Shimmering Scalarities: Dr. Brian Roberts on Deep Time, Archipelagic Thinking, and Borderwaters

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”[1]

In Dr. Brian Russell Roberts’s latest book, Borderwaters: Amid the Archipelagic States of America, out with Duke University Press in May of this year, he immerses himself in the watery boundaries and reimagined aqueous space of the United States of America. Bordering some twenty-one countries and containing “infinite” shorelines, the United States as an archipelagic nation enables a breaking apart of narratives that manifest imperial destinies across constructed and exclusively continental spaces. Dr. Roberts’s work productively rocks the foundations of U.S. culture and American studies.

His book moves from established borderlands theory, as advanced by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, to the theoretical territory of borderwaters, a word that first came to Dr. Roberts’s mind at a 2011 island-oriented American Studies Convention. When a colleague suggested that islands were crossroads and borderlands, Dr. Roberts recalls raising his hand to trouble the critical waters. “I asked, ‘Why essentialize islands and archipelagos—borderwaters—as border lands?’ It seemed like we were taking a heuristic that’s applicable to one mode of geographical being and applying it to the rest of the world. There are borders in the ocean, but those borders don’t work in the same way by a long shot as borders work on land.”

He quotes science fiction writer Arthur Clarke with a grin. “This isn’t a quote that made it into my book, but it’s a quote I think about sometimes. He said, ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.’ So, it seems imprecise to apply land-oriented frameworks to the entirety of the planet when so much of it is aqueous space.”

It’s difficult to ask my next question—how did you gain a foothold to start theorizing from so that the ocean didn’t just become another land-oriented and land-like space? —without betraying how much of a landlubber I am; I stumble around various ground-oriented words before hitting upon foothold. Still, it sinks beneath the sea change in vocabulary and worldview that Dr. Roberts’s thesis requires. He laughs, “That’s one of the problems, right? That our foundational metaphors can’t quite do the trick. But the whole project was really writ small for me the first time I saw the word ‘archipelagic.’ I was finishing my PhD at Virginia in 2007 and looking at a list of upcoming events in the English Department at Berkeley. The Cambridge scholar John Kerrigan was going to be giving a talk titled ‘Archipelagic MacBeth.’ I saw that word, and immediately knew something about the term because I had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia.

He continues, “I knew ‘archipelagic’ was a word and a concept that could help link islands, not only in conventional archipelagos [think the Hawaiian island chain], but also in unconventional archipelagos, from the northernmost Hawaiian island to the Indonesian island of Java, to the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.” And, by thinking of archipelagos by way of the Aegean Sea, Dr. Roberts realized that archipelagic thinking could connect not only one island to another, but islands to oceans. “I guess I can say that rather than gaining a foothold, I got immersed in archipelagic thinking.”

Tenets of archipelagic thinking include recognizing the shoreline to be infinite— “a thing I had never before supposed,” Dr. Roberts shares—and water to be impermanent and concealing. In chapter four of his book, he writes about the work of several Japanese American writers and artists imprisoned at the Topaz Internment Camp in central Utah during World War II. Dr. Roberts mentions Chiura Obata, one of the San Francisco-based artist imprisoned at Topaz, and relates an anecdote: “While in California, Obata looked out into the [Pacific] ocean and said the ground we’re standing on in California is the same ground that they are standing on in Japan. It’s just covered by water. In that moment, Obata was thinking about the US continent’s relation to an archipelago. And I would add that this same submarine ground rises up out of the ocean in California and connects to the Topaz Internment Camp.”[2] Noting that the chapter was perhaps his favorite to write, Dr. Roberts emphasizes the power of archipelagic thinking for those unjustly imprisoned, especially as some of Topaz’s prisoners used art and literature to make provisional sense of their time spent in Utah, on the dried out lake bed of the ice age Lake Bonneville.

Reckoning with time, and the impossibly divergent scalarities of human history, geological epochs, and cosmic timetables, is a continual challenge for the environmental humanities, and it is a challenge Dr. Roberts takes up in Borderwaters. He finds that the sea, once more, holds answers. “A seashell grows by accretion, as do coral reefs and lake shelves. In the case of a seashell, what can happen when different layers accrete upon one another? You get iridescence—structural color.” For Dr. Roberts, one solution to the challenge of vast temporal scales is through layering accretion: by superimposing temporal scales upon each other, the layers coalesce to create structural critical color—they become, for Roberts, “the thing that shimmers when you look at it from different angles.”

He says, “The layers of time become iridescent. You hold [Topaz Internment Camp] as a place that has stories from the 1940s, from the 1840s, from the Ice Age, from the Cambrian period, and in holding that place at one angle, it may be a certain color, and at another, it shifts and shimmers to showcase [another]. You wind up seeing temporality as a translucent stack of time where we’re seeing multiple times at once, and those multiple times shift as we shift in relation to them.”

It is not only what the ocean shapes—seashells, mountain basins, history—but also its rhythms that Dr. Roberts finds useful in conceiving of vast time. The foreshore—traditionally defined as the place between high and low tide—is revamped in his book. “There’s a foreshore created by the ebb and flow of a wave, just like there’s one created by the ebb and flow of a ripple, and this is happening all the time in archipelagic settings. Archipelagic thinking, then, offers something of a key to understanding scalar temporalities, when you can ask, ‘Aside from scale, what’s the difference between the foreshore of a ripple and the foreshore of a wave, and the foreshore of the inundations and desiccations that have given rise over and over again to lakes in the Bonneville basin?’”

He refers to Derek Walcott’s poem, “The Sea is History,” in which Roberts finds a “common grammar between the most profound questions of theoretical physics regarding the future and Walcott’s sense of the oceanic.” In our interview, we stagger through an object lesson involving the projected heat death of the universe—10 to the 10th to the 120th years in the future—and how many books filled with zeros it would take to represent that figure: it would be many more books than could fit into the entire observable universe, if every book contained only zeros. Looking at human history in comparison, Roberts paraphrases Walcott: “History’s really only beginning.” But the archipelago, in contact with an endless sea and the bounded foreshore and the iridescent seashell, can take us out to the heat death of the universe and back to the Topaz Internment Camp, and here, to the shimmering present.

“but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation; […]

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.”[3]


This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Center intern.

[1] Lines 1-4 in Walcott, Derek. “The Sea is History.”, Academy of American Poets,

[2] To watch Chiura Obata share this story himself, please click on this link.

[3] Lines 65-67, 77-80, in Walcott, Derek. “The Sea is History.”, Academy of American Poets,

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