CfP RGS 2016: Ice, water, rock, sand, and silt: ‘Unearthing’ a Subterranean Geopolitics

Klaus Dodds and I are co-convening a session at this years RGS conference. We’re hoping for some interesting discussions and welcome papers from a range of disciplines that speak to some of the questions and ideas outlined below in the call for papers:

Ice, water, rock, sand, and silt: ‘Unearthing’ a Subterranean Geopolitics

Sponsored by the RGS Political Geography Research Group.

Convenors: Rachael Squire (Royal Holloway University of London) and Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway University of London)

Amidst a growing interest in the materialities agenda and ideas pertaining to ‘volume’ (Elden 2013), this session seeks to ‘unearth’ some of the subsurface spaces that have remained recalcitrant to the (critical) geopolitical gaze. Whilst it is now acknowledged that materials such as air, ice, water, rock, sand, and silt ‘matter’ to geopolitical discourse (Adey 2015, Bakker 201), the call to take seriously the subterranean within critical geopolitics arguably still ‘comes across as a…

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Rock, water, air, and fire: Foregrounding the elements in the Gibraltar-Spain dispute

My first journal article is now online…

IMG_0362Just before Christmas I got a tweet from Society and Space to let me know that my first paper was available to read online (the abstract is posted below and the link to the online paper is here). It’s the culmination of my Masters research on the role of materials, elements, and volumes in the dispute between Spain, Britain, and Gibraltar over Gibraltarian territory in 2014 and suggests that the molecular and elemental are worthy of a more prominent position within geopolitics.

Gibraltar proved to be a really rich site to explore questions pertaining to the non-human and the molecular agency of elements like rock, water, air, and fire (in the form of the sun) in the ongoing tensions. It also proved to be a useful case study through which to reflect theoretically on work by Peter Adey and Derek McCormack in relation to bodies and elements/volumes and on the volumetric…

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Cutting the cable: Russian submarines and sub-marine infrastructure

A few thoughts on Russian submarines and sub-marine cables

A number of news stories concerning the sub-marine environment have emerged recently that suggest that the depths of the sea and the seafloor are very much on the geopolitical agenda. The presence of a Russian submarine near US undersea cables is one such story and it provides an opportunity to engage with how the sub-marine matters in geopolitics today and to ensure that this space is not neglected from our geopolitical and geographical imaginaries.

Last week, reports emerged of a Russian submarine ‘aggressively operating’ near US undersea cable infrastructure. According to the New York Times and a subsequent report by CNN, the presence of Russian subs near such vital infrastructure has prompted fears that Russia might be planning to ‘attack’ the cables in ‘times of tension or conflict’. The ‘cable’ posing a security threat is not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War for example, cable tapping was a…

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Grappling with depth and disaster in Pressure (2015)


You’ll run out of patience long before they run out of oxygen’ (Tom Huddleston)

670ft down on the sea floor rests a diving bell that has lost contact with its surface ship. Initially unbeknown to the four men inside the bell, the ship has been struck by a storm and sunk along with the captain and crew. The men are stranded on the sea floor, abandoned by the oil and gas company they work for, far removed from land or even the surface of the sea, and fast running out of air. To ascend quickly would mean certain death from nitrogen bubbles forming in the body. This is the premise for the 2015 suspense thriller Pressure.

I was very much looking forward to seeing this film. My PhD centres upon the figure of the diver and how bodies have been used to master or know depth to achieve strategic geopolitical objectives in the water column or on the sea floor. These objectives may stem from (among others) actors such as the military, or as is the case in Pressure, from the oil and gas industry. I was hopeful that it might glean some interesting insights in the geopolitics of saturation diving and into the lives of those whose job it is to maintain the vast network of seafloor infrastructure but I was left somewhat disappointed – a feeling that seems to be reflected in reviews on IMBD and Rotten Tomatoes that give  it an average rating of 5.5 and 2.6 out of 10 respectively. One my key criticisms of the film is that, aside from the physical position of the diving bell, it lacked any real sense of depth or nuance. As one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes commented ‘everything is drawn in the broadest of brushstrokes’ and as I discovered, this extends from the characters right through to the overarching geographical, geopolitical and scientific context.

The character development of the four men (Engel, Hurst, Mitchell and Jones) is constructed on a series of short flashbacks or dream sequences that occur as the men remain trapped on the seafloor. These insights do very little to help you get to know, understand, or empathise with the four divers. The two Americans (Mitchell and Engel) sacrifice their lives so that the young English idealist, Jones, has the chance to live and return to his pregnant partner. One does so out of a sense of leadership (and unconvincingly falls prey to a group of jelly fish), the other to pay the price for failing to save the life of his girlfriend in the past.  The fourth character is Englishman Hurst – a haggard alcoholic who swims out from the bell to try and help the others but dies of hypothermia in the process. Everything that could go wrong does, leaving little space for the audience to engage with and appreciate the harrowing complexity of the situation they are in. The constant trips in and out water and in and out of diving helmets meant that there was a missed opportunity to play on the claustrophobic predicament that could have been so integral to the story line.

Pressure is also extremely lazy in its geopolitical nuance and treatment of gender. The Chinese fishermen who pick up the bell’s mayday ask the divers if there ‘are any Chinese nationals on board’. When they receive a negative answer, they simply disappear, seemingly only concerned with themselves and their ‘own people’. According to Engel, they are ‘bastards’ a comment swiftly followed by him lamenting about the amount of Chinese food he has consumed in his lifetime. The plot all unfolds within the seas bordering Somalia for no apparent reason other than it allows the occasional reference to a sea crawling with pirates – a statement and geopolitical context that has no bearing on the plot. In terms of gender, on the rare occasion that we see women, they are sexualised and treated as objects of the men’s imaginations whether that be pictures on walls, hallucinations, or dreams although this is perhaps indicative of the predominantly male diving industry. There is also a lack of nuance in the framing of the sea as a space. On the one hand the seafloor is referred to as ‘an interstate highway’ with its grid of oil pipelines and underwater infrastructure, on the other hand it is an abyss – as the voiceover at the beginning of the film dramatically states: ‘people go to sea because they are lost and never want to be found’.  Finally it is worth noting that the number one rule in diving is ‘never hold your breath’ as it can lead to over expansion of the lungs and death – this makes the tag line to the film ‘hold your breath’ somewhat unfortunate. It was sweeping assertions such as these that chipped away at the integrity of the film.

Although it could have been played on more (and was no doubt inaccurate at times), one of the things I did appreciate was the way in which the film hints at some of the pressures the body faces in saturation diving. Hurst’s hands and knuckles, for example, are disfigured – whilst this is not fully explained he puts it down to 18 years of diving and perhaps one too many cases of the bends; we see the divers begin to sweat as the bell descends to the sea floor – a sign that the humidity has increased as a result of the gas mixture; they pop their ears to prevent a ‘squeezing’ of their eardrums as the bell is brought up to pressure; we see the men shivering as their heating system fails – alluding to the fact that both the helium rich air mixture and the water sap the body of heat at a much faster rate than on land (although the debilitating effects of this were underplayed).  If this were to have been played on in greater detail – in moments of silence for example where the audience has no choice but to focus on the minute bodily reactions and gestures – a sense of tension and drama may have been created without relying on strained dialogue and constant, improbably, action scenes. It would have also enabled the audience to gain a better understanding of the immense strain that this work places on the body and the ways in which the body responds to its external environment.

There are other bodily effects that were excluded from the film and for good reason. The obvious one being the fact that their voices would have sounded  like Donald Duck. As the video below demonstrates, breathing from a helium rich atmosphere drastically distorts the human voice and often technology is required to ‘unscramble’ their speech. In reality, the men would have had to work hard to communicate to each other with their high pitched voices let alone making themselves intelligible to passing Chinese fishermen and naval vessels.

As an aside, helium proves here to be an underlying protagonist throughout this story – affecting everything from body temperature to respiration. It would be interesting to think about this in the context of Derek McCormack’s work. McCormack writes of the ways in which Helium proves recalcitrant to human inscription and the ways that it provides uplift, carrying objects like balloons into the air. In the context of Pressure and saturation diving more generally, helium is the substance that allows man to descend beneath the water rather than ascend into the air and this has its own specificities and geopolitics that need to unpacked – something I look forward to thinking about in the future.

In summary, there was great potential in the storyline to create a tense, claustrophobic, and meaningful account of the worst case scenario in saturation diving and to highlight the inherently dangerous and dramatic lives of those whose job it is to service underwater gas and oil networks. There may be other examples that achieve this more successfully but perhaps Pressure points to some of the difficulties in both capturing and communicating the perils, particularities, and indeed pressures of working in the complex, mobile, pressing environment of the sea.

Wet Geographies panels at upcoming RGS meeting

Phil Steinberg outlines the ‘wet geographies’ sessions taking place at the RGS this year complete with a very helpful schedule! They all look great i’m looking forward to hearing such a diverse range of speakers. I’m also really looking forward to taking part in the roundtable discussion and to see the session that I co-organised with Cordelia Freeman on ‘geographies of the deep’ come together.

There will be a veritable cascade of ‘Wet Geography’ panels at next week’s Royal Geographical Society meeting in Exeter. Over the course of three days, participants will be exploring our watery world from (at least) three different perspectives.

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Taking the plunge and learning to scuba dive

In the first few months of my PhD I paid a visit to the wonderful Diving Museum in Portsmouth. Run by volunteers, the museum is a collection diving equipment past and present and details of particularly interesting salvage operations and Navy exploits. The people manning the museum (many of whom are former Navy divers) were extremely friendly and welcoming and we soon got talking about the reason for my visit. One of the first questions I was asked (and have been since when discussing my research) was ‘do you dive?’  It’s a perfectly reasonable question given my research topic! I always rather sheepishly respond that ‘no I don’t but would love to learn’. Usually this is followed by a fleeting moment of disappointment before I’m enthusiastically told about why diving is brilliant. One man, for example, described how ‘it’s like another planet – you feel like superman, it’s like flying’.

 As someone who has never dived, this is clearly an experience I can’t share in and it’s occurred to me that this could be a substantial barrier in my research given that many of my participants will be experienced divers well versed in both the practicalities of diving and the ‘feel’ of breathing and moving whilst submerged underwater.  As Straughan asserts, diving is an obviously ‘deeply embodied experience’ involving a haptic system that registers the contact between body and environment, with nerve endings, somatic receptors, hair cells, bodily fluids in the canals of the ear all working together create the sense of space and balance experienced by divers. If we are to understand the sea, as Merchant suggests, as more than an inert background, then we must get to grips with the ‘underwater seascape’ as practice, coming into being through embodied and material domains. Moreover, in her chapter on ‘deep ethnography’, Merchant highlights that by engaging with diving as a practice within geography, we can begin to move beyond scholarship on performances taking place on the water’s surfaces. Like landscapes, writes Merchant, ‘the sea is constructed as something to be on’ rather than in.


Diving offers an opportunity to explore the ‘the three-dimensionality of ocean space by delving beneath the water’s surface’ (Merchant) and in doing so highlight the ways in which ocean space is inhabited and moved through (albeit briefly). This, in turn, opens up geography – and in the case of my project, geopolitics – to underwater spaces. To this end, I’ve booked onto an Open Water Scuba Diving course and have just picked my homework for the next couple of weeks before we take to the water. My budget means that it will most likely be quite a chilly and murky experience here in England and, whilst I will never be able replicate or observe Navy diving in action, I hope at least to get a sense of the ‘feel’ of diving that seems so important to the diving community and to be able to answer the question, ‘do you dive?’ with a very tentative yes.

My homework for the next couple of weeks