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Editor's Note: This collection of 25 essays by geographers and anthropologists is part of an ongoing dialogue on volumetric sovereignty, launched in 2017/18 with 26 essays in Cultural Anthropology. These two series will also be accompanied by a book, under contract with Duke University Press and with a planned publication date of 2020.
everal of the essays in this collection focus on the subterranean and the subsurface—a domain that remains mostly unexplored and untheorized, at least in contrast with the atmosphere. In his piece “stratigraphy,” Bradley Garrett looks at the intersection of anthropogenic forces with the earth’s layering. While the latter’s “dynamic temporal sequencing” constitutes nothing short of a cultural time map, human activity—not least through approaching geology as resource—has reterritorialized the environment as a “legible vertical landscape.” As Douglas Rogers argues in his text, the subsoil is not simply a three-dimensional space, it is also a space of potential, always relative to a temporal horizon. Looking at oil reserves through the concept of the reservoir, Rogers contends that the particular volume of an oil reserve is frequently a key source of a state’s claim to sovereign power over land and people. In the context of Russia, the state and corporate actors involved in oil production often compare the depth of the region’s oil deposits to the historical depth of its peoples’ culture.
Jeffrey Cohen (2015) writes that the subterranean, while generally assumed to be the realm of the inorganic and the immobile, is in fact, on its own timescale, restless and forever in motion. Two essays in this collection, by Max Woodworth and Evangeline McGlynn, shed light on these dynamic processes through the lens of fracking. North Dakota’s Bakken region is home to vast oilfield operations, originating at thousands of rectangular plots, or pads. As Woodworth writes, while these pads have a limited footprint, typically no larger than four acres in area, they are the entry points to massive passageways between the surface and sub-surface, a sprawling three-dimensional biophysical and sociocultural system that coheres around volumes in the subsurface strata. As it descends from a pad and then cuts horizontally, a wellbore may traverse property lines at the surface and may slice across multiple mineral rights holdings in the strata below, thus requiring plotting the three-dimensional coordinates of a coupled surface and subsurface prior to drilling. Fracking, as Evangeline McGlynn also shows in her contribution, thus requires a volumetric understanding of the subterranean, in terms both of the mining activities and of their aftershocks and unintended consequences. In addition to extralateral rights which have allowed serpentine underground claims to supersede the surface grid, vibrations caused by fracking have been linked to anthropogenic seismicity. In the past decade, she explains, this has resulted in multiple damaging quakes of both high magnitude and physical impact. The seismic events that have taken place across the Kansas and Oklahoma state lines in particular have highlighted the difficulty of defining notions of cause, effect, liability, and culpability across jurisdictions.
NB: This text is a truncated version of the full editor’s introduction by Franck Billé. The introduction will be published in five parts, introducing readers to each section of the series. The full introduction will be available when the series concludes.
Reservoir Douglas Rogers
Stratigraphy Bradley Garrett
Pad Max D. Woodworth
Quake Evangeline McGlynn