The legal, the material, and the geophysical: a few reflections on the Warwick postgraduate political geography conference

Last week I spent two days at Warwick University for their annual postgraduate political geography conference. It was a brilliant experience which showcased the depth and breadth of research being undertaken in political geography at postgraduate level and beyond. The theme of the conference was ‘contested spaces’ and this was explored through five panel discussions, an excellent keynote from Alex Jeffrey, and a roundtable discussion addressing the overarching theme. Many thanks to Mara Duer and Antonio Ferraz de Oliveira for hosting and organising the event.

The panels, which included ‘contesting mobilities,’ ‘contested productions of territory’ (featuring Elizabeth Alexander and myself from Royal Holloway), and ‘contested cities’, saw postgraduates from all over the world present on a wide range of subjects. Cordelia Freeman, for example, gave a particularly engaging paper on issues at the Chile-Peru border. Coredlia explored how the Chilean Government had used deception and fakery to make their armed forces appear bigger than they were in the 1970s through various materials (such as uniforms and cars made to look like tanks). Maurice Stierl, on the other hand, raised questions about the materiality of the sea through the sinking of two vessels carrying migrants across the Mediterranean. The sea emerged as a crucial space of political contestation, demonstrating the value of engaging with seaspace and watery materiality, currents and flows. In the Q&A we were also reminded not to fetishize the Sea. It forms but one part of the migrants journey, highlighting the need to conceive of the water as part of a ‘geographical puzzle’, interconnected with other spaces rather than standing alone as some sort of void of despair.

On a personal level, it was great to present some of my work from my Masters. My paper, ‘The seas and skies: contesting the volume in Gibraltar’ explored how the Gibraltar dispute has been playing out in the volumes of air and water through material objects, bodies, and atmospheres. I was really grateful for the questions and comments I received – they have certainly given me lots to think about as I work towards turning it into a paper, particularly in relation to the role of the geophysical, of flows, and currents (playing out in the Rock as well as the seas and skies).

One theme that emerged throughout the conference was that of materiality – the materiality of objects and of particular spaces, but also of bodies as was explored in Alex Jeffrey’s brilliantly engaging keynote address. Chaired by Stuart Elden, Alex drew on a longstanding interest in Bosnia and war trials to speak to the title ‘Legal Lives: the Contested political spaces of law’. The corresponding paper by Jeffrey and Jakala can be read here. Law, as highlighted by Jeffrey is often perceived to be a stable foundation of (geo)politics and an immutable, static, and dependable underpinning to international relations. There is, however, a geopolitics to law made manifest in the differential legal responses to crises but also in its materiality.

Warwick conference (3)

As Jeffrey proceeded to illuminate, law has a material basis. Architecture, evidence, objects, bodies, and text come together, not as neutral carriers or legal backdrops, but as actively enrolled agents in the creation of processual, unfolding, legal meanings. The ways in which law categorises, stabilises, and treats the human body in differing ways was just one example. The body might be utilised as evidence, designated as property, investigated as a site, or presented as something shameful. The body also raises other, more morbid questions in the legal framework. What human remains constitute a body? How much of a body constitutes a body? How are bodily remains treated and handled?

‘Decay’ is a crucial concept here and Alex highlighted the difficulties of operationalising the legal where decay is all around; bodies that die as the trial unfolds, decaying bodies incapable of making the journey to court, objects such as identity cards that are crumpled, damaged, illegible and thus useless in the courtroom – all of which, in their perfect form, are crucial in the very existence and functioning of the court. There is an agency in the decay, and also in the missing and the absent. Absent people, for example, serve as a tactic to delay a trial, whilst missing people make prosecution difficult – the missing body removing an archive of information. There is, as highlighted by Jeffrey, an absence of language of decay, missingness, and that which is ‘outside of’ within law and his work seeks to address this lacuna.

The keynote certainly challenged me to pay more attention to the construct of the legal and I look forward to engaging with more with Jeffrey’s work and with this subject matter in my research. The final roundtable discussion was equally challenging. Stuart Elden, Marjin Nieuwenhuis, Charlotte Heath-Kelly, and Maria Koinova presented on a range of subjects. Marjin presented a particularly captivating paper on air – how it is a substance or material that is both extremely personal, inhabiting every cell in the body whilst also common to all mankind. He problematised our understandings of ourselves as earthlings, asking instead why we do not conceive of ourselves as beings of the air given that it is the very matter of our existence.

Stuart Elden concluded by drawing some of the key themes of the conference together, calling for a geopolitics that is attentive to the legal,  to the material and its role in process of de-territorialisation and re-territorialisation, and to the ‘geo’ in geo-politics. A ‘geophysics of geopolitics’ in which the earth and its processes are retrieved without succumbing to environmental determinism and regressive politics is an important challenge facing the discipline. Questions pertaining to the legal, the material, and the geophysical will undoubtedly prove to be extremely significant in my PhD and I look forward to unpacking these themes underwater as I work towards understanding the geopolitics of undersea space.


Rachael Squire

8 thoughts on “The legal, the material, and the geophysical: a few reflections on the Warwick postgraduate political geography conference

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    Royal Holloway’s Rachael Squire reviews the postgraduate conference held at Warwick University this past weekend: ‘The Legal, the Material, and the Geophysical’.

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