This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

overeignty has long extended through the thermal world. The manipulation of heat fueled industrial production and transportation, expanding the reach of national and colonial forces. The labor of bodies has been managed through the deployment of food and the implicit regulation of metabolisms, as well as the mass thermal communications of air conditioning. The boundaries of cities, nations, and empires have been enforced through thermal violence, whether the dumping of indigenous people on the frozen prairie or the blasting of prisoners with water cannons in subzero temperatures. Thermal sovereignty is inherently volumetric. It reshapes the distribution of heat to naturalize forms of territorial control. It is often a means of exercising power such that the environment, rather than the state or its people, appears to be exerting force and constraining movement.

In the past decades, thermal sovereignty has dramatically expanded its reach into bodies, to the depths of the ocean, and across the “cultural atmospherics” of audiovisual radiation (Parks 2018). This has occurred in part through the deployment of digital technologies that work on the infrared part of the spectrum, the zone just below the range of visible light. Infrared thermal radiation is especially important in the registration and management of populations—it is the kind of electromagnetic radiation emitted by human beings alongside most of the phenomena they have contact with in everyday life. It is a crowded part of the spectrum, although one that has been less often a battleground in the extension of volumetric authority, at least compared to the wavelengths used for radio, radar, and television transmissions.

Three examples demonstrate the crystallization of infrared radiation as a key medium of contemporary volumetric sovereignty:

Fiber-optic cables support the web of information transmission around the globe. Winding along the seafloor and bridging continents, these cables territorialize the ocean as a space of global telecommunications control, and more recently, of internet companies including Google and Facebook that have entered the cable business. In turn, these companies leverage the insularity of the ocean to secure their systems and ensure their hold on the information economies of countries around the world (Starosielski 2015). At the heart of these technical systems is not a ray of visible light, but an infrared wave. Almost all of our global information traffic is encoded in the infrared part of the spectrum. Websites, social media, streaming video, and voice communications are all translated into wavelengths around 850, 1300, and 1550 nanometers, and transported through glass fibers in undersea and underground systems (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Evan Roth’s internet art project, Red Lines, includes photographs of the landscapes of internet infrastructure using infrared photography.

Infrared is not only a medium of transmission, but also a means of detection. Drone imaging is just one part of a larger web of machinic thermoception that can perceive phenomena in terms of their temperature (which largely correlates the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation emitted). Machines not only detect humans (which emit radiation at about 10 micrometers), but also slight differences in material composition. This enables the revaluation and intensive management of the earth’s surface and depths. Valuable minerals can be detected underground by satellites in orbit, and subsequently extracted (Figure 2). Plant growth and disease can be detected via infrared sensors, and then micro-managed through the re-distribution of water and pesticides (Ishimwe R, Abutaleb K, and Ahmed F, 2014). Border control equipped with infrared imagers and video motion detection systems automatically registers people as threats (FLIR, 2018). Drawing upon the long-standing practice of using heat as a diagnostic tool, airport security systems can detect sick passengers and immobilize them (Bitar D, Goubar A, Desenclos JC, 2009). Thermal imaging transforms the world into a landscape of differential heat-emitters, each of which occupies a location on a heat map that can then be monitored, managed, and controlled on the basis of its temperature.

Figure 2. A US Geological Survey Project uses multispectral imagery to map the spatial distribution of iron-bearing minerals at visible and near-infrared wavelengths (King, Kokaly, Hoefen, Dudek, and Livo 2011)

Under the guise of improving thermal self-control, new technologies of self-management link the above two infrared modes: they enable the auto-detection of body temperature and then circulate this information via infrared waves across a digital network. Vital processes are sorted, assessed, and integrated back into loops of self-control. The EmbrWave, a wearable technology that stimulates the thermoreceptors on one’s wrist, offers the “power of personalized thermal sensations” (Figure 3) (EmbrWave, 2018). Using a smartphone, one can register one’s own body as a thermal field, manipulate a set of thermal sensations to be automatically delivered, and recalibrate one’s body as a thermal sensor. Personalized thermostats, like the Nest, offer the same fantasy of microthermal control and management over the home. Connected to a network, or to a utility company that can remotely alter the temperature, personal thermostats offer anything but a state of autonomy—they subject users to new forms of thermal control.

Figure 3. The EmbrWave offers a fantasy of personalized thermal control.

Like so many other kinds of electromagnetic waves, infrared is used as a means of transmitting information, detecting differences, and encoding the world as data. In the current moment, these wavelengths are being used to expand volumetric sovereignty via digital and machinic networks that manage bodies in space. This management is ever-more tied to the redistribution of people and materials as thermal beings. As global climate change is producing intense thermal volatility, infrared is ideally positioned as a medium of control and its technologies become a means to capitalize on thermal inequities and harm.


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EmbrWave (2018) The technology behind EmbrWave. Available at: (accessed 6 December 2018).
FLIR (2018). Thermal imaging for border security. Available at: (accessed 6 December 2018).
Ishimwe R, Abutaleb K, and Ahmed F (2014) Applications of thermal imaging in agriculture—A review. Advances in Remote Sensing 3: 128-140.
King T V V, Kokaly R F, Hoefen T M, Dudek K B, and Livo K E (2011) Surface materials map of Afghanistan: iron-bearing minerals and other materials. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Map 3152–B, one sheet, scale 1:1,100,000. Also available at
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Starosielski N (2015) The Undersea Network. Durham: Duke University Press.