Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Oceanic Void

This is an excerpt (the first few pages) of my essay "The Oceanic Void: The Eternal Becoming of Liquid Space," forthcoming in the volume Deleuze and the Schizoanalisis of Spatial Power, edited by Ronnen Benarie (under review by Continnum). This is my most Deleuzian piece yet, and a future chapter in my book in progress (tentatively entitled) Opaque Planet: Outline of a Theory of Terrain

The main protagonist in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane has been the elusive and intensely mobile oceanic space that satellites, planes, and ships have been meticulously scrutinizing in search for the plane’s debris, thus far to no avail. For four weeks, the surveillance technology that is often very precise in locating objects anywhere on the planet has been struggling to pierce through the opacity of this huge mass of water that, in permanently moving, recurrently makes itself unreadable. This is a vast liquid space whose ambient thickness and intensity are in a permanent state of becoming: folding, shifting, arching, twisting; always in motion, always displacing its volume across vast distances, always indifferent to the life forms enveloped by its mobile flows. Ten days after the plane's disappearance, satellites pinpointed on the oceanic surface relatively large objects, over twenty meters long, that looked like debris from the plane. One day, however, the debris seemed to be here; the next day, it seems to be five hundred kilometers away. Always on the move, the ocean carries anything floating on it elsewhere, particularly in the turbulent waters of the southern Indian ocean. A few days later, satellites and planes detected hundreds of smaller objects scattered over wide areas. But when finally reached by ships, these objects turned out to be part of the vast amounts of ordinary debris drifting in oceanic space, the surplus of the imperial forms of connectivity that thousands of ships loaded with commodities leave behind in the oceanic void, turned into the most decisive channel of global capitalism. The global panopticum has been disoriented by this mobile, textured, multi-layered spatiality of the ocean, which makes itself even more opaque by getting entangled with the detritus of globalization. So many transnational and imperial resources have been put in the search that debris from the plane may eventually be found. Had the plane fallen on firm land, however, the global panopticum of satelites and drones that control the atmosphere, and therefore look at the planet from high above, would have already located the debris. But the plane fell into a liquid vortex that swallows up most of the heavy objects that fall into it. This is liquid matter that, because of its physical properties, lets the force of gravity pull those objects down toward a dark abyss that the naked human body confronts as a physical environment devoid of solid ground and breathable air: the oceanic void.
We know that the ocean covers two thirds of the planet’s surface. But what type of space is the ocean? One way to begin answering this question is to look at those areas where the spatiality of the ocean meets that of islands and continents. The material counterpoint between both types of spaces is apparent and seemingly self-evident. On the one hand, the beaches, mountains, or human-made buildings that define the coastline and emerge from above the oceanic surface constitute the type of spaces where the vast majority of humans are born, live, and die. These geographies are defined by a multiplicity of textures and forms but share the solid spatiality that has sustained humans as land creatures adapted over millions of years to breath, eat, move, and reproduce on firm land in direct contact with the atmosphere. On the other hand, beyond the coastline, the body confronts a qualitatively different space: fluid, mobile, liquid. This is a space whose multiplicity is subsumed to the physical properties of water: an incompressible fluid that is permanently in motion because its molecules can move relative to each other, adapting to the shape of its container, the Earth’s surface, and to the forces of the atmosphere. Shorelines, in short, are among the most dramatic thresholds in human experiences of space: the point where the consistency and materiality of space abruptly changes and the body faces the beginning of a liquid world with flows, rhythms, and properties that are not those of land. Coastlines are those areas where space folds to reveal the edge of a immense liquid space, planetary in nature. In The Clamor of Being, Badiou mentions, based on their personal correspondence, that Deleuze viewed "the edge of the void" as "the intersection between the territory and the process of deterritorialization, the dissolution of the territory in the event." On the edge of the oceanic void, the type of human spatiality that defines the territoriality of land faces the event of the ungrounding created by a liquid world.   
Humans have long navigated and used oceanic space with high degrees of expertise and sophistication. Many feel at home there, at ease in that liquid, untameable world. But they do so as land creatures whose anatomy and physiology have evolved to move and breathe on firm ground. The liquid space of the ocean can very quickly envelop and asphyxiate the human bodies that venture in it without flotation devices. It is in this precise physical sense that the human body confronts the ocean as a void: as liquid matter that does not halt the pull of gravity toward the heart of the planet the way firm land does and that, in sinking the body in a fluid devoid of breathable air, negates and interrupts land-based forms of mobility and territoriality. This liquid space, in short, imposes on humans a challenging spatiality that can be socially used but cannot be fully controlled, for it follows its own, powerful rhythms. These rhythms are created by forces mobilized by a planet in motion: by the rotation of the Earth around its axis and around the sun, by the cyclical exposure of the ocean and the atmosphere to the heat of the sun, by the gravity of the moon, as well as by the friction between tectonic plates, which occasionally shake the depths of the ocean to create tsunamis. This vortex is far from being empty: it is inhabited by a pure multiplicity of intensities in motion and by a large biomass. But the ocean is a void in the physical sense of the term, simply because alone in the ocean we drown in an instant, bringing to light what we tend two take for granted: our bodily ontology as land creatures who breath air. 
In this essay, I argue that Deleuze provides us concepts that are particularly important to examine the liquid spatiality of oceanic space, such as becoming, fold, multiplicity, intensity, singularity, difference, repetition, eternal return, virtual, actual, and smooth and striated space. It is especially in the analysis of the repetitive, rhythmical, and ever-fluid spatiality of the ocean that Deleuze’s philosophy reveals its power to illuminate our understanding of space in its immanence, independently of human appropriations but also in relation to them. My analysis is in dialogue with authors like John Protevi and Levi Bryant, who also draw on Deleuze to think the material becoming and gravitational forces of non-human made objects and forces. And as Protevi argues, the becoming of water is particularly amenable to Deleuze's philosophy (Life, War, Earth, p. 45). Yet my analysis also goes beyond Deleuze because it puts him in dialogue with Alain Badiou by subsuming the becoming of oceanic space to a figure of negativity such as the void. This may seem like a counterintuitive move, given Deleuze’s well-known hostility toward the negative and his public disagreements with Badiou. Yet I see their thinking as creatively entangled in multiple ways, and for starters I understand the void not as a figure of spatial emptiness but rather, drawing from Badiou, as a figure of pure multiplicity: that is, a multiplicity that is non-representable. The ocean’s spatiality forms an immense void not because it is empty but, on the contrary, because it is a positive presence that is a productive and disruptive multiplicity of intensities, singularities, and rhythms: a vortex that voids (interrupts, negates, disrupts) the spatiality of human mobility on firm land.
            My analysis of oceanic space draws from recent efforts in the humanities to examine geo-physical forces in terms of their own materiality and rhythms, without reducing them to their social appropriations by human societies. The literature on “the social construction of nature” played an important role in undermining the dualism between society and nature and in showing that society is not external to “nature.” Yet this perspective often reduces “nature” to the passive, malleable background upon which active, human-centered forces operate. Phillip Steinberg’s The Social Construction of the Ocean is the best book devoted to analyzing the geography of the oceans. Steinberg shows with great detail and sophistication how human societies have made use of and conceptualized the ocean in different historical periods and in different parts of the world. He demonstrates that far from being a space “empty” of sociality, the ocean has been socialized at multiple levels and is a crucial component of global currents of trade and relations of territorial power. And while the book does not examine how the liquid nature of oceanic space escapes human coding, Steinberg leaves the door open for a non-constructivist view of the ocean when he writes, at the end of his book, that this remains an important and pending question: that in being “a space of nature,” some crucial dimensions of oceanic space are not reducible to their social uses, most notably the fact that “the sea never stops moving” (p. 210)
           In his essay, I take this ever-mobile nature of oceanic space as my starting point. This is also a dimension that Steinberg's most recent work on oceanic spatiality is exploring (as the conversation we have in the comments below make clear). But I prefer to view the ocean not as a space of nature but as a spatial set within the terrain of planet Earth. As several authors have noted, the notion of nature is too loaded with transcendental connotations to be salvaged as a useful analytic concept, even if we add the usual disclaimers about the need to overcome the society-nature dualism. This problem is clear in the very idea that the ocean is a “natural space,” for this implies that places made by humans are not natural, thereby reintroducing the distinction between society and nature that is publicly disavowed. Terrain is the absolute temporal materialization of what we abstract as "nature." Seas, mountains, roads, rivers, cities, farms, bridges, forests: they are the type of singularities that envelope our ever-fleeting bodies as part of the terrain of planet Earth. As I have argued here, I see terrain as involving all existing, three-dimensional material forms (human made or not) that are constitutive of space as we know it: that is, the tangible space of this world. 
           This analysis of the ocean as a spatial set within the terrain implies a materialist, object-oriented, and affective lens but more importantly a geometric eye and perception. This is why a theory of terrain demands a Spinozian sensibility built in critical dialogue with the two last philosophical titans of the world: Deleuze and Badiou. The starting principle of a theory of terrain is that of its pure material multiplicity. This means that the materiality of the terrain is not homogenous, but the opposite. Spinoza argued that the body is made up of hard, soft, and liquid elements: bones, flesh, and blood. Likewise, the planetary terrain is defined by a multiplicity of physical densities and textures, involving hard, soft, gaseous, and liquid elements engaging in different degrees of temperature. The ocean is certainly the largest expression of liquid space on Earth. Comprising over two-thirds of the surface of the planet, the oceanic void has been one of the most powerful and determining spatial forces in human history. Its most defining feature is that, for the human body, it creates the generalized ungrounding we call drowning. The history of imperial and capitalist expansion into the totality of the planet has revolved, to a great extent, around technological efforts to counter this ungrounding created by the eternal, ever-mobile becoming of liquid space. 


  1. Hi Gaston,

    I've gotten three links to your post over the past hour, including Steve Mentz urging me to write to 'correct' you, so it seemed like I might as well respond on the blog and encourage a conversation that others should join (would this work better via Facebook? Email? I'm not sure....I'll post a note to the S&P Facebook page too).

    First, on the Malaysian Airliner, I'm in total agreement with you. In fact, I made much the same point at a presentation last week at UC Santa Barbara, where I focused on the days in which the two arcs were both seen as potential locations for the airliner's journey. Completely different narratives were being spun for the two arcs, regarding surveillance, territory, state responsibility, knowledge, and the relationship between surface, the air above, and the space below. This all depended on whether the arc went over land (the northern arc) or water (the southern arc).

    I also agree with most of what you're saying about the ocean being a space of perpetual becoming (à la Deleuze) whose liquidity/turbulence/churning/dynamism both incorporates and exceeds human inscription. Indeed, you're entirely correct that in Social Construction I only slightly open the door for this way of thinking. In retrospect I wish I had pursued that line further (if it's any excuse, the bulk of the book was based on my PhD thesis -- ca. 1994-1996 -- and, well, it's a product of its times). However,sSubsequent to the book's publication, I've explored this theme much more, especially in the past few years -- e.g. in my Atlantic Studies article, in my chapter in Steve Legg's Schmitt book, in a few forthcoming chapters on attempts by artists to imagine the sea in non-representational ways, and, perhaps most directly, in work that I'm currently undertaking with Kimberley Peters on 'wet ontology' (presented last week at the ISA meeting) that covers not just the destabilising impacts of the ocean's liquid dynamism but also the ways in which this is enhanced by the ease with which water changes states between liquid, gas, and solid. Some of the chapters in the new Anderson/Peters Water Worlds book develop this theme as well, and also see Peters in E&PA.

    That said (and here I'm echoing a comment made to me by Steve Mentz), I'm not sure that the 'void' concept is productive for advancing our sense of the ocean as a non-representational space of becoming. To me, the 'void' is one very specific representation of the sea (a sense of emptiness that's rich with meaning [or, if one prefers, ideology] rather than a non-representational signifier of infinite meanings). That's why I tend to prefer conceputalisations of the sea that 'ground' its turbulent nature in encounters with its underpinning materiality, whether those be through geophysics (e.g. my work on Lagrangian oceanography) or its biota (e.g. Stefan Helmreich's work) or even in the affective experience of the marine encounter (e.g. work by Jon Anderson and others on surfing). While I understand that you're deploying the concept of 'void' not to refer to idealised immateriality but to a prepondernace of materialities, it still doesn't seem helpful to me to conceive of the ocean as a 'void', especially given the tendency among ocean theorists to 'overtheorise' the ocean to the point where its materiality gets forgotten (see critiques by Hester Blum in PMLA, Steffan Helmreich in American Anthropologist, me in Atlantic Studies).

    All that said, of course, I'm VERY much looking forward to seeing the full chapter.


  2. I'll join in as well, though I wince at the idea of "correction" & prefer conversation. This very suggestive post makes me want to dig into my Badiou again and think about re-purposing the void / nullity in terms of productivity and errancy, rather than vacancy. My day job as a Shakespearean also makes me think of the massively productive / disruptive nothings of King Lear, Hamlet, The Winter's Tale &c. I guess I still wonder at how firmly we as ocean-theorists want to be bound by terrestrial structures, including rhetorical structures. (I've written about this in *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean*, and Dan Brayton has as well, also in a literary context.)

    The tension between what I sometimes describe as green (terrestrial) ecology and blue (oceanic) ecology might be best thinkable directly astride the coastline (though line's not the right term), where so much of human history takes place. I also very much appreciate in your Deluezian paradigm about the lure of the deep blue, even as I want to fill it with all kinds of bodies, human and nonhuman.

    Like Phil, I'm looking forward to the full chapter!

  3. Dear Phil and Steve, many thanks for your great comments. This is all very helpful and thought-provoking.

    Steve, your references to Shakespeare are very evocative and I'll definitively look for "At the bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean".

    Phil, I've been meaning to write you for sometime to engage in the type of conversation we're starting right now, so I was particularly happy to see your comment. I admire your work on oceanic space and in the longer piece I'm in dialogue with it as well. Yes, I'm certainly aware that your book on the social construction of the ocean was a product of its time, and that since then you've moved on to engage with complexity theory, etc. I should have mentioned this, but certainly will in the final version. I'm particularly excited to hear about your more recent work on wet ontology and liquid dynamism, and very much look forward to reading it. I'll email you after posting these comments.

    Yes, on the "oceanic void", I'm aware of the risk of the void being read the way you do. I'm also well aware that much of your 2001 book is a critique of the idea of the ocean as a void, which you see as an idealization or ideology. But my disagreement is that I see the void as a profoundly materialist category that to me aptly names the type of physical and affective power that particular spaces have on the body. This is why I try to be very precise in the way I define the void here, through its physical effects on the human body. The idea of a liquid vortex is probably better in capturing the image of a liquid and massive materiality in motion, with productive-disruptive and voiding powers. This is why, aside from following Badiou in seeing the void as a figure of pure multiplicity and multiple materialities, I also see it as a field of force that voids, interrupts, negates, alters the forms of spatiality that humans create on land. So, in other words, while I agree that this can create many idealizations and ideologies, the image of the oceanic void to me captures this profoundly material and "errant" (I like that word, Steve) force of liquid becoming that is physically real (as opposed to ideological). In other words, I think we're actually in agreement about theorizing the ocean through its materiality (as opposed to forgetting about it), even if we may disagree on the terminology. But these are all ideas very much in progress that I'm still processing, so I'll email you both the longer draft, for I look forward to hearing about any other critiques and ideas you may have. And many thanks again for sharing your thoughts, critiques, and encouraging comments.

  4. Hi Gaston,

    I’m glad we’re having this conversation too, and I agree that much of our difference comes down to my discomfort with the word void rather than what you’re meaning by it. Given the word’s ideological baggage (which echoes not just with me but apparently with others as well — see others' comments on Rory Rowan’s and Steve Mentz’ Facebook pages), I wonder if you might be better off actually using the word ‘vortex’ which you discuss above. For me, ‘vortex’ beautifully captures the idea of a maelstrom of forces that continually empty, fill, and transform a space.

    But you’re right that substantively ‘vortex’ vs ‘void’ is a minor disagreement of terminology. While it’s important to have these neurotic discussions about the meaning of specific words because they force you to specify what precisely you mean, one shouldn’t let these discussions prevent us from recognising our many points of agreement. Indeed — to beat a dead horse (or dead fish) — that’s precisely why I think you might be better off using a term that doesn’t raise so many alarms.


  5. Hi Phil,

    Yes, this is a really great conversation, and I'm grateful for your generous feedback. I was certainly encouraged by your comment on your blog in which you say that you agree with me in 95% of the piece, and that your disagreement on "the void" is only the other 5%. We're certainly on the same page in terms of examining the ocean through its ever-shifting materiality. Yes, I use vortex as another word for void, its more "agentive" side if you like, but I also like the evocations of the void in terms of abyss and pure multiplicity. Because this is also an attempt to put Deleuze and Badiou in dialogue with each other, I think that the void a la Badiou is important to my argument, but I'll continue thinking on how to refine it and incorporate the valid points you're raising.

    One last thing is that I found Edward Casey's analysis (in the Fate of place) of Aristotle's views of the void very helpful. Casey basically highlights the generative, positive dimensions of the void as a particular space, showing that Aristole says that the void doesn't exist as absence of space because the alleged properties of the void are subsumed to those of place: i.e. the void is not a spatial nothingness but a particular spatial configuration that exerts positive pressures.



  6. Hi Gaston,

    Have you considered looking to Michel Serres and The Birth of Physics in particular? Not to overly biographize his interest in water, but he's the son of a bargeman and was a naval officer. In The Birth of Physics, he speaks to the "laminar flow" (of singularity & difference), as well as the void.

    Moreover, though it's stages in regards to math, I found Dan Smith's comparison between Deleuze and Badiou vis-a-vis the void quite helpful. It's available both in his recent essay anthology and here:

    Hope you're well. Thanks for these thoughts.

    Best, Andrew

  7. Thanks Andrew, these are very useful references that I didn't know. I'll definitively check them out. best,

  8. love the ocean--and all its murmurs and breeze. serres is an agreeable companion with foucault and deleuze also see the selfsame above (with the refinement of age) theme in angels, troubadour, natural contract, and so sweetly biogea. on the edge of the fold as threshold, as birth / death, inside / open--for a life cosmos moment present poetics ;)

  9. forgot five senses a philosophy of mingled bodies