This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned – William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919

riting on the heels of the First World War and at the advent of the Irish War of Independence, William Butler Yeats used the concept of the gyre as an unstoppable, terrifying dynamic force. A gyre, in his poem, destabilizes the relation between human and nonhuman others, beginning as an aerial vortex and expanding to an oceanic “blood-dimmed tide.” The word “gyre” is both a verb and a noun, a fitting combination when we consider the ways in which geographers are making a “volumetric turn” (Billé, 2019) that emphasizes spatial depth and the proposal that “movement is the foundation of geography” (Steinberg, 2013: 160). Aerial and oceanic gyres are pure energy; they signify dynamic, rotating space. This makes them difficult to represent as “place” because of the perpetual circulation of ocean and wind currents. Consequently, in order to visualize or make legible this swirling force, figures that move through it such as the wave, flotsam, or the vessel often come to stand in for the concept of gyre.

Critical ocean studies has long claimed that the sea is “ideal” for theorizing the multidimensionality of space because “it is indisputably voluminous, stubbornly material, and unmistakably undergoing continual reformation.” (Steinberg and Peters, 2015: 2). Formed by the rotation of the earth coupled with wind patterns, oceanic gyres, which are thousands of miles in diameter, are vortexes that are largely out of sight for most humans, and thus demand a kind of visual logic for representation. Since 2012, when the Oxford English Dictionary added oceanography to the list of definitions of “gyre” (a word more popular as a noun than verb), the term has been associated with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash vortex discovered by Charles Moore in 1997 between Hawai`i and California consisting of 80,000 tons of plastic that is currently twice the size of the state of Texas and growing. This expanding plastic gyre, with its dissolving toxic micro-plastics, has become an index of the Anthropocene (or Plasticene). There are five major subtropical oceanic gyres which, on their surface alone, have accumulated upwards of 40,000 tons of microplastics (Cozar et al., 2014). But their volume and depth are much greater, and harder to fathom. Rendering this plastic waste visible has been critical to environmentally-focused art in recent decades (Paravisini-Gebert, 2019), where plastic debris itself becomes artistic material, most evident in photographic artist Chris Jordan’s famous “Gyre” (2009).

Chris Jordan, Gyre, 2019. From Running the Numbers II: Portraits of Global Mass Culture series

In this remake of Hokusai’s 19th-century woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” from 2.4 million pieces of oceanic plastic, Jordan’s pedagogical piece includes a subtitle that points out that this number is “equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans every hour.” His use of a wave to represent the mobility and depth of the gyre is significant (Helmreich, 2015), testifying to the ways in which the undersea, like the underground, poses challenges to visual representation. This artistic work with plastic reanimates its petroleum origins as a Paleozoic geological force, a colorful and toxic uncanny for the Anthropocene.

In his argument for “vertical geopolitics,” Stuart Elden points out that to “secure the area” is a phrase derived from the military’s organization of space into territory (2013). The concept of the gyre has a similarly military origin. In fact “volumetric sovereignty” has been a vital concern to military forces, especially since the Cold War as the oceans and outer space became territorialized by US and USSR submarines, missiles, nuclear weapons, and satellites. The Hydrographic Office of the US Navy, working closely with corporations such as Sperry, Honeywell, and General Electric and in concert with the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, developed decades’ worth of gyro-technology to support the navigation of their nuclear-armed submarines. Thus the gyre became an animated force and the gyro an instrument for interpreting complex bodies in motion. The dynamism of what they referred to as “hydrospace” fueled a massive quest for the development of a self-contained inertial navigation system that could calculate location in the nexus of velocity, depth, and gravity (Mackenzie and Spinardi, 1988; Hamblin, 2002). The development of inertial gyros, missile-guidance gyroscopes, electrostatically-suspended gyroscopes, and laser gyroscopes during the Cold War speaks to the military’s need to “secure the volume” in their quest for the “World’s Most Perfect Gyro.” (Mackenzie and Spinardi, 1988).

Honeywell advertisement, “World’s Most Perfect Gyro?” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 1962

Geographers concerned with volume might well take a ‘spatial turn’ to the history of oceanography, which documents the ways in which fluid dynamics and the concept of the ocean as a force (Mills, 2009; Steinberg, 2013) were created by the close alliance of the sciences and the military during the Cold War (Hamblin, 2014). The concept of volume—and velocity, depth, direction, and even acoustics—were vital to tracking nuclear-armed submarines and fueled the science of systems modelling of the ocean and the Earth as a whole.

In fact the gyre itself, whether aerial or oceanic, is generated for the most part by the planet’s counter-clockwise rotation. In the epigraph, Yeats’ inscription of the repeated gerunds, “turning and turning,” calls attention to the ways in which space is an active process rather than a location. Global militarism, particularly the Pentagon, is the largest consumer of energy on the planet and the biggest institutional contributor to climate change (DeLoughrey, 2019). As prophetic as he was, Yeats could not have anticipated the extent to which the “widening gyre” of global militarism, in air and sea, has ushered in the Anthropocene.


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