From Hegel through Schmitt to Foucault and onwards, there is a way of thinking about sea and land not as inert backdrop but as factors determining politics, history and the transformation of the world.
Hegel’s The Philosophy of History is geographically deterministic and intensely racialised. His reading of Africa and Africans doesn’t even bear thinking about. And his idea of civilization, not just as a process, but as a standard is present there throughout that book, and especially when he writes about “that element of civilization which the sea supplies.”
Here is Hegel on the sea:
The sea gives us the idea of the indefinite, the unlimited, and infinite; and in feeling his own infinite in that Infinite, man is stimulated and emboldened to stretch beyond the limited: the sea invites man to conquest, and to piratical plunder, but also to honest gain and to commerce. The land, the mere Valley-plain attaches him to the soil; it involves him in an infinite multitude of dependencies, but the sea carries him out beyond these limited circles of thought and action. Those who navigate the sea, have indeed gain for their object, but the means are in this respect paradoxical, inasmuch as they hazard both property and life to attain it. The means therefore are the very opposite to that which they aim at. This is what exalts their gain and occupation above itself, and makes it something brave and noble. Courage is necessarily introduced into trade, daring is joined with wisdom.
For the daring which encounters the sea must at the same time embrace wariness — cunning — since it has to do with the treacherous, the most unreliable and deceitful element. This boundless plain is absolutely yielding — withstanding no pressure, not even a breath of wind. It looks boundlessly innocent, submissive, friendly, and insinuating; and it is exactly this submissiveness which changes the sea into the most dangerous and violent element. To this deceitfulness and violence man opposes merely a simple piece of wood; confides entirely in his courage and presence of mind; and thus passes from a firm ground to an unstable support, taking his artificial ground with him. The Ship — that swan of the sea, which cuts the watery plain in agile and arching movements or describes circles upon it — is a machine whose invention does the greatest honor to the boldness of man as well as to his understanding.
This stretching out of the sea beyond the limitations of the land, is wanting to the splendid political edifices of Asiatic States, although they themselves border on the sea — as for example, China. For them the sea is only the limit, the ceasing of the land; they have no positive relation to it. The activity to which the sea invites, is a quite peculiar one: thence arises the fact that the coast-lands almost always separate themselves from the states of the interior although they are connected with these by a river. Thus Holland has severed itself from Germany, Portugal from Spain (p. 90-91 of the Dover 1956 edition).
Carl Schmitt borrows some of this thinking in his Land and Sea, a supposed children’s story “as told to my daughter Anima” (pity the child!). Schmitt’s reading of technology, geography and power -always Eurocentric, especially antisemitic [his rendering of Disraeli is rather shocking]- is always provocative and seems to prefigure other forms of theory. [One example is this passage which reminds me of New Materialist thinking about objects: “The compass lent a ship a spiritual dimension which enabled man to develop a strong attachment to his ship, a sort of affinity or kinship.”]
For Schmitt himself, what mattered was men’s telluric attachments – in fact the beginning of politics for him (as he writes about it in his Theory of Partisan) is a nationalist, land-loving act. But here, he reflects on the sea:
Is it not remarkable that a human being standing on the shore would direct its eyes quite naturally from the land towards the sea and not the other way round, that is, from the sea to the land? In people’s deepest and often unconscious memories, water and the sea are the mysterious and primordial source of all life.
His potted world-history, told from the shore (or from aboard a ship) is actually worth thinking about, perhaps because of its long sweep:
For almost half a millennium, the Venetian Republic symbolized the domination of the seas, the wealth derived from maritime trade and that matchless feat which was the conciliation of the requisites of high politics with “the oddest creation in the economic history of all times.” All that the Anglophiles admired in England, between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, had already made the fame of Venice: the great wealth, the diplomatic superiority by which the maritime power was exploiting the rivalries among the Continental powers and made others fight its wars, the aristocratic system of government which seems to have resolved the problems of internal, political order, the forbearance of philosophical and religious notions, the asylum extended to the political emigration and the ideas of independence. To all these may be added the magic attraction exerted by sumptuous festivals and by artistic beauty.
Schmitt sketches a three stage history – potamian (riverine), thalassic (Mediterranean) and oceanic – which is very obviously influenced by Hegel’s Philosophy of History. As ever Schmitt’s central concern is the domination of one place over another. And as such, he questions the ability of sea powers to exert their power over hinterlands. For him, coastal empires only have fleets which can go so far with landlocked powers’ natural bulwark against invasions – at least until British mastery in the 19th century.
In the early history of maritime power Schmitt delineates, the combination of whaling and of the Dutch invention of the technology of sideway sails (which allows multi-directional mobility in ships) resulted in a “revolution” in maritime practice. It is also at the same time that the sailing ships are equipped with canons and therefore can engage in “long-distance artillery duels undertaken with a highly perfected sail maneuvering.”
But for Schmitt, perhaps what is most important is what he calls the “planetary revolution” that took place with the 1492 Colombian “discovery” of America. Schmitt recognises that the continent had been “discovered” before and certainly mentions the indigenous inhabitants, but given that his world is firmly Eurocentric, he sees 1492 as the commencement of a transformation in the spatial imagination of Europeans, not just in geography and astronomy and politics, but in the arts and religion as well. There are ways in which this reminds me of Foucault’s ideas about the space. Foucault writes,
The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world. The nineteenth century found its essential mythological resources in the second principle of thermodynamics. The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.
And like the good historian he is, Foucault also traces the history of space. For him, like Schmitt, it is the European imagination of a global whole (but via Galileo’s discoveries) that decides this spatial shift. I have to confess that although it doesn’t surprise me that Foucault doesn’t mention colonisation as the event that kicks off this planetary imagining, the fact that it is Schmitt who does chagrins me.
Schmitt goes on not only to write of the process of colonisation, but also of
the planetary space order… which consists in the separation of land from sea. Henceforth, the dry land would belong to a score of sovereign states. The sea, on the other hand, would belong to nobody, or everybody, but in reality, it would be belong to a single country: England. […]
The primordial fact of the British conquest of the seas, and the separation of land from sea need to be taken into consideration, if one is to grasp the deep-going sense of the famous slogans and maxims often quoted at the time, like for instance, Sir Walter Raleigh saying: “Whoever controls the seas controls the world trade; whoever controls world trade holds all the treasures of the world in his possession, and in fact the whole world’. Or: ‘All trade is world trade; all world trade maritime trade’. Slogans about freedom such as ‘All world trade is free exchange’ express the zenith of England ‘s maritime and global power.
There is something incredibly provocative about this – and it pushes me to go off and read that enormous tome, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783. [Though Schmitt pooh-poohs Mahan: “However weight a personality Mahan’s was, and his model of a bigger island, as impressive [sic the odd diction and punctuation], his theory did not reach the elemental essence of a new spatial order. His theory had not been prompted by the spirit of the old seamen, but rather, by the conservative need of geopolitical security. It had nothing of the energy of elemental irruption, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gave birth to the historical alliance between the navigators’ spirit of adventure and the Calvinist predestination.” Unsurprisingly, all important transformations in the world for Schmitt arise in the northwest corner of Europe.]
But where Schmitt is always best is where he reflects on forms of warfare.
World history is the history of the wars waged by maritime powers against land or continental powers and by land powers against sea or maritime powers […] According to the medieval interpretations put forth by the cabbalists, world history is a combat between the strong whale, leviathan, and the no less strong behemoth, a terrestrial animal, which was represented imaginatively as a bull or an elephant. The names leviathan and behemoth had been borrowed from the Book of Job (40 and 41). According to the cabbalists, behemoth tries to tear leviathan to pieces with its horns and teeth, while in turn, leviathan tries hard to stop the land animal’s mouth and nostrils with its flaps and fins in order to deprive it of food and air. This is a graphic illustration, which only the mythological imagery can convey, of the blockade to which a sea power subjects a land power by cutting its supplies in order to starve it to death. In the end, the two opponents kill each other.
And then, he performs this extraordinary comparison between land warfare and naval warfare. Schmitt writes that land warfare was always about victory against the other side, and primarily about fighting between combatants. “Maritime war, on the other hand, favoured such characteristic means as bombardment, the blockade of the enemy shores, and the capture of enemy and neutral merchantmen, in virtue of the right to capture. As such, the sea war tactics were directed both against enemy combatants and the non-combatants. Thus, a starvation blockade indiscriminately affected the entire population of the involved territory: soldiers, civilians, women, children, and old people.”
He then has an uncharacteristically semi-phenomenological discussion of how the British viewed the world as from the sea and this allowed them the mastery of the maritime space and therefore becoming the world metropole. But he also has a familiar discussion of the nomos of the world [in a kids’ book!!!!], or a different order between land and sea: “Energized by her maritime and global supremacy, England, queen of the seas, built up an empire that spread to the four corners of the planet. The English world began to think ln terms of bases and lines of communication. What to other nations was soil and homeland, appeared to the English as mere hinterland.”
And towards the end of his discussion of the land and sea, he hints at the rise of the US as a world power: “Whereas the Crimean War was still waged with sailing ships, the American Civil War saw the advent of the armoured steamship. The latter marks the beginning of the modern, industrial and economic wars… A fish until then, the leviathan was turning into a machine.” Even as he knocks Mahan, he recognises the changes that this new machinery of warfare has wrought. But for him, the most important moment was that transformation of the European spatial imaginary in the 16th and 17th centuries and the kind of technological innovations that happened concurrently.
When the book ends with aeroplanes and the conquest of the “third element” -air- it is like an afterthought, anticlimactic and non-heroic. Almost inevitable. And very little about what it might mean. In the end, as in the beginning, the Hegelian categories are those that remain central to Schmitt’s analysis.