This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

Cornel West once wrote that “it is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims perspective” (West, 1993, 2017: 57). West’s warnings of the twin dangers of racism, both of which have been flirted with by geographers, serves as a useful reminder for thinking about the vortex.

Scylla is a fearsome many-headed monster who throws rocks down from the cliff heights, while Charybdis is a vortex of water. Sail too close and you will be sucked down from your world of air and light into another world of darkness and water. In Greek mythology, Charybdis is more than a whirlpool; she is also a water spout. In the stunning new translation by Emily Wilson “divine Charybdis sucks black water down. / Three times a day she spurts it up; three times / she glugs it down” (Homer, 2018: 12.14-16). Odysseus loses six of his best crewmen in his encounter with them.

The Divis Tower in Belfast is a 20-story block of flats in the Falls Road. During the Troubles the top two floors were occupied by the British Army, where they maintained an observation post on the roof. At the height of the Troubles, the British Army could come and go only by helicopter, and access to the floors from below was sealed off. The Divis Tower represents what happens when movement from one part of the city to another (in this case vertically) is prevented, and instead is transformed into a panoptic surveillant gaze that can see but not be seen.

Cities have always been segregated by height, and the price per square foot varies vertically as well as geographically. This pricing gradient applies downwards as well as upwards. In London’s super-basements, the increasing “luxification” of the subterranean now means it is not unusual for these spaces to contain cinemas, gyms, dance floors and swimming pools—one even included a beach (Burrows 2018).

Indeed, so precious is height to capital that the empty air above or outside a building has a resale value, not least as airspace for drones or advertising. Watch a movie like Blade Runner or its sequel Blade Runner 2049 for a stunning visualization of this process. In the latter, a huge multi-story hologram of the artificial intelligence Joi is the objectification of male desire as she reaches out to Officer K, an advertisement for a prototype of her character. Her appearance as a building-tall nude with blue hair is designed to seduce K to transgress—perhaps into her world, or hers into his. Much has been written about the first movie (based loosely on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, itself an exploration of the encounter between virtual reality fantasy and the real world) being set in 2019. Now that we’ve reached 2019 we know it got many things wrong (the possibility of escaping off-world from a messed-up earth, and of course those flying cars), but it surely got right the colonization of height and depth by capital.

The vortex threatens this segregation by height. Charybdis sucks both downwards, and then vomits the results upwards in a water spout. The vortex is many things—a danger of course, because it mixes; it moves objects often violently and suddenly, but even more importantly ideas and experiences. It is a process of movement from one level of the city to another. The vortex doesn’t ask for permission but is that moment when you are thrust against your will into a confrontation you wouldn’t have chosen. Despite this threat to stability, the vortex is necessary. Imagine what life would be like without it. Divis Tower and the mega-basements shows what happens when the vortex is disabled, and when movement, knowledge flows and value is limited to elites.

Perhaps the best current example of anti-vortex political thinking concerns the border. During Winter 2018-19 the US government experienced its longest ever partial shutdown, nominally about building a wall on the US-Mexico border. President Trump repeatedly promised to build such a wall throughout his campaign and into his presidency. Walls prevent movement across space, it is true, but they operate by vertical obstruction. Whenever an argument against the wall was made, Trump would say “the wall just got ten feet higher!” This phrase later became a meme among the alt-right. Here we see a classic example of how height is used to support a political confrontation—just as at Divis Tower or the drolly named “Peace Wall” in Belfast separating Catholic and Protestant areas.

The border wall comes to occupy as much a symbolic barrier to encountering the other as a material one. The fears and anxieties resulting from the border wall’s unsurmountable verticality are an example of what Isin calls “neuroliberalism”, a form of governmentality that creates the neurotic citizen (Isin, 2004). Having anxious and neurotic citizens around is handy for strengthening political will against encounters with difference, something that vortex political thinking can help combat. Sudden, even shocking and certainly confusing encounters with the other, with something different, creates the opportunity to reduce those neuroses and to provide new avenues for thought. Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Representative from the Bronx, and part of a record-breaking wave of women in the House (102, still less than a quarter of the total) have certainly created a vortex-worthy political storm (not least because she is shaking up her own party). But many more examples of such vortices are needed if the current slide into isolationism is to be averted. After all, West’s essay is an account of economic restructuring and inequalities, the same sources of neuroliberalism that stalk the landscape today.


Homer (2018) The Odyssey. Trans. Wilson ER. New York: W. W. Norton.
Isin EF (2004) The neurotic citizen. Citizenship Studies 8: 217–235.
West C (1993, 2017) Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press.