Archipelagic Theorizing: Iridescence and Vulnerability on Geotemporal Foreshores

Brian Roberts
Brigham Young University

This presentation takes as its jumping-off point three suzuri (inkstones) that were carved by prisoners at Topaz, the World War II Japanese internment camp in central Utah. The inkstones’ incorporation of fossilized trilobites (hailing from the Cambrian ocean world of some 500 million years ago) situates them—and the Topaz Camp more generally—as part of what I am terming the borderwaters, a framework in which cyclical archipelagic and aquatic temporalities become inundations and desiccations of ontological and epistemological grounds. Here, the Topaz prisoners’ work in thinking and experiencing and being and becoming within geological and hydrological time and materiality emerges as a mode of philosophizing regarding, to borrow language from the Topaz camp’s journal, “the vulnerability to which man becomes heir in the very act of trying to fashion invulnerability for himself.” Topaz’s many aesthetically-minded prisoners engaged the materiality of geological time in a mode that Wai Chee Dimock might call “weak theory,” characterized by the “leakiness” of humbler and contingent generalizations that do “not aspire to full occupancy in the analytic field.” In this way, the camp’s suite of artistic productions constituted a collaborative philosophical inquiry among strangers from different shores, what the prisoners themselves framed as shores of the Cambrian, the Pleistocene, and “the age of man.” Within this arena, noncontinental theorizing opens onto hydrological and mineralogical materialities that facilitate an archipelagic engagement with present-day concerns regarding human (in)vulnerabilities within geological time.