- Against Terrestrial Political Theory:The Politics of Water and a Liveable Future
"[I]n the course of a long ocean voyage…, as never on land, [man] knows the truth that his world is a water world, a planet dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents are but transient intrusions of land above the surface of the all-encircling sea."—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us [End Page 303]
As James Tully and others have shown, Locke's theory of property in the Second Treatise served as an important argument for the right of British settler colonialists to claim legitimate ownership of "wasted" land in the Americas that settlers claimed was not enclosed or cultivated by indigenous people. Yet interestingly, in a book written during and on behalf of the settler colonial project, Locke never mentions water or the ocean in the Second Treatise. While Locke repeatedly references "America" in the Second Treatise as the prime example of "wasted" land, he does not mention how English colonists got there: via dangerous, risky, and often deadly journeys on ships, ships which themselves often depended on forced labor to (among other things) bear water.
Locke is not alone in imagining humans as land-based creatures who have their feet on the ground. Even well after the publication of books like The Many-Headed Hydra1 and The Black Atlantic2, political theory tends to be structured by a terrestrial imagination. The modern, Lockean version of this terrestrial imagination is linked to capitalism, which is itself dependent on imperialism, settler colonialism, and chattel slavery—all of which happened via the technopolitical form of the ship. This terrestrial imagination enacts a twofold erasure—of what is happening in ocean voyages, and in the labor of bearing water (both on and off ships)—and casts the aquatic as outside of and invisible to politics. For many years (and still, in some quarters) the Middle Passage was not talked about as part of the American founding story in political theory. Just to cite one key example, Arendt's On Revolution never mentions it, and only invokes the ships traveling to the Americas in the context of the covenanting that happened after they landed.
When we code terrestrial covenanting as the work of politics, aquatic passage, consumption, and labor appear immaterial to politics, as sites of natural risk or uncertainty that simply must be overcome to have the futural politics of either Arendt or Locke. Coded as a "natural," prepolitical site of uncertainty and risk, the aquatic appears linked to femininity, the private realm, and maternity—experiences which also threaten the dissolution of self-ownership and sovereignty. As Carole Pateman has argued, Locke's and other contractarians' claim that men must be the masters of women and children in patriarchal capitalism, is also a way of saying that men—to be men—must have mastered these risks of bodily dissolution and disorientation.3 Similarly, I am suggesting that in the terrestrial imagination, men—to be men—must have mastered the risks of aquatic passage, encroachment, inundation, scarcity, and labor.
It is past time to revisit the terrestrial imagination, and not only because we live in a time where humans will increasingly be forced to face that which they have disavowed: that, as Rachel Carson puts it, they live in a "water world," a fact clearly evident now in rising waters, increased major weather events, and increased pollution and scarcity of fresh water. It is also because the riskiness of the aquatic, its status as a natural force that must be mastered, has...