This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.


he rush of air and water over a territory are not the only flows that shape its terrain. And it is movement that, “instead of being subsequent to geography, is geography” (Steinberg 2013, 157).

The term “eddy” can capture not just unidirectional movement and flows but also their unpredictable, counter-intuitive, spiral-like, concentric, centrifugal, and centripetal tendencies. Eddy is both natural phenomenon and a spatial metaphor for “human vulnerability and adaptability in times of unprecedented transformation” (Grundy-Warr 2015, 95).

For example, on the disputed Southern Kurils / Northern Territories the sovereign presence of the Russian state faded in the years after the Soviet collapse. Administered by Russia but contested by Japan, the early 1990s saw the islands open to new flows of people, goods, and ideas that were previously tightly controlled, curtailed, and regulated.

Within these flows, vortexes appeared, including downward spirals of despair, whereby some residents left in droves after earthquakes, storms, and the collapse of state support and the local economy. A government official visiting the islands in the early 1990s characterised them as “[o]ne of the most beautiful and potentially rich corners of Russia, but in reality monstrously poor and desolate” (Kunadze 2000, 26).

Sunset over the Okhotsk Sea, photo by the author

At this moment, the islands became a kind of hyper-border—a site which in certain ways had moved “beyond” Russia’s state sovereignty. From Japan came humanitarian aid to the islands, the building of ports and generators, and the establishment of a visa-free travel regime. The presence and infrastructural power of the Japanese state gradually became more visible on the islands, and counter currents swirled, resisting, repelling, and rerouting the ebb and flow of Russian sovereignty (Richardson 2016, 2018).  

Through opinion polls and surveys, emerged a series of denials and rejections of a coherent and cohesive national identity amongst islanders on this hyper-border. Yet, such denials simultaneously served to rejuvenate and regenerate the very object that they sought to deny (Lane 2009, 88). In this aspect, we glimpse elements of Baudrillard’s hyperreality (1983) and the counter-function of the hyper-border working through denial towards an affirmation of the fiction of a fixed, coherent and stable “national” identity (Richardson 2016, 202).

New distortions and directions appeared with an uplift in nationalist currents. As one key member of today’s Russian government, Sergei Shoigu, put it in 1999, Russia should give up “Not one inch!” of these islands (Zilanov and Plotnikov 2001). It was a movement that gathered velocity and volume and eventually broke against the walls of the Kremlin, releasing flows of development funding by Moscow that made these islands the most subsidised region of Russia per head in 2006. The then President, Dmitri Medvedev, emphasized in 2010 that: “Here there will be a better life, such as in the centre of Russia. […] And if there are normal conditions for life, then people will of course come” (Sergeev 2010).

View from Cape Nossapu to the Habomai Islands, photo by the author

Vast energies were discharged from the centre to reshape these islands and as they became more fully subsumed by the Russian state, loyalties began to be reconstituted. One visiting journalist heard from local residents in 2007 that: “People can have decent lives now,” and “trust in the government is rising because infrastructure projects have been carried out as planned, which did not happen before” (Ito 2007).

Vortexes of despair were inverted into up-swells of hope that carried individuals, groups, and financial flows with them. The eddies and ripples over these distant rocks and islands, which had at first seemed to erode sovereignty, became a deluge that secured it. They generated a crisis which reinvigorated infrastructural and ideational flows. A trickle became a torrent that carried with it senior politicians and even the President who came to visit the islands.

Hoppoyontokoryu Center Museum, Nemuro, photo by the author

Such contradictions and the multi-dimensional movements they induce hint at new possibilities for reimagining sovereignty and the forces and currents that constitute it. In nature, eddies transfer more energy and matter than diffusion alone. They serve to mix together large masses and matter, blending, swirling and reconstituting. When the velocity and intensity of flows are increased, so too the number of eddies multiply. In the lee of an obstacle, in the wake of a border, in the resistance stirred by the enforcement of state power, the force and frequency of the eddy is magnified and increased, producing voluminous and vociferous vortices (adapted from the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry for “Eddy”, 1998).

The metaphor of the eddy indexes the fluctuating strength, direction, and volumes of these flows, as they rush laterally and vertically between scales. The undertows and overflows of an eddy, like sovereignty, release unpredictable and uncontrollable volumes. Sovereignty is neither stable, nor static, nor smooth but twisted and churned by its inseparable currents and counter-flows.

Through a recognition of such turbulence, new possibilities open-up for imagining and interpreting the world. It demands that we refocus and recalibrate our attention away from unrealisable notions of immutable and total sovereignty. For if we fail to refocus, and we are swept away in the undertow of certain sovereign imaginaries and the violent vortexes and counter currents they bring with them, then, in the words of the poet Rupert Brookes, “Death eddies closer.”


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