Journal of World History 15.1 (2004) 88-90
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The Social Construction of the Ocean. By Philip E. Steinberg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. $59.95 (cloth); $22.00 (paper).
In a relatively short book, Philip Steinberg succeeds in explaining the social and historical nature of our past and present conceptualizations of the sea, which is after all only 71% of our planet. This is no small task. Steinberg emphasizes that even the most distant ocean space is a deliberate social construction of society, not necessarily by society. In other words, intentional or otherwise, society's idealizations of the sea are central to "the institutions and structures that govern their lives" (p. 191). Conceptions of the sea affect our society, whether we're conscious of it or not.
Steinberg the geographer focuses on the uses and conceptions of space. In categorizing the sea he shows how ocean space serves multiple functions, such as a resource area, a transportation surface, a battleground, buffer zones or "force fields," and even as a Foucaultian "heterotopia," a space for the creation of experimentation and alternate social models. The most immediate and obvious dichotomy stems from the fact that most of the world's oceans lie outside of nations and [End Page 88] national histories. Steinberg attempts to go beyond what he terms the "territorial trap," or the landward bias inherent within nation-state perspectives. His book, then, deals with more than simply the elucidation of maritime space. It explores the limitations of the nation-state model by setting out on the "high" seas. Maritime history and literature is the natural area for this exploration. But is there a historiography of ocean space? In America, this is a field relegated almost entirely out of the universities and into the naval and merchant marine academies.
Steinberg points out the ways the ocean has been left out of historical discourse, hidden behind perspectives that attempt to render ocean space as a smooth, frictionless void, the perfect transportation surface. Representations of the sea as a wild space, a mystery, an unconquerable force of nature, all play into this idealization. This, in the author's view, is one of the chief aims of capitalist enterprise, a free, unregulated ocean space for the unimpeded flow of capital.With the recent advances in deep-water technology, though, this trend increasingly impinges on another capitalist aim, the development of ocean space as critical resource. Free seas for transportation clash directly with the potential for deep-sea mining claims, an issue outlined by Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). These are conflicts of differing social constructions of ocean space.
Elements of the UNCLOS serve Steinberg best as examples of how the political economy and geography of the oceans is now becoming more and more regulated, more intentionally and consciously constructed. The early pages of the book portray the wild and mysterious sea, while toward the end Steinberg cites CIA planning documents that place all of the world's surface under the control of individual nations (p. 174).It is Steinberg's contention that this process of change is tied to the development of merchant, industrial, and postmodern capitalism on the global scale. A case for the absolute importance of the maritime realm in the description of world economic systems then emerges naturally. Container ships, rights of passage, and sea law cannot easily be separated from discussions of this type.
To attempt any of the above requires a grasp of perspective and creative vision, and Steinberg succeeds best at the broad theoretical level of world systems analysis. There are, however, some minor difficulties to this work, occurring mostly when the author attempts to fit more detailed historical analysis into the theoretical model.
Sailors, in Steinberg's book, are typically portrayed as outcasts on the fringes of land society. Yet there are a number of works that have granted more agency to the community of seafarers and seek to portray [End Page 89] seafarers as members sharing in elements of a more particular international society. Marcus Rediker...