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Issue: 7.1: Fall 2008
Guest Edited by Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay
Gender on Ice


Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay

November 16, 2008

New Poles, Old Imperialism?

This special issue comes at a particularly charged moment. The Arctic and Antarctic have re-emerged as sites of renewed rivalry among the old colonial powers, as well as creating contention among new international participants. Nations are competing over the development of natural resources and access to shipping routes that were once off-limits. In conjunction with rapid climate change, these circumstances represent not only a political challenge but also an intellectual one, particularly for postcolonial and feminist critique. Colonial discourses dating from the early 20th century in many respects seem to have been revived by responses to both geophysical and geopolitical change. Unlike in the field of post-colonial studies, significant feminist scholarship has not been central to the emerging field of Polar Studies up to now. Lisa Bloom's book, Gender on Ice first raised these issues in 1993, and some of the projects of the artists and scholars gathered here are building on this initial foray. This special issue promotes understudied yet crucial aspects of feminist and environmentalist art and scholarship of the polar regions, connecting gender to nationalism, the politics of imperialism, and science.

While this issue of S&F Online is part of both renewed and growing interest in the poles, we could not have anticipated at the outset how quickly changing current events would shape our thinking on this topic. The Northwest and Northeast passages have been opened by melting ice due to the fast rate of radical climate change in the Arctic. Shipping companies from around the world are already planning to exploit the first simultaneous opening of the routes. Given this momentous historical development, the rivalry for the Arctic's formerly inaccessible resources has intensified, and recalls earlier 19th and 20th century struggles for power. At a moment when we thought the excesses of colonialism belonged to the past, current events remind us that the resurgence of interest in these regions is not only about concern for dying polar bears, arresting global warming, and protecting the Arctic landscape and indigenous peoples, but also involves territorial expansion and competition over natural resources. The international race to claim the vast wealth of oil and gas believed to lie beneath the Arctic seabed is only just getting underway, as competing governments position themselves to claim stakes in the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, now that it is sometimes ice-free.[1] The U.S. might start large-scale drilling thanks to its vast Alaskan territory, which holds oil in the Arctic off its shores. Some of the same discursive strategies we are seeing now, particularly the way the Arctic is being re-imagined by drilling proponents of the oil and gas industry as a conveniently "empty frozen wasteland of snow and ice" replay earlier imperial narratives of Arctic and Antarctic exploration in which those territories were imagined as "white" or "blank" spaces to be filled in by the very Europeans who designated them so.[2]

In Antarctica, this "blank" space has been filled with both the idealization of a unique space for "peace and science" and imperialist maneuvering by a number of different countries. As the British Antarctic Survey says in its description of the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959: "There are few places on Earth where there has never been war, where the environment is fully protected, and where scientific research has priority. The whole of the Antarctic continent is like this. A land which the Antarctic Treaty parties call a natural reserve devoted to peace and science." Yet, despite this idealized vision, competition over territorial claims remains under the surface created by the treaty. Claims that have been established at different historical moments might also be reanimated, while countries like the U.S. and Russia, which have no actual territorial claims, are also deeply involved in setting up bases there. Whereas the Arctic is mostly of concern to the countries that share borders with it, Antarctica is of interest to much of the rest of the world, although, of course, not all nations have equal resources for exploration, exploitation, and outpost-building. Chile and Argentina are 2 of the 7 countries that have claimed major sectors of Antarctica, and at different points each has sent families with children to live there.[3] Their claims overlap with the British claim, and each country restated their claims in 2007 when Britain restated its sovereignty claims. Japan was an original treaty signatory, has had bases there since the early 60s, and is currently in the international spotlight for its Antarctic whaling practices. Brazil, China, India, Korea, Peru and Uruguay have consultative status on the Antarctic Treaty, and many other countries, such as Columbia, Cuba, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea and Venezuela have agreed to abide by the treaty. China just opened its third base, and India is claiming territory on the geological argument that it used to be connected to Antarctica.[4]

Though at first glance it might seem that these recent territorial claims as well as contemporary discourses on global warming are gender and race neutral, a feminist analysis of representations of the Arctic and Antarctic suggests a re-emergence of interest in polar narratives promoting imperial masculinities. This surge of interest since the late 1990s is exemplified by recent reprintings of original accounts, new biographies of 19th and early 20th century explorers, and even 'reality TV' simulated re-enactments of their journeys.[5]

In contrast to the colonial nostalgia for masculine heroism, what some of the works collected here share is a questioning of the desire to re-create and recover the world of the late Victorian colonial explorers and their culture of extraordinary confidence, manly spirit, and grace under pressure. These feminist scholars and artists are witnessing colonialism, in both the Arctic and Antarctic, being recuperated and rehabilitated at a distance, such that the inherent violence of its dispositions is lost from view. In Antarctica, the material remnants of empire remain preserved in the ice. The huts of explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton create "the past [that] is uncannily visitable," to use Francis Spufford's phrase.[6] The remains of the failed Franklin expedition serve a similar function in the Arctic. There are few more enduring Arctic obsessions than discovering the fate of the celebrated British explorer Franklin, who led three Arctic expeditions in the 19th century. As the Arctic warms and the summer sea ice melts, attracting global attention, attempts to find Franklin's ships and its relics that were trapped by the sea ice in 1846 underscore the renewed interest in the Northwest Passage.[7] It is as if the past does not have to end—it can be relived, uncomplicatedly and detached from historical time, at the "end of the earth."

This special issue collects critical feminist engagements with a newly exposed past, as well as more recent scholarship and art works that demonstrate a feminist opening of the territory of the polar regions. These essays, interviews and artworks offer overlapping and competing visions of the polar regions, even as they challenge and engage older narratives and material histories that have shaped the regions. Given the ambitious range of global, social, political, economic, scientific, and cultural factors that have prompted our focus on the Arctic and Antarctic, it has taken the feminist collaborative efforts of three of us working together for over the period of a year and a half to bring completion to this project. All of us had done substantial work on this subject in the past. Kay spent 13 months at the South Pole base in Antarctica in 1985; currently she is an astronomer who chairs the Department of Women's Studies and co-teaches 'Exploring the Poles' at Barnard College. Since the publication of Gender on Ice, Bloom has re-engaged the topic by writing about how artistic practices are re-visualizing the Arctic and Antarctic. Glasberg is working on a book on U.S. geopolitics, literature, and visual culture of Antarctica, and visited the continent with the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program in 2005.[8]

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© 2008 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.1: Fall 2008 - Gender on Ice