Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power
Department of Geography, Durham University, Science Road, Durham DH1 3LE, UK
We all-too-often think of the spaces of geography as areas, not volumes. Territories are bordered, divided
and demarcated, but not understood in terms of height and depth. ‘Secure the area’is a common
expression for the military and police, but what happens if another dimension is taken into account and
we think what it means to ‘secure the volume’? This article draws on the emergent literature on vertical
geopolitics and Peter Sloterdijk’s work on spheres, but also looks at what happens below the surface,
with a particular focus on tunnels. Using Paul Virilio’s work, and some examples from the West Bank and
Israel’s border with Lebanon, it demonstrates how we need to think volumedthink about volume,
through volume, with volumedrather than simply the vertical to make sense of the complexities of
Ó2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The phrase ‘secure thearea’is a common one in military and police
situations. What happens if we take the vertical as a key question,
taking the additional dimension into account, if security has to con-
tend with volume?Whatwoulditmeanto‘secure the volume’?How
does thinking about volume eheight and depth instead of surfaces,
three dimensions instead of areas echange how we think about the
politics of space? We all-too-often think of the spaces of geography as
areas, not volumes. Territories are bordered, divided and demarcated,
but not understood in terms of height and depth.
This article therefore builds on my claim that territory is a much
more complicated and multi-faceted notion than it is usually un-
derstood to be. Standard political geographical deﬁnitions describe
it as a ‘bounded space’or the ‘area controlled by a certain kind of
power’. Previous work has challenged the former by suggesting
that boundedness is a particular form made possible by a deeper
and underlying determination of political space, as calculable
(2005,2010). This article challenges the latter deﬁnition ethat it is
simply an ‘area controlled by a certain kind of power’.Itﬁrst looks
at work on verticality, then work on the subsoil, with a particular
focus on tunnels. In sum, the aim is to take seriously, in a political
register, what Jeremy Crampton has called the ‘volumetric’(2010,
96), a term that is productive because of the dimension and cal-
culable resonances it has. First, though, a brief rehearsal of the
earlier argument concerning territory.
Territory is not merely a cognate of land, a political-economic
term implying ownership, exchange and use value, distribution,
partition, division. Nor is it sufﬁcient, though it is necessary, to add
a strategic, political dimension to the term, understanding the
power relations in a narrow sense of contestation and struggle. This
can be given the shorthand of the notion of terrain. Land and terrain
are crucial elements, but not enough either alone or in combina-
tion. Rather, ‘power’should be understood, following Michel Fou-
cault, in a somewhat broader sense, as including, among other
aspects, the legal and the technical.
The politicalelegal adds a crucial element into the understand-
ing, because it raises the spatial element of notions of jurisdiction,
authority, sovereignty, supremacy, superiority, administration and
so on. Put crudely, we should ask where does the law apply, and
where does it cease to apply. The politicaletechnical, trading on
work by Martin Heidegger and Foucault especially, understands the
technical in a broad sense as an art or technique, but it looks at
questions such as the relation between developments in mathe-
matics, particularly geometry, in making possible the large-scale
cartographic and land-surveying projects that contributed to the
modern sense of territory. Political arithmetic, statistics and surveys
all have important geographical elementsdlook for example at
Matthew Hannah’s work on the census in Governmentality and the
Mastery of Territory in Nineteenth Century America and his more
recent book Dark Territory in the Information Age (2000,2010; see
Legg, 2007;Mitchell, 2002).
Taking these four dimensions of the political into accountdthe
economic, the strategic, the legal and the technicalddoes not
provide a better deﬁnition of ‘territory’, in the sense of a ﬁxed,
ahistorical deﬁnition. But it gives a set of questions that might be
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Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17
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asked in order to understand how territory has been understood,
and practised, at different times and places. Territory is a process,
not an outcome; not so far from what is increasingly being un-
derstood as an assemblage, continually made and remade. Territory
can be understood as a political technology, or a bundle of political
technologies, understanding both political and technology in
a broad sense: techniques for measuring land and controlling ter-
rain (see Elden, 2010,2013a).
To suggest, then, that territory is a ‘bounded space’under the
control of a group of people invites the initial questions: what do
we mean by bounded, and how is that possible; what do we mean
by space, or what determination of space; and what power re-
lations are at stake. It might be the beginning of the deﬁnitional
work, but it is not the end. In other publications this way of
approaching territory has been worked through in detail both
politically and historically (2009a, 2013a). This article develops
these arguments conceptually and politically, especially in terms of
the problems that arise when space is reduced to a surface, a plane;
when territory is reduced to an area.
From area to volume
One of the key thinkers of the notion of volume is the German
philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. The ﬁrst work of his in English that
engages with these questions is a short book translated as Terror
from the Air (2009b), but whose German title Luftbeben (2002)
would more accurately be rendered as ‘Airquake’or ‘Air Tremors’.
What Sloterdijk is seeking to analyse here is how the air itself, the
air we breathe, becomes targeted. In a way it parallels the critique
Luce Irigaray made of Heideggerdtoo tied to the earth, forgetting
the air (1983,1999). The material in Sloterdijk’s book was ﬁrst
published in German as a chapter in volume two of the mon-
umental Spheres trilogy. In German this is a three-volume, 2600
page work (1998,1999,2004), the ﬁrst volume of which has
recently been translated into English (2011b). The ‘Airquakes’
chapter appeared in Society and Space in early 2009 (2009a), closely
followed by the separate book (2009b).
Sloterdijk suggests that this work, taken as a whole, should be
understood as the counterpart to Heidegger’sBeing and Time,as
Being and Space (1998, 345; 2011b, 342) which he describes as “the
great unwritten book of Western Philosophy”(1999, 59 n. 17).
Sloterdijk takes the Heideggerian idea of being-in-the-world and
analyses the ‘in’the way Heidegger expressly denied (1967,53e54),
as a spatial term, as a question of location, of where we are (2005,
308; 2011a,175e176; see 1998, 336e345; 2011b,333e342). For
Sloterdijk, being is always being-with, not the isolated individual,
but relations between; and being-with is always to be in a world.
This is a spatial determination of our existence, and he suggests that
a sequence of spheres help to make sense of this. They range from
the bubbles of the ﬁrst volume, where the ﬁrst sphere is that of the
womb, to the globes of the second volume, working through the
family home, architecture, the polis, and the nation. In the third
volume he pluralises this, using the idea of foam to capture the idea
of interlocked spheres (see Elden, 2012,7e8; Klauser, 2010). What
is striking about Sloterdijk’s work is the way that he tries to think
space so seriously as a volume, with three dimensions, rather than
merely an area. In terms of the work on terror, his examples are
multiple, he is trying to show how poison gas attacks in World War
I, the Holocaust, gas chambers, aerial bombardment, etc. share
similar logics of assault. He broadens his analysis to include analysis
of radioactivity, meteorology, pneumatology (spiritual beings)d
means by which commanding the air can terrorise the earth,
what he calls ‘atmoterrorism’. This relates to long-standing dis-
cussions of the bomber aeroplane, and missile attack (see Gregory,
2006,2011a;Grosscup, 2006;Herz, 1959).
In a related enquiry, the French theorist Paul Virilio has dis-
cussed how aerial warfare in World War I opened up new senses of
battlespace, rather than just a battleﬁeld, which cinema was quick
to develop in its own aesthetic. As he suggests, “Distance, depth,
three-dimensionality ein just a few years of war, space became
a training-ground for the dynamic offensive and for all the energies
it harnessed”(1989, 35). In World War II civilian populations
became targets in ways they had not been before, with an impact
even in countries that had not been invaded such as Britain and
Japan. Equally, the advent of submarine warfare took warfare below
the surface. War was now fought in a three-dimensional space,
a volume. In Virilio’s words:
The conquest of the third dimension by the aerial forces and the
extension of the submarine offensive gave to the Second World
War its ‘volume’. What was only yesterday the privilege of sea
powers became the privilege of the entire military establish-
ment: the control of the sky completed the control of the sea’s
depths.Space was at last homogenized, absolute war became
a reality, and the monolith was its monument (1994,39e40).
These arguments inﬂuenced some comments in my book Terror
and Territory (Elden, 2009a, xxii). There the argument was that
while attacks from truck or car bombs, or suicide bombers were
challenges to the security of a state, there were means of preven-
tion that could be erecteddwalls and fences being two of the most
common. A whole range of such building projects have been con-
ducted since 2001 (see Brown, 2010). Attacks from the air are much
harder to prevent, and attempts to secure vertical space can be
found in the barrage balloons of World War II to the attempts of
a missile shield in the Cold War. The suggestion was that it was “not
coincidental that two of the most extreme responses of the United
States and its allies in the ‘war on terror’have been to aerial attack:
to the airplanes of September 11, 2001, and to Hezbollah’s Katyusha
rockets launched against Israel in 2006”(Elden, 2009a, xxii).
However it is crucial to underline that the state responses, as state-
terror, were also characterised by aerial assault. The ‘Shock and
Awe’initial attack on Iraq, not to mention earlier operations such as
Desert Fox; the destruction of Fallujah; and attacks by Israel on
Beirut or Gaza; NATOin the Kosovo War and Russia in Chechnya are
all state-terror from the air. NATO’s intervention in Libya more
recently might be understood in a similar way. All these operations
use the vertical dimension to assert domination, they use aerial
supremacy to terrify the civilian population on the ground. The
book suggested that:
Recognizing the vertical dimension of territory shows that ter-
ritory is a volume rather than an area, and noting that lines on
maps have only a limited height when translated into lines on
the ground showcases a new level of vulnerability: a vulner-
ability to imagined senses of a protected territory, the body of
the state (Elden, 2009a, xxii).
These arguments link to ongoing work by a range of thinkers on
what Stephen Graham has called ‘vertical geopolitics’(2004a). As
Foucault suggests in his examination of the Dogs series of paintings
by Paul Rebeyrolle, “In the world of prisons, as in the world of
dogs.the vertical is not one of the dimensions of space, it is the
dimension of power”(2007, 170).
It dominates, rises up, threatens and ﬂattens; an enormous pyr-
amid of buildings, above and below; orders barked out from up
high and down low; you are forbidden to sleep by day, to be up at
night, stood up straight in front of the guards, to attention in front
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e172
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of the governor; crumpled by blows in the dungeon, or strapped
to the restrainingbed for having not wanted to go to sleep in front
of the warders; and, ﬁnally, hanging oneself with a clear con-
science, the only means of escaping the full length of one’s
enclosure, the only way of dying upright (Foucault, 2007,170).
The key thinker of the vertical dimension, and an inspiration for
many of those working in this area, is the Israeli architect and
theorist Eyal Weizman. In a call for an understanding of what he
calls ‘the politics of verticality’, Weizman has shown how we must
grasp the fractured spaces of the West Bank as three-dimensional,
with tunnels, bridges, hilltops, and airspace central to under-
standing the conﬂict, as much as land, terrain, and walls (2002,
2003,2007;Segal & Weizman, 2003). An extended quotation from
Weizman illustrates his key argument:
Two-dimensional maps, fundamental to the understanding of
political borders, have been drawn again and again for the West
Bank. Each time they have failed to capture its vertical divisions.
In the understanding and governing of territories, maps have
been principal tools. The history of their making relates to
property ownership, political sovereignty and power.
But maps are two-dimensional. Attempting to represent reality
on two-dimensional surfaces, they not only mirror it but also
shape the thing they represent. As much as describing the
world, they create it.
Geo-politics is a ﬂat discourse. It largely ignores the vertical
dimension and tends to look across rather than to cut through
the landscape. This was the cartographic imagination inherited
from the military and political spatialities of the modern state.
Since both politics and law understand place only in terms of the
map and the plan, territorial claims marked on maps assume
that claims are applicable simultaneously above them and
Traditional international borders are political tools dividing the
land on plans and maps; their geometric form, following prin-
ciples of property laws, could be described as vertical planes
extending from the centre of the earth to the height of the sky.
The departure from a planar division of a territory to the crea-
tion of three-dimensional boundaries across sovereign bulks
redeﬁnes the relationship between sovereignty and space.
The ‘Politics of Verticality’entails the re-visioning of existing
cartographic techniques. It requires an Escher-like representa-
tion of space, a territorial hologram in which political acts of
manipulation and multiplication of the territory transform
a two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional volume
(Weizman, 2002, 2).
In his 2007 book Hollow Land Weizman works that through in
detail. He examines the situation of the security barrier or wall in
the West Bank, and the way that this cuts off communities from
Fig. 1. Transport sovereignties in the West Bank.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17 3
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each other. Much of the work of his study, and the earlier A Civilian
Occupation (Segal & Weizman, 2003) looks at the architecture and
urban planning of Israeli settlements, and especially their situation
on mountains and hilltops as strategically powerful positions.
These demonstrate the ways that height plays an important role in
the power relations of this fractured and contested space, and he
uses the examples of roads that run over and under each other, with
an Israeli highway superimposed over the Palestinian road to mark
out different transportation sovereignties (2007,179e181) (Fig. 1).
Taking into account airspace and overﬂight rights, which the
Israelis control for the entire West Bank, and the water and sewage
systems below the surface, shows that it is not enough to think in
terms of three dimensions. Rather, Weizman argues, there are three
Israeli and three Palestinian dimensions at stake (2007, 15).
A few examples will be used here to think about the two-
dimensional and three-dimensional elements of geopolitical
space. Part of the old border between Israeli-occupied land and
Jordanian-occupied land, the ‘green line’which lasted from 1948 to
1967, is now traced by a major arterial road in Jerusalem. The road,
Chel Handasa street (Fig. 2), leads north from the Old City, and the
new Jerusalem light rail runs along this route (between Damascus
Gate and Shivtei Israel stations).
While most traces of the previously contested nature of this
space have been removed, some of the buildings still expose the
past. The buildings in the top right of Fig. 2 are effectively turned
away from the road; the exposed façade shows service ducts and
ventilation for air conditioning units. This was previously the
frontline: the architectural traces show this legacy today (Fig. 3).
Close by these buildings is a remarkable museum. Appropriately
named the ‘Museum on the Seam for Dialogue, Understanding and
Coexistence’(see www.mots.org.il/Eng/Index.asp), it is housed in
a building which was formally an army outpost next to the Man-
delbaum Gate between the two parts of the city. One of the major
exhibitions it has shown was entitled ‘Bare Life’and used the work
of Giorgio Agamben, among others, to think through the imbrica-
tions of biopolitics and geopolitics in this contested space (Etgar,
Another contested site is the area known as ‘E1’, short for ‘East
1’. This is a large space between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim,
intended to be a Jewish settlement. If completed it would almost
completely separate the West Bank into a northern and southern
section, largely cut off from each other. It would entirely isolate
Arab East Jerusalem. The area is ready to go if given the green light,
but the Obama administration is set against it (on this plan see
Shalev, 2009). At the moment there is extensive infrastructure
there, including roads, roundabouts, street lights, road signs,
powerlines and presumably irrigation and sewage tunnelsdthings
on the surface, above it, and below it (Fig. 5).
But as yet there are no buildings, with one exception, the
police station on top of the hill, the Samaria and Judea Police
District Headquarters, said to be the biggest in the West Bank
Fig. 2. Chel Handas street, looking towards the Old City.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e174
Throughout Jerusalem, the West Bank and elsewhere, what is
below the surface is mined for its historical artefacts and the po-
litical signiﬁcance they have. Historical traces can help to justify
arguments for previous habitation and politically and legally build
cases for land control today. As Weizman notes, “archaeology
attempted to peel this visible layer and expose the historical
landscape concealed underneath. Only a few metres below the
surface, a palimpsest made of ﬁve thousand year-old debris, traces
of cultures, narratives of wars and destruction, is arranged chro-
nologically in layers compressed with stone and by soil”(Weizman,
2002, 8). These examples help to explain what he means by the
notion of “a political volume”(Weizman, 2004, 189).
Ideas of verticality have been developed by Stephen Graham in
a number of pieces (e.g. 2004a, 2011), culminating in the major
work Cities Under Siege (2010a, see also 2004b,2010b) Graham has
worked through, in detail, what it means for warfare to become
urban. This relates to the argument made by Virilio, where war
becomes even more fully a question of volume, battlespace, rather
than a battleﬁeld. Of course, siege warfare, catapults and tunnels,
ditches, walls and ramparts have long been important, and classic
accounts such as those by Thucydides, Caesar and Machiavelli show
the importance of an understanding of terrain. But Graham refers to
Major Peters who analysed the challenge of urban warfare com-
pared to what the US was used to, back in 1996:“At the broadest
level, there is a profound spatial difference. ‘Conventional’warfare
has been horizontal, with an increasing vertical dimension. In fully
urbanized terrain, however, warfare becomes profoundly vertical,
reaching up to towers of steel and cement, and downward into
sewers, subway lines, road tunnels, communication tunnels, and
the like”(1996, 2; part cited in Graham, 2004a, 14). More recently
Graham and colleague Lucy Hewitt have called for an explicitly
vertical sensibility to shape ongoing research in urban geography
(Graham & Hewitt, 2012). This is of equal importance in political
Other geographers have taken the vertical in account in
important waysdtake, for example, Derek Gregory’s work on the
history of aerial bombardment (2011a), unmanned drones (2011b)
and the everywhere war (2011c); work on aerial sovereignty, se-
curity and the projection of military power (Monmonier, 2010;
Williams, 2007,2011a,2011b); Trevor Paglen’s work on secret sites
for the war on terror, many of which are underground or otherwise
hidden, and which often relate to spy plane technologies (2010);
and Peter Adey’s studies of aerial life (2010a,2010c) and on aerial
surveillance by helicopters over the contemporary megacity
(2010b). Much of this work has concerned the target, and the tar-
geting of that target from above (see also Sebald, 2003;Zehfuss,
2011). The control of volume can be found in the idea of no-ﬂy
zones, of providing security for the ground through a mechanism
from the air. This has been seen, most recently, in Libya, continuing
an earlier model from Iraq (Williams, 2007). Chris Harker has
Fig. 3. Buildings on Chel Handasa street.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17 5
suggested that we equally need to theorise what he calls “ordinary
topologies”in order to understand the lived practices of people in
some of these fractured, hierarchical and urban spaces (2012; see
Secor, in press). In a more historical register Mark Whitehead’s
important work on the government of the air (2009) shows how
technology, policy and practice interrelate, how the atmosphere
became an object of government, and demonstrates the essential
vertical dimension of the geographies of the modern state. In this
work he takes the idea of a spatial history and adds the vertical
dimension (see Carter, 1987;Elden, 2001). Several of these re-
searchers have collaborated in a recent project that seeks to analyse
‘from above’(Adey, Whitehead, & Williams, 2011,2013). Taking
a view from above includes the importance of aerial photography in
archaeology, surveillance and bombing in warfare, satellite images,
and Google Earth, alongside architecture and urban design, and
military surveillance and bombardment. A whole range of strat-
egies are used to secure the air, and through that, the ground.
The depth of power
Yet this work, predominantly, has been orientated up, even if
looking down and seeking to understand what implications this
has on the ground. Peter Adey tells us that “both the ground and the
air reside in vertical reciprocity”(2010a, 3). But what happens
below the surface, and does how this impact on questions of se-
curity? How should we think depth as well as height?
The underground has long been seen as hidden, dangerous,
risky or insecure. Biographer of London Peter Ackroyd has recently
turned his attention to what happens beneath its streets, and de-
scribes ‘London Under’in this way:
It is an unknown world. It is not mapped in its entirety. It cannot
be seen clearly or as a whole. There are maps of gas facilities, of
telecommunications, of cables and of sewers; but they are not
available for public perusal. The dangers of sabotage are con-
sidered to be too great. So the underworld is doubly unknow-
able. It is a sequestered and forbidden zone (2012, 2).
The underground is essentially associated with danger, risk,
undermining and subterfuge. Subterfuge means, of course, to ﬂee
below or underground, to be undercover. To be undercover is to be
covert, hidden, clandestine. As Ackroyd points out, “Radical politi-
cal groups, characteristically using terror and violence as their
weapons, are still known as ‘underground’movements”(2012, 12).
Such concerns are magniﬁed when it is an enemy city being
discussed. This can range from Hitler’s bunker and other under-
ground defences, to more contemporary concerns with Osama bin
Laden’s cave complex in Tora Bora, or Iran’s nuclear programme.
One important study of ways used to challenge this is by Ryan
Bishop on the US ‘Transparent Earth’project. As Bishop outlines,
this is a project which attempts to “read beneath the earth’s
surface.harnessing lightning (natural and artiﬁcial), radio signals
and complex algorithms to ‘see’through other sensorial means”
Fig. 4. The Museum on the Seam.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e176
(2011, 272; see Graham & Hewitt, 2012, 16). What is intriguing, and
which links this project to those discussed already, is the attempt to
see the below from above. Bishop quotes Mark Smith of the Geo-
spatial Corporation as saying that “underground is truly the ﬁnal
frontier”(Geospatial Corporation, 2010; cited in Bishop, 2011, 277).
The use of combinatory senses to render a visible image of that
which could not be seen (the underground) provides yet
another attempt to remove the ground of error for military
observation and control, re-inscribing the desire of mastery
operative in the view from above (Bishop, 2011, 273).
The military implications thus extend from the wall, the walled
city, and ramparts, to the moat, the trench, bunker and fortiﬁca-
tions of other kinds. Peter Nyers has recently discussed how the
remaking of the landscape in border regions through earthworks,
both construction and destruction, ﬁlling and ramping, can be used
for security reasons (2012). This is reshaping a three-dimensional
landscape as part of a securitised terrain.
Other subterranean issues have important security and geo-
political aspects. The resources below the earth’s surface or under
the sea bed are, of course, a major source of conﬂict and contest-
ation. There is a whole body of geographical research on mining, oil
and gas reserves. Some of these raise important challenges to tra-
ditional ways of thinking about territory and its borders. As Bridge
suggests, “the punctuated, discontinuous geographies of extraction
do not coincide well with notions of national territory or
development”(2009, 46). One example would be slant drilling,
which was one of the claimed grievances of Saddam Hussein before
the invasion of Kuwait which led to the ﬁrst Gulf War of 1991. The
claim was that Kuwait was not drilling directly down, but at an
angle which meant they were entering Iraqi territory below the
surface. Other issues where what goes on below the surface im-
pacts across boundaries would be the pollution or draining of un-
derground aquifers, and above the surface the implications of acid
rain, climate change (Kythreotis & Paul, 2012) and what Thom
Kuehls called “the space of ecopolitics”that takes us “beyond
Here, the focus will be on urban infrastructure and then, via
a discussion of Paul Virilio’s early work, the question of tunnels.
Geographical research has long looked at the ways cities work,
and the infrastructure projects that make them possible. One key
example is Matthew Gandy’s book Concrete and Clay on the
reworking of nature in New York City (2002), which especially
provides an analysis of the infrastructure necessary to provide
water to the city. Gandy suggests that “the clouds of steam rising
from the street remind us that the possibilities for urban life are
sustained by an unseen web of structures, connections, and re-
lationships”(2002, 234; see Solis, 2005). In a later piece he ex-
amines the sewers of Paris (2004). In a similar vein, Chapter 2 of
Fig. 5. Area E1.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17 7
William Cronon’sNature’s Metropolis (1991) examines ‘Rails and
Water’and their role in the modern city.
Stephen Graham’sCities Under Siege (2010a, 2010b) is also
important here, as it looks at the destruction of infrastructure fa-
cilities, among other aspects of the new military urbanism. But on
infrastructure, his most important book is the earlier work with
Simon Marvin Splintering Urbanism (2001) and the edited collection
Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (2009). Graham’swork
has therefore moved from providing an analysis of how cities work
to how they are prevented from working, from the construction to
the destruction of infrastructure as a weapon of war. In terms of
security, one of the things that the US and Israel are most concerned
about at present is the perceived threat from Iran. In terms of the
effectiveness of a strike against Iranian facilities there is a need to
get beneath the surface. Conventional weapons will not sufﬁce.
There is therefore discussion of the potential of bunker busting
bombs. Graham reports on how the US has been developing
a‘Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator’, a tactical nuclear warhead of
limited kilotons, that can annihilate a bunker complex (2004a, 19).
The irony of using a nuclear weapon to prevent nuclear prolifera-
tion is profound.
In a slightly different register there is the continual need for
renewal and repair of infrastructure systems (see Graham &
Thrift, 2007). A related analysis, with its focus on breakdown
rather than intentional damage, is Jane Bennett’s discussion of
the disruption that followed the New York City blackout of 2003
(2010, chap. 2).
Work on the underground elements of cities is, of course,
extensive. Pike (2005) provides a discussion of underground rail-
ways, catacombs and other burial sites, sewage and ruins (see Solis,
2005; on the last, see also Edensor, 2005). There is work from
archaeology on the ancient burial sites of Rome and other cities
(Rutgers, 2000). There has been some work on the subterranean in
a colonial context (Braun, 2000;Pike, 2007;Scott, 2008), and on the
large number of literary works that have signiﬁcant subterranean
elements (Ackroyd, 2012;Williams, 2008). There is also a growing
body of work on practices of urban exploration, where activists
enter into working or abandoned sites to see the working of cities
or military installations. The Jinx group in New York have cata-
logued their own exploratory practices, They have a particular
aesthetic to their work, presented in the book Invisible Frontier
(Deyo & Leibowitz, 2003), and found on their website (http://www.
jinxmagazine.com/), where the operatives dress in sharp suits or
cocktail dresses and pose for photographs in some of the places
they have accessed. In a statement of their intent they talk of the
physical geography below the streets of New York City:
New York City stands anchored in ﬁve-hundred-million-year-
old igneous bedrock, in compressed strata of shale and stone.
Since the seventeenth century this bedrock has been dug,
Fig. 6. Samaria and Judea Police District Headquarters.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e178
entrenched, drained, tunnelled, and blasted to accommodate
the roots of a growing infrastructure. As of the summer of 2001,
the streets conceal a labyrinth 780 miles in area, and over eight
hundred feet deep.
Four hundred forty-three miles of train tracks carry the subways
and commuter trains beneath New York. Cars access the city
through twenty-two tunnels.
Three hundred forty-six miles of aqueducts and six thousand
miles of water mains and tunnels carry 1.5 billion gallons of
water beneath the city each day. Most of the city’s water mains
were built before 1930, and they fail at the rate of 90.11 breaks
per one thousand miles per year.
Seven hundred and ﬁfty thousand manholes access the utility
grid. New York City power runs through 83,043 miles of un-
derground cable, enough to encircle the globe three and a half
times. Thirty-three thousand underground transformers step
down the charge for consumer use. One hundred six million
telephone calls connect each days through New York’s one
hundred million miles of telephone cables, which, if stretched
end to end, could reach the sun (Deyo & Leibowitz, 2003, 1).
In their work much of this infrastructure, the subterranean city
as well as buildings and other structures above the surface, be-
comes a place of exploration. Their sites include the tunnel for an
aqueduct, an abandoned smallpox hospital, and bridges. Further
work has been done by Bradley Garrett, who has documented in
detail urban exploration in Paris, London and elsewhere in his
writings (2010,2011) and his excellent Place Hacking website
Luke Bennett has labelled some of these urban exploration
practices as ‘bunkerology’, with a particular focus on people who
explore “abandoned Cold War bunkers”(2011, 421).
intriguing about these explorations are that they enter into sites
which were often created for security purposes at an earlier time,
but which raise security issues in the present. Bennett is careful not
to suggest that those who enter sites are causing damage, or to read
this “solely from a sociology of deviance or cultural criminology
perspective”, but he does note that it “certainly appears that many
urbex practitioners enjoy the uncertain legality of their practice
and relish the `cat and mouse’game of gaining access and evading
the attention of site owners or their security guards”(Bennett, 2011,
426). Indeed Jinx’sInvisible Frontier is, in a sense, an elegy. In April
2003 they made the following statement:
Jinx has ceased its unlawful trespassing activities for the dura-
tion of the present period of war and heightened alert in the
United States; though neither odious nor evil, the activities of
urban exploration create the hazard of false alarms and could
potentially divert police resources from serious matters. Obe-
dience of just laws is not a private matter. Every crime un-
dermines our safety by making the staggering task of law
enforcement harder in this period of terrorism and war
(reproduced in Deyo & Leibowitz, 2003, vii).
While the choice of date is perhaps surprisingdthe time of the
Iraq war, rather than the aftermath of the 2001 attacks in New
Fig. 7. Atlantic Wall Bunker in Audinghen, Pas-de-Calais, France.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17 9
Yorkdtheir concerns would ﬁt with those of the security services. It
is worth remembering that while the attack that brought the twin
towers of the World Trade Center down came from the air, the 1993
attack was from an underground car park. In London, the security
risks of the underground Tube have long been known, with the
bombs of 7th July 2005 adding to the security concerns (see
Murphy, 2012). Across the Atlantic, and by road rather than rail,
John Updike’s novel Terrorist revolves around a plot to blow up the
Lincoln tunnel linking New Jersey to Manhattan (Updike, 2006; see
Bunker archaeology ebeyond the vertical
Bennett refers in passing (2011, 422) to Paul Virilio’s early work
Bunker Archaeology (2008 ) which examined the structures of
the Atlantic Wall. The Atlantic Wall was built along the Dutch,
Belgian and French coast by German forces to defend against an
Allied invasion (Fig. 7).
Virilio, who was born in 1932, grew up in Brittany and saw the
war at close hand as his city of Nantes was subjected to Blitzkrieg.
As he says in an interview, “war was my university. Everything has
proceeded from there”(Der Derian & Virilio, 1995).
In the late
1950s Virilio studied the architectural work of the Atlantic Wall
fortiﬁcations in the area near where he grew up, though most of the
work was not published until the 1970s. Virilio was fascinated by
what he described as “these heavy gray masses with sad angles and
no openingsdexcepting the air inlets and several staggered
entrances.”(1994,13). Virilio found these of interest for a range of
reasons. In part they were of recent political interest, but also
because of the links he saw with other architectural forms from the
past. Yet as Gane outlines (1999, 86e87), Virilio was not interested
in this simply for historical, critical reasons, but he found inspira-
tion in the inclined planes and oblique angles for his own archi-
tecture. This was brought to fruition in his collaboration with the
architect Claude Parent. Parent and Virilio proposed that conven-
tional architecture had been too concerned with the ﬂat and the
straight-forwardly vertical. They were interested in angles, tan-
gents, and the implications of military practices for urban design:
Urbanism will in future have much more to do with ballistics
than with the partition of territories. In effect, the static vertical
and horizontal no longer correspond to the dynamics of human
life. In future, architecture must be built on the oblique, so as to
accord with the new plane of human consciousness (Parent &
Virilio, 1996, 65).
As Gane puts it, “The emphasis was insistent: conventional ar-
chitecture had condemned humanity to horizontality and therefore
to stasis”(1999, 88). Virilio suggests that the project was designed
to challenge ideas of the inside and outside, and to move to ques-
tions of the above and below (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002, 22). But it
was not merely a shift from a two dimensional, this or that side of
a line, way of thinking. In their argument, and their architectural
practice, it was also a challenge to ways of thinking the vertical,
straight-forward ways of conceiving height and depth.
The way they did this was to force us to think of angles, ori-
entation and slopes. Virilio suggests that:
.the ruled surface is Euclid. In a post-Euclidean space, it goes
without saying that surfaces are orientated.Most architects
limit themselves to Euclidean forms: the orthogonal. They put
Fig. 8. Closed border crossing at Rosh Hanikra.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e1710
needles on top of towers, and this became the Gothic, or
whatever you like. But my particular concern was to enter into
topology, in other words, into non-Euclidean spaces, to use
vaguer forms, including at the level of the ﬂoor (Virilio &
Lotringer, 2002, 22, 29).
A crucial part of this is that, despite the opening up of the above
and below dimensions, Virilio claims that the horizontal remains
important and it is actually the vertical that is challenged by the
transformation: “the horizontal plane remains, it is not negated.
What is negated is the vertical”(Virilio & Lotringer, 2002, 34). He
suggests that this comes from his analysis of the Atlantic Wall
As soon as one starts to incline planes and to get rid of the
vertical, the relationship with the horizon changes. Gravity does
not come into play in the perception of space in the same wayat
all. When one stands on an inclined plane the instability of the
position changes the relationship with the horizon. The idea is
that as soon as a third spatial dimension (the oblique) is brought
into the relationship with regard to space and weight changes,
the individual will always be in a state of resistance.The idea
of the oblique comes from such inclined bunkers (2001, 53).
A number of diagrams and schemas illustrate their claims. Vir-
ilio’s work is useful in forcing us to think of the complexities of
volume that cannot be simply measured along a third axis. Issues
such as reach, instability, force, resistance, incline and depth matter
alongside the simply vertical. These have geometric, physical and
political aspects. But Virilio is suspicious of the idea of politics that
is not at the same time a geopolitics. He is asked by interviewer
Enrique Limon if his oblique function, as a “critique of the vertical
and horizontal norms in architecture and urbanism at the time”is
a‘political’space (2001, 54):
A political space is a geopolitical space. ‘Political’means nothing.
A political space applies to a piece of land, whether small (a city)
or large (the nation-state). It is geopolitical in the ‘political ge-
ography’sense, but also in the ‘geometry’sense. There is a polit-
ical geometry. Bentham’s Panopticonfor instance is a police-state
political geometry.This is geopolitics, i.e., political geometry,
not political geography. A space is always political through ge-
ography and geometry. Geostrategy and war brought me to this
conclusion. For the military only strategies matter (2001,55).
These are useful, and productive, suggestions that can be taken
much further. Virilio came to believe that speed was the key to
understanding social and political processes, and moved away from
a focus on space (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002, 53; see Virilio, 1977). He
suggests that this is due to a change in military and political
Fig. 9. Welcome to Rosh Hanikra.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17 11
Fig. 10. IsraeleLebanon border at Rosh Hanikra.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e1712
Fortiﬁcation, which was geophysical in the ancient times of the
Great Wall of China or the Roman limes, has suddenly become
physical and even ‘micro-physical’, no longerlocated in the space
of a border to defend, or in the covering or armor of a casement
or tank, but in the time of instantaneous electromagnetic
countermeasures (1994, 203e204).
But this early work on war and architecture bears careful ex-
amination (see also Hirst, 2005). It makes more sense to think of the
developments Virilio is tracing as working with, alongside and in
tension with, geophysical fortiﬁcation, rather than as its replace-
ment. What is intriguing is that while his work is certainly attuned
to the above and below, what we might call the vertical in a simple
sense, it actually challenges that approach to become more pro-
found. If the horizontal is inclined, then what we customarily call
the vertical is simply the horizontal at a particularly steep angle. In
challenging the simply vertical, Virilio forces us to think of volume,
in all its dimensions, angles other than the perpendicular, and with
all its orientations. It is something of a disappointment that he
turned away from this line of inquiry:
At that time I was interested in geomorphology, syncline, anti-
cline, everything that goes into geology. Those were the books I
was reading thendtoday they would bore me to deathdand I
had noticed that there is practically nothing ﬂat on the surface of
the Earth. Nothing. There are many more inclined planes (Virilio
& Lotringer, 2002, 34).
What this work provides is the potential for getting away from
the straight up and down that characterises some work on the
vertical. Thinking angles rather than the vertical is a potentially
more powerful challenge to the ﬂat, planar understanding.
Tunnels provide a possible example here, since they rarely go
directly down, but use entrance shafts to gain access to a range of
sites (Bridge, 2009). Mining for coal and mineral resources is part of
the industrial past or present for many regions, and subsidence,
access and reclamation projects raise questions of dimensionality
alongside political-economic concerns. With the focus on security,
however, some rather different questions are raised. Tunnels pro-
vide the possibility of moving things in or out of locations that are
otherwise secured. In World War Two, many prisoner of war es-
capes were through tunnels; today they are raised as security
concerns between Egypt and the Gaza strip, and between Mexico
and the US. Given the blockade of Gaza, these tunnels are the
means by which vital building materials, fuel, food and medicines
can be brought into the strip without much scrutiny. Of course, this
lack of regulation means weapons can also be moved, and are
certainly noted by Israel as a threat. There is continual demolition of
suspected sites by the Israelis (see Weizman, 2007, 254e258), and
at the time of writing (August 2012), use of these tunnels was being
limited by security concerns in the Sinai peninsula.
Fig. 11. Tunnel at Rosh Hanikra.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17 13
Between the US and Mexico walls and fences are being erected,
and can be adapted for various purposes (Rael, 2011), but beyond the
idea of a 51 foot ladder for every 50 foot fence (Rael, 2011,415), there
is the possibility of going beneath them. Both people and drugs are
moved, and while the USeMexico border gets the most notice,
tunnels have also been used for drug smuggling between the US and
Canada, and for cigarettes between Ukraine and Slovakia.
In the West Bank, as Weizman has shown, roads often use
bridges or tunnels to enable crossing points between Palestinian
villages and between Israeli settlements. Given the importance of
contiguity to territorial viability, these are sometimes discussed in
potential future settlements, linking otherwise disconnected parts
of a future Palestinian state, either within the West Bank, or, more
ambitiously, to Gaza. Yet these few pockets of Palestine are not
simply enclosed by Israeli-controlled land on their borders, but also
above and below. Israel has refused to handover control of airspace
even after its disengagement from Gaza, and as Weizman notes, the
same is true for what is below the surface:
During the Oslo and Camp David negotiations, Israel insisted on
keeping control of the underground resources in any permanent
resolution. A new form of subterranean sovereignty, which
erodes the basics of national sovereignty, is ﬁrst mentioned in
the Oslo Interim Accord (Weizman, 2002, 7).
He also notes how struggles above the surface now travel
beneath as well, with Israeli and Palestinian sewage systems
becoming politicised, and becoming weapons through deliberate
spillage (Weizman, 2002,7;2007,21e22). Similar concerns
around shared infrastructure can be found in other divided cities,
such as the Cypriot capital Lefkosia/Nicosia (see Hocknell, 2001). It
also has important implications in the city of Jerusalem. Weizman
suggests that “subterranean Jerusalem is at least as complex as its
terrain. Nowhere is this more true than of the Temple Mount/
Haram al-Sharif”(Weizman, 2002, 9). This site combines the third
holiest Muslim site after Mecca and Medina, the Al-Aqsa Mosque
and the Dome of the Rock, but one of its retaining walls is the
Western Wall of the Jewish Second Temple, part of which is
known as the Wailing Wall. As Weizman explains, there is a dis-
pute as to whether this wall was built as a structural support or as
free-standing, and whether the temple was built at the same or
a lower elevation than the mosque. If at the same elevation then
the remains of the temple have been lost; if below then the re-
mains may be underneath the Muslim holy site. Division of this
location along standard two-dimensional boundaries would
therefore lead to either Muslim or Jewish holy sites within the
territory of their neighbour. Weizman explains Bill Clinton’spro-
posed solution at Camp David as “a daring and radical manifes-
tation of the region’s vertical schizophrenia”:
Fig. 12. Blocked tunnel at Rosh Hanikra.
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e1714
The border between Arab East and Jewish West Jerusalem
would, at the most contested point on earth, ﬂip from the hor-
izontal to the vertical egiving the Palestinians sovereignty on
top of the Mount while maintaining Israeli sovereignty below
the surface, over the Wailing Wall and the airspace above the
Mount. The horizontal border would have passed underneath
the paving of the Haram al-Sharif. A few centimetres under the
worshippers in the Mosque of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock,
the Israeli underground could be dug up for remnants of the
ancient Temple, believed to be “in the depth of the mount”
(Weizman, 2002, 9; see 2007,54e55).
This was a proposed boundary that has, to date, not been
realiseddbetween 1948 and 1967 the entire site was held by Jor-
danian forces; since 1967 it has been occupied by Israel. Yet the
proposal is one that demonstrates the three-dimensional com-
plexities of the situation on, above, and below the ground.
A similar dimensional complexity can be found in Rosh Hanikra,
at a site just north-east of the kibbutz of that name on Israel’s
northern border with Lebanon. A wall at the border shows the
distance between Beirut and Jerusalem, and the border post itself in
the middle. The notice above the border gate says “Welcome to
Rosh Hanikra Border Crossing”. Yet the border has long been closed,
and has a United Nations presence (United Nations Interim Force in
Lebanon eUNIFIL) in the zone immediately to the north of the
crossing, in Southern Lebanon (Fig. 8).
This is a popular tourist site, despite the military presence in the
area. One of the reasons is because of its location on a cliff face, with
tunnels and grottoes formed by geological processes and erosion by
rain and sea water. A cable cardsaid to be the steepest in the world,
at an angle of 60
dtakes visitors down to visit these (Fig. 9).
But this terrain also shows why it cannot be reduced to a sim-
ple two-dimensional boundary line, a divided area. Rather we
need to remember this is one of the areas where the 2006 war
between Israel and Hezbollah was fought, with Katyusha rockets
ﬁred into Israel, and Israel sending troops, tanks and its airforce
across the borderline. Traces of the security apparatus can be seen
in this area, with the antennas and bunker fortiﬁcations (Fig. 10).
Indeed, much of the difﬁculty Israel had in that war was due to the
fortiﬁcations built underground by Hezbollah and its Iranian allies
north of the border (Weizman, 2007, 258; see Graham & Hewitt,
At this site you can also see the remains of a railway line, built
during the British Mandate period, linking Haifa with Beirut and
Tripoli (Fig. 11).
Some of the tunnels are still passable, while the point at which it
left the cliff face and passed over a bridge is closed and blocked
with sandbags (Fig. 12).
The railway bridge was destroyed by Jewish Haganah forces in
March 1948, to prevent this route being used to transport arms
from Lebanon into the disputed territory of mandate Palestine in
the 1948e1949 war. This is another example of the need to think
above and below, to conceptualise space in three dimensions, in
terms of the bordering and securing of territory.
While it is well known that biopolitics works on the basis of
calculation and metrics geopolitics works with similar operative
principles. Just as population did not displace territory as the object
of government, but both categories emerged at a similar historical
juncture as new ways of rendering, understanding and governing
the people and land, so too with the current moment (Elden, 2007,
2013c; see Shah, 2012;Thompson, 2007). Biopolitics and geo-
politics can be understood through processes and technologies of
bio-metrics and geo-metrics, means of comprehending and com-
pelling, organising and ordering.
Geo-metrics might therefore be a term worth retrieving from the
rather bland sense of modern geometry. The original geo-metricians
were land surveyors, sent into the ﬁelds on the banks of the Nile to
redraw their borders after the ﬂoodwaters had subsided. Geometry
became an abstract science, but the works of the Roman land
surveyorsdthe Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorumdshow the
importance of the practical side (Campbell, 2000). Geo-metrics re-
mains a useful way to make sense of calculative strategies turned
towards land, terrain and territory.
Can we extend this to think about geo-power as a related term to
bio-power? (see Grosz, Yusoff, Saldanha, Nash, & Clark, 2012) And
what would the ‘geo’mean here? Geopolitics has tended to become
conﬂated with global politics or political geography writ large. But
could we turn this back to thinking about land, earth, world rather
than simply the global or international? I have spoken elsewhere
about the geo-politics of Beowulf or King Lear (2009b,2013b),
a description which is not anachronistic, but an attempt to make
sense of the land and earth politics of these texts. How would our
thinking of geo-power, geo-politics and geo-metrics work if we took
the earth; the air and the subsoil; questions of land, terrain, territory;
earth processes and understandings of the world as the central
terms at stake, rather than a looser sense of the ‘global’?
Work in this register equally needs to think in terms of the
volumetric. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests this word dates
from 1862, is formed from Volume and Metric, and means “Of,
pertaining to, or noting measurement by volume”. While the term
is used in cartography and physics, there is real potential in working
out in detail its two aspects: the dimensionality implied by ‘volume’
and the calculability implied by ‘metric’. The political technology of
territory comprises a whole number of mechanisms of weighing,
calculating, measuring, surveying, managing, controlling and
ordering. These calculative techniquesdsimilarly to those
employed in biometrics and geo-metricsdimpact on the com-
plexities of volume. In terms of the question of security, volume
matters because of the concerns of power and circulation. Circu-
lation does not simply happen, nor does it need to be contained,
controlled and regulated, on a plane. Thinking about power and
circulation in terms of volume opens up new ways to think of the
geographies of security.
Just as the world does not just exist as a surface, nor should our
theorisations of it; security goes up and down; space is volumetric.
There is, as the referencing in this article attests, already an
extensive literature on many of these questions, but taken inde-
pendently they do not cover all its dimensions. Literature on the
vertical has tended to look down, from above, rather than also
approach these questions from below. Work examining what
happens below the surface needs to be better connected to the
discussions of the above and the surface. Most fundamentally,
thinking merely straight up and down may blind us to different
angles of approach, and the function of the oblique. Only by
thinking through all of these aspects can we reﬂect more pro-
foundly on the politics, metrics and power of volume.
The ﬁrst version of this article was given as a Committee for
Social Theory lecture at the University of Kentucky in March 2012. I
am grateful to Sue Roberts and her colleagues forthe invitation and
their hospitality. It was then given, in a revised form, as the Political
Geography lecture at the Royal Geographical Society annual con-
ference in Edinburgh in July 2012. I thank the editors for their
invitation and especially Phil Steinberg for seeing this through to
publication, Peter Adey and Gavin Bridge for their responses, the
S. Elden / Political Geography xxx (2013) 1e17 15
audience at both events for their questions, and Ben Anderson for
some incisive comments on a written version. All photographs
except Fig. 7 taken by Stuart Elden between 2007 and 2009. I am
grateful to David Newman, Haim Yacobi and Bimkom ePlanners
for Planning Rights (see http://eng.bimkom.org/) for showing me
sites in the West Bank. Fig. 7 photograph taken by Michel Wal in
2008 and used by permission, http://commons.wikimedia.org/
Weizman’s work has been criticised for his lack of attention to those that live in
the spaces he analyses (Harker, 2012), a criticism that is perhaps partially blunted
by his most recent work on humanitarianism (2012a) and what he calls ‘forensic
architecture’(2012b, 2012c;Keenan & Weizman, 2012).
See also the exchange between Bennett and Bradley Garrett at the Society and
Space open site http://societyandspace.com/material.
He goes on to add cinema to this. His connection of cinema to war is discussed
earlier in this article.
For a general analysis see Lichtenwald and Perri (2011); and on SlovakiaeUkraine
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