Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction, by Matthew Hart

Charlotte Jones is fascinated by a study of the places in between and their significance in contemporary fiction

December 3, 2020
People standing at a window
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Lockdown has forced us all to inhabit a strange spatial ontology: layered on to our fixity in physical space is a digitally enabled distribution of attention across a virtual landscape of net-states. Back in the 1920s, Ford Madox Ford, inspired by the new technology of telephones, described how this paradoxical experience of divided presence created a vividly intangible form of selfhood and turned us into what he called “homo duplex”. While Matthew Hart’s brilliantly original study of the political geography of contemporary fiction doesn’t extend to Covid-19, it’s intriguing to think about how this recalibration of spatial relationships might augment his suggestion that the future is neither global nor national. Instead, Hart argues, it is “trending extraterritorial”.

“Extraterritorial” is a tricky term. It doesn’t exactly mean the opposite of “territorial”, but rather designates spaces that fall outside national borders yet still serve to enhance state power. Examples range from international waters, departure zones at airports and the internet, to consulates, detention camps and CIA black sites. Extraterritoriality, in Hart’s words, “is a set of practices through which states govern populations by punching holes in their own political plastic, by stretching out into spaces formally governed by others, or by pooling and sharing jurisdictions and competencies”. Think, for instance, of reciprocal extradition treaties, a relatively uncontroversial legal arrangement through which states extend their jurisdiction across borders so as to claim authority over certain individuals. Some people, such as ambassadors, carry extraterritoriality as an inherent aspect of their persons; others travel into and out of extraterritorial spaces. Extraterritoriality can signify openness, freedom, imprisonment or subjugation. For Hart, “it is this fundamental dynamism that makes an extraterritorial zone like an embassy such a useful kind of space”.

The political geography of the present, Hart shows, has come “increasingly” to resemble a patchwork of such spaces, and his main concern is the way that 21st-century art represents this world. His ingenuity lies in demonstrating that extraterritoriality is not simply a topic but also shapes the forms of contemporary literature, through a series of lively, light-footed readings of works by Margaret Atwood, J. G. Ballard, Amitav Ghosh, Chang-rae Lee and W. G. Sebald, as well as artists such as Hito Steyerl and Mark Wallinger. This isn’t a theory to account for all contemporary fiction, such as that offered by Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who wrote in 1916 of the “transcendental homelessness” of the modern novel. Instead, Hart’s argument stakes its claim at the level of subgenres, such as post-apocalyptic and historical novels, and insists on extraterritoriality’s imbrication in mixed regimes of power. A chapter on China Miéville’s settings – floating pirate utopias, perpetual runaway trains, cities in two countries simultaneously – offers a critique of influential recent theories, such as Giorgio Agamben’s, that identify extraterritorial spaces with coercive states of emergency and that see these states of emergency as revealing the truth of sovereignty in general. Approaching cultural analysis through fiction rather than philosophy, Hart can probe “how and why institutions and citizens share and subdivide real and imaginary spaces in the making of transnational culture”.

One of Hart’s central conclusions is that “what we think of as ‘global’ space is the product of agreements, conflicts, and compromises between national states”. There’s an important level of detail here. It’s become an academic orthodoxy to say that studying contemporary culture means taking a transnational perspective, that globalisation’s crisis for the nation state presages a borderless and cosmopolitan planetary culture. By attending to extraterritoriality as a contradictory idea and complex historical practice, Hart strikes a valuable note of caution: “the fragmented and parcelized nature of contemporary spatial experience is not the exception; it is a new development within a long history of doing sovereignty differently”. As Covid-19 restructures our occupation of space, this book asks urgent questions about what it means to belong to a territory, rather than just to be on some piece of land.

Charlotte Jones is a Leverhulme early career fellow at Queen Mary University of London. Her book, Realism, Form and Representation in the Edwardian Novel, will be published early next year.


Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction
By Matthew Hart
Columbia University Press, 320pp, £78.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9780231188388 and 9780231188395
Published 1 September 2020

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