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The Global Ocean: Racial Geographies and the Oceanic Humanities: URI, 4/12/17

It may have been foolhardy of me to join an intense full-day symposium and workshop just three days after the madness of #shakeass17, but the gates of the wonder-world only open so often. Such a flood yesterday at URI!

Hosted by Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz Program on Literature and the Sea, the event brought together four scholars actively working in the oceanic humanities to discuss works in progress and the state of scholarly inquiry. The short takeway for me is that “oceanic humanities” covers a lot of water and lots of ground too. The precirculated papers and short talks were varied, brilliant, and inspiring. The day’s juxtaposition of a series of vexed terms, including “global,” “racial,” and “humanities,” emphasized that the tasks oceanic scholarship has set for itself, including thinking past or at an angle to national, religious, linguistic, or geographic collectivities, remain difficult and valuable. I was especially struck, as sometimes I am not in in-group conversations among theory-minded ecofolk, about the unsettling valences of the term “posthuman,” and why it’s necessary to interrogate that category as we employ it.

Taking our speakers briefly in the reverse of the alphabetical order in which we spoke at the end of the day —

Ketaki Pant, a post-doc at Brown who’s heading off for a job in sunny SoCal next year, presented brilliant work on merchant families from Gujarat whose travels and business connections spanned the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa through the Arabian peninsula and the subcontinent. Exploring multilingual poetic compositions that she translated herself, she unfurled a terraqueous network of distance and connection, finances and emotional poignancy.

I spoke about “wet globalization,” a term that also appears in Shipwreck Modernity. I’m planning to use the phrase in my introduction to The Cultural History of the Sea in the Renaissance, a volume of essays I’m editing for Bloomsbury (due out in 2021!). The publishers will support illustrations, so I’ve been thinking about resonant objects and images through which to explore the inexhaustible waters. I came away from yesterday’s event convinced that I need to keep exploring the tension between “wet” experience and early modern “globalization” as both historical event and intellectual challenge.

(Side-note: when teaching a small slice of the work of the Africana studies scholar Kevin Quashie last week I came across a great new motto for what scholarship aims to do: “There is nothing promised by work other than more work.” We want generative, creative, world-opening scholarship; we hope for the changes that education creates and perhaps also for political progress, but scholarly labor is seldom about neat “solutions” or about finishing coversations.)

Jason Chang from UConn spoke about “sea coolies,” Chinese sailors who ran afoul of the U.S. Exclusion act of 1882, but their essentially maritime nature — they were not immigrants, just sailors on leave who got entangled with the authorities — seems to have convinced American courts that these were men whose “home is the sea,” which made them exempt from, or differently subject to, legal prohibitions. It’s a great project about oceanic identity and mobility in the Pacific during the emerging American imperium. I look forward to seeing more of it!

Monique Allewaert from Wisconsin-Madison opened up our talks with a preview of a new project, “American Atlantis,” which takes the sea’s third dimension — depth — as a key to its meanings. The new project about 18c rearticulations of Atlantis looks quite amazing, as does the essay she circulated on the Haitian maroon Francois Makandal. The Makandal material derived an alternative interpretive practice that used Charles Pierce’s notion of “indexical signs” to reconsider Makandal’s fetish objects, as well as his life, death, and afterlife. She also connected these indexical reading strategies — stunningly — to the poetics of Emily Dickinson.

These are all great, original projects. I feel fortunate to have been introduced to them and their authors and have had a chance to think intensely about them through the invitation of the Rumowicz program. At the risk of generalizing too quickly, I’ll offer two meta-ish points around which my thoughts are swirling today:

  1. Racial justice and posthuman circulations: These projects each in distinctive ways reemphasize the scalar, ethical, and conceptual tension between the human and the ocean. I sometimes think about this issue through the visual image of a swimmer’s body in a vast sea, but the ethical urgency of racial and social justice on human and political scales also strains against the rush to ocean-ize. I recognize that tidal pull as a risk in the practice of oceanic literary studies, very much including my own work. Monique’s effort to bring together materialisms both old (Marxist) and new (Latour-ish) seems a compelling response to this challenge. She reminds us, in terms that recall Quashie’s motto, that newer theoretical methods never quite displace, only supplement, old and intransigent questions of politics and power.
  2. Plurality of expertise: Whenever I present with historians, I’m always amazed by archival breadth and erudition. Ketaki’s linguistic acumen and Jason’s legal historiography showed me ways to engage archives that are quite alien to someone like me who spends a lot of classroom and writing time with Shakespeare’s plays. Our desire to create and support intellectual plurality — in materials, methods, conclusions, and projects — will require consciously expanding our networks of scholarship and collaboration. That’s why I’m glad to have worked intensely for ten hours yesterday at an oceanic humanities conference while still feeling sleep-deprived after a weekend with the Shakespeareans!

Finally, some quick OED-noodling that may be useful eventually (with the reminder not to trust the OED’s dates too much!):

Human – as distinct from either animals or God, from around 1450

Humane – variation on “human” that emphasizes kindness, from around 1500

humane letters – from around 1610

humanist – description of an academic working in classical languages, from around 1589 (Harington, Bacon, etc)

“the human” – from 1840

posthuman – from mid-20c sci fi, including H.G. Wells’s “posthuman monsters” in 1940

Thanks again to Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz program for hosting this great event!

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