Geographies of the hydro world

The word ‘geography’ translates as ‘earth-writing’. However human geographers have focused their attention almost entirely on the terrestrial or landed parts of the earth — cities, towns, streets, homes — at the cost of studying the two-thirds of the earth which is water – the hydro world.

Over the past decade geographers have been been moving their studies beyond the shoreline, taking the social, cultural and political questions they ask about landed life, to sea. My research is situated within this disciplinary shift, which seeks to take the hydro world seriously.

I seek to take this watery, hydro world seriously through thinking of the seas and oceans as places: that is, spaces which are socially, culturally and politically meaningful but also significant affectively.

Geographies of place and place making at sea

My doctoral work centred on an examination of offshore pirate radio ships and their configuration as social, cultural and political places. Drawing on archival sources, in-depth interviews, and through conducting ethnography within surviving fan organisations, I examined:

– the socio-cultural shape of social life onboard pirate vessels
– the contested nature of legal geographies at sea
– regulative surveillance practices enacted over ships
– the affectivity of the hydro materiality of the sea upon ships
– and the politics of memory surrounding offshore broadcasting operation

For a copy of the thesis please contact me. I am now developing these interests in several new directions.

I am currently completing a book related to this work (under contract with Palgrave) entitled: ‘Rebel Radio: Sound, Space and Society’

Following my earlier research, I have become increasingly interested in questions of political control and legal regulation in the context of the hydro world – past and present. In this respect, I am especially interested in theorising mobilities in such contexts. I am currently working on projects in these areas:

1. Geographies of the Convict Ship: (Im)mobilising Carceral Experiences at Sea (in collaboration with Dr Jennifer Turner, University of Leicester)

I am currently finishing a small project with Jennifer Turner focusing on the (im)mobilities that shaped penal regimes through the era of transportation. Convict ships – vessels that transported incarcerated individuals to colonies in American and Australia – have been the subject of academic attention for the past century, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives: maritime history, colonial history and legal and penal history. These ships, a key space defining a system of discipline and punishment in the 18th and 19th centuries, have not, to date, been examined by geographers of colonial history, carceral geographers or those whose focus is the spatialities and mobilities of ships and seas. In this collaborative project, Jennifer Turner and I bring together two areas of expertise: the geographies of maritime space and spatialities of penal history. Drawing upon a range of archive materials, autobiographical and literary accounts related to convict transportation in the era 1787-1868 this research brings the convict ship to the attention of a new disciplinary audience, and in doing so, add to the existing wealth of scholarship in the area, by considering these histories through the novel theoretical framework of mobilities, employed by geographers. We are currently publishing articles from this work (see Publications).

With colleague Jennifer Turner, I am currently completing a book related to this work (under contract with Routledge) entitled: ‘Carceral Mobilities: Interrogating Movement in Incarceration’

2. Maritime Autonomous Systems: where next? Geography and the regulation of ‘unmanned’ technologies for safety and security (funded by the Strategic Insight Programme (SIP) through the HEFCW Innovation and Business Fund)

I am currently working on a funded project that considers the relationship between geography and the regulation of ‘unmanned’ technologies for safety and security at sea in the 21st century. Technology is increasingly changing how we govern for safety and security in the 21st century. The development of Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) presents challenges for the current regulatory mechanisms of governance specified to ensure safety and security at sea. It is anticipated that MAS will “challenge the limits of existing maritime law, just as the technology has in other environments” such as aerial and ground locations (Gogarty and Hagger 2008, 118). This scoping project aims to establish a collaborative link with military and government partners to assess how geographers can add to the discussion of the practical, ethical and legal challenges of MAS. In recent years geographers have added to the discussion of automated technologies (notably see Crampton 2013, Gregory 2012, and Shaw 2010, 2011). To date, academic attention has focused on use of aerial and ground autonomous or ‘unmanned’ vehicles and systems (see Shaw 2012). Less has been said of maritime autonomous systems. This reflects the marginalisation of the maritime sphere in contemporary geographic research (see Peters 2010, 2014). This project aims to establish working partnerships toexplore the potential for future, mutually beneficial, collaborative research in the area of MAS.

3. Channelling Mobilities: Maritime Traffic Management in the Dover Strait (funded by the University Research Fund, Aberystwyth University)

Dovetailing with the project above, I am in the early stages of developing a larger project on historical and contemporary methods by which mobilities at sea are governed. My focus here is on the so-called ‘channelling’ of movement through traffic management schemes, focusing specifically on the Dover Strait. The Strait is the busiest maritime traffic zone in the world. This portion of sea space, lying between Britain and France, experiences shipping movements both east to west, west to east, north to south, south to north, as well as movements by ‘unorthodox’ craft (dinghies, rafts) and swimmers. Subsequently, in 1967, the Strait became regulated via a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), effectively creating ‘motorways at sea’. This project seeks to explore the regulation of mobilities in the Dover Strait through the cross-territorial, multi-scalar management of the sea. This project further seeks to explore how the TSS functions to pre-empt, anticipate and prevent collisions in this fluid space of manifold human, non-human and more-than-human mobilities.

Towards a wet ontology?

In addition to these projects, I am currently working in conjunction with Professor Philip Steinberg (Durham University) to theorise how key geographical concepts: place, time, territory and materiality, can be re-thought by thinking with the sea as a conceptual tool. Here we develop what we call a ‘wet ontology’ (moving beyond ‘flat ontologies’) opening up a world of volume, complexity and matter. Drawing on a range of philosophers – Virilio, Serres, Schmitt, Deleuze – we demonstrate how thinking with the sea allows us to reinvigorate, redirect, and reshape debates that are all too often restricted by terrestrial limits. We have just published this work in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and in a special article as part of the Harvard Design Magazine:

wet matterPeters K and Steinberg P (2014) Volume and Vision: Fluid Frames of Thinking Ocean Space. Harvard Design Magazine 35 pp.124-129




Future promises for geographies of the hydro world

With colleagues Philip Steinberg and Elaine Stratford, I am currently completing a book related to this work (under contract with Rowman and Littlefield) entitled: ‘Territory Beyond Terra’