The PhD: ‘Man in the Sea’ and Undersea Geopolitics

The sea is increasingly present in geopolitical scholarship owing to the work of Phil Steinberg, Kim Peters, and others (such as Jessica Lehman) who have sought to make water a protagonist in an otherwise largely landlocked discipline. Phenomenon such as the surveillance of ships, pirate radio stations, the geophysical materiality of sea water, and the agency of the sea in geopolitics have been addressed in a bid to address this terra centric bias. It is certainly an exciting time to be engaging with the sea and I’m looking forward to plugging into this evolving field over the coming months and years during my PhD.

I’m now 8 months into the process (time flies!) and thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on the progress I’ve made so far. My project as its stands is centered on the idea of ‘man in the sea*’ and it will be brilliant to have the opportunity to develop this further. Often discussions of the sea within geopolitics remain tied to the surface and when they do venture into the seas depths they become disembodied and primarily concerned with the water’s composition, matter, and natural agency. The depths of the sea are written off as largely inaccessible and uninhabitable and whilst this may be the case on a long term basis, these ascriptions and labels conceal an array of practices, experiments, and significant geopolitical phenomenon. During the Cold War for example, the US Navy set about establishing underwater habitats for ‘man’ to ‘live and work’ beneath the waves (see the SEALAB projects) and divers and marine mammals are still actively employed to negotiate the sea to achieve geopolitical ends.


‘Aquanaut’ Berry Cannon inside Sealab II

Within the highly experimental context of the Cold War, my PhD seeks to address this lacuna and to begin to break down the bifurcating labels of inhabitable/uninhabitable that are transposed onto the spaces of land/sea. Whilst I have no doubt that the project will change and evolve with time, there are three broad themes that I am currently interested in:

1. Immersion

As Adey and McCormack have highlighted, the ‘air’ is an immersive volume with various properties and specificities.  The sea is likewise a three dimensional, elemental volume that is immersive. For the body to inhabit this space it must be enveloped and surrounded by the elemental matter of the sea. As Merchant and Straughan suggest, the diving body continually touches and is touched by water and I am interested in exploring the geopolitical consequences of this immersion. What are the effects, for example, of the depths of the sea on the body? What features of the sea must ‘man’ negotiate if it is to inhabited for any length of time and how have militaries sought to exert control over this and master it?

2. The Body

If the first theme is interested in how the sea is immersive, the second is interested in the consequences on the body when it is immersed. For example, how have the US and UK Navies sought to engineer and manage bodies to enable them to inhabit the sea? Matt Farish‘s work on the engineering of bodies and spaces in the Arctic will be particularly helpful in exploring the biopolitical and geopolitical implications of efforts to master this ‘hostile’ environment via physiology. Both the US and UK Experimental Diving Units will be key case studies. There are also some interesting links with the element of ‘air here. Not only does the composition of air need to change for divers to breathe but technologies that enable both spaces to be inhabited seem to travel back and forth between Aeromedical and Navy submarine scientists.


A US Navy diver flies the American flag underwater

3. Mimetics and nature-military intersections

Inspired by Isla Forsyth’s work on the militarisation of nature and the role of the natural in innovations in camouflage, the third area I am interested in is the intersection of non-human sea life and the Navy. I’m particularly interested in US Navy Marine Mammal Program including the reasons behind its inception and specific projects undertaken there. The non-human bodies of dolphins, sea lions, and whales have been studied by the Navy to aid the Navy’s ‘man in the sea’ exploits – Dr Sam Ridgway, for example, writes in The Dolphin Doctor about studying the movement and breathing of dolphins to find potential areas of innovation for naval technology. Dolphins also worked alongside the Navy (and continue to do so).

It will be great to explore these further. I’ve recently started working through material on the UK Experimental Diving Unit at the National Archives so look forward to reporting back on any interesting findings.

 *To clarify, I use the phrase ‘man in the sea’ because during this period the majority of divers were men and because the US Navy structured a program around the same name.


2 thoughts on “The PhD: ‘Man in the Sea’ and Undersea Geopolitics

  1. Pingback: Lost in Sea | 'Man in the Sea'

  2. Pingback: Grappling with depth and disaster in Pressure (2015) | 'Man in the Sea'

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