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ASIA THEORIES NETWORK ONLINE WORKSHOP 2021

OCEANIC CAPITALISM

May 29-30, 2021 | Taipei Local Time; Via U Meeting

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Oceans constitute two-thirds of the earth’s surface. Until the nineteenth century, the surface of the sea served as the principal medium of especially mass transportation for economic development and expansion, for political power, and so also for war. This, of course, began to shift with the development of the steam engine and railroads, and then in the first quarter of the twentieth century with the take-off of airlines. The sea was key to the emergence and flourishing of capitalism. It moved gold as well as other valuable minerals along with people and goods, people as goods. The sea enabled and shaped the onset and elaboration of colonialism, delivered the raw materials for commodity production and in turn for sale and consumption. After slavery ended, it regenerated the source of labor by rendering possible the movement of coolie labor. The sea made and remade maps and histories, narratives and life’s possibilities and limits.

The sea was also a site for technological expansion, articulating global infrastructures of capitalist communication. Oceans have depth, not just longitude and latitude. Lines and pipes could be laid with less inhibition and visibility than land-bound ones. The sea thus enabled capital expansion with less resistance, physical and political, than land restriction.  This tendency was more deeply extended with fibre optic cables and pipes. These developments erode any definitive legal and political boundary lines between land and sea. They place in question the definitive boundary making on which political mapping has relied. On the other hand, significant land reclamation projects, especially in low lying areas, have been initiated for the purposes of siting major building projects for commercial and residential purpose.

The sea, too, was turned into sites of commodification, of mining, extraction, consumption, and dumping. Profits have been made and laundered as a result. And political power has been established, extended, risked, and lost as a result of oceanic ventures. Sources of energy have been generated, fueling and extending capitalistic development, greed, risk, and demise. Oceanic exploration has been encouraged, leaving nothing off limits to capital enhancement while threatening to exhaust the limits of capacity to sustain the expansion. The source of life, the culture and condition of the sea have been so undermined to threaten also collective demise.

The sea, then, has sourced life and death, in ways capitalistic expansion has been aided and in turn undermined. The sea has—and, it could be said, is—a law unto itself. Logistics have been developed specific to sea carriage and trade. The oceanic constitutes a unique ecology, interactive with other ecological conditions while maintaining its specificity. The last of sites standing for the commons, capitalism’s tentacles have managed to undercut and threaten that too. National stakes have been planted well beyond that licensed by the law of the sea, whether to extend the reach of extractive capacity or claims of national self-defense. As we discuss the political economy and ecological materialities of sea life and threats, it is important also to attend to representations of the sea—as history, as cinema, as writing, as music. Here the focus should not be limited to the sea as surface, but also as medium of mobility and movement, of mixture and transformation, as political, economic, and cultural. And as the sea is not only a milieu essential to the development of capitalism, structuring its spatial and temporal movement, it remains a space of its own in view of life and ecology. Therefore, the workshop aims to think together about oceanic being, its capacities, possibilities, affordances, and limits, as fueled, mediated, and limited by capital, as much as it is otherwise resisting, evading, and metamorphosing on capitalist extraction and colonization

Coordinated by: David Theo Goldberg and Hung-chiung Li

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