Post-national metaphors for space and place

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One of the claims that Olivier Roy makes in his recent book, Holy Ignorance, is that religious cultures are becoming increasingly deterritorialized. In the discussion that we had last Friday, participants put in question whether the metaphor or framing concept of deterritorialization was the right one. It’s fair to say, in cultural, political and economic matters, that the territorial imagination of the nation state is being challenged, but it is clear that people and practices take place at particular locations at particular times. If the location of particular practices has become less stable over time, it is not as if all social practices have become equally distributed across the whole surface of the globe. Mecca still matters for Islam, and Rome for the Catholics. Further afield, Saskia Sassen has pointed out that, no matter how “globally mobile” finance might be, it is clear that New York, London and Tokyo still have incredible salience in capital’s flows todays.
Thus, one of the speakers suggested that what was happening wasn’t a deterritorialization, so much as a re-territorialization.  Sassen’s own way of bringing order to these questions, borrowed from the geography literature, is to think of social processes in terms of both “places” with a physical location and “spaces” that have social coherence across a more diffuse territorial expanse.

Yet this seems to miss something as well. I put forward the idea that trying to think in terms of sites and flows might be more productive. Cynthia Salloum, visiting from Paris, asked whether decentralization might be appropriate to describe some of the changes explored in Roy’s book.

Such frames seem to multiply endlessly, however. As much as they borrow heavily from Sassen, Hardt and Negri simultaneously paint a picture of an Empire whose political metaphors are boundless and borderless, but which maintains a world market whose ideologies are best understood in terms of  “-scapes” as in “landscapes, seascapes” but broadened to create “ethnoscapes” or “finanscapes.” (The latter ideas, they borrow from Arjun Appadurai)

As the nation state becomes a less stable frame for understanding social practice and social change, new frames are going to be needed to give life order and assist understanding. Yet it is far from clear what the successful metaphors are going to be.