The plunger does not have to stop at the bottom of the coffee pot: A lesson on re-framing social reality

Margo Boenig-Liptsin | 12 March 2013 | Respond

Does reordering space necessarily create more freedom? Drawing of Mark Brest van Kempen's "Free Speech Monument," showing altered space in red, 1991-1994 (photo: Baile Oakes).

In March 2012, the libertarian-led Seasteading Institute announced that it was launching the Blueseed project. The goal of the Blueseed project is to circumvent the American visa processes for Silicon Valley workers by organizing a floating city twelve miles off the California coast (putting it in international waters) that would be subject to no national jurisdiction (1). Blueseed is the first step towards a more ambitious goal of the Institute to station independent colonies in the ocean that could, their creators hope, become laboratories in alternative forms of social organization (2). In the name of greater human liberty, this project boldly challenges accepted relations among individuals and nation-states–relations that are organized through legal and normative  institutions such as visa regimes, taxation and citizenship (3). But does using new technology to bypass older regulatory institutions actually create a society of greater liberty?

Breaking through physical bounds is often associated with gaining freedom, but is this promise always kept? Does reordering space necessarily create more freedom of movement? William Kentridge’s short animated film, Mine, about the mining industry in South Africa, poignantly turns these expectations on their head (4). In a key scene, a breakfasting mine owner presses down on the plunger of a French-press coffee pot. Instead of stopping at the bottom of the pot as expected, the plunger bores down through the table, through the floor of the breakfasting room, descends through the barracks of the mine workers and becomes the mine shaft in whose black crevices dark silhouettes labor.

The key to making this film, Kentridge says, was his discovery that in the world created with his pencil, “The plunger does not have to stop at the bottom of the coffee pot” (5). The image of the burrowing plunger challenges what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “frames,” the conventional premises with which people organize and interpret reality (6). The scene transgresses the frame of physical reality, in which the spaces inhabited by the mine owner and the miners are neatly separated. The tunnel made by the plunger re-frames the viewer’s experience of reality, enabling her to see the oppressive relationship between mine owner at his breakfast table and the miners laboring below.

Similarly to Kentridge’s plunger, the Blueseed project challenges a frame of spatial and political reality, namely the one that connects individuals to collectives through the nation-state. However, unlike Kentridge’s film which creatively uses the moment of the broken frame to reveal a previously invisible relationship between mine-owner and miners, the Blueseed project draws attention to the difficulties and frustrations of the public sphere without providing a solution that genuinely disrupts the visa regime’s capacity to discipline bodies.

On the surface, a no-visa regime seems to escape the exclusionary controls of a visa regime, but in terms of human liberty there may be no great difference. This is because liberty is a product of a particular hierarchy of relations between the individual and the collective — relations that are not necessarily transformed by legally and physically circumventing the institutional form of the collective that is the government.  The aim must be to re-frame or to provide a viable alternative to the relationships of dominance that hold people in their grip. What alternative does Blueseed provide?

By treating liberty issues surrounding the existent visa regime as a problem that can be solved by re-arranging bodies in space, Blueseed implicitly re-frames the employee as a laboring body.  In contrast to the laboring bodies in Kentridge’s film, employees aboard the Blueseed ship are promised luxurious accommodations.  But this attention to the space of the ship and the care for the bodies of the people on it only emphasizes the fact that physical comfort is considered to be the primary component of liberty.  Meanwhile, non-spatial normative aspects to being a free human being, in particular to be responsible and to care for people of different generations and to build a community together, are not discussed. The cost of liberty of an employee that is framed as a laboring body can be calculated by the employer and, if the equations balance favorably, it can be bought. It is telling that since its launch, Blueseed has officially split from the Seasteading Institute, becoming its own business organization that is no longer explicitly interested in promoting liberty but rather in making money on the visa-boat venture. The goal of increasing liberty is seamlessly integrated into a money-making enterprise.

In a world in which scientific and legal definitions (e.g., of life) (7) are continuously in interplay with one another, it is not surprising that a state-of-being made possible by technology (such as long-term life at sea with all comforts and full connectivity) can destabilize legal and conceptual categories of “employee” and “citizen.” But, contrary to Patri Friedman’s claim, these floating technologies cannot create a “blank space” free of any prior frame of reference or control (8). We must be attentive to how technologies that claim to destabilize old frames are actively re-framing social reality in ways that may perpetuate the same underlying inequalities.

The experience of a frame being broken is destabilizing, but, if properly re-framed can lead to joy and release at seeing the world anew. The Seasteading Institute can be contrasted in this respect with another effort to carve out a space not subject to any entity’s jurisdiction: the Freedom Hole created to commemorate the Free Speech Movement at University of California, Berkeley campus (9). This monument is a hole six inches in diameter filled with dirt and surrounded by an inscription that reads, “This soil and the airspace extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” At just twice the width of the hole that might be made by Kentridge’s coffee plunger, the Freedom Hole is not big enough to accommodate a human being. Yet, through its invocation of a historical moment in which Berkeley students stood up for the right to speak freely against their state, it offers infinite space for the human spirit to rise above earthly constraints and feel itself unbound.


  1. Dascalescu, Dan. “Blueseed.” The Seasteading Institute, November 14, 2011.
  2. Patri Friedman, in a promotional video for The Seasteading Institute, “Vote With Your Boat.” December 13, 2012.
  3. Garraghan, Matthew. “Seachange.” Financial Times, March 30, 2012.
  4. Kentridge, William. Mine. 1991.
  5. Kentridge, William. Lecture 3, Norton Lectures. Harvard University, April 3, 2012.
  6. Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.
  7. Jasanoff, Sheila. Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age. Cambirdge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.
  8. Friedman, ibid.
  9. Brest van Kempen, Mark. “Free Speech Monument,” 1991-1994.

Keywords: frames, liberty, space

Suggested Further Reading:

  • Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.
  • Jasanoff, Sheila. Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age. Cambirdge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

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