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.

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our essays in this collection examine volumetric sovereignty through the prism of the body—both human and nonhuman. In her contribution, Nayanika Mathur looks at animal incursions across the China-India border. In a high-altitude border zone such as this, at around 16,000 feet above sea-level, the “foreigners” that enter and exit tend to be nonhuman animals. The border guards stationed in this region spend much of their time tracking such incursions and chasing “Chinese yaks” back into Tibet/China. As Mathur’s ethnography elucidates, what is crucial is these animals’ capacity to inhabit and travel through landscapes that are, oftentimes, located beyond-the-human. In so doing they demonstrate, with a profound starkness, the volumetric nature of political space, as well as the “beastly” task that is the control of this space by humans.[i]

Looking at animal control in another volumetric space, this time in the urban environment of Miami, Florida, Michael Vine discusses the challenges inherent in controlling Zika-carrying mosquito populations in a built environment. With mosquito-control programs still depending primarily on spraying insecticide from light aircrafts, Miami Beach’s towering condominiums and apartment blocks are posing significant challenges for local mosquito control officials to deliver insecticides to the right places at the right doses. Not only do high-rise buildings constitute a physical impediment to low-flying aircraft, but tall buildings also create atypical convection currents that disturb the even dispersal of insecticidal chemicals. Taking into account variables such as airflow, temperature, and humidity, the material agency of local airscape itself therefore needs to be recruited as a vector for the distribution of protection against mosquito-borne disease.

Thousands of miles away, in the sugarcane plantations of Nicaragua, a progressive renal failure called chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnt) has become prevalent. Plantation workers (cañeros), Alex Nading shows, talk in volumes about their condition: from the tridimensional stalks of cane that need to be slashed, to the measurement of the kidney filtration rate, down to the very volume of bodily functions, tridimensionality is key to understanding the disease as well as medical and state responses. The title of his contribution, filtration, refers to kidney function but also evokes state practices of “triage” that assess whether CKDnt cases are work-related (laboral) or ordinary (común). As Nading concludes, the forms of biopolitical control to which cañeros are subject are eminently volumetric.

The fourth essay in this subset looks at the deployment of the infrared part of the spectrum as it relates to what Nicole Starosielski refers to as “thermal sovereignty.” She argues that, in reshaping the distribution of heat to naturalize forms of territorial control, thermal sovereignty is inherently volumetric. It is often, she writes, “a means of exercising power so that the environment, rather than the state or its people, appears to be exerting force and constraining movement”—a point Jason De León (2015) has also made compellingly in his ethnography of illegal migrations across the Mexico-US border. Using three examples—fiberoptic cables, drone imaging, and body thermal regulation—she demonstrates how thermal sovereignty, in part through the deployment of digital technologies that work on the infrared, has dramatically expanded its reach.

[i] Engaging with the work of Lippit and Derrida, Jussi Parikka (2010: 92-93) writes that while animals have disappeared from the midst of technological modernity, they remain as “shadows, phantasmatic echoes that transposed their intensive capacities as part of media technological modes of communication.” Animals, he writes, “are the conditioning and establishing framings of nature in modernity but at the same time lack a voice.”
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.

Incursion Nayanika Mathur

Vector Michael Vine

Filtration Alex Nading

Infrared Nicole Starosielski