This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

n 2016, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a visual campaign about its disputed borders. A poster, entitled “Do you know the shape of Japan?” [日本のカタチ知っていますか], highlights three points of tension—the Northern Territories, Takeshima, and Senkaku Islands, disputed with Russia, Korea, and China respectively (Fig.1). This bold visual statement came shortly after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s victory in the Diet elections, and is symptomatic of his vow to free Japan from the fetters of the past. But what is truly novel about this map is less the territorial claims that it stakes than the confident demarcation of a hydro-territorial entity, neatly defined against an undifferentiated background. The same outline had previously been published on the ministry’s website, but on that map the online representation merely traced the extent of Japan’s territorial waters (Dudden 2015). The poster’s outline, by contrast, distinguishes between Japanese and non-Japanese waters and gives equal weight visually to both land and sea.

“Do you know the shape of Japan?” poster

A couple of years earlier, China unveiled a new official map, nicknamed the “vertical map.” The maritime expanse delineated through the so-called “ten dashes” speaks to China’s more assertive stance towards enlargement of its territorial footprint, reigniting deep-rooted anxieties about sovereign control of remote peaks and far-flung islands. But a particularly interesting aspect of the new official map is that it departs from traditional cartographic traditions in its portrayal of outlying territorial fragments. Unlike the previous map which depicted noncontiguous territories in cutaway boxes—as is the case for instance with the United States’ customary representation of Alaska and Hawaii—the so-called “vertical map” is singular and continuous, and includes the vast body of water south of Hainan Island (Fig.2). In the new map, the land, islands, and claimed waters in the South China Sea are all featured on the same scale in one complete map, thereby placing the islands, but also the entirety of the maritime space, in direct visual equivalence with the mainland. As the Hunan Map Press editor-in-chief, Lei Yixun, told the state media agency Xinhua News, this new map helps “correct misconceptions that territories carry different weights, and fosters a raised territorial awareness and marine consciousness with the public” (Florcruz 2014).

China’s new “vertical map”

This inclusion of sea-space in Chinese and Japanese representations suggest an incipient move towards cartographic extensions of the nation’s body to non-terrestrial volumetric spaces. These new visualizations speak to states’ technological capacity to colonize spaces that until recently were beyond effective political control. In becoming colonizable and exploitable, maritime territory, airspace, and the subterranean have now become representable and relatable. But in addition to their primary function as territorial claims, these maps also seek to foster affective attachment to these more-than-human geographies. The national outline (or “logomap”), naturalized through socialization and formal education as well as constant reiterative visual practices, has been a powerful tool for modern states (Anderson 1991). As the primary visual representation of the nation-state, it has also been especially effective to impart an affective orientation toward a bodily sense of national belonging (see Billé 2014).

Just as the logomap is visually arresting but ultimately a political fiction, the nation-state as a clearly defined and delineated volume is also a convenient oversimplification. The ground, the maritime, the subterranean, and the aerial are deeply intermeshed rather than discrete worlds. They are also spaces of flux. As a number of scholars have pointed out, the air is a geography of atmospheric flows (Zee 2017), while the oceanic is a three-dimensional space characterized by turbulent materiality (Steinberg and Peters 2015: 247-248). Even the subterranean, generally assumed to be the realm of the inorganic and the immobile is in fact, on its own timescale, restless and forever in motion. On account of this very materiality, the assemblages that are constituted in and athwart these spaces display a level of complexity and dynamism that makes them difficult to conceptualize visually. A pertinent example of this transscalar multi-materiality is the so-called “great Pacific garbage patch”—a plastic vortex of flotsam and jetsam whose contents and boundaries defy both spatial definition and visibility.

In recognition of these planetary realities, military objectives have increasingly been to find new ways to address state security beyond human geographies and through technologies that would extend, indeed supersede, human capabilities. In many ways, these are not recent developments: as Packer and Reeves show (2017: 262), as early as the 1890s new forms of technical media, such as photography for instance, were already being mobilized to finetune the capacities of artillery and create superior weapons. In its ever-evolving search for technological superiority, the U.S. military is adopting modes of information, communication, and mobility that gradually require less and less human input.

Organizational models based on biological architectures are increasingly being explored—in particular models such as swarms that give precedence to autonomy, emergence, and distributed functioning. Comparing favorably with human cognitive intelligence, the swarm requires no planning, central representation, or traditional modeling. As media theorist Jussi Parikka explains, swarms are organizations that are continuously both on the verge of materialization and dissolution, both radically heterogeneous and consistent (Parikka 2010: 59). The swarm, a technological-entomological amalgam in which human modeling takes second place, continually learns and refines its performance:

The microdrones began to flock and swarm, mutually aware and clocked to such high frequencies that even the most sudden moves, the most aggressive pitch and yaw, were stretched out into a slow steadiness that yielded impossibly complex and graceful murmurations. Their autonomy became precise, their agency social and explicit (Arkenberg 2016).

© National Geographic, a film by Jan van Ijken

Initially, some guidance was required to steer the flocks of drones, but the system soon became sophisticated enough to require only minimal instructions. The microdrones were now able to “activate, take flight, flock and murmurate towards the objective, often staying autonomous for days, resting on rooftops and power lines for solar recharge” (Arkenberg 2016).

Increasingly, it is in more-than-human geographies that battles for territorial sovereignty are being waged. Political appropriation of the maritime, aerial, and subterranean realms demands cutting-edge and ever more sophisticated human-machine assemblages, and this finetuning is gradually leading to assemblages skewed in favor of the nonhuman. Unmanned aircrafts are lighter, can stay in the air for up to fifty hours at a time, and can “partake in high-altitude and high-speed missions that are impossible for human pilots to safely endure” (Packer and Reeves 2017: 270). In assemblages where technology initially was a prosthetic extension, the human component now constitutes the weakest node, increasingly superfluous and obsolete.

The widening breach between human experience and the new realities of territorial management and sovereignty has a direct incidence on the relationship between cartographic representations and the territory. The promissory role of cartography, so crucial in earlier colonial forays where the map routinely preceded the territory, has now lost much of its force. Static portrayals of the nation-state such as the logomap are poorly suited to reflect territorial realities, and indeed seem increasingly irrelevant in a (near) future dominated by AI where decisions will be made in a fraction of the time, computing thousands of variables. Rather than reframing the spatial parameters of the nation-state, then, what the Chinese and Japanese maps do is index a territorial imagination resolutely lagging behind new techniques of territorial control.

The spatial complexity and mesmerizing beauty of murmuration—continually morphing, dissolving, and recomposing—cogently illustrate the limits of human comprehension when it comes to emerging forms of territorial control. Yet it is these novel and volumetric geographies—and particularly the planetary-scale computation which Benjamin Bratton terms “the Stack” (2015)—that are set to have the most dramatic impact on our geopolitical realities. As computations distort and deform modern political geographies, they produce new territories in their own image, ushering in new models of geopolitical architecture in their wake.


Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso
Arkenberg, Chris. 2016. “A murmuration of drones,” Medium, Aug 8, Available here.
Billé, Franck. 2014. “Territorial Phantom Pains (and Other Cartographic Anxieties),” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (1): 163-178.
Bratton, Benjamin H. 2015. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
Dudden, Alexis. 2015. “The Shape of Japan to Come,” The New York Times, January 16, available at
Florcruz, Michelle. 2014. “China’s New Vertical Map Gives Extra Play to Disputed South China Sea Territories.” International Business Times, June 25 Available here.
Packer, Jeremy & Joshua Reeves. 2017. “Taking People Out: Drones, Media/Weapons, and the Coming Humanectomy” in Life in the Age of Drone Warfare, eds. Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 261-281
Parikka, Jussi. 2010. Insect Media : An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Steinberg, Philip and Kimberley Peters. 2015. “Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33, pp.247-64
Zee, Jerry. 2017. “Downwind.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology, October 24. Available here.