tend to take a little while to get going in the morning, which doesn’t mean I start late, but that the most intense intellectual work, especially writing, comes a bit later in the day. There are probably two hours of work editing Society and Space a day, so I sometimes do the more mechanical side of that first thing; though reading papers and writing to authors is obviously a more demanding task. I write a lot of things as drafts and come back to them later before actually sending them.
How about music? I’m asking everyone about that!
I do often work with music – and when working and especially when writing prefer things without words, or at least not modern music with words. At different times I’ve done a lot of work to opera, other classical music, jazz and especially rock. But sometimes silence is just as useful. I also listen to a lot of cricket on the radio and can even get into quite a good rhythm with watching it and reading at the same time. If you sit down with a pile of books for a five-day test match you can get an awful lot read!
And of course no academic interview is complete without asking about coffee!
Caffeine I’ve cut down on, and tend just to have one strong cup with breakfast.
How did you come upon these practices?
I suppose they came from trial and error. I realized quite quickly that I didn’t need pressing deadlines to motivate me, and that I was able to structure my time quite effectively without external input. I try to write every day if I can, and get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t. It’s not all great, even by my own standards, but it’s something, and it tends to get worked over and over several times. Most stuff gets written in a non-linear, layered way of writing and over-writing; writing by accumulation or accretion. I do sometimes write shorter pieces quite quickly, in a more linear fashion, but most texts tend to emerge from notes and comments around notes, and so on, rather than word one onwards.
That’s pretty similar to my own practice, with some blog reading and commenting thrown in there. What about your use of time?
I can’t work with the time intensity I used to – several hours without getting up from the chair and no distractions such as email, blogs, news sites, etc. So some practices have tended to evolve. And even though I’ve not been teaching for the last few years, other demands on my time such as the journal, other review work, etc. have meant I’ve had to restructure my time and working practices.
Why don’t we switch gears a little. Can you tell us a little about your childhood? Did you move around a lot, or mostly live in the same place? What sort of town(s) did you live in
I was born in Ipswich, and grew up in Colchester. Both are towns of maybe 100,000 people. We left Ipswich when I was about three, so I don’t remember it as a place I lived but rather as one I visited to see my grandparents and other relatives and as my football team. We lived in Colchester all my childhood – my Mum continues to live there so I go back still. Colchester is an interesting place – lots of history with Roman remains, a Norman castle and remnants of the English civil war. But it’s also a big garrison town. I guess some of my interest in history came from the place I grew up.
Would you say you were bookish, athletic, or even a little of both? That’s a hard deal to pull off, admittedly!
I was definitely bookish – rarely without one. Both my parents were teachers who became head-teachers so that definitely had an influence. I wasn’t athletic – I wished I could have been more so, especially at cricket, but my eyesight was terrible and so was my hand-eye coordination. I’m fitter now than I ever was as a kid.
What about school? Did you know philosophy and like disciplines even existed?
Not really philosophy, but I always enjoyed history, even though it took me an age to work out what was expected in an essay. I did History, English and Mathematics as my A-levels (age 16-18), which might seem a strange combination, but it worked quite well. I think all of these have influenced the kind of work I’ve done since. Politics was an interest rather than something I studied at school; and I came to philosophy rather later and through political theory, on the one hand, and the history of ideas, on the other.
Undergraduate days: where did you go to university?
I went to Brunel University to study Politics and Modern History. At 18 I really wasn’t sure University was for me, though that quickly changed, and Brunel offered thin-sandwich degrees where you studied for six months and worked for six months for the first three years of the course, and then studied for nine months in the final year. So, unusually for the UK, it was a four-year undergraduate degree. But it meant you had 18 months of work experience when you graduated, and didn’t have to look for menial work in the holidays. I worked for a county court, a local economy policy research unit and for a town council.
What about important teachers?
I’ve said in other interviews that the most important teachers for me were the ones who taught me political theory in my final year– especially Barbara Goodwin and Mark Neocleous. Barbara had just written a book called Justice by Lottery, which I found very exciting. I proposed an essay on whether randomness was a means of increasing freedom too – I’d just read Luke Rhinehart’s The Diceman. It was the best mark I’d ever got for an undergraduate essay and Barbara was very encouraging of the idea of using this as a basis for my undergraduate dissertation. I’d been planning on doing something worthy on child protection policy, something on which I’d worked for the town council the previous summer, but I dropped that and wrote a dissertation called The Stochastic Man. I was awarded the dissertation prize and offered a PhD place without having to do a Master’s degree. Never really looked back from that moment on.
So you did all your training at the same school?
Yes, this offer meant I stayed at Brunel for my PhD. It worked out well for me, but I’m not sure that staying at the same institution too long that early in your career is always a good idea. I’ve now, just, been at Durham longer than I was at Brunel. For the first year I was doing the PhD part-time, while working for the British government as a local government policy researcher. At the end of the first year I got a graduate teaching assistantship, and could move to full-time status, although this meant I did a lot of teaching (and marking) through my whole dissertation. In the final year I got a part-time teaching post at Royal Holloway, which is one of the colleges of the University of London.
Who were your supervisors?
My supervisor was supposed to be Barbara Goodwin, but she went on research leave early on, and then moved to University of East Anglia, so I was supervised by David Wootton initially and then moved to working with Mark Neocleous as my focus changed.
What was your project?
It had originally been something about freedom and the history of the concept, but I became increasingly interested in more methodological questions through reading Foucault and Nietzsche and started doing work on the genealogical approach. I became interested in the relation between space and time in this, which led me to Heidegger. In the end my dissertation was on the spatial aspects of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault’s understandings of history. That was the first version of what became Mapping the Present.
How would you sum up your graduate school life?
I have no complaints about my experience, but I don’t think it was a very common one. I didn’t live near the university for a large chunk of my PhD, and this meant I wasn’t around all that often except for supervisions and to teach. I went to the seminars that there were, but don’t remember there being that many. Part of this was because it was London, and there was always so much on just up the road.
I got to see some very inspiring people such as Derrida, Butler, Quentin Skinner and others. Latour came to Brunel once but at the time I wasn’t that impressed, though that was probably my fault.
What about your friends?
I had friends in the department who were also GTAs, but we all seemed to be working on such different things we tended to talk more about the teaching side than our research. I had a couple of good friends in the Law department – Sharon Cowan and Bela Chatterjee – who were reading similar theorists to me, and I had some good conversations with them. But most of my friends through graduate school were not academics – they were people I’d been undergraduates with and now doing a wide range of jobs.
What was your early professional life like?
I’d taught quite a lot while doing my PhD, including the part-time post at Royal Holloway, and had taught two final year courses on my own. So the move to teaching full-time was not a radical break. It was a job at University of Warwick, in the Politics and International Studies department, initially as cover for someone going on research leave. So it was a one-year post, but I was told there were 99 applicants. Things are probably worse today, but it didn’t feel great then. I was brought in to teach the first-year Introduction to Politics course – a 200-250 student general course that had to provide the basis for future courses across political science and political theory, and cater for people who had Politics A level as well as those who didn’t. I did lectures on a range of things from fascism to pressure groups. I also taught some support seminars for Politics of the UK and Political Theory from Hobbes. The post was renewed for another year, and then later another, so I was there for three years in total. In the second and third year I co-taught a course called Europe: Politics and Ideas with Maja Zehfuss and Philippa Sherrington, and took over a dormant course that was on the books called The Project of Modernity and World Politics. The latter was great fun, blending post-structural theory with contemporary political issues, and I’ve probably never had better students or class discussions. But the former was probably the most innovative course I’ve been involved with. We’d do jointly taught sessions on things like Eurocommunism where I’d do a section on the theoretical debates and then Philippa was come in with who had actually voted for the parties. It was a real mix of political theory and practice, and great to co-teach with two such talented people.
Sounds like a wonderful experience, though a lot of work! How did you manage publishing as a young scholar?
Partly because my own institutional position was so tenuous, and partly because I felt I had some things I wanted to say, I published quite a lot while there. I turned the dissertation into a book within a year, and wrote pieces that in time led to the next two book projects—Understanding Henri Lefebvre and Speaking Against Number. There were some very good people there, but I don’t think they quite knew what I was trying to do, and my kind of political theory didn’t fit the dominant mode in the department which was analytic and more focused on justice debates.
What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece?
The first two pieces I published were the last two bits written of the PhD. Both were on Heidegger. One was on his reading of Hölderlin and came out in the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology; the other was on his discussions of the polis which was in Political Geography. But it was the Mapping the Present book that was the most important early piece, by a distance. It reached a much broader audience, across different disciplines, and had some very generous reviews. I was fortunate that people of the caliber of Nigel Thrift and Jeff Malpas reviewed it, which really helped get me noticed.
Yes, those are big names at the geography / philosophy interface!
The other early piece that was important was something I wrote on Lefebvre. I initially sent it to Radical Philosophy, who rejected it, and I wondered if it was publishable at all. (In retrospect I can understand why it wasn’t an RP piece.) But I reworked it and sent it to the radical geography journal Antipode, who really liked it and asked me to split it in half and develop each as a standalone piece. Those really helped to get me further attention in geography, and led to my working with Neil Brenner.
You mentioned your collaboration with him. How did you meet?
Neil had co-translated a piece by Lefebvre and written an intro to it, for which I was the reviewer, and Neil was a reviewer for my piece. We didn’t know each other, but the editors – Jamie Peck and Jane Wills – suggested we co-write an introduction and have this run as a special section. Neil and I bounced this short intro back and forth across the Atlantic a few times and the section came out in 2001. We’d at that time never met, and don’t think we even spoke on the phone while writing it. We realized we worked well together, and the next time I was in New York we met up and fortunately got on well in person. The State, Space, World collection was the eventual culmination of conversations that began at that time.
So you started out at Warwick. How did you find your post at Durham?
I made some good friends at Warwick, enjoyed the teaching and did some productive research, but the insecurity of my position meant that I knew it wasn’t likely to turn into a long-term post. For quite a while I was trying to get a job in the US, but got nowhere. Susan—then my girlfriend and now my wife—is American, and we’d thought that the US would be the best place for us to be. But I couldn’t even get shortlisted despite loads of applications, so eventually I realized I’d need to look in the UK. Either the first or perhaps second job I applied for at that time was at Durham. It was a lecturer post, in political geography, but they said they wanted someone who took a ‘post-disciplinary perspective’. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I took it to mean that a political theorist with an interest in space might be suitable. A colleague at Warwick, Ben Rosamond, encouraged me to talk to Joe Painter at Durham and I had a very good conversation with him before I applied, where he told me a lot about the place and made me think this was something really worth pursuing. In retrospect it was obviously a great move for me, but at the time the idea of shifting discipline wasn’t something I thought was a good idea at all.
Tell us about your time at Durham then.
The experience at Durham has been terrific. I had a wonderful mentor in Ray Hudson who gave me excellent career advice, and successive heads of department Ash Amin and Antony Long were very supportive of my promotion aspirations. I was promoted to Reader within three years of arriving at Durham, and to Professor two years after that. Eight years from PhD to Professor is pretty quick, especially since three of those years were in a temporary post.
Yes, it’s a testament to hard work and good mentoring! Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
I’ve worked on a reasonable range of topics, and have developed themes over time, though I think there is a logic and structure to the work. Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre remain the most important thinkers for my work today, even though I’ve done things with other writers such as Kant, Fink, Axelos and Sloterdijk. My substantive interest over the past decade has been territory, but I’ve worked on this in the history of political thought as well as in relation to the ‘war on terror’, the European Union and globalization. So I’d like to think there is a breadth but consistency to my work. I still feel that, in some ways, I’m working through ideas that I had quite a while back, many in the PhD period.
What would you say is the most rewarding experience of your professional life?
I’ve had some terrific experiences, and it’s hard to single out one or two. I’ve been fortunate enough to have combined academic work with travel – either the visiting posts I’ve had in the US, Australia, Canada and Singapore, or the talks I’ve given across the world. Editing Society and Space has been and continues to be an enormous privilege. I’ve written with some terrific people or collaborated on edited books with them – those with Luiza Bialasiewicz, Jeremy Crampton, Neil Brenner and Eduardo Mendieta have been the longest standing and most rewarding.
What was the most frustrating?
The most frustrating is, without doubt, the chaotic way many academics work. I find it incredibly difficult to have to deal with people who don’t reply to emails, miss deadlines, prevaricate, refuse to do things, turn in shoddy work, fail to follow instructions, etc. It’s incredibly common in academic work, and having worked in government I know many of these practices would simply not be tolerated there. I have no real experience of the private sector but suspect it’s even more the case there. What I resent, apart from the obvious discourtesy, is that their inefficiency creates work for me.
I hear that! But to end on a more pleasant note, let’s talk about in what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your intellectual work?
One of the things I most like about being an academic—and I think departments like Durham really help enable this—is the freedom to develop our own research careers. I’ve felt able to integrate interests in a fairly wide-range of areas into my work over time. The very contemporary Terror and Territory, for instance, gave me an outlet for political views, whereas work I’ve done on Antigone, Beowulf and King Lear for a book on the history of territory has allowed me to indulge my literary interests. But other things I’m quite happy to keep separate. Music, cricket and cycling are things I feel are unlikely to become topics of research, and that’s probably a good thing. One of the things I find a little difficult to do is to switch off, and if some of the things I use for a break from research and writing became part of it, then I suspect it would become harder. I sometimes find it hard to read a novel just as a novel, so I’m unlikely to start writing about films or those other interests. And Susan is not an academic, so that’s a crucial part of my life that doesn’t relate to the research. She works in international public health, and spends a lot of time in places like Swaziland and northern Nigeria. That too has made for some fascinating travel experiences.
How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
In the early years of my career there was a lot of teaching things I was not initially that familiar with, and it was only in a few instances where I taught topics on which I’d done research, or was beginning to look at. At Durham my early major teaching work was a year-long Territory and Politics course, which was obviously related to research interests, and a related course on Territory and Geopolitics will be the core of my teaching when I return. I think I’m able to teach in an accessible way material on which I know far more than I could possibly use in a classroom, but sometimes it’s actually good to teach things on which you’re less familiar as you are closer to the students’ own experience. So it’s not, for me, an absolute integration. That said, one of the things I’ve found a bit frustrating about the way the UK system is set up is the need to specify everything so far in advance, without the flexibility that might come from a more research-led or dialogue-driven mode of teaching where you can change the syllabus in response to the material, issues that come up, or student wishes.
I’ve seen US friends able to offer graduate seminars where there is a dialogue between students and faculty on topics of research interest, which would be much harder in the UK. One example where this could work well is in terms of edited books—in other words not teaching my own work, but writings with which I am centrally involved as editor or translator. For instance, the work Neil and I did in editing and translating Lefebvre’s work for the State, Space, World collection could have made an interesting seminar, with the material available in early draft. The books I’ve edited on Foucault, Kant and Sloterdijk could have worked in a similar way. This would, I hope, be of interest and benefit to the students taking the class, since they could be exposed to cutting edge research by the book’s contributors that has yet to appear in print. It would also benefit the books, and provide a way for students to be integrally associated with knowledge production. I don’t know how that could be done in the UK.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I have nearly finished The Birth of Territory, which is a substantial history of the concept in Western political thought. I’ve been working on this on and off for over a decade and for the last three years full-time. This will likely take up some more time over the next few months, but the end is hopefully in sight.
I can imagine that’s gratifying, coming to see the finish of a long project like that. What else, now that you’ll soon have some more time?
I then have two book projects that I want to work on—probably in parallel rather than sequence, or at least, periods on each alternating over the next few years. One is to look at the relation between philosophy, territory and globalisation, tentatively entitled The Space of the World. The idea is not to do a thinker-based or thematic (economy, politics, culture) approach, but to take concepts such as violence, fossils, earth, wound, volume and play as ways of raising a wide range of philosophical, political, geographical and historical issues about how we think of the world and the globe.
And the other?
I then plan to return to the last decade of the work of Foucault, in order to write an intellectual history of his final project on the history of sexuality. Some journal articles have outlined themes from this work in the past. The idea is that I draw on published and unpublished writings of Foucault, including his lecture courses and material archived in Paris, as well as possibly some interviews. I’m interested in trying to understand why the originally conceived plan for the project was abandoned, and how Foucault came to write the more properly historical study he was working on at his death. It’s a story that I don’t think has been adequately told, and that newly available materials enable us to tell in a somewhat different way. I think it might open up some of the possibilities he himself left unexplored or under-developed.
One book almost done, and two more planned!
Yes, I have a much clearer sense about these next three books than the next article I will submit to a journal. I really don’t know what that will be. I say yes to as many speaking engagements as I can, and use these to give me interim goals or outlets for bits of the work I am writing. So I know that in March I’ll be giving a talk on ‘fossils’; in September I’m giving one of the keynotes to a conference on Foucault. And there are lots of invited lectures in the diary where I give a general title or topic and then can tailor it to where I’m at nearer the time. For a few years the standard answer to ‘what will the talk be on?’ was simply ‘territory!’
Apart from that I’m in a fairly free and flexible position – I need to write a response to William Connolly’s A World of Becoming book for a workshop in May and possible future publication; and I need to write the introduction to a collection of papers from Society and Space. But those are the only writing deadlines: I got into a habit of declining a lot of invitations, even quite interesting ones, while I was working on The Birth of Territory. But the nature of academic work and its long deadlines means that you have to say ‘no’ quite a long time ahead to actually clear the decks. I obviously live in some trepidation that one day the interesting invitations will dry up, just when I want them there, but I have plenty to do and I think people appreciate you’re busy when you’re editing a big journal.