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  • Once Within Boundaries: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging by Charles S. Maier
  • Yair Mintzker
Once Within Boundaries: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging. By Charles S. Maier (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016) 387pp. $29.95

“As we know,” Foucault announced in a famous 1964 lecture, “the great obsession of the nineteenth century was history: themes of development and arrest, themes of crisis and cycle, themes of accumulation of the past, a great overload of dead people, the threat of global cooling. . . . The present age may be the age of space instead. We are in an era of the [End Page 243] simultaneous, of juxtaposition, of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the scattered.”1

Influenced by Foucault’s work and powerfully echoing the latter’s claim that “space itself, in the Western tradition, has a history,” Maier sets out in this insightful book to trace the rise and fall of a particular political space that he calls “a territory.” Though his main concern is with notions of bounded political spaces and their evolution from 1500 to the present, this book will interest not only political scientists and historians of the modern state system but also seasoned readers of Bachelard, Lefebvre, Deleuze, Guatteri, Kern, Soja, and any number of other authors associated with the “spatial turn.”2 Maier explicitly encourages such a reading of his work. “Without our ascribing any simple one-way causality,” he writes in a crucial passage of the book, ”it remains the case that the construction of analogous spatial frameworks advanced in different domains at the same time. The construction of territory was an encompassing activity” (288).

The book is based on an influential essay that Maier published in the American Historical Review (ahr), in which he challenged common periodizations of the twentieth century, calling for the identification of a new historical period stretching roughly from 1860 to 1980.3 This period, Maier claimed in his essay, possessed particular spatially anchored structures of politics and economics. Earlier periods were characterized by the porous contact zones of empire, and the present day is one of accelerating globalization. The period 1860 to 1980, however, was dominated by the centrality of the strictly bounded political space.

The book’s six chapters expand on this original thesis by tracing the emergence of the basic characteristics of modern political territories, starting with the “invention” of the fortified frontier in France around 1700 and continuing with the rationalization of the countryside by French Physiocrats, their allies, and their imitators; the “filling” of national space through the railway and the telegraph; the obsessive colonial scrambles for territory around 1900; and the struggle for global dominance during the Cold War. Maier concludes with an arresting description of the present state of territoriality. In this chapter especially, Maier reveals himself as a Foucauldian historian through and through: His main aim is to historicize [End Page 244] territoriality in order to show its continuing hold on our imagination as well as its inherent instability and many paradoxes.

Maier’s genealogical, present-oriented approach to the history of territoriality both enlightens and obscures. Once he reaches the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (the heart of his argument in his original ahr piece), Maier is in his element. His analysis is erudite and extraordinarily insightful. Less successful, on the other hand, are the early chapters of the book, which often suffer from factual inaccuracies (the Confession of Augsburg was not signed in 1542, [73]); topsy-turvy causations (long before the fortification of the French borders by Sébastian Vauban, French kings were busy defortifying the state’s interior [Chapter 2]); and self-defeating statements (“The Roman structure lasted centuries but proved unsustainable” [25]). Most importantly, the earlier chapters often fail to employ Maier’s own historicist approach, the very source for the later chapters’ many revealing insights. Characterizing premodern China as “fragmented” (25), the Holy Roman Empire as “a federation” (73), or eighteenth-century Castile as “a hodgepodge” of levies and immunities ignores how inhabitants of these polities viewed them. As such, it amounts to an imposition of a modern, territorial logic on political frameworks that did not possess it—exactly...


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