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." This is my most Deleuzian piece yet, and a future chapter in my book in progress (tentatively entitled) Terrain: An Affective Geometry of Planet Earth

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.