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Offshore Onshore: Capitalism in American from the Bonded Warehouse to the Subzone [Research Assistantship]

Professor: Dara Orenstein


Department: American Studies


Title: Offshore Onshore: Capitalism in American from the Bonded Warehouse to the Subzone


Description: I study 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 capitalism works. 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 no scholar has traced it. I am the first to do so, 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 intelligibility of capitalism, writ large. For example, my book, provisionally titled Offshore Onshore, to be published in 2019, will contain upwards of 100 historical images, ranging from photographs to advertisements to diagrams. Now I am creating a website for the book.

Collaborating with librarians and people trained in GIS, I am in the early stages of developing ways to visualize the FTZ data I’ve collected and that is available from the Department of Commerce—maps, to be sure, hopefully hyperlinked, as in Yale’s Photogrammar—as well as ways to provoke broader questions about the abstractedness of capital.


Duties: The research assistant will assist me and my collaborators in gathering information for two discrete portions of the website — two case studies, one about Detroit and the other about Baltimore. Both cities launched zones in the late 1970s, with Detroit’s centering on auto-assembly plants (Chrysler’s recent ad campaign — “Imported from Detroit” — is ironically realistic) and Baltimore’s on steel and other dying Fordist industries, as well as shipments of imported cars. The student will investigate each of these zones / cities, learning as much as possible about the nitty-gritty of what transpired in the late 1970s and 1980s. Specific duties will include: making phone calls to local agencies in Detroit and Baltimore to ask questions about terminology and other matters of public information; conducting research at the Library of Congress for primary sources from mainly newspapers and magazines; brainstorming other angles of inquiry not listed here, as the student becomes more familiar with the project; and summarizing her/his findings in written memos.


Time commitment: 7-9 hours per week (average)


Credit hour option*: 3


Submit Cover Letter/Resume to: dorenstein@gwu.edu

*If credit is sought, all registration deadlines and requirements must be met. Students selected to be research assistants should contact Ben Faulkner at benfaulkner@gwu.edu whether they intend to pursue credit or not.