While I’ve long been interested in the materiality of the oceans and the ways in which this materiality is communicated and reproduced through both symbols and practices (e.g. maps, laws, etc.), to date I’ve never really thought about the materiality of the symbols that perform these laws.
This recent video link from the New York Times, sent to me by Ariell Ahearn, raises these issues. The core question asked here — “What is a flag?” — seems to echo other seemingly arcane but actually quite legally and semiotically significant questions that have been asked over the past few decades, including “What is an island?” and “What is a bridge?”. The judge’s conclusion in this particular case — that a flag needs to be clearly visible, since its purpose is to communicate sovereignty — is certainly significant for the Ecuadorean drug smugglers being charged. But perhaps in the long term the case’s greatest impact is to remind us that the sea is an assemblage of materialities whose meanings are continually being (re)produced through interactions of laws, practices, and symbolic references.