Mare Magnum: Urbanization of Land and Sea

Carte figurative et approximative du mouvement des voyageurs sur
Charles Joseph Mindard, Carte Figurative et approximative du mouvemens des voyageurs sur les principaux chemins de fer de l’Europe en 1862. 1865, Règnier et Dourdet, Paris.

Introduction for pre-publication draft of a book chapter to appear in Peters, Kimberly, Phil Steinberg, Elaine Stratford, eds., 2017, Territory Beyond Terra, London: Rowman Littlefield International. Many thanks to Kimberly, Phil and Elaine for all their wonderful insight and feedback in developing this text.

To speak or write of urbanising the sea may invite familiar images of empty mansions dotting palm-shaped islands in Dubai or the spectacular architectural expansion of Monaco’s territory of real estate into the Ligurian Sea. Likewise, it may remind us of the pretensions of Nigeria’s new ‘Eko Atlantic’ project, dredging into existence a new swath of land to house an extraterritorial zone of private development and trade. It may also recall far more expansive cartographies of resource extraction, maps of concessions, global pipelines and fibre optic cables of intercontinental communication. An example such as Singapore reveals both phenomena in its simultaneous construction of firm land and its broader territorialising of ocean-space into operational seascapes and vast oceanic hinterlands, all in response to the pressures urban space makes to extend supply lines to wherever resources (and ‘land’) may be found (Topolovic, 2014). We are increasingly drawn to an imaginary of the spaces beyond the city, thanks in part to planetary examinations of ‘extended urbanisation’ by Neil Brenner (2011; 2013) and Christian Schmid (2011), in which maps trace an image of the urban through networks of circulation of oil, commodities and data that run across seabeds and over the sea surface, encircling the planet’s oceans with threads of infrastructural fluidity.

This smooth perception of urbanised ocean-space may recall yet another way in which urbanising the sea has taken form: in the architecture of the floating city. In the 1960s a certain landless utopian spirit took hold of the architectural imaginary; in the sea, architecture could escape the dross of postwar urban space by imagining cities as great interconnected web-like arks whose edgeless structures could colonise a particularly placid ocean. Today, just as we are confronted with new dystopian realities of the violence of climate change and a rising ocean inundating urban (and other) spaces worldwide, we see a return of the floating city, this time as a project of neoliberal entrepreneurialism and techno-futurist philanthropy (Steinberg et. al. 2012).

I would like to move beyond the immediacy of such realities, considering instead what it could mean to speak of the ‘urbanisation of the sea’ as a problem of the present that accompanies the very ontological and epistemological formation of the urban itself. That is to say, I would like to see how such issues shed light on the historical relation between the urban and ocean-space. What could it mean to speak of the ontologies produced in the early modern experiences of ocean-space that, in turn, lends to the task various ideas relevant to the practical reimagination of terrestrial spaces? If today we know the spaces that the territorialisation of the ocean has produced (Steinberg 2001), what kinds of spaces may have resulted from a ‘maritimisation of the land’?

This work explores a speculative history of ‘maritimisation of the land’ in which the modern notion of territory as a political technology (Elden 2013) was augmented by a spatiality that developed not on land, but over the course of three centuries of maritime activities that followed Columbus’ crossing of the Atlantic. While across this period, a consistent ontological resonance can be traced between representations of ocean-space and constructions of territory on land (Steinberg 2009), by the nineteenth century a fundamentally new representation of terrestrial space appeared that effectively collapsed the two spatialities into one. Examining the writings of the Saint-Simonian engineer and statesman Michel Chevalier (1806-1879), we will see how he adopts the concept of network (réseau) from medical and hydrological sciences to propose a radically new counter-state, counter-territorial geographical imaginary—a powerfully seductive space that would be free of the political oppression and divisions that territory had inscribed onto the land. Here, territory could be conceptually overcome and tacitly resurrected as a benign, social technology made to animate a globe of fluid, controlled circulation whose order would be built around a hierarchy of nested scales of private, economic traffic. A post-Revolutionary idealisation of a world to come, this counter-state imaginary profoundly influenced the development of international trade, capitalism and the liberal nation-state, and would generate the political and economic will to begin constructing the first planetary infrastructures necessary for this transformation shortly thereafter.

Curiously, this new planetary spatial order would inadvertently find its conceptual foundation less in the scientific, mathematical roots of réseau than in the epistemologies of early modern ocean-space; its hydrological origin reappears in later attempts to directly apply the mathematics of hydrology to ‘scientifically’ control all forms of human movement (Picon 2002). Indeed, privileging a logic of circulation over enclosure, Chevalier’s world organized by networks resulted less in the disappearance of territory than in its adaptation to a new set of demands, allowing it to be reimagined as a technology useful for organising a borderless space, the idealised extents of which would be the globe itself. Shifting the emphasis of territory from the border to the corridor, Chevalier’s geography enabled the simultaneous measurement and control of space across multiple scales, opening up a space that could be ordered according to a single logic applied to all scales at once. And it is precisely for this reason that the shift to a corridor-based, maritime geography inspired by the idea of the network would lay the foundations for a wholly new spatiality to appear whose intricate geographies we are still only beginning to grasp: urbanisation (Adams in press).

At the heart of this story is a history of circulation, a somewhat quiet, yet historically consistent accomplice in and common denominator between the various spatial distinctions and political orders that have structured and restructured the western world since the sixteenth century. From enclosed territories to colonial spaces, across land and sea, from global empires to an urbanised planet, it is circulation that opens up a historical geography of power less interested in the essentialised qualities of land or sea, but rather in the abstract logics of modern power that cut across both.

Full draft here.


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