This project is about a spatial form called the foreign-trade zone (FTZ). The FTZ is a type of warehouse, or a warehouse-with-benefits, as I like to joke. It can take a variety of shapes and sizes, whether a single building or an entire industrial park, or a cluster of such sites within a port of entry. The basic definition, and what makes it attractive, to continue the pun, is that it is extraterritorial: it is on U.S. soil, but off U.S. customs territory. This legal fiction means that what “takes place” within the barbed-wire fence of an FTZ is considered, for customs purposes, outside the United States. In an FTZ, a car can be assembled from domestic and foreign materials and then imported only once it rolls off the line and out of the FTZ. Why bother? Because said car can be assessed as if it is a foreign car, triggering a lower tariff than if it is treated as a bundle of foreign car parts. (Chrysler’s celebrated tagline from 2011, “Imported from Detroit,” was, literally, true: Chrysler assembled that model in Subzone 70H). Thus the FTZ is both familiar and utterly unfamiliar. In person, it appears as an ordinary building. On paper, however, it amounts to a practice that is unthinkable within most conventional categories of how capital is accumulated—categories that assume the spatio-temporal coherence of that object we call the “national economy.” This discordance is all the more striking when you consider the aggregate footprint of the FTZ. Authorized by Congress in 1934, the FTZ system is the largest and longest-running zone system in the world, encompassing over 850 sites across the nation, with zones in each state, from Florida to Alaska and New Mexico to Vermont.
Over the past decade, I have researched the history and geography of the FTZ, from its origins in the Warehousing Act of 1846 to its near demise in 1989. Its genealogy is extensive, and yet largely unknown. I am the first scholar to reconstruct it archivally, and with an unconventional approach: I combine cultural history with critical geography, with as much concern for visual evidence as for statistics on imports and exports. Throughout, my aim has been not to reify the FTZ as yet another taken-for-granted facet of “globalization,” but instead to probe what exactly goes on in it, and to use its opacity to think about the illegibility and unintelligibility of capitalism, writ large. For example, my book, provisionally titled OFFSHORE ONSHORE, to be published in 2019, will contain upwards of 100 images, ranging from photographs to advertisements to diagrams. Now my goal is to create a website for the book. I envision a variety of ways to visualize the FTZ data I’ve collected—maps, to be sure, hopefully searchable and hyperlinked, as in Yale’s Photogrammar—as well as ways to provoke broader questions about the abstractedness of capital. But, given my inexperience with digital tools, I am also very eager to brainstorm with DH experts, and to learn from them how to see the FTZ anew.