Putting the ‘Geo’ back into geopolitics

Yesterday I attended the Lancaster University Political Geology conference, where the aim was to rematerialize the ‘geo’ in geopolitics (or, geo-politics, as it’s sometimes called, to distinguish this perspective from that in which the ‘geo’ is simply taken to mean ‘world’).

All sorts of fascinating things were discussed there, including an unexpected (for me at least) convergence on fossils in papers by Gavin Bridge, Stuart Elden, and Kathryn Yusoff.  Fossils have unique properties that unite the biological with the geological (a fossil is a rock that includes a haunting of a life-form) and the past with the present (although remnants of historic life, fossils are used to generate new life through fossil fuels).  And, of course, from a Geopolitics & Security perspective, few aspects of our planet are more important than fossils.  There are some parallels with coral reefs, as objects that seemingly span the biology-geology divide and during some of the discussions I wished that I could have pulled one of my history-of-marine-science friends out of my pocket to raise questions about the similarities and differences between fossils and reefs.  Deborah Dixon went part of the way there, though, with her excellent (although virtually delivered) paper on the aesthetics of marine microorganisms.

For me, one of the highlights of the conference was its somewhat unsettling beginning.  Nigel Clark, who at least until the conference was one of the primary promoters of a geologically-attuned geopolitics, warned that one should not let one’s desire to “ground” a dynamic politics in a dynamic materiality get the best of one’s geological observations.  He noted that critical political geographers, in their effort to understand a world of processes and immanence, have been turning to theories of geological flux and flows to give a material basis to their analysis.  In so doing, however, they may be forgetting that “many minerals just like to hang out there, being minerals.”  As he noted, while it’s true that from a certain spatio-temporal perspective all objects are in flux, it’s also true that from another perspective they are all fixed in time and space, and there’s no a priori reason to favour one perspective over the other.  In other words, in our desire to understand geology as a basis for political dynamism we shouldn’t forget that there’s also a lot of stability in geology.  Nigel argued that we may need to separate the geological from the political before we can join them.  Otherwise (and here I’m putting my own spin on what Nigel said) we could either slip into metaphysical explanations where a (selectively identified) dynamic material world “naturally” tracks onto a dynamic social world, or into metaphorical explanations in which geological dynamism just becomes an easy-to-grasp stand-in for social dynamism.

Nigel raised a lot of good points (even if he kind of put a damper on the rest of the conference – organizer Bronislaw Szerszynski jokingly suggested that perhaps we all should just end the conference right then).  And I particularly sympathize with his concern that in our effort to attach social meaning to the material we run the risk of reducing the material to a metaphor.  That said, with all due respect to the persistent “stickiness” of the material world, in both space and time, I (and my RHUL colleague, Pete Adey) are particularly interested in some of the relatively less sticky elements: water and air.  And as such I was struck by how very little of the conference dealt explicitly with these exceptional fluid elements.

The one exception here was Gavin Bridge, who presented a fascinating paper on the role of liquification in the development of mineral resources.  Gavin discussed how mining companies’ operations are based on transferring minerals between solid, liquid, and gaseous states, with the liquid in most cases being the preferred state for commodification, transport, and combustion (as well as being the state of most persistent risk).  Indeed, this fetishisation of liquidity persists to the point that the value of many minerals is based on their potential liquification (which, in turn, is a proxy for the liquid’s potential gasification which is a measure of the gas’ capacity to generate energy).

From a Geopolitics & Security perspective, this paper was fascinating because it pointed to an underlying geo-political dialectic surrounding the liquidity of resources.   To realize the value of a resource, it must be transformed into (or at least imagined as being transformed into) a liquid, “fugitive” form that resists territorialization.

All together, the conference has given me a light to think with, as we expand the “geo” in politics to refer to the materiality of Earth as well as the (more abstract) space of the globe, but also as we consider how that earthly materiality itself includes a range of very different elements and material states [and, yes, I mean “material states” in both senses of the term.]

Phil S.


2 thoughts on “Putting the ‘Geo’ back into geopolitics

  1. Definitely sounds like the opening remarks set a interesting tone for the conference. I remember the last time I was in a academic geologist office. He had all of the rocks from the field on his bookshelf. It must be grounding to be in a discipline where you can bring a piece of your work back from the field and place it neatly on your shelf. Enjoying the blogs!

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