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The Visual Conquest of International Law: Brute Boundaries, the Map, and the Legacy of Cartogenesis


The late critical geographer Brian Harley forewarned that modern cartography had come to control and even ‘imprison’ spatial understandings of the earth. Where does this leave international lawyers when they encounter a quintessential ‘World Map’? Quite bluntly: tied to an inscriptive institution that has embodied the modern legibility and visualization of earth space. When speaking about the global arrangements of economic and political power constituted through law, what emerges, therefore, is the need for an expanded spatial literacy among international lawyers that critically engages the graphic legacy and influence of the geometric map. To enhance that literacy, I reach beyond the doctrinal field to engage a powerful spatial critique that has thus far encompassed scholarship across geography, international relations (IR) and sociology. A critique that took impetus over 20 years ago with John Agnew's assertion that modern social science had become captured by a ‘territorial trap’. The article attempts to enrich that critique with Mark Salter's insight on material power, Marshall McLuhan's emphasis on the medium of communication, and Bruno Latour's critique of cartographic naturalism. Specifically, I introduce the concept of cartogenesis as a way of underlining the deeper legacy and consequence of modern cartography, and specifically how the map medium should be grasped as a historical actant that has inscribed a particular ‘ground map’ of international authority. Lastly, the article looks at how geometric mapping now confronts new inscriptive ordering in the forms of transnational lists and contracts, which assert a growing scale of authority over earth space to an extent not seen since the Mercator Projection was recognized as an overriding geographic model.

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1 Bethlehem, D., ‘The End of Geography: The Changing Nature of the International System and the Challenge to International Law’, (2014) 25 EJIL 9; see also Rajkovic, N.M., ‘On Fragments and Geometry: The International Legal Order as Metaphor and How it Matters’, (2013) 6 Erasmus Law Review 6.

2 Pauwelyn, J., Wessel, R.A. and Wouters, J., ‘When Structures Become Shackles: Stagnation and Dynamics in International Lawmaking’, (2014) 25 EJIL 733.

3 Harley, J.B., ‘The Map and the development of the history of Cartography’, in Harley, J.B. and Woodward, D. (eds.), The History of Cartography (1987) Vol. 1, at 3.

4 J. Branch, The Cartographic State: Maps, Territory, and the Origins of Sovereignty- (2014), Ch. 4: ‘Mapping the Territorial State’, at 68–71. See also D. Wood, The Power of Maps (1992).

5 Brenner, N., ‘Beyond state-centrism? Space, Territoriality, and geographical scale in globalization studies’, (1999) 28 Theory and Society 39, at 46.

6 Harrington, C., ‘The Ends of the World: International Relations and the Anthropocene’, (2016) 44 Millennium 478.

7 See The IGLP Law and Global Production Working Group, ‘The Role of Law in Global Value Chains: A Research Manifesto’, (2016) 4 London Review of International Law 57.

8 See Gregory, T., ‘Drones, Targeted Killings, and the Limitations of International Law’, (2015) 9 International Political Sociology 197; Niva, S., ‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon's new cartography of networked warfare’, (2013) 44 Security Dialogue 185; Lubell, N. and Derejko, N., ‘A Global Battlefield? Drones and the Geographical Scope of Armed Conflict’, (2013) 11 JICL 65.

9 See Severson, D., ‘American Surveillance of Non-US Persons: Why new Privacy Protections offer only Cosmetic Change’, (2015) 56 HILJ 465.

10 Bartelson, J., ‘The Social Construction of Globality’, (2010) 4 IPS 219, at 222–3. See also Branch, supra note 4, Ch. 3: ‘The Cartographic Revolution’, at 42–5.

11 J. Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic reason, mapping and the geo-coded world (2004), Ch. 1: ‘Maps and worlds’, at 6.

12 P. Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution (2016), 11.

13 Harley, J.B., ‘Historical Geography and the Cartographic Illusion’, (1989) 15 Journal of Historical Geography 80, at 85.

14 Few international lawyers beyond or since Carl Schmitt: The Nomos of the Earth: in the International law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (2006).

15 de Sousa Santos, B., ‘Law: A Map of Misreading. Toward a Postmodern Conception of Law’, (1987) 14 Journal of Law and Society 279, at 282.

16 This flows in part from what Lefebvre called the geometric ‘science of space’. See H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1984), 1–2.

17 Elden, S., ‘Missing the point: globalization, deterritorialization and the space of the world’, (2005) 30 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 1, at 11–15.

18 Agnew, J., ‘The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory’, (1994) 1 Review of International Political Economy 53.

19 Ford, R.T., ‘Law's Territory: A History of Jurisdiction’, (1999) 97 Michigan Law Review 843, at 843–4.

20 W. Rankin, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century (2016), 2–5.

21 A. Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. The Nation-State and Violence (1985), Vol 2.

22 Hobson, J.M., ‘What's at stake in “bringing historical sociology back into international relations”? Transcending “chronofetishism” and “tempocentrism” in international relations’, in Hobden, S. and Hobson, J. (eds.) Historical Sociology of International Relations (2002), at 6.

23 Kitchin, R. and Dodge, M., ‘Rethinking Maps’, (2007) 31 Progress in Human Geography 331, at 331–2.

24 J.B. Harley, The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (2001), Ch. 5: ‘Deconstructing the Map’, at 153–4.

25 This is related in part to ‘carto-literacy’. See Harley, supra note 24, Ch. 2: ‘Maps, Knowledge, and Power’, at 53.

26 Elden, S., ‘Land, Terrain, Territory’, (2010) 34 Progress in Human Geography 799, at 800.

27 Shah, N., ‘The Territorial Trap of the Territorial Trap: Global Transformation and the Problem of the State's Two Territories’, (2012) 6 International Political Sociology 57, at 58.

28 For a problematization of territorial borders see Vaughan-Williams, N., ‘Borders, Territory, Law’ (2008) 2 International Political Sociology 322.

29 Abbott, A., ‘Things of Boundaries’, (1995) 62 Social Research 857, at 860.

30 Kitchin and Dodge, supra note 23, at 334.

31 Rankin, supra note 20, at 15–16.

32 Tuathail, G.O., ‘Borderless Worlds? Problematizing discourses of deterritorialization’, (2000) 4 Geopolitics 139.

33 See Ruggie, J.G., ‘Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations’, (1993) 47 International Organization 139.

34 Kitchin and Dodge, supra note 23, at 335. See also Brenner, N., ‘Globalisation as reterritorialization: the re-scaling of urban governance in the European Union’, (1999) 36 Urban Studies 431.

35 J. Crampton, The Political Mapping of Cyberspace (2004), at 49. See also M. Heidegger, Being and Time (1962), section 22.

36 Brenner, supra note 5, at 41.

37 For a discussion of morphogenesis, see Archer, M.S., ‘Morphogenesis versus Structuration: On Combining Structure and Action’, (1982) 33 British Journal of Sociology 455.

38 See Kratochwil, F., ‘Of Systems, Boundaries, and Territoriality: An Inquiry into the Formation of the State System’, (1986) 39 World Politics 27.

39 For a discussion of teleology and international law, see Koskenniemi, M., ‘Law, Teleology and International Relations: An Essay in Counter-disciplinarity’, (2012) 26 International Relations 3.

40 Escobar, M., ‘Exploration, Cartography and the Modernization of State Power’, in Brenner, N. et al. (eds.) State/Space: A Reader (2003), at 35.

41 On the connection between legibility, mapping and the state J. Scott, Seeing like a State (1998).

42 See Harley, supra note 24.

43 Wittgenstein, L., On Certainty (edited by Anscombe, G.E.M. and von Wight, G.H., 1972), section 211.

44 J. Larkins, From Hierarchy to Anarchy: Territory and Politics Before Westphalia (2010), at 19–20, 35.

45 See Pauwelyn, J., Wessels, R.A. and Wouters, J. (eds.), Informal International Lawmaking (2012).

46 Zumbansen, P., ‘Transnational Legal Pluralism’, (2010) 1 Transnational Legal Theory 141.

47 Krisch, N. and Kingsbury, B., ‘Introduction: Global Governance and Global Administrative Law in the International Legal Order’, (2006) 17 EJIL 1, at 1.

48 Gottman, J., ‘The Evolution of the Concept of Territory’, (1975) 14 Social Science Information 29, at 29.

49 Cox, K., ‘Redefining “Territory”’, (1991) 10 Political Geography 5; S. Elden, Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (2009); A. Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community: Ethical Foundations of the Post-Westphalian Era (1998); Newman, D. (ed.), Boundaries, Territory and Postmodernity (1999); S. Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights (2006); J.A. Scholte, Globalisation: A Critical Introduction (2000).

50 Agnew, supra note 18.

51 Agnew, J., ‘Sovereignty Regimes: Territoriality and State Authority in Contemporary World Politics’, (2005) 95 Annals of the Association of American Geographers 437; J. Allen et al., Rethinking the Region (1998); J. Allen, Lost Geographies of Power (2003); N. Brenner, New State Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood (2004); D. Held et al., Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (1999); S. Sassen, Losing Control? (1996); Hall, R. and Biersteker, T.J. (eds.), The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance (2002); E.W. Soja, Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions (2000).

52 Agnew, supra note 18, at 55.

53 Ibid., at 53.

54 Ibid., at 56.

55 Ibid., at 59.

56 Ibid., at 374.

57 Andreas, P., ‘Redrawing the Line: Borders and Security in the Twenty-first Century’, (2003) 28 International Security 78; A. Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimension of Globalization (1996); Avant, D., Finnemore, M., and Sell, S. (eds.), Who Governs the Globe? (2010); D. Barney, The Network Society (2004); U. Beck, Cosmopolitan Vision (2006); M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (1996); Y.H. Ferguson and R.W. Mansbach, Remapping Global Politics (2004); Osiander, A., ‘Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth’, (2003) 55 International Organization 251; G.O. Tuathail, Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Space (1996).

58 Elden, supra note 26, at 800.

59 Brenner, N. and Elden, S., ‘Henri Lefebvre on State, Space, Territory’, (2009) 3 International Political Sociology 353, at 356.

60 Agnew, supra note 18, at 53.

61 Salter, M., ‘Introduction: Making Assemblages International’, in Salter, M. (ed.) Making Things International 2 (2016), at xvi.

62 K. Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure (2014), at 14.

63 Salter, supra note 61, at viii–xvii.

64 M. Kokenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870-1960 (2001).

65 M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (2013, first edition 1964), at 8–9.

66 M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (2011), at 270.

67 Latour, B., ‘Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty’, (2016) 44 Millennium 305, at 308–9.

68 Rankin, supra note 20, at 1.

69 Harley, supra note 24, at 53–5; Harley, supra note 3, at 1–5; see also Rankin, ibid., at 1, 24–6.

70 Pickles, supra note 11, at 4–5.

71 Latour, supra note 67, at 313–14.

72 Branch, supra note 4, at 52.

73 R.D. Sack, Human Territoriality: its theory and history (1986); R.D. Sack, Homo geographicus: a framework for action, awareness and moral concern (1997); T. Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002); Harley, supra note 24.

74 Sassen, supra note 49, at 402.

75 McLuhan, supra note 65, at 19.

76 Branch, supra note 4, at 50–7.

77 Harley, supra note 3, at 1.

78 For discussion on maps as actants, see Kitchin and Dodge, supra note 23, at 334.

79 Branch, supra note 4, at 135.

80 Ibid., at 48–9, 125–31.

81 Ibid., at 42–3.

82 Ibid., at 48.

83 J. Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps (2012), at 84–5, 87–(91.

84 G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (translated by B. Massuni) (2016), at 12.

85 On the importance of spatial inscription see Murray Li, T., ‘What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment’, (2014) 39 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 589.

86 For insight into the potential significance of quantum theorizing for international law see A. Wendt, Quantum Mind and Social Science (2015).

87 See de Goede, M., ‘Blacklisting and the ban: Contesting targeted sanctions in Europe’, (2011) 42 Security Dialogue 499.

88 See Dietz, T., ‘Relational Contracts 2.0: Efficiency and power’, in Cutler, A.C. and Dietz, T. The Politics of Private Transnational Governance by Contract (2017), 115–30.

* Chair of International Law, Department of European and International Public Law, Tilburg University []. I am grateful for feedback given on earlier drafts by John Haskell, Akbar Rasulov, Lukasz Dziedzic, Morag Goodwin, Geoff Gordon, Nicola Jägers, Michael Leach, Hans Lindahl, Philip Liste, Zoran Oklopcic, Marissa Ooms, Ben Richardson, Han Somsen, Sofia Stolk, Jonathan Verschuuren, Renske Vos, and the two anonymous reviewers.

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