Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper expands on recent attempts to destabilise the static, bordered, and linear framings that typify human geographical studies of place, territory, and time. In a world conceptualised as open, immanent, and ever-becoming, scholars have turned away from notions of fixity towards fluidity and flow, and, in so doing, have developed networked, 'flat' ontologies. Recent attempts have gone further, challenging the horizontalism inherent in such approaches by opening up a vertical world of volume. In this paper we contend that such approaches are still somewhat lacking. The vertical element of volume is all too often abstract and dematerialised; the emphasis on materiality that is typically used to rectify this excess of abstraction tends to reproduce a sense of matter as fixed and grounded; and the temporality that is employed to reintroduce 'motion' to matter has the unintended effect of signalling a periodised sense of time that minimises the chaotic underpinnings and experiences of place. We argue that the ocean is an ideal spatial foundation for addressing these challenges since it is indisputably voluminous, stubbornly material, and unmistakably undergoing continual reformation, and that a 'wet ontology' can reinvigorate, redirect, and reshape debates that are all too often restricted by terrestrial limits.

Keywords: depth, liquid, ocean, sea, volume, water


"Since we live on land, and are usually beyond the sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world, and to ignore in practice what that means.... Geographically, it is not the exception to our planet, but by far its greatest defining feature."

William Langewiesche (2004, page 1)

The ocean is a paradoxical space, both "capital's favored myth-element" (Connery, 1995, page 56) and a site that suggests (unrealisable) potential for transcending its striations and structures (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004). Langewiesche sums up this contradiction by calling the ocean "free enterprise at its freest" (2004, page 7), the paradigmatic space that binds the global political economy but that also profoundly challenges its underpinning political ontology, a designation that resonates with Peter Sloterdijk's identification of the Modern Era ocean as the "entrepreneurial-nautical yonder" (2013, page 79).

In previous works, we have chronicled how this tension has been productively exploited by a broad range of nautical entrepreneurs, from libertarian venture capitalists (Steinberg, 2011a; Steinberg et al, 2012) to hippy pirate broadcasters (Peters, 2011; 2014a). In this paper, however, we direct our focus away from these individual and collective actors who, finding themselves on the sea's surface, use its liminality to engage in transgressive political practice. Rather, we turn to the ocean itself: to its three-dimensional and turbulent materiality, and to encounters with that materiality, in order to explore how thinking with the sea can assist in reconceptualising our geographical understandings. In short, we propose a wet ontology not merely to endorse the perspective of a world of flows, connections, liquidities, and becomings, but also to propose a means by which the sea's material and phenomenological distinctiveness can facilitate the reimagining and reenlivening of a world ever on the move.

In taking this approach, we engage with the growing numbers of human geographers who are turning away from the plane geometry of points, lines, and areas that have long grounded the discipline. As Doreen Massey (2004) details, the Euclidean conception of space as a stable surface provides unwelcome constraints that separate spaces from the matter and meanings that occur within. From a Euclidean perspective, the foundational 'space' that remains after substance is stripped away is empty, abstracted, and atemporal, and this provides a poor foundation for theorising relational geographies of immanence. …

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