Spatializing States

Reading Gupta and Ferguson’s article Spatializing States (“free PDF”: from Gupta’s excellent website, where there are many more) what I find so naggingly dissatisfying about it is not the project but the language. “Taking the verticality and encompassment of states not as a taken-for-granted fact, but as a precarious achievement,” they write, “it becomes possible to pose the question of the spatiality of contemporary practices of government as an ethnographic problem.” Exactly. Yet it seems to me the language of ‘spatializing the state’ helps obscure some key analytic points in how we might go about analyzing these practices. Although, to be sure, it is probably a lot sexier than the language that I am about to propose.

At root, ‘spatializing the state’ refers to metaphors for space used by people to describe the state’s relationship to its subjects. Thus the state is ‘above’ the people, it’s agents are ‘everywhere’ watching you, and so forth. These metaphors, when taken as texts which orient people to action, enable the coordination of action across time and space and produce congeries of behavior that eventually are attributed to a ‘state’ in whose name all of this action is attributed. Thus we might want to talk about the two related by distinct meanings of how ‘spatialization’ — on the one hand a very familiar symbolic-anthropological (Fernandez or even Geertz) notion that there is a ‘metaphorical space’ of images of the state which can be described and explored on the one hand, and on the other an analysis of action across space carried out in the name of, or at the bequest of, ‘the state.’ The second, clearly, is related by the first

But what is the nature of that relation? That, it seems to me, is the question that an anthropology of the state must post. To do so it would have to work between the crack of these two meanings of ‘spatialization’. We as social scientists can demonstrate that the self-accounts of state agents are actually very poor descriptions of the complex relationship between cultural logics of the state-cum-organizing metaphor and how they are actually instantiated in (as it were) reality. This is most clear in the case of ‘weak states’ where ‘corruption’ blurs the line between actions carried out qua individual and qua office holder. But in ‘strong states’ where the seam between state imagery and state practice is stronger we can still see that, as it were, the glue holding them together might not be what they thing it is. Managing the complex reflexivity of all this is a difficult task, however, and I fear that language like ‘spatializing the state’ may make it harder rather than easier.

Gupta and Ferguson’s discussion of ‘encompassment’ and ‘verticality’ as ‘methods of spatialization’ (I think this means central tropes in the metaphorical space used by people to describe the state) is a good example. Clearly, these idioms will vary across space and time, and exploring the nature of this variation is an important project. Do these idioms of ‘encompassment’ and ‘verticality’ carry different charges in Hindi? Do people even speak this way in India? In the article we get brief and relatively unnuanced analyses of states being ‘above’ people or ‘swooping down’ on them, we are never told who, in particular, discusses things in this way, nor do we get a very detailed description of this metaphorical space. In fact it seems that the brief ethnography of suprise inspections in India are read by the ethnographer in terms of verticality and encompassment. But demonstrating that the analyst can use these metaphors to subsume a wide variety of different practices is a different (and, to me, less interesting) project then analyzing how they are used by actors to produce a certain type of social practice. I’m sure the article’s length is a factor here, but there is a danger that this could lead to future hand-waving of the “you know, encompassment” variety.

I am also not sure that the material described in the paper is ‘neoliberal’ in any distinctive way, unless ‘neoliberal’ is just code for ‘the present.’ I don’t doubt that there’s something distinct about the current moment, but if you take narratives of neoliberalism as your subject rather than take them for granted, then one cannot use bits of that narrative uncritically. Metaphors of rulers being ‘above’ people are typical not just of ‘neoliberalism’ but also of ‘divine kingship’ and NGOs like, you know, The Church have been battling with ‘sovereign states’ for influence in their territories for some time now.

This is not a negative criticism, but rather an invitation to wider theorizing. ‘Big actors’ have been around for a long time, and it’s been thousands of years since people realized that speaking and acting in the name of a collective subjectivity is a great way to coordinate large-scale action. I think that ultimately an account of ‘how states are spatialized’ would benefit from consideration of adjacent semiotic phenomena — divine kingship in Europe, Nancy Munn’s analysis of ‘fame’ in Gawa, Knorr-Cetina’s work on how individual currency traders become ‘global flows of capital’ and so forth.

So in sum the idea of ‘spatializing states’ is an intriguing one, and the stakes are even larger and more important than the already-formidable concept of ‘governmentality’. But I do think that the problem might be more precisely specified and fruitfully hooked up to other bodies of theories than that on ‘governmentality.’ Realizing the project’s potential will, I think, require casting a large net.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

One thought on “Spatializing States

  1. Great points: here’s a possible link in that wider net you mention, Alex:

    “For since the beginning of the state, it is only in short periods of time and in small geographic areas that societies have been organized in state forms different from monarchy; and the most famous nonmonarchic organizations of societies that were successful before the age of modern revolutions were the ancient Greek polis and the medieval and early modern republics of Europe–small communities ruled by a minority of peers and surrounded by an ocean of monarchies. This lasting success of monarchic institutions was based in good part upon the ideological strategy we have been used to call sacred or divine kingship; or in other words upon monarchy’s deceptively simple symbolic structure, which contrasted, and in different ways identified, the whole social body with only one other body–the body of the king.” Cristiano Grottanelli, Kings and Prophets (Oxford, 1999) p. 3.

    In Feb of 07 there’s an U of Chicago Oriental Institute conference about comparative perspectives on Divine Kingship, run by my successor the Sumerologist Nicole Brisch (if you want to widen that net even more…)

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