Geopolitical Material


Throughout my time as a PhD student at Royal Holloway (coming up to three years in September) I have been looking for a way to better understand the role of the material in geopolitics. It is in the work of the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz that I have come across one of the richest resources for doing so.

Specifically, I am interested in Grosz’s ideas about ‘geopower’. Grosz’s use, like Gearoid Ó Tuathail’s (a seminal figure in critical geopolitics), of the term geopower belies a concern for ‘geo-politics’. For Ó Tuathail, geopower is about how human actors use the relationship between power and geographical knowledge to produce and manage physical space (for example, through institutionalised or taken-for-granted ways of seeing, displaying and marking the earth).

Grosz’s use of geopower is markedly different. For Grosz, geopower refers to earthly forces that are entangled and interfere with all forms of life, whether human or nonhuman, state or non-state. Life both emerges from and capitalises upon these forces in order to transform the earth (i.e. the material) according to its interests. However, in the process of attempting to reconfigure the earth, new conditions emerge for how the world is encountered by life, producing new modes of organisation and understanding that ultimately transform life itself. Thus as life and earth continue to encounter one another, new forces are unleashed which provoke and incite new forms of life (we can see this in the Arctic as states, indigenous peoples and ecosystems are evolving in order to intervene in and capitalise on the material changes taking place in the region, whether for the purpose of shoring up sovereignty, economic development or species survival).  For Grosz, geopower is therefore always provoking life to overcome itself, to vary itself, and to change across space and time. As a form of what Grosz describes as culture, Geopolitics is always working to contain geopower in order to bring greater stability to our understanding of international relations and global affairs.

In a recent guest editorial for Political Geography I bring together my reading of Grosz with critical geopolitics and recent contributions by geographers about in assemblage theory in order to show how the earth on which geopolitics is staged is often too easily taken-for-granted in places like the Arctic where seemingly permanent geographical features (particularly sea-ice) are changing in profound ways. I argue that by taking Grosz’s notion of geopower seriously, the on-going constitution of the geopolitical stage itself is brought to the fore of geopolitical analysis, forcing us to consider both the kinds of labour as well as the provocations involved in assembling such a stage. Moreover, such an approach is revealing of how these attempts to manage and intervene in the material are implicated in the possibilities of (geopolitical) life itself.

I am currently developing these early ideas in a chapter titled “Geopower and Sea Ice: Encounters with the Geopolitical Stage” to be included in an edited collection titled The Big Thaw: Policy, Governance and Climate Change in the Circumpolar North which will be published by SUNY Press in due course.


Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio. The Blue Marble data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC).

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