MA Thesis

Perpetual Disruption

Frontiers & The Free Market

In the colonialist narrative, the ocean functioned as a frontier, a liquid passageway revealing a terra nullius (nobody’s land) only ‘waiting’ to be discovered (Frost 1992). The frontier, unlike the boundary, is directed at areas outside of the center, framing them as ‘places of experimentation (and even lawlessness) where settled patterns of the center are challenged and manipulated’ (Dixon and Monk, 2014). The ‘blue ocean’ of disruptive innovation is such a frontier, which comes into existence through experimentation and lack of regulation, breaking with the standards and approaches of established markets. In a lot of ways, the ocean as frontier has shaped the notion of innovation and disruption, with the opening of the world oceans creating “the cultural context in which the universe could be conceived of as an infinite, empty space” (Carl Schmitt, quoted in Bratton 2015, p.30).

The ocean can also be understood as the birthing place of a global free market economy. In 1609, the concept of the ocean as a global commons was formulated by Hugo Grotius in the mare liberum treatise. The direct trade on the seas lead to similar developments on land, stimulating the emergence of a free global market (Mare Amoris, X). The concept of the ocean as global commons was itself guided by geopolitical intentions, aiming to dispute the Portugiese *mare clausum,*which would have locked out the Dutch from trading in the ‘East Indies’.

Smooth / Striated

The legal argument of the mare liberum linked the ocean to airspace, arguing that both are not susceptible to occupation, and that their use is ‘destined for all men’ (Grotius 1609/ 2005). Most of the arguments that followed focused on the ability or inability to effectively occupy ocean space. In the reality of most people, oceans exists solely as a mediated phenomenon (Silva 2020) - more often than not, they are imagined as flat surfaces, even more so than the earth. The oceans main component is unruly, it circulates and crosses over boundaries in the way that land does not, and it is volumetric, not flat. It is when we shift away from flat surfaces such as the seabed or the ocean’s surface and instead consider the ocean a volumetric space that we can avoid “the trap of treating geopolitics as a flat discourse that privileges claims to territory” (Hannigan 2016).

The ocean conveyor belt - as Thermohaline circulation is sometimes called - describes the phenomena of ocean currents that unite four of the five oceans into a global system. Ocean currents move both horizontally and vertically between layers of different heat and salinity. The ocean is a dynamic space, which defies the compartmentalisation of land-based exploitation, letting plastic waste surface far beyond the site of its original disposal:  “the vast ocean confronts us with the memory of all our industrial sins, which can no longer be repressed” (Gabrys 2019). In The Stack, Benjamin Bratton traces the metaphor of water in connection to platforms, citing Buckminster Fuller who argued that “the fearful sovereign nation politicos will find that trying to arrest networking is like trying to arrest the waves of the ocean.” (Fuller, quoted in Bratton, 2015). The ocean represents an unruly space beyond territorial governance, but it is increasingly encroached on by technological developments and their associated forms of governance, such as remote sensing, deep sea mining and bio-probing.

More and more, the seabed is placed in analogy to the land, with states starting to claim seabed outside of their territorial zone, arguing that it represents an extension of their land. Through technological and governmental developments and sparked initially by the invention of navigation, the ocean is increasingly becoming what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a ‘striated space’ (Adkins 2015). Originally understood as a smooth space that is fluid, nomadic and outside of territory, the ocean as ‘striated space’ becomes susceptible to regulation, governance and territorial claims (Adkins 2015). The ocean as a smooth Other, invokes anxiety and disorientation, to which striation is a reaction intended to make sense of what is perceived as alien. However, the systems that originally striate smooth space have themselves become a form of ‘smooth space’, smoothing out boundaries, opening up markets and deterritorializing production, with capital tending "towards a smooth space defined by uncoded flows, flexibility, continual modulation, and tendential equalization"(Hardt, Negri 2001).

Extractivism & Resilience

The mare liberum treatise, while formulating the ocean as a space of non-territory and beyond national governance, also reduced the ocean to a resource. It set the stage for an increasing striation of the ocean in the name of the commons, and found its modern day conclusion in the Law of the Sea passed at the 1958 Geneva convention. The ocean was split into three different areas - the territorial sea which encompasses waters 12 miles of land, a so-called contiguous zone which ends 200 miles from land and finally the rest of ocean space, coined only The Area. The Area was designated the “heritage of mankind”, marking it as a potential zone outside of territorial conceptualisation, while solidifying it as an area of human activity and resource extraction. The deep sea is increasingly envisioned as a treasure trove of resources, not just of ‘classic’ resources such as rare earth metals, oil and gas, but also of miracle drugs and cures developed through bio-prospecting of ancient lifeforms of the deep, advertising its potential to save humanity and its resilience in a turn to a blue economy (Hannigan 2016).