Strait of Gibraltar: A Reverie in Blue

Text by Tarek Elhaik

To Abdelkrim and Zineb, my grandparents
“To disappear into deep water or to disappear toward a far horizon, to become part of depth or infinity, such is the destiny of man that finds its image in the destiny of water.”
Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, p. 9


The concept of “rhythm-analysis” was first elaborated by Portuguese philosopher Lúcio Alberto Pinheiro dos Santos (1931) as a mode of studying the biological and physiological processes at work in various human activities. This project was soon thereafter taken up by Gaston Bachelard in his The Dialectic of Duration (1936), a critical response to Henri Bergson’s concept of duration and memory. Throughout the book, which culminates in the last chapter entitled “Rhythmanalysis,” Bachelard takes issue with Bergson’s equation of duration with continuity and with his opposition of discontinuous science and holistic philosophy, arguing instead that “duration is never as unitary and cohesive as Bergson suggested, but fragmentary and made up of disparate elements.”[1] Within Bachelard’s thinking, the figure of the rhythm-analyst is conceptually interconnected with his philosophy of the imagination and with his meditations on the four elements—water, air, fire, earth, which he links to “four types of health.”[2] Rhythm-analysis, as well as what he would later call “topo-analysis”— i.e. the “systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives”—is a kind of healing process that hinges on the pathos of temporal experience, on the discontinuous rhythms of existence, and on how humans are embedded in the ecology and temporality of other existents (plants, non-human animals, minerals) whose mode of generation operates at different time scales (geological, circadian rhythms, agricultural calendar, fishing seasons).

While human practices and lives are marked by discontinuities deeply enfolded in the forms they give to the complex interplay of repetition and difference, they are also an index of the montage we call “I.” And this “I” bears the mark of encounters with forces, energies, and elements that gave rise, during our childhood, to images, moods, and états d’âme we continue to struggle with and find solace in. Bachelard’s reconfiguration of the scope of rhythm-analytical work, as both topo-analysis and image-work, opens a conversation between the rhythms of our childhood and adult life, between new and old rhythms. Far from opposing intellect—with its cinematic capacity to edit the cosmos into worlds—and the imagination—with its power to seek the “absolute image”[3] under sensible matter and visual culture—Bachelard invites us into reveries.

For Bachelard, the problem-space of childhood presents the inquirer who investigates it with a distinct logic of images. Unlike in the work of many thinkers of post-war France,[4] this logic is all but irrational. In contrast to Freud, Bachelard argues that we are not “in recovery from having been children,”[5] that childhood is not “forbidden,” and that memory is not a “guilty pleasure.”[6] Moreover, the restlessness we ail from and enjoy is not the outcome of desire experienced as lack, a lack whose terrifying provenance allegedly keeps us infinitely indebted. The enigma of our desires, particularly those that stir creative, playful, and imaginative practices, do not manifest themselves as the sublimation of civilizational malaise, the Oedipal complex, the return of the repressed, the motion of master signifiers, the name of the father, the incest taboo, prohibited sexuality, and so on. To be sure, Bachelard’s topo-analytical engagement with the rhythmicity of our childhood environments, their specific logic of images and the elemental and material imagination that animate them, is a matter of psychic life, of things that concern the soul. Yet, the anima animating these singular species of childhood images proceeds from a different kind of “thirst.”[7] For Bachelard, once we enter our vita activa, it is a matter of distance and departure between the proximity to the elements and images primed in our childhood and the “philosophy of repos or rest” they are capable of eliciting. Our lives proceed in and from the rhythms afforded by these elements, the way they punctuated our lives and the way we inherit the worlds we grew up in as once having been “potential spaces.”[8] Although interminable, the rhythm-analyst’s task, with its very specific type of working process, is to creatively give poetic form to those images of childhood and to the elements that make up the matter imaginatively informed during our youth.

One such creative or poetic form is the reverie, which relies on our willingness to get lost coupled with an inclination towards study and erudition. Reveries are different from dreams: “in contrast to a dream a reverie cannot be recounted. To be communicated, it must be written, written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down.”[9] To be sure, Bachelard’s rhythm-analysis demands we make a counter-intuitive distinction between autobiography and what could provisionally be called the anthropology of childhood.  He insists that the afterlives of images of childhood are less about specific personal memories than about an opportunity to depart from the surface in order to creatively probe the depths of ourselves, to find out what grace was promised to us. For Bachelard, an inquiry attuned to childhood is “not the search for a shelter where we would find peace. Nor is it a question of autobiography. The accidents that mark the seasons of our personal lives are less intriguing than our reveries’ capacity to relate to childhood as if it were a coloration of life, a relation to a world that is dawning before our eyes.”[10] And yet, rhythm-analytical and topo-analytical work combine in enigmatic ways, releasing cosmic and poetic reveries that lead to “repose and rest for a being… [they] illustrate well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness. Poetic reverie is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds. It gives the I a non-I which belongs to the I: my non-I. It is this ‘my non-I’ which enchants the I of the dreamer.”[11] In other words, repose is not the opposite of in-tranquility, with its irregular and disorienting rhythms, nor is it the equivalent of peace of mind. Rest is the état d’âme, the state of the soul, all image workers find themselves in when they seek truth in the rhythms of intimacy, douceur (softness, sweetness), and love. The repose that comes with reverie enables cosmic encounters among all image-workers of the world.


The Strait of…
How, then, could the cosmic reverie of an anthropologist’s childhood images be written, curated, and broadcasted?[12]More specifically, how can I write, curate, and broadcast the “deep waters” of the Western Mediterranean coastline where I grew up, waters along the southern coast of the Strait of Gibraltar stretching eastward from Tangiers to Tétouan (Arabic: تطوان‎, Spanish: Tetuán)?

Tetuán is a former settlement in Northern Morocco that grew into a border city-state or principality in the 15th century, especially after the so-called Reconquista,[13] at times changing sovereign hands between Spain and Morocco, and eventually becoming the capital of the Spanish protectorate from which it would liberate itself after Morocco’s independence in 1956. With its intense proximity to the Strait of Gibraltar, a Tetuán childhood is a childhood among deep waters. The waters of the Strait of Gibraltar, flowing across the dual western and eastern clinamen off the Northern Moroccan coast, on the Atlantic Ocean and the Alboran sea respectively, form a complex topology composed of discordant rhythms.

The strait is named after Tarik Ibn Ziyad, the 8th-century Berber conqueror of the Iberian peninsula. Gibraltar literally means the mountain of Tarik or Jabal Ṭarik (جبل طارق). Famously painted by the 13th-century miniaturist al-Wasiti, the conquest scene became emblematic in Arabo-Berber military history, occasionally transferring to other domains of life, including the naming of one’s male child (as my parents did) after the conqueror in order to instill in him the moral value of courage. Interestingly, the writer Zakya Daoud tells us that “we do not know what happened to Tarik Ibn Ziyad,”[14] and the fate of the legendary army commander remains an enigma in the context of political intrigues and rivalries following the conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711.

For a brief moment in the early 17th century, as I learned in an inspiring novel,[15] the Strait was almost renamed after Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, the 12th-century Cordoban polymath. Around 1600, the rector of Oxford university, at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, extended an invitation to the Moroccan sultan to rename the Strait Averroes instead of Gibraltar. The sultan refused. From a diplomatic and military point of view, it made sense, since Morocco was then planning a reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula it had lost. The mysterious episode regarding the repatriation of Averroes’s corpse on a mule[16] through the strait of Gibraltar—his body on one side, his manuscripts on the other—is, for many of us, like a punctum in a painful photograph.

It would not be far-fetched to suggest that Averroes, whose life was marked by intellectual struggles and political exile, was a rhythmanalyst avant-la-lettre. Praised for his commentaries and innovation of the Aristotelian corpus, he was ultimately ex-communicated to Marrakesh from his native Cordoba by the Almohad Sultan Al-Mansur, under pressure from religious authorities. Indeed, my reverie will need to muster all of the powers of the cogitative soul, which, according to Averroes, opens ourselves to “subjective virtual pools” through meta-aesthetic acts.[17]

Water Under the Bridge
There is an afterlife to the dosage of elements that compose and generate the singular image environment we call childhood. In my case, two types of images populate my reveries: there is oceanographic imagery and there are images of borderland people, which, brought together, form an ecology of interconnected practices above and below the water’s surface. These reveries are of course rhythmed, although certainly not determined, by the Strait’s multilayered political history, as suggested by a recent digital visualization of the various imperial dynasties that alternately conquered and ruled over the area. But to rhythm-analyze the Strait is also to take into account the cadence of the so-called porteadoras or hammala or mule women on the Moroccan side of the strange borders around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and the port city of Melilla, further east in the Alboran Sea. Each day, to make a living and sustain their families, these women, often divorced mothers or widows, carry and move up to 300 kilos of merchandise, mainly contraband goods, across the border. Their livelihood depends on the rhythms of the border, which closes and opens in unpredictable fashion depending on the moody state of diplomatic affairs between the Spanish and Moroccan governments, who have yet to settle their early modern and post-colonial debts and grievances. As the writer Zakya Daoud observed, both the kingdoms of Spain and Morocco lost control of the strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean West when they failed to strategically join forces and establish co-sovereign alliances in the city-states of Ceuta and Melilla in the early modern period, as well as the Rock of Gibraltar, which has been under British sovereignty since the 18th century.[18] As these disputes continue unabated, recently exacerbated by Brexit, these political mood swings have accomplished only one thing: they have turned Melilla and Ceuta, and the population from the neighboring Moroccan towns that live off the border, into the poorest cities in the European Union and Morocco. Francisco Goya’s The Porter (1812) adequately pictures these painful scenes of gendered labor exploitation: its sepia ink tint over black crayon is the mood index of the burden and endurance of these borderland people.

In the same vein, one would have to also listen to frictions between environmental activists and fishermen (sardine catchers in particular) who have a long list of historical grievances against the Moroccan government. In recent years, fishermen in the port city of Al-Huceima have challenged port authorities who, according to them, have failed to take measures against bottlenose dolphins whose repeated attacks damage their (illegal and legal) fishing nets. Striking a balance between regional touristic interests, fishermen rights, and international agreements[19] is the delicate act governing this politically and ecologically volatile assemblage of human and non-human life. In a way, to conduct a rhythm-analysis of the Strait of Gibraltar’s contemporaneity, of both its cruel and seductive scenes, is to look for signs of hospitality in an enigmatic borderland, this “space of infinite desire that belongs to no nation.”[20]

To rhythm-analyze the afterlives of a childhood among waters is to also listen to oceanographers, marine scientists, and geologists who pay attention to underwater activity, especially that of internal waves. The confluence of the two large bodies of water in the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, creates an intriguing boundary effect. Neither ocean nor sea, but both at once. Indeed, this boundary effect is invisible, and different, for instance, from the beautiful boundary effect in the Strait of Georgia in Canada, where bodies of fresh water (brownish due to the presence of silts) and salt water (clear white) meet at a varied pace, slowly and poly-chromatically dissolving into one another beneath the water’s surface. In the Strait of Gibraltar, border effects are generally invisible: salinity and underwater activity are usually the main indicators of a distinction between these large bodies of water, between sea and ocean. A computer graphics animation based on the study of surface and underwater currents in the Strait gives us insight onto the phenomenon of internal waves produced by tides. The Strait of Gibraltar’s internal waves, especially around the Camarinal sill, undulate at an erratic rhythm that nonetheless generates symmetrical surface signatures. In an insightful educational video on the webpage of the physical oceanography center in Malaga, a 1984 NASA photograph shows this phenomenon at work.


It is tempting to conceptualize this digital animation as a topological model of the unconscious. It is certainly distinct from Freud’s notorious analogy of the psyche as a city, Rome, whose multi-layered archeology suited his conceptualization and visualization of the unconscious as a site of storage composed of sedimented but psychoanalytically radioactive strata, mnemic traces, and repressed material. Yet, as a perceptive psychoanalyst recently remarked, Freud had to eventually challenge his own affirmation that “in mental life nothing that has once been formed can perish,” and so he “ultimately abandoned his [Rome] metaphor because as buildings are demolished and replaced in the course of time, a city is not a suitable example for the timeless preservations of the unconscious.”[21] What if, I told myself, we recruited the Strait, instead of a city, as a candidate for a new topological model of the unconscious? After all, the Strait’s surface signatures imply a specific kind of hylomorphism, i.e. a specific mode of entanglement between matter (hyle) and form (morphe) that, unlike Freud’s Rome, renders visible not only the spectacle of the destroyed, but also the signature of the preserved. In a reverie, new rhythms come in, intrude, not as symptoms, but as a prelude to an inquiry into deep waters often recalcitrant to bridges.

On the ferry taking me from Tarifa’s Estación Maritima to Tangier’s Mediterranean Port, en route to Tetuán, I recalled that, as a child, I was fascinated by the bi-national project to build a modern bridge between Morocco and Spain, right at the narrowest distance of 14km separating Europe from Africa. The bridge was one of those impossible engineering feasts. Begun in 1979 as a highly politicized cooperation between the Spanish and Moroccan governments, the project never materialized. The objective of the bridge, we were told, was to unite Europe and Africa and would be part of a universal superhighway linking a constellation of straits. The project was eventually shelved due to a combination of financial, topographical, seismic, and geological reasons. After all, what would a bridge be good for since both landmasses above the African and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving towards one another at a rate of 1.5cm per year! There were also political reasons, since a bridge across the strait might act as a counterpoint to Spain’s and western Europe’s continued exclusionary migration policies that force desperate harragas or undocumented migrants to cross the Strait on makeshift boats, or pateras. Thousands escaping poverty who leave Morocco from the beaches of the fishing towns of Belyounech and Ksar Sghir, right near the border with Ceuta, have drowned over the years, in these deep childhood waters. Indeed, what lies underneath and nearby the sea areas where the monumental bridge would have been built is far from being simple. Even if the waters shown in the design proposal and promotional video by the Spanish engineering and architectural firm Presa Puente Estrecho de Gibraltar S.A. seem timeless and smooth, these are not calm waters.

As the captain prepared to dock the ferry in Tangier-Med port, I recalled a beautiful passage I had jotted down on my field notebook prior to leaving Cordoba earlier that morning. In his wonderful essay The Bridge and the Door, sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel remarked that humans “separate what connects them and connect what separates them”[22] so that one of the functions of bridges is to “give visible form to this rhythm of separating and connecting.”[23]


See Stuart Elden’s introductory remarks in Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), p. 7.


Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter (Dallas: Pegasus Foundation, 1983 [1942]), p. 161.


Bachelard cited in Kristupas Sabolius, “Rhythm and Reverie: On the Temporality of Imagination in Bachelard” in Eileen Rizo-Patron (ed.), Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard (New York: SUNY Press, 2017), p. 70.


I have in mind here the disagreements, the differend, between Deleuze, Lacan, and Foucault over the question of pleasure versus desire. See also Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus, 1972.


Adam Phillips, Side Effects (London: Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 19.


Ibid., p. 13.


“The only possible proof of the existence of water, the most convincing and the most intimately true proof, is thirst.” Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, p. 156.


D.W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (London: Penguin Books, 1973).


Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971). This emphasis on the written should not mask Bachelard’s fascination for sound media. In his “Radio and reverie” he speaks of the radio host as a “psychic engineer” and a “poet” who fulfills radio’s vocation to “touch our unconscious,” to “broadcast reveries,” and to bring repose to the solitary listener abandoned in the intimacy and quietude of nighttime.


“Gaston Bachelard: Une Enfance Parmi les Eaux.” Claude Mettra and Claude Givanetti in a radio program broadcasted on Radio France Culture, February, 1985.


Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos.


See Tarek Elhaik, George Marcus, “Curatorial Designs” in Roger Sansi (ed.), The Anthropologist As Curator (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).


Emilio González Ferrin is adamantly critical of the term Reconquista as it is commonly used to qualify both Islamic and Christian conquests: “Ni hubo invasión islámica de la península Ibérica en el año 711 ni tampoco una reconquista cristiana casi 800 años después.” See El País, March 6, 2018.


Zakya Daoud, Le Détroit de Gibraltar, Frontière entre les Mondes: De Tanger aux Clandestins (Casablanca: Editions La Croisée des Chemins, 2017), p. 120.


Driss Ksikes, Au Détroit D’Averroes / At Averroes’ Strait (Casablanca: Les Editions du Fennec, 2017), pp. 36-37. For more on this, listen to my conversation with the author on “Cogitations”, the radio show I host:


Toni Maraini, Ballando con Averroè: Racconti di viaggio in un mondo musulmano che non fa paura (Bari: Poeisis Editrice, 2015).


Valerie Gonzalez cited in Laura U. Mark, Enfoldment and Infinity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), p. 63.


Ibid., p. 11.


Morocco is a signatory of the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area.


Preface to Daoud’s book by Jean Jacques Gonzales, p. 6.


Further thresholds of invisibility are explored, in other maritime sites, by Stefan Helmreich. See his study of microbial oceanography Alien Oceans: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (Berkeley: UC Press, 2009).


Christopher Bollas, “Architecture and the Unconscious” in International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 9:(28-42), 2000, p. 28.


Georg Simmel, “The Bridge and the Door” in Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1994.


Peter Bishop, Bridge (London: Reaktion books, 2008), p. 42.

Rhythm Section
Edited by Anthony Huberman
Strait of Gibraltar: A Reverie in Blue
Text by Tarek Elhaik

TAREK ELHAIK is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of The Incurable-Image: Curating Post-Mexican Film and Media Arts (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), and of Cogitations: On Aesthetics and Anthropology (Routledge, 2021). Between 2014-2017 he was part of the collaborative team Ism Ism Ism: Experimental Cinema in Latin America. He is also the founder of AIL: the Anthropology of the Image Lab and host of the radio show Cogitations.

ANTHONY HUBERMAN is a curator and writer based in San Francisco, where he is the Director & Chief Curator of CCA Wattis Institute. He has worked as a curator at SculptureCenter, New York, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. In 2010 he founded The Artist’s Institute in New York City. He is currently working on an exhibition, tentatively titled The Beating of our Hearts, about “the percussive” as an aesthetic and political concept, scheduled for the fall of 2022.