Boundary Layers of the Sea

14.-16. September, Barocke Suiten, quartier21/ MQ

In the last chapter of Marshall McLuhan’s War and Peace in the Global Village, titled ‘A Message to the Fish,’ the reader is confronted with the question of how much we can understand about the media anyway, taking into account that – once set up – they establish a homogenous, quasi-natural environment including and cybernetically controlling man. For modern man, technical media have become as natural a habitat as water is for fish. It is not by chance that as a next step, McLuhan depicts the surfer as the archetypal media theorist: knowing the laws of the medium as far as he has to, yet elegantly remaining on the surface.

A second classic of media theory also established the ocean surface as the place of knowledge about media. A floating sardine tin, reflecting sunlight, initiates Jacque Lacan’s reflections on the gaze. He ends up stating that it is not just the observer who looks at the tin, but the tin that also looks back at the observer. "[E]lle me regarde", it says in the French original, including the double entendre ‘she looks at me/she is something to me’ which is lost in the translation; Something in this picture seems to accommodate a need unfamiliar to me, I notice its effects which aren’t accessible for consciousness. Our preoccupation with the media and our knowledge about it is – one could say – driven by a desire for differentiation and appropriation eluding itself from rational control.

We are going to follow these two thoughts and from there derive further questions regarding the relationship of knowledge and media. Attempting this, the themes of the boundary layers of the sea (ocean surface, ocean bed, coast line, horizon) act as epistemological and historical probing utilities.


The imagery of the ocean constitutes a specific talk on electronic media, depicting them as the diffuse ‘environment’ of its users which for one cannot be hierarchically controlled. Therefore, electronic media tend to be more open towards intervention and participation than other media. This directly follows Deleuze/Guattari’s concept of the sea as an ‘even space’ which is less affected by the governing methods of measuring, segmenting, dividing, and narrowing but rather defined by operations of appraising and evaluating and by intensities. One first direction for questions would be if the conventional instruments of rule and power really have any influence at all in the medium of the sea and in how far these instruments are only ever complemented by ‘navigating’ technologies. An example for such a regime would be the ship which – though not part of a sovereign territory’s legal system – still maintains (formally as well as informally) a strict hierarchy. The ‘human flotsam’ populating the recent media coverage gives evidence that in times of globalised migration the sea is far from existing beyond the regime of territorial states, and is itself rather a (perilous) boundary layer between them.

Maritime Media Techniques

By maritime media techniques we mean techniques which make use of the sea as a carrier—sonar, for example-- but also those which were developed for controlling maritime circumstances (like navigation instruments). Which media techniques make the sea accessible (navigation, submarines, cartography, aircraft carriers)? How does the sea become a barrier for media penetration (eg. when laying a telegraph cable)? How does it become the prerequisite for new media operations?

The Productive Power of the Sea

The sea is not just counterpart of the ‘land regime’ and its threats. In modern times it is made economically exploitable in ways beyond traditional fishing. In colonial trading its imponderabilities are taken into account in the surplus calculations, and coping with them is a precondition of colonial dominance. Additionally, the Engineering Sciences allow for the conquest of the sea (dyke construction) and the exploitation of the tides (tidal power plants). How was the relation of the fundamental threat, its taming and its productivity outlined politically and economically?

Social and Movement Patterns

What kinds of social patterns does the sea generate and how are they connected to the boundary layers of the sea? What categories are established regarding the sea and how are they questioned? What is of interest here are creatures able to survive in more than one medium, or even need the change of medium to survive: whales, seals, penguins, flying fish, water striders, and humans are to be named here. It should also be alluded to the fact that it was the moving pattern of swimming which inspired Marcel Mauss to phrase his thoughts on body techniques in 1934. Starting out by comparing achievements in swimming in the traditional way (how deep does the swimmer dive, are his eyes shut or open), he comes to the conclusion that movement patterns are habitualised types of government. What the sea metaphorically does for the relationship between man and engineering, swimming does for the question of internalising regimes.