Spatial Formats under the Global Condition – Book Review

Reviewed by George White

Matthias Middell and Steffi Marung (eds.), Spatial Formats under the Global Condition, Volume 1 in the series Dialectics of the Global, Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2019.

Through their work at the Collaborative Research Centre at Leipzig University, Steffi Marung, Matthias Middell and their collaborators have produced a comprehensive and impressive volume on the weighty topic of globalization. The topic is innately geographical, specifically spatial, and geographers not only have a lot to say about it, they already have written much about it. Nevertheless, Marung and Middell have produced a volume that makes a unique contribution. First, they take a comprehensive view of globalization, namely from all geographical scales and their interactions and nuances. In the editors own words, “all authors within this volume share an understanding of globalization as a dialectic of flows and controls as well as of de- and reterritorialization, essentially the result of multiple globalization projects, including the activities of actors with specific agendas, resources, and instruments to pursue them” (p. 1). Second, the authors’ research is conducted through the lenses of multiple disciplines and specialty areas (i.e., “geography, sociology, history, cultural studies, political science, international studies, and international history – as well as area studies expertise – on Africa, the Americas, and Europe in particular” (p. 1)) to provide an both interdisciplinary and regional perspectives. These two combined approaches provide both vertical and horizontal understandings of globalization. It is an ambitious goal, but the resulting volume has distilled all the salient points of globalization and helps the reader, whether a newcomer to or veteran of the subject, to obtain an erudite and crystallized understanding of globalization.

The volume is comprised of 14 chapters grouped into four parts that span across the macro-, meso- and microscales. For example, the three chapters of the Part I (“Concepts and Historicity”) “investigate globalization and its driving dialectics” (p. 6) from the perspectives of a geographer, a historian, and a sociologist. Part II (“Territories”) examines the nature and character of the concepts of empire and nation-state. Part III (“Portals”) explores the enduring relationships between metropoles (including Central European sub-centers) and the colonial periphery, e.g., African cities. Part IV (“International Spaces”) changes tack from the previous three parts which focus on explaining how globalization came to be what it is today. Serving as the final part, it focuses on new spatial formats, how they are imagined and emerging within the old spatial orders. Representing new needs and connections, often brought about by digitalization, these new spatial formats are challenging, repurposing, and reshaping the old spatial orders. Topics include internationalization to assert sovereignty, new regionalisms, transnational ties in agri-food industries, and remittances.

Beginning Part I (“Concepts and Historicity”), Matthias Middell’s chapter, “Category of Spatial Formats: To What End?”, sketches out the conceptual framework for the volume by seeking to advance our understandings of the complexities of spatiality through a heuristic approach. He begins by introducing the term “spatial format”, which describes space-making resulting from “long-term repetition, standardization, performativity, and institutionalization, as well as by the collective imaginings of their stability (p.19).” Middell adds dimension by integrating the already-existing “territory, place, scale, and networks (TSPN) framework” to his heuristic (p. 21). Many spatial formats exist at any given time and often compete and conflict with one another, leading to transformations. Middell employs the term “spatial order” to identify the relationships of spatial formats to one another.
Bob Jessop’s chapter, “Spatiotemporal Fixes and Multispatial Metagovernance: The Territory, Place, Scale, Network Scheme Revisited”, elaborates on Middell’s chapter. Jessop does so by showing that spatialization is a much more multidimensional process that involves contingencies and uneven development not fully recognized and incorporated in other studies. In doing so, he highlights the temporal aspect, i.e., the “spatiotemporal”. In developing his argument, he elaborates “territory, place, scale, and networks (TSPN)” into a matrix with a horizontal axis, labeling it “Fields of Operation”, and adds a vertical axis named “Structuring Practices”, comprised of the concepts territorialization, place-making, rescaling, and networking.

Judith Miggelbrink’s chapter, “Mapping the Toolbox: Assemblage Thinking as a Heuristic,” finishes Part I by showing how assemblage theory can be employed as a heuristic. Certainly, assemblage theory advances ideas that complement those proposed in the volume. However, proponents of assemblages are not all in agreement with their views as some express diametrically opposing ideas. Thus, Migglebrink devotes a good portion of her chapter to clarifying the different strands of assemblage theory.

Part II (“Territories”) represents an application of the heretofore concepts of the volume at the macroscale. Frank Schumacher’s “Reclaiming Territory: The Spatial Contours of Empire in US History” is a fascinating read of US history told from a spatial perspective. It should be required reading for American students. John Breuilly’s “Modern Territoriality, the Nation-State, and Nationalism” is stimulating discussion on a topic that he devoted his career to mastering.

Part III (“Portals”) focuses on the meso- and microscales. Geert Castryck’s “Disentangling the Colonial City: Spatial Separations and Entanglements Inside Towns and across the Empire of Colonial Africa and Europe” illustrates how broader imperial-colonial processes (re)shaped the morphologies of not only colonial cities in Africa but also the cities in Europe directly involved in colonial projects. It is an interesting read, but the material of the chapter screams out for maps to illustrate the chapter’s concepts though actual maps are antithetical to social theory. Holger Weiss’ “Hamburg, 8 Rothesoodstrasse: From a Global Space to a Non-place” concentrates on one building in a port city. Bought by a communist agitator in 1924, the building became headquarters for related communist workers’ organizations who operated through local, national, and global networks until its demise in 1933. Antje Dietze’s “Visions of the World. Transnational Connections of the Panorama Industry in Leipzig at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” is an informative examination of panoramas in Leipzig to illustrate global portals, “large-scale productions networks and spatial imaginations” (p. 231).

Part IV (“International Spaces”) contains the most chapters. It begins with Glenda Sluga’s chapter “The International History of (International) Sovereignty”, which traces the growth and practice of international sovereignty as exemplified by the creation of the League of Nations, its successor the United Nations, and then the UN’s Moon Agreement (1979). Sluga shows that international sovereignty was driven by economics as much as it was by politics and that both international sovereignty and global economics respatialized the nation-state. The next chapter, “Monolith or Experiment? The Bloc as a Spatial Format”, written by Steffi Marung, Uwe Müller, and Stefan Troebst, considers regional grouping of nation-states. The authors use the Cold War “Soviet bloc” as a case study to demonstrate that the concept of “bloc” by no means results in the creation of a monolithic, homogenous spatial unit. Instead, the balancing of national, transnational, and international logics by spatial entrepreneurs was very complicated and led to tensions and contradictions. Ulf Engel expands on these ideas in his chapter “Regionalisms and Regional Organizations” by arguing that regionalisms are much older than usually acknowledged, extending back to at least 1815. He advances his argument through empiricism and an examination of terminology. In their chapter, “Dis/Articulating Agri-food Spaces: The Multifaceted Logics of Agro-investments”, Sarah Ruth Sippel and Michaela Böhme continue with this part of the book’s subtheme by investigating how agro-investments have reshaped “spatialities within agricultural commodity chains” (p. 334). Focusing on Chinese companies and financial investors, they demonstrate that such actors work to build different spatial outcomes that are often contradictory and divergent. Hannes Warnecke-Berger’s chapter, “The Spatial Turn and Economics: Migration, Remittances, and Transnational Economic Space”, concludes the last part of the volume and the entire volume itself. Warnecke-Berger notes that modern economics still treats space as a given, an unproblematic container. To counter such assumptions, he offers the phenomenon of remittances as a first step in rethinking economic space. He shows that remittances work to create transnational economic spaces and monetary circuits that give economic access to new actors who have their own (re)spatialization strategies.

Overall, “Spatial Formats under the Global Condition” is a thoughtful exploration of a salient topic. Despite the number of contributing authors, all chapters fit conceptually into the volume though the authors embrace to varying degrees the vocabulary laid out in the beginning. Most of the chapters could be published as stand-alone articles, but they probably would be lost in the vast sea of writings on the subject. The main contribution of the volume is its assemblage of writings into a coherent whole that touches on the important perspectives, scales, and nuances of globalization. It is a worthwhile collection for those introducing themselves to the subject as well as for those who are well-read in it.

This review was first published by Connections: A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists.

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