GaWC Research Bulletin 363

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Nomos and Space: The Spatial Turn and Contemporary Thought

P. Perulli*


"I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space"
(W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, II,2)

The epistemological turn

Our tradition of thought commonly understands space as an a priori container, within which actors move, driven by precise borders, signs and demarcations. However, today a new idea is emerging within social sciences: it is the actors who create freely their own space, scale and context, in a non-defined space, in-finite, as reads the Hamlet. 

The point of view of the subject becomes a “spatial” point of view. And society too, reassembles itself starting from such interactions (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 2005). Space is not geometrical anymore, but  fluid and foamy instead: similar to spheres where individuals are encapsulated as monads (Sloterdijk, Ecumes, Spheres III, 2005). Nor hierarchical and vertical, but rather, reticular and horizontal. It is now the coexistence between subjects which makes space possible, not the other way round. It is a we, reunited in a relationship who constitute space through the force of coexistence. As philosopher Emmanuel Levinas put it: “Experience, like language, no longer seems to be made by isolated elements lodged somehow in a Euclidean space where they could expose themselves, each for itself, directly visible, signifying for themselves. They signify from the 'world' and from the position from the one is looking”.1

As a matter of fact, then, the actors literally “construct” the space of  interaction. This applies not only to a micro level. Indeed, even on the macro level, space appears as a horizontal scansion, the assemblage of infinite micro-spaces. Such view has certainly been accelerated by globalisation, whose spatial implications converge into a unification, and a simultaneous multiplication, of the many “locals”. This paper interrogates some key texts of contemporary thought in the light of such a spatial turn, with a particular attention to the force of law. How does the law entitled to space react to the growing “spatial freedom” of its subjects? 

Nomos and Space

Saskia Sassen’s Territory, Authority and Rights, presents itself, from its very title, with the ambition of an historical re-reading of the role of space within the global era: when the borders of cities extend and overcome the national realm, creating ‘assemblages’, forming a planetary constellation. In doing this, the cities project their sphere of influence by way of occupying a ‘glocal’ territory and excercising a role itself ‘glocal’: althought not entitled to any ‘right’, they aspire to command the global world. However, their ‘authority’, which is, literally, their capacity of growing and producing something new (auctoritas comes from augescere, to grow) is so strong as to appear undisputed. Hence the essential meaning of the key-words in Sassen’s book, (Territory, Authority, Rights) in  their  genealogy. The concept of 'assemblage' is not being dig into enough in the book, and Sassen herself warns us of her empirical, rather than theoretical use. So, in that we are dealing with assemblages of territory, authority and rights, what is the relationship among themselves? Even if Sassen never mentions it directly, it seems to me that her text should be related with the  significant work Carl Schmitt dedicated, in the mid of the past century, to the Nomos of the Earth. The Nomos of the Earth is a”terrestrial” right, involving the occupation of soil, its demarcation and confinement. On its ground, the Earth bears fences, delimitations, walls, houses and other buildings. Here, orderings (Ordnung) and localisations (Ortung) of human coexistence become apparent.2 The empty Earth is marked with the sights of occupation, and destined to be discovered and occupied. This applies to the ancient city-states and empires world, to the passage from feudalism and the territorial state, to the New world after 1492 (the “conquista”), to the american frontier (Tocqueville’s empty continent), as well as even to today’s world, after land and sea, the conquest of space already predicted by Schmitt. Soil occupation (sedium occupatio) implies for Schmitt a double direction, both towards the inside and the outside. In its first “inside” meaning, it defines the first rules and regulations of the group occupying that soil, to which any form of property and possession, measurement and dinstribution will follow. Towards the outside, instead, it speaks about the foundation of International Law, between “occupying” (or else, occupied) groups. Clearly, it makes a difference whether the land occupied was before then free or not. What remains true is that its occupation and subdivision are foundational of any public imperium or private dominium

Whilst Territory, authority and rights are analitically distinct and articulated in Sassen's book, they are however subjected to various assemblages, from the one typical of Middle Ages epoch to the current global phase. For Sassen, Empire and the Church in Middle Ages would develop an authority which is not territorial: none of them, in fact, had recognised territorial boundaries to their authority, even as both organisations were inserted in vast networks anchored in territorial units.3 The nation State is the first to eventually elaborate a territorial dimension, territorialising authority and rights: first among all in this operation was the Capetian kingdom. Here Sassen sees at work the historical forces preparing the following phase: medieval cities experiencing the territorial state-form, similarly to the way today's global forms realise themselves through inter-national assemblages. Or, better, through a partial ‘de-nationalisation’ activated by global processes. However, the famed Schmittian text presents us with a different reading: the concept of Nomos unifies territory, authority and rights. Nomos means both to divide and to pasture the occupied land, and from this the concept of norm derives: in it, measure, rules and spatial ordering meet. What is at stake then is always a singular, but always new, act of spatial subdivision. Therefore, nomos-pasture stands for territory, nomos-norm for authority and rights. Powerful common root of what it will be later separated. After all, both the logics of Space and the logics of Law have to do with physics: they occupy a void.  Sassen sees the assemblage promoting the exclusive authority on a territory as a process not confinable to sovereign state. And reminds us as an example that it was states and cities to sign Westphalia Treaty. Or else, winners (nation states) and losers (free cities) of the national historical phase. So today global cities would be as well territorial formations de-nationalised which, even if belonging to a national realm, are characterised by a significant regulative autonomy, thanks to the ascent of global governance  private regimes: international law firms, multi-national corporations and so on. In short, the nomos of the Earth would be, in the past as in the present, the result of such combinations, or assemblages, of actors intersecting within the territorial ‘domain’.

Schmitt concluded his book anticipating the global lines, succeeding the first global lines, which had accompanied international European law, from the first discoveries to the world wars, between the XVI° and the XX° century. His thinking for global lines involves that the new nomos of the Earth will elaborate differently the dualism between an inter-state law and a common economic law. For now, it is the new law of global markets to literally make space among the rests of international law. This is after all the conquer of a void, in this sense, of that left by the retreat of the international order based on states. New assemblages are to come.

Sassen’s research shows how these assemblages are happening cross-border and trans-boundary. It is about processes which are not, at least in the old meaning of the term, “international”. As a matter of fact, they are not established by the interaction among nations anymore: community-states excercising a legitimate and exclusive domain on their own territory. Here, instead, we are dealing with processes in between “the local and the global”, mixing domains and milieux. However localised in national or sub-national environments (cities-territory), these processes participate of glbalisation, in that they involve trans-boundary networks and entities which connect processes and multiple actors (local-national) or  imply the recurrence of issues or particular dynamics in a growing number of countries and places.4 These processes are for example: trans-boundary communities, global cities, global chains of value, the phenomena of space time-compression. 

Global cities organised in transaction networks are the emerging phenomena. The services localised within them are less and less national: it is as if there were free zones within which the languages spoken and communities’ practices are essentially trans-boundary.  Perhaps these networks, more and more thick, will end up with creating trans-boundary urban systems. London-New York,or London-Paris, might work as the same track, although “hosted”within different nation-states. In some ways, it is already like that.5 In fact, there are cases, for example between the Silicon Valley and Taiwan, of tracks formed by entepreneurs who belong to both the regions, Californian and Chinese. They spend their time, modern Argonauts, travelling between the two worlds.6 Political, cultural and linguistic factors will be at work to maintain the national traits of these trans-national sites. Global cities are sites of power and arm wrestling among economic and political goups. Not anymore deep-rooted locally, economic and techical élites living global cities are now only “anchored” to that place, from which they can weight anchor at all events.7

The fluxes that those élites are nurturing do not have a precise nationality: if we could measure these fluxes we would see that cities and regions are essentially “doors’, through which they transit. But not without contributing to modify that place: throught the attraction of functions and people, construction of new settlements, mobility of phenomena connected with consumption, artistic and cultural tourism.  Global fluxes are indeed sticky, in that they stick to the territories they transit through. They are also lumpy and thick. From that it derives mixtures and hybridation, but also global disorder. 

Global fluxes do not transit freely within national territories – they are indeed subject to many types of restrictions and checks. Still, to a large extent these checks has to be reviewed by the states, under the pressure of global enterprises. Their exigency of being competitive is the main condition of survival within a given frame of the global market rules: and the states cannot let themselves being abandoned from global enterprises. Therefore, state institutions undergo a continuous border invasion by other economic, but also juridical- subjects, who reduce to a large extent their sovereignty. 

There is furthermore a second invasion: also politics, for its part, overcomes the borders by which it used to be surrounded by in the era of the rule of law. It is about those borders, which until now were granting each individual from the incursion of interests and communicative networks within his own vital world. Nowadays, both the body and soul individual domain are exposed to the incursions of an expansive politics: an “anonimous matrix” violating individual borders and individuals’ rights.

A third source is at work, equally insidious. Hybrid rights come to be originated, which deceive both regulatory institutions and individual control. It is the rights of digital networks and the Internet, of the new virtual spaces of the new communication technologies: quite often more similar to border lands to be plundered, rather than new expressive fields.8

The space of interaction

As a matter of fact, the city is a crucial ground of application of these ideas, being more than anything else a “system of networked organisation,  where every part impacts the whole, or better, a system of dynamic networked organisation which evolves in space and time”.9 This is then the form that the city is assuming, a provisional order in a constant chaotic movement. But also, fabric of relations always in the balance, a creation of spontaneous orders in perennial adaptation, conscious sociality mixing with a sub stratus almost biological.

The many meanings of the city are reflected, in our research, within the many meanings of world. The latter is from time to time “mundus”, originary of the city of foundation, an ordered cosmos, a mondane society (this world as opposed to heavens), the place which fills of meaning our existence. But also, the globe indifferent and isomorphic, a pure agglomeration. 

The same applies to the meanings of space: defined by a border, empty space to be filled, “site” to be occupied, open space to be created, but also, now, virtual space. Most of our vision of the past and therefore of the future is inscribed within the city. Simone Weil, in Venice Saved (1940) wrote “The city, does not  only evoke the social.  Roots are very different from the social. A city...But that is not the social, it is a human habitat, of which one is aware of to the same extent of the air he breathes. It is a contact with nature, the past, tradition, a metaxy”. This Greek word means intermediary, bridge between different worlds.

Sociology has, especially with Simmel, enquired the formal nature of such relationship.10 “The unity of a man with the other- involved in the idea of understanding, in love, in the common work” is foundational of the association, therefore of society. Such association does not have any analogy with what Simmel defines the spatial world, “where every being occupies its place, which cannot share with anybody”. This is the world of nature, whose things are among themselves in a distance relationship. Only the observer composes those “fragments of the spatial being” into a unity, and society is therefore my representation. Only the fact of the I and of the you exist by themselves, in a fundamental and unconditional way. While things belonging to the spatial world exist only within my representation, the relationship I-you is set as constitutive of the synthesis ‘society’. The union of processes happening within individuals and which condition their being a society, are ultimately the processes of a reciprocal action. Here is present, although implicitly, the epistemological turn corneing space as a construct of interaction.

The forms of association are the way through which we see the other: “we see each other as if through a veil”, which is that of the belonging to circles, of social coabitation.  It is also the way in which being-associated is determined, or at least, co-determined, by its non being associated: the figures of the stranger, the enemy, the poor, find here their continuous alimentation. The fact is, societies are formed by beings which are at the same time inside and outside them. Hence we are continuously inside, but also outside them. Everyone is a member of society and at the same time, even if preserving the same content, lives according to his centre and for his centre.

In the end, society is formation of inequalities, a world, a cosmos within which every point is bound to the configuration of the whole.  Originating a configuration totally functional within which the I, understood as individuality, remains now completely out of the domain. Society flows here as if all its elements were in a unitary relationship, and each of them had found its collocation and correlation within this network purely exterior. The juridical implications of Simmel’s analysis are important. The relationship of reciprocity I-you is a completion of the juridical order: indeed, while the juridical system imposes the giving and getting of services and considerations, there exist innumerable relationships on which the juridical form does not intervene. The power of social networks, of weak ties (Granovetter) comes then to march side by side to the force of Law (Derrida). To the abstract ground of the norm, the binding nature of the relationship. Here gratefulness subsitutes the Law.11

Conflicts over Space

Space is not a smooth surface on which some activities take place and extend, but is together the condition, the means and the result of social relations.  The space of the State as well is not filled, as if it consisted of a territorial container previously empty, rather, it is the product of such interactions and is transformed through projects of regulation.  The static vision of the Westfalian state, as an arena confined and self-contained, is then to be substituted by a dynamics and process where State-spaces are continuously re-produced.12

From this point of view, the city is a socio-spatial battlefield, where forces meet and confront-each of them interested to its own prevalence or hegemony. The interests fragmented and diffused within societies hide dinstributive games: to say it with Lefebvre, “Is it not the secret of the State, hidden because it is so obvious, to be found in space?”.13

Within the interactions playing out on the ground, cities appear to be fragmented among different political jurisdictions, each of them entitled to taxation and the provision of services. Specifically, we could visualise cities as taxes-services packages, confronting each other, with individuals moving in search of the most advantageous ones.

The state intervenes within such play in two senses. In a strictly spatial sense, through the reconfiguration of its own territorial boundaries within the new world system, but also and crucially, through the internal differentiation among territories. On both sides, spatial conflicts are taking place: regions claiming autonomy or independence, new institutional forms of local government, and so on. Geopolitical variables are here continuously experienced: sometimes through real conflicts. There is also an integral sense of spatiality, that of the regulatory forms of social relations through selective geographical policies. Through the latter, the state determines, often unconsciously, social geographies, promoting some areas and slowing down others. The state did that during the phase of urbanisation, through the infrastructuralization of the world. And it is doing that today, designing axes, corridors, poles, nodes and networks supposed to draw development. The fact that such action is conduced by the state (as in the past) or rather, by bigger political units, such as the European Union, does not change analitically the approach. As a matter of fact, it is in any case government forms, once upon a time national and nowadays multi-scalar, to occupy space, following changing patterns. Two forces are at work according to Brenner: on the one hand, a tension between centralisation and decentralisation, on the other, a clash between concentration and re-balancing. This double vector of forces is composed differently according to phases and cycles.  Hence, to a phase of relative readjustment, where states and supranational governments monitored that regions and underdeveloped territories would not “loose” too much, has followed a phase of a more evident re-opening of territorial inequalities, both on a macro and micro scale, to the advantage of “winning” territories. To a phase of centralisation of resources by the states it seems to have followed a phase of larger decentralisation towards regions, territories and cities. Within such competitive interactions, the areas which come out  mostly strenghtened appear to be those which most affect the distribution of resources, such as metropoles.  However, what is missing is an institutional design able to combine the forces involved on the ground. We live in a world “without reason”, restricted to a permanent production of value as the only possible channel of creation of sense.14 The occupation of space endures, in ever changing forms, with no global reflection on the sense and direction of the entire process. On the ground, “losers” and “excluded” remain, while the occupation of the empty space by dominant forces continues.

Plenitude and plurality

The origin of the word “city”, its polysemy, traverse the whole of political, philosophical and historical tradition. An interpretative key among other s is offered by Guénon's The Divine City 15, which, drawing on the Greek polis, Latin civitas, sanskrit pura confrontates two dimensions.  The first dimension indicates the idea of plenitude (sanskrit radix pur becomes within indoeuropean languages ple o pel, from which derive pleos, plenus). The city is plenitude; and the dilemma between plenty and empty is eventually synthesised: “in this connection, we know that fullness and emptiness, considered as correlatives, are one of the traditional symbolic representations of the complementarity of the active and passive principles”.16 The city is at the centre of being and is where the divine principle resides: without it, the city would be an empty field, pure potentiality. Likewise, the Latin word civitas comes from kei, involving an idea of rest, the residence, the fixed dwelling. The city is residence, is stability: the palace where the king resides is also the center and the heart of the city, of which all the rest is extension (other meaning of the radix kei).

But a second meaning of the word city leads us to a different outcome. The same sanskrit radix signifies also the idea of plurality (Greek polys, Latin plus).  The city exists by virtue of the plurality of individuals inhabiting and populating it, of its populus.  Such etimology leads us to the idea of conflict, of polemos, of permanent risk of civil war (etimology already examined by Vico). Therefore, not plenitude and harmony, but rather, clash among “plurals” reunited within the city.  In the city, no plenitude, no divine principle, no sacred Ilium, to quote Simone Weil.

Rome as “artificial city, made of fugitives” 17, social without roots, place of unrooted, of population in the modern, foucaultian sense of the term. In other words, an artificial construction, the outcome of statistics and power.

“Venice saved”, “sacred Ilium” are cities of roots, they represent that rootedness to which “the social without city” is opposed, mere agglomerate of contractual individuals, related to each other only by the satisfaction of appetites and moved by a social force.

Weil's lesson invite us to exiliate ourselves, to be uprooted from any terrestrial homeland. “One ought not to be an I, and even less a We”.  The city makes us feel at home, this is why one ought to ackowldedge to be at home in exile. In order to see reality, a detachment is needed: while attachment provokes illusions. “Many do not feel with deep in ther soul that there is a big difference between the annihilation of a city and their irreparable exile far from it”.18 The city here is really an intermediary, a bridge  in the symbolic sense Guénon is talking about: “ the two worlds represented by the two shores are, in a more general sense, the heaven and the earth, united in the beginning and then separated”.19 Bridge as passage and ascent, so that he who traverses and ascends is freed from the precedent stages. This implies “a continuous destruction of the bonds which unite him to the stages already passed through, up to the moment where the axe is reduced at the end to a unitary, all-containing point, which is the centre of the total being”.20 This quote seems to indicate an ascetic direction, that of uprooting. Or better, the “being radicated in the absence of a place 21”, which appears to close definitely every possible social direction. Yet the negation of the “I” and of “We”, of possessive individualism and of the social as “prince of this world”, is made in the name of  a man which remains 'in relation'.  Clearly, another anthropology is needed here, inspired by another idea of city. Still, society has its own force, which works as a barrier to evil, and we need to try to limit evil.

The discourse here gets once again juridical. The theme of social order is continuosly evoked as the only alternative to unlimited power: “Fortunately there is a social order. Greatness of laws, even the most inhuman”.22 Between order and disorder, the first is to be preferred, in any case. It is the soul itself to be in need of order, which is “a pattern of social relations made in such a way that nobody is constricted to violate rigourous obligations in order to fulfill others”.23 Greed and gold, ambition and power are constituent of collectivity. But the remedy lies within the relationship. The relationship violently evades from the social: it is monopoly of the individual. It is what cannot be taken away from us. To put it with Weil: society is the cave, the exit from it is solitude.24  The cavern is where we stay immobile, as within the platonic myth. Without any knowledge, without any relation.  Instead, within Timeus myth, “the city is inhabited as in a state of watch. The world is not anymore a subterranean prison. The world is beautiful”.25 The relationship pertains to the solitary spirit. And everyone, if carrying with himself a superior, transcendent order, participates to this dimension of the social order.  Which is harmony. Which is aequilibrium of forces. Which is geometrical equality. Where all injustices are punished among and by each other. Where the State intervenes with a minimum pressure, at the first sign of  unbalance. A de-centralised society. A sort of spontaneuous order, an harmony among orders. “The citizen's love for the city would need to be a supranatural love”.26 A cité understood as a moral order. As the model of moral orders inspiring Luc Boltanski and  Laurent Thèvenot in their research on the “plurality of cognitive formats and engagements” of human beings in interaction and communication (in its original sense of “to be commonized”).27

This idea could be confronted with that moving Jean-Luc Nancy in Being Singular Plural: that of being-with. The concept of World, Nancy observes, is not comparable with that of a room in which one could enter, nor with that of a single human being in the world.  The world consists, rather, in an originary being-with.

The discourse on the city (on the cité) re-starts from here. From the idea that the relationship, the relation I-You, also in our epoch, characterised by eradicament and spatial crisis, has still in the city its expressive form. Of course, a mobile city, in continuous movement and extension. But an extension, Nancy has explained, whereby space retreats into itself,  proving itself a point. A product of spatio-temporal compression. As the node of a network. Network is the word dominating social sciences, its new paradigm: it indicates as well the trail marker to follow, in the 'research of a form' of the social relation. And the law, where would it end up in such world of relations? Where in other words relations between subjects will leave to the State the least space possible?

It could be assuming the form of an extreme juridical pluralism, where it would be the interests and expressions of civil society to be constitutionalised (constitution without a state, Teubner). Or, it could wait for the end of history the advent of a universal and homogeneous State whereby the juridical “group” will have stopped to be exclusive and will have englobed humanity as a whole (Kojève).



* Paolo Perulli, Università del Piemonte Orientale, Email:

1. E. Levinas, Humanism of the Other (1964) p. 12, English trans. Chicago 2003.

2. C. Schmitt, Il Nomos della Terra, Milano, Adelphi 2006 (or. 1950), p. 19-20.

3. S. Sassen. Territory, Authority and Rights, Princeton, Princeton University Press 2006 p. 40.

4. S. Sassen, Sociology of Globalization, New York, Norton & Co. 2007.

5. J. Véron L’urbanisation du monde, Paris, La Decouverte 2006.

6. A. Saxenian, The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy, Harvard University Press 2007.

7. P. Veltz, Mondialisation, villes et territoires.L’economie d’archipel, Paris, Puf 2005, p. 148 ss.

8. A pessimistic and critical view can be found in G. Teubner, The Anonymous Matrix: Human Rights Violations by 'Private' Transnational Actors, Modern Law Review, issue 67, 2006. A more optimist stance, nothwistanding critical in M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Cambridge, MA 1996.

9. F. Cramer, Caos e ordine, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri 1999 p. 53.

10. G. Simmel, Excursus sul problema: come è possibile la società? in id, Sociologia, Milano, Comunità, (or. 1908), pp.28 ss.

11. G. Simmel, La gratitudine. Un tentativo sociologico (or.1907), in id., Sull’intimità, Roma, Armando 1998 (or 1907) p. 91 ss.

12. N. Brenner, New State Spaces, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2004, cap 3.

13. H. Lefebvre, State and the Space (1978), quoted in Brenner, op. cit. p. 73.

14. J.-L.Nancy, La creation du monde ou la mondialisation, p. 51.

15. R. Guénon, La Città divina, in Simboli della Scienza sacra, p. 391 ss.

16. Ivi p. 392.

17. S. Weil, Quaderni, II, pp. 247 ss.

18. Ibidem, pp.329-330.

19. R. Guénon, Il simbolismo del ponte, in Simboli della scienza sacra, p. 331 ss.

20. Ibidem, p. 333.

21. S. Weil, ult. cit.

22. S. Weil, Quaderni, I, p. 126 (italics added).

23. S. Weil, La prima radice, cit. p. 19.

24. S. Weil, L’ombra e la grazia, pp. 284 ss.

25. Weil, Quaderni, II, p, 227.

26. Weil, L’ombra e la grazia, loc. cit.

27. L. Thévenot, The Plurality of Cognitive Formats and Engagements. Moving between the Familiar and the Public, in European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 10, No. 3, 409-423 (2007).


Edited and posted on the web on 27th September 2010