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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.
elated to McGlynn’s contribution, a second subset of essays focuses specifically on the materiality of the soil, the subsoil, and the subsurface. Exploring the notion of turbulence in the context of the recent earthquake in Nepal’s Langtang Valley, Austin Lord defines turbulence as violent encounters with “inhuman nature,” but also with ongoing and more subtle forms of harm, such as “gradual erosion, glacial deformations, seeping patterns of contagion, and the atmospheric unknowns of climate change.” As such, he contends, it is a particularly apt concept for confronting the immanence, indeterminacy, and multiplicity of the Anthropocene. By continually reshaping volumes, turbulence, as a material and discursive phenomenon, carries energy that can underwrite or destabilize claims to sovereignty, as well as expose our useful fictions of solidity. Along similar lines, the turbulent oceanic phenomenon known as “internal waves” also challenges the zoning and layering of maritime space. As Stefan Helmreich shows, internal waves are enormous masses of water that travel below the ocean’s surface and manifest at the interface between layers of water stratified by density—a stratification driven by temperature and/or salinity differentials. As per the Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf (1958), the fact that nation-states can claim the seabed as national extension of their continental shelf has no incidence on the legal status of the superjacent waters as high seas (nor indeed that of the airspace above those waters), thereby creating a horizontal border between sovereignties. The turbulent movement of internal waves across such hybrid spaces, transporting nutrients and fish populations while blurring the line between sea and seabed, renders the territorial disputes over the South China Sea even more complex.
The intricate entanglement of layers across materialities is the focus of the contribution by Nancy Couling and Carola Hein who write about Ekofisk City, one of the largest oil fields in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. Not only is it a formation that spans a range of material environments—it descends through 75m of the North Sea to subsea formations 2900-3250m below the seafloor and rises around 100m above the 30m extreme wave threshold—but the materialities it encounters are subject to dramatic changes. As Couling and Hein show, oil’s viscosity disrupts binary assumptions such as the nature of solids and liquids. Ultimately, they contend, viscosity is inherently relational—contingent on temperatures and the surrounding environment, as well as on the relative liquidity and solidity of proximate materials. The transitional and intermediary quality of viscosity, they argue, is a very potent metaphor for the multilayered, sometimes thin and ephemeral, and mostly secured and disguised spaces that make up the contemporary petroleumscape.
Speaking directly to points made in the viscosity and turbulence essays, Malini Sur’s contribution mobilizes the spatial form of the spiral as political register and metaphor. Placing in parallel the barbed wire and the clouds of dust that characterize the border zone between India and Bangladesh, she contends that the volumetric properties of these two spiral shapes displace scholarly preoccupations with barriers as uniform artifacts of loss of sovereignty. Instead, as a metaphor for a nervous nation which rapidly envelops people in its own “circles of insecurity,” the spiral attunes to the expansions and extensions of national margins. Its twisted form palpably establishes what border infrastructures seek to do, while its spatial propensity to gather volume, aggregate, and generate disorderly forces amplifies the nation’s unsettling presence in the lives of its remote border residents.
The final essay of this subset, by Marilu Melo, looks at another form of turbulent change: the sudden collapse and subsidence of the surface. Sinkholes, she writes, remove surface land while their voids simultaneously become access points to the subterranean: “they are beginnings and ends, entries and exits; they are threads in the weft of territories that form volumetric landscapes.” While sinkholes have caused substantial damage and even deaths when the surface suddenly collapses in urban environments, they have, in places like Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, transformed into tourist commodities. Taking advantage of the emergence of a sinkhole market, some “land” owners have opted to dynamite the surface to accelerate the creation of sinkholes—thereby manufacturing recreational volume for tourist consumption.
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.
Turbulence Austin Lord
Waves Stefan Helmreich
Viscosity Nancy Couling and Carola Hein
Spiral Malini Sur
Sinkhole Marilu Melo