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  • Transterritorial Currents and the Imperial Terripelago
  • Craig Santos Perez (bio)

Growing up on the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam), I learned American history and geography. To memorize the states and capitals, I studied a political map in which the continental United States was represented as a large island against a blue background. On the bottom left corner of the map, Alaska appeared as an island off California, and Hawai‘i appeared as a group of islands off the southern coast of Texas. America was not a continent; America was an “imperial archipelago.”1

In fact, while the United States remains largely thought of as a continental power, it is literally “the largest overseas territorial power in the world,” governing more than four million people outside the continent.2 A more complete political map of the discontiguous American Empire would include Guåhan, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. One might even add the former territories of Cuba and the Philippines. If we map the international network of American military bases and embassies, then the map more truly reflects America’s global archipelago.

To navigate the complex coordinates of empire, several scholars have articulated an “Archipelagic American Studies.” For example, Brian Russell Roberts writes: “No epic of continental exceptionalism affords analytical priority to the continental Americas over the archipelagic Americas. The meta-archipelagic frame—as it evokes interconnections among radically distant and disparate islands—encourages the visualization of overlapping, contingent meta-archipelagoes.”3 This archipelagic turn offers a promising analytic to navigate the transnational, transatlantic, transpacific, transindigenous, and transhemispheric turns in the now discontiguous archipelago of American studies.

Even though the idea of the archipelago offers a “vision of bridged spaces rather than closed territorial boundaries”4—emphasizing how the continent is produced in relation to islands—it remains essential to foreground the history and processes of territoriality that structure the origins and ongoing formations of American Empire. The word territory derives from the Latin [End Page 619] territorium (from terra, “land,” and -orium, “place”). Territorium may derive from terrere, meaning “to frighten”; thus, another meaning for territorium is “a place from which people are warned off.”5 With this in mind, I propose a new term, terripelago (which combines territorium and pélago, signifying sea), to foreground territoriality as it conjoins land and sea, islands and continents.

In Does the Constitution Follow the Flag? The Evolution of Territoriality in American Law, Kal Raustiala describes “territoriality” as the organizing principle and central phenomenon of modern government, international law, and global empire. Territoriality refers to “the organization and exercise of power over defined blocs of space. At the core of contemporary statehood is the idea … that each sovereign state has its own discrete and exclusive territory.” The principles and processes of territoriality, however, are often rearticulated, contested, and in flux. Raustiala points to these variations when prefixing territoriality into “extraterritoriality” (when “domestic law extends beyond sovereign borders”) and “intraterritoriality” (when “different areas within a sovereign state have distinct legal regimes”).6 Indeed, mapping the American imperial terripelago draws our attention to the shifting histories of territorial regimes, including incorporated territories (states), unincorporated territories, trust territories, commonwealth territories, freely associated states, tribal territories, and federal territories.

Patrick Wolfe argues in “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” that “territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.”7 However, the analysis should be extended, for even though the logic of elimination is premised on the procurement, occupation, and maintenance of land, territoriality is more than land. Territoriality signifies a behavioral, social, cultural, historical, political, and economic phenomenon. Territoriality demarcates migration and settlement, inclusion and exclusion, power and poverty, access and trespass, incarceration and liberation, memory and forgetting, self and other, mine and yours. Humans, animals, plants, and environments all struggle over territoriality. Today, nearly every country and population in the world is entangled in territorial struggles over lands, waters, resources, representations, and rights.8

Territorialities are shifting currents, not irreducible elements.

The structure of marine currents (surface currents, crosscurrents, undercurrents, rip currents, ebb currents, flood currents) has the power to move the ocean and transform global...


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