Introduction: Speaking Volumes

From the Arctic to the South China Sea, states are vying to secure sovereign rights over vast maritime stretches, undersea continental plates, shifting ice floes, and aerial volumes. Until recently these three-dimensional spaces were seen as beyond effective political control: the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea only came into force in 1994, and there is still no international legal agreement on the vertical extent of sovereign airspace. While the three-dimensional nature of property law has a long genealogy (see Banner 2008), for decades it remained a theoretical issue. The first legal attempts to territorialize aerial, maritime, and subterranean spaces only emerged through transformative technologies that made it possible to control, colonize, and populate beyond-the-human worlds previously considered asocial (Schmitt 2003).

Typical ocean claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Diagram by William Rankin, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Having engaged with the recent volumetric turn in architecture and political geography (Bélanger 2016; Elden 2013; Weizman 2007), anthropologists are increasingly concerned with realms such as air (Choy and Zee 2015), oceans (Helmreich 2009), riparian environments (Ogden 2011), and outer space (Battaglia, Valentine, and Olson 2015; Messeri 2016) as well as with their social, political, and cultural reverberations. This series, which grew out of a modest exploratory panel at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, brings into dialogue these converging interests in volumetric sovereignty and more-than-human geographies. The contributors suggest that this theoretical confluence can be especially illuminating for border processes and phenomena that deploy beyond the two-dimensional. In giving precedence to volumetric space, the essays in this series run counter to a propensity to equate the multiplicity, complexity, and increasingly staggered nature of border control (see Mezzadra and Neilson 2013) as a harbinger of deterritorialization. As the contributors show, the fact that political battles are increasingly being waged in more complex volumetric geographies does not suggest a weakening of territorial control. The political and cultural colonization of sea, air, and ice—framed primarily through a land-based imagination, whether through the creation of islands as toeholds in the South China Sea or the planting of flags on ocean floors—is in fact subject to similar cartographic anxieties (see Billé 2016).

This series also challenges an imaginary of space that is disembodied and abstract, taking issue with the notion propounded by some cartographers that the move from map to GPS has caused an uncoupling of territory and sovereignty and has led to a predominance of coordinates beyond any “geographic commitment” (Rankin 2016, 4). As our bodies grate against the textured materiality of that purportedly empty space, as we choke on its dust, as our lungs struggle to fill with oxygen, and as our social lives become enmeshed in and demarcated by invisible electromagnetic fields, we are continually confronted with the textured and voluminous presence of this space. In paying attention to the materiality of volumetric space and to the complex ways in which human and nonhuman animals, ecology, and climate are entangled in three-dimensional social worlds, this project also engages with current debates about the Anthropocene (Howe and Pandian 2016).

At its core, this series probes the gap between the cartographic imagination and the lived realities of modern political space. A volumetric approach involves a multiplicity of surfaces that intersect, overlap, and complement each other in complex geometries. A sectional view reveals the failure of surfaces to align as well as their reciprocity and entanglement, opening “a lens on the planet as an urban projection, pattern and process of overlapping, cyclic change across different layers and levels of space, in time” (Bélanger 2016, 5). Rather than simply a vertical extrapolation of bounded horizontal space, volumetric space is heterogeneous: it includes gaps, pockets, and multidirectional warrens of varying densities. The textured materiality of terrain compels us to apprehend environments as sets of interrelated phenomena, as hyperobjects (Morton 2013). Not only are soil, water, air, and ice intermeshed environments, they leak, seep into each other, coalesce, fissure, and clot. Volumetric space is also an entanglement of scales, from the planetary to the granular. “Seemingly insignificant ‘specks’ accumulate, taking shape from barely noticeable singularities to unavoidably complex entities. . . . As discrete units that aggregate to immense numbers, they exhibit a continuous fluid medium of their own—viscous, gravitational, flowing, blowing—constantly composing, and recomposing itself, instigating morphological variation” (Klingan et al. 2015, 7). Dust blurs the line between earth and liquid as it is driven downwind. As a fugitive substance, it is a voluminous entity that surrounds, embraces, confuses, and potentially kills.

Other amorphous and seemingly immaterial realms, from radio and sonic waves (Larkin 2008; Goodman 2010) to the Internet (Starosielski 2015; Hu 2015), also do not overlay precisely onto a geopolitical organization of space but instead have the capacity to crisscross, bleed through, and undermine political boundaries. They are leaky and nonlinear, eminently volumetric. As some of the contributions to this series show, they can also be harnessed for national projects: the electromagnetic spectrum can reinforce boundaries with its invisible grasp (see also Weizman 2007), while electric energy can act as territorial extension and vector of soft power. Volumetric space is both all-encompassing and incomplete. Aided by GPS and drone technology, sovereign power reaches upward and downward into new dimensions at ever greater scales, even as actual control continues to lag behind self-assured cartographic representations. Despite ever-increasing precision, something always remains unaccounted for, undigested and indigestible, remnants lying beyond the “threshold of detectability” (Weizman 2017).


Banner, Stuart. 2008. Who Owns the Sky? The Struggle to Control Airspace from the Wright Brothers On. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Battaglia, Debbora, David Valentine, and Valerie Olson. 2015. “Relational Space: An Earthly Installation.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2: 245–56.

Bélanger, Pierre. 2016. “Altitudes of Urbanization.” Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology 55: 5–7.

Billé, Franck. 2016. “Introduction to ‘Cartographic Anxieties’.” Cross-Currents, no. 21.

Choy, Timothy, and Jerry Zee. 2015. “Condition—Suspension.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2: 210–23.

Elden, Stuart. 2013. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34: 35–51.

Goodman, Steve. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2009. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Howe, Cymene and Anand Pandian, eds. 2016. “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.” Theorizing the Contemporary series, Cultural Anthropology website, January 21.

Hu, Tung-Hui. 2015. A Prehistory of the Cloud. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Klingan, Katrin, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, and Bernd M. Scherer. 2015. Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain, Vapor, Ray. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Messeri, Lisa. 2016. Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Mezzadra, Sandro, and Brett Neilson. 2013. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ogden, Laura A. 2011. Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rankin, William. 2016. After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schmitt, Carl. 2006. Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum. Translated by G. L. Ulmen. New York: Telos. Originally published in 1950.

Starosielski, Nicole. 2015. The Undersea Network. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Weizman, Eyal. 2007. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. New York: Verso.

_____. 2017. Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability. New York: Verso.