Call for papers: Depths, Abysses, Exo-Worlds

“I imagined myself traveling through a diamond”, E. Riou, picture 30, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne, 1864.

The word ‘cavern’ is clearly insufficient for my attempt to convey this immense place. The words which make up human language are inadequate for those who venture into the depths of the Earth… But what were these holes compared to the one I was now admiring, with its sky of clouds, its electric illumination, and a vast ocean imprisoned in its breast? My imagination felt powerless before such immensity. I reflected upon all these marvels in silence… I felt as if I was on some distant planet, observing Uranus or Neptune, phenomena which my ‘Earthman’ nature had no knowledge of… I looked, I thought, I admired, in a stupefaction mingled with a certain amount of fear… I was in the process of treating myself by means of astonishment, bringing about my cure through this novel therapy. (Verne 1864, trad. W. Butcher 1990)

Following Jules Verne’s invitation to consider remote and mysterious worlds, this issue of Techniques&culture focuses on the modes of exploration and habitation of universes conceived as hostile which yet stir curiosity and inventiveness. It invites us to think about the relations, mediated by techniques, that human beings maintain with noxious and even fatal environments. By “environment” we mean the combinations of three dimensions: the perceptual capacities of the beings under scrutiny, here the self-worlds of human beings; the environment, carrying technical potentialities per se, the phenomenal world; and artefacts, tools, machines, modes of organization and various psychic techniques used to act in the world, the operational environment. What material, but also “imaginary” or representational technical devices do these worlds require to be “liveable”?

Depths, Abysses, Exo-Worlds

Explorations in borderline environments
and techniques of confinement

Call for papers for a special issue of the journal Techniques&Culture
(to be published in Autumn 2020).
Preceded by the Techniques & Culture workshop
in January 2020

Deadline for receiving proposals : 8 November 2019

By remaining open to comparison with other “borderline environments” such as subaquatic, polar and exo-worlds such as planet Mars, we will first address underground and confined spaces where, allegedly, the bodily and mind techniques collaborate in an outstanding way because they are withdrawn from light and social time. It is not a question of giving an a priori definition of the notion of “environment” but to allow it to sprout from the exchanges that this issue intends to create. It may well unfold thanks to concrete case studies and proposals made by, among others, André Leroi-Gourhan, Gilbert Simondon, Jakob Von Uexküll and Augustin Berque (distinction milieu & environment), Edwin Hutchins (distributed cognition) or Peter Sloterdijk (spaces of coexistence).

Although not immediately and radically unlivable as the underwater and space worlds, subterranean worlds are often seen as spaces outside or parallel to human sociality. Both unknown and mysterious, they mobilize feelings and practices that are as much a matter of fascination as of revulsion, combining protection and oppression, serenity and terror at the same time. Despite this ambivalence, men and women have never ceased to plunge into these humid, dark, icy, hard-to-access worlds.

Towards the centre of the Earth, Stéphane Rennesson, 2019

There are accidents, think of the Chilean mine of Copiapo or, more recently, the junior football team trapped in a Thai karst cave for days, that particularly highlight – because of the emergency – the variety and vitality of the technical specialties entailed by the appeal exerted by depths. Until now, studies have focused on mining, extraction and collection of terrestrial substances, collective organisation of work and its economy, ingenuity, creativity and know-how developed with and sometimes against recalcitrant materials, to which practitioners attribute a certain “agency”. The literature has also focused on the rituals of the miners, outside and in the entrails of the earth. Situated at the crossroads of craft and industry, of low-tech and large-scale infrastructure, the exploitation of underground environments should not overshadow other practices, more confidential in terms of publications. One may think of practices related to scientific exploration for example: archaeology, speleology, volcanology, medicine. Extreme sports, hobbies and entertainments releasing adrenaline, sparked by a certain appetite for risk are also among outstanding endeavours triggered by depths. And let us not forget food conservation, tourism, the yearning to be in the “wild”, initiations and hermitages (cenobites or anchorites), artistic creation and performances.

Each and every time humans dare exploring depths, they kit their bodies and “souls” out. First of all, they enhance their physiological capacities with new body techniques (breathing, climbing, meditation). By “coupling” themselves to objects, machines (robots, cameras, remote sensing satellites) or animals, they live and even survive to conditions so extreme that one sometimes needs to use the “partner” as a scout. From the ornate cave of Lascaux (France) to the giant crystal mine of Naica (Mexico), through the caves inhabited by ophidian deities (South and Southeast Asia), the explorers into the underground world, elated and in awe, make contact, with telluric beings “who shake the earth” such as Poseidon, the Greek god of seas, earth tremors and springs. Beings able to shake the explorers, sometimes to their own demise.

If metaphorical abstractions connect distant and mysterious worlds – the terrestrial ones as much as those of the mind – this issue of Techniques&Culture proposes to consider them empirically as environments located at a certain distance below the surface: environments that generate a confinement, imposing different conditions of existence upon those who explore, visit, inhabit or exploit them. The effect of confinement is an essential aspect of the exploration of and dwelling in so-called natural cavities, in those established for the exploitation of resources, as well as in those created ex nihilo, like submarines, polar stations or space shuttles that share some of atmospheric qualities with natural cavities.

Joos de Momper, Landscape with Grotto, C. 1600 (wikipedia).

This issue therefore invites to reflect on what all these confinements suppose in terms of organization, commitment, development and lifestyle. The aim is to describe and think the ways in which these confined environments stimulate different kinds of techniques:

  • techniques for empty spaces to be filled: exploration, testing and initiations, conservation and storage, refuge…;
  • techniques for full spaces to be excavated or extracted: mining, archaeology, quest for materials (minerals, sulphur, lava, ice, plants, animals, …), remnants, stories and legends (mythical animals).

These techniques will be considered in their context, notably by taking into account landscapes, rituals, markets, science, design and heritage. It may also be an opportunity to question the very notions of “emptiness” and fullness”. In order to do so, one can build on the understanding of the said environments along the intensity, frequency, density, concentration, be they the earth, water or outer space, all those volumes with a rarefied content of dioxygen but bustling with other elements or beings.

What does the “atmospherization” of borderline environments and confinement techniques reveal about human capacities to colonize and inhabit the world? We propose to “technography” these modes of existence through three complementary orientations:

 1/ Exploring, reporting, modelling:

Depths are horizons to be discovered, to “invent”, to explore and to model. The aim is to report both the preparations inherent to the descents, the paths followed and their restitutions. How do practitioners search for and probe new sites? How do they actually prepare themselves to enter radically different environments, new surroundings that often prove to be very hostile? Which are the production and mastery of technical objects (including the body) required for such explorations? How do speleologists, cave divers and shamans, apart from the equipment they use, prepare themselves by resorting to bodily and mental techniques? How do they kit out and expand their bodies and intentions through high-tech (like robots) or low-tech (like painting, tattoos)? archaeological or volcanic exploration, mining or a ritual imply different phases of preparation. How are these explorations carried out? How do practitioners of these subterranean worlds, and by comparison with other borderline environments, mobilize and translate technical knowledge to approach the environments encountered? On what sociotechnical devices do they rely and how are the surroundings recorded, mapped, reproduced on the surface: from literary narrative to 3D modelling?

2/ Planning, dwelling, simulating:

Depths generate and require infrastructure, layouts and “ambiancing” (Thibaud 1996, 1998). How do practitioners stabilize “invented” sites, transform them, alter them? Let us think for example of the case of hermitages built to last so that pilgrims may flow en masse, or else of strictly extractive practices such as mining and archaeological activities. How technical risks and failures of people and tools may be dealt with?

The aim is to study how humans draw on geomorphological forms, more broadly on physical constants and objects, to create new self-worlds. These layouts may be minimalist or more substantial depending on the expected effects on actions, perceptions and/or emotions. If practitioners usually dwell temporarily in these spaces, how can they protract their stay in extreme conditions? How do they deal with confinement and atmospheric and existential conditions, where physiology, cognition, consciousness are subjects to significant changes?

As a counterpoint, lest us think of reproductions, copies and other artefacts that simulate and/or induce confinement. Within this category fall landscape caves, reproductions of adorned prehistoric sites, time capsules, sensory coffers reproducing intra-uterine conditions, nuclear or survivalist shelters, “explorations” of those who anticipate a catastrophe or are preparing for a civilizational collapse. By altering and monitoring closely the atmospheric characteristics of these new worlds, these “simulations” open up possibilities for amazements, survival, personal development, exploration of human potentiality, and they will bear witness for future generations.

Comparing the models of shelters of the past and the shelters for the future, often associated with the idea of survival, makes it possible to deal with conceptions of life and vitality, of creation and regeneration, by assessing what minimal habitability conditions would be.

3/ Sampling, making emerge and exploring our “terrestriality”:

Practitioners of the depths of the earth explore the abyss, sometimes to inhabit it, but also to return. They extract and carry back a set of items to produce surface effects. These are materials and objects, of course. But, also, a whole set of techniques, gestures, lexical fields and even knowledge on the human condition precisely forged in the underground.

What are the stakes and techniques of revelation associated with these unearthed items, especially when they are linked to the existence of the other, the monstrous, the invisible, the dreaded, the new – like invisible non-human entities, unknown life forms, prehistoric artefacts, or even gigantic minerals? In comparison with other environments, which potentials concentrate the collections of underwater beings – for aquariophilia for example – or of materials from exo-worlds? Are they desirable and to what extent? What does their otherness teach about our “terrestrial” conditions, our “Earthman” nature?

Beyond the techniques of extraction and revelation, what is at stake when an archaeologist, a speleologist, a miner or a Buddhist monk deals with his or her experience of the depths, back at the surface? What are the ingredients of a successful “telluric incubation” (Bizot 1980)? How do they thrive on this enrichment, this transformation? How does it allow to (re)think the modalities of human existence on the surface, even its nature and its potentialities? For example, let us think of experiments in human biology carried out by experienced cavers such as Michel Siffre who, through long stays underground, unearthed the functioning of our biological clock.

In order to better understand the technical specificities of underground confinements, this issue is open to comparisons with other types of seclusion imposed by other environments. How can we dwell in the poles, in deserts, seabed, or outer space? This call for papers is resolutely open to a whole range of disciplines (archaeology, botany, ethnology, mineralogy, philosophy, history, engineering, art, etc.) and shall build on singular cases, surveys, fields (archives being understood as fieldwork) from all geographical horizons. The proposals will be based on methodologies involving the analysis of empirical data (ethnographic, sociological, technological, scientific experiments). Inner adventures that account of subjective experience in an embodied, sensitive, reflective graphic or poetic way are also very welcome.

Coming back from the depths. Jules Verne’s grave. Sam Nimitz, 2015 (Flickr-CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Conditions of submission

An abstract of a maximum of 3,000 characters, with ten illustrations approximately. Three forms of articles may be submitted:

  • an article for the online version available for immediate access, with a maximum length of 50,000 characters (including spaces) and in which all kinds of illustrations (photos, video, audio) are possible. It will also be presented in the frame of a 4-page “teaser” in the paper version (with the announcement of the http link; 5,000 to 6,000 characters + 2 HD images).
  • an article for the paper version of the journal, with 30,000 characters maximum (including spaces) along with a maximum of 10 HD images (300 dpi) in which the author will endeavour to reach out to readers outside their own field. Such publication implies the dual requirement of scientificity and readability (the journal being of interest for interdisciplinary readers in the human sciences and being published as a “journal book” to an extended audience).
  • an article which, on the contrary, relies on fieldwork and documents, in which the author, based on precise corpuses, will analyse 15 to 20 images, within 15,000 characters max


Authors shall contact the coordinators of the issue, Stéphane Rennesson and Annabel Vallard, through the journal’s editorial secretariat ( to submit their project (title and abstract, iconographical project) with their name, contact details, institutional affiliation before 8 November 2019.

A meeting of the selected contributors is scheduled to take place in Marseille in January 2020. The proposal and the full text can be sent in French or English; the paper volume will be published in French, but online articles can be published in English.


  • 23 September 2019: Call for papers
  • 8 November 2019: Deadline for receiving proposals and pre-selection
  • 13 January 2020: Submission of papers (v0)
  • Mid-January 2020: Workshop Techniques&Culture at MUCEM, Marseille
  • Mid-February 2020: Submission of papers (v1)
  • Mid-April 2020: Feedback from evaluators
  • 2nd of June 2020: Submission of papers (v2)
  • November 2020: Issuing in bookshops

For journal standards, please visit: or contact the journal’s editorial team at

Selected bibliography

  • Berque, A. 2009 [2000] Écoumène. Introduction à l’étude des milieux humains. Paris : Belin.
  • Bizot, F. 1980 « La grotte de la naissance. Recherches sur le bouddhisme khmer. II », BEFEO 67 : 221-274.
  • Hutchins, E. 1995 Cognition in the wild. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1992 L’art pariétal. Langage de la préhistoire. Grenoble : Ed. Jérôme Million.
  • Siffre, M. 1963 Hors du temps. L’expérience du 16 juillet 1962 au fond du gouffre de Scarasson par celui qui l’a vécue. Paris : Julliard.
  • Simondon, G. 2012 [1958] Du mode d’existence des objets techniques. Paris : Aubier (« Philosophie »).
  • — 2013 L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information. Grenoble : Million.
  • Sloterdijk, P. 2002 Sphères I. Bulles. Microsphérologie (traduit de l’allemand par Olivier Mannoni). Paris : Pauvert.
  • Thibaud, J.-P. 1996 « Mouvement et perception des ambiances souterraines », Les annales de la recherche 71 : 144-152.
  • Thibaud, J.-P. & al. 1998 « Comment observer une ambiance ? », Les cahiers de la recherche architecturale 42-43 : 77-89.
  • Uexküll, J. von 2010 [1934] Milieu animal et milieu humain. Paris : Rivages.
  • Verne, J. 1864 Voyage au centre de la terre. Paris : J. Hetzel et cie.

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1 réponse

  1. 07/10/2019

    […] that human beings maintain with noxious and even fatal environments.  The full call is here and the journal website is here.  Authors should contact the coordinators of the issue, […]

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