There’s a soap bubble velocity to Zoomlandia. For three days you’re down deep, inside a small but intense mini-conference, hearing words and parsing images, making connections and imagining futures. Then — pop! — the Zoom ends. Now it’s just another chilly spring day on the Connecticut Shoreline, and the dogs need to go out.
Sea Sense is done, but so many treasures are still sloshing about in my watery brain. I’ll try to get a few things into words before it all dries up.
I’d been looking forward to this event for some time. Part of a series of collaborations between different campuses of the University of California, the Oecologies network, and the Earth, Sea, Sky group, among others, it was great an opportunity to hear new eco-work across different disciplines. I was particularly eager for the opening roundtable about Kevin Dawson’s amazing book Undercurrents of Power, which I discovered only recently. The historians on the panel, of course, had known this work on early modern African aquatic cultures since a precursor article had appeared a decade ago, but it was new to me when I found it last year. Dawson’s book has opened up the way I’m thinking about the connections among blue humanities, Black Atlantic, and contemporary Critical Race Studies. Dawson’s book, along with my longtime favs Edouard Glissant, Paul Gilroy, Herman Melville, Olaudah Equiano, and many others (including Shakespeare!), formed the backbone of the grad seminar I taught this spring under the title “Black and Blue Theory.” It’s been a fun ride, and I look forward to reading what my students give me next week.
My Thursday night talk, “Swimming out of Africa, 50,000 BCE to The Tempest,” gave me a chance to return to Shakespeare’s most famous maritime play, which was central to the start of my watery turn in At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009). (In fact, I first pitched that project to the Shakespeare Now! series as an entire book about the storm scene that opens the play. Fortunately good editors convinced me to write about other plays also!) I stretched my Zoom skills and range of source material in this talk in order to imagine swimming as expansion, diffusion, and engagement with watery spaces. My favorites parts to present may have been about Drexciya, since I don’t often get to play techno or hip hop music during talks. But I also tried to dive deep in time, by engaging with scholarship on the marine foraging habits of homo sapiens when the species first left the African savannah around 50,000 years ago. A vision of the Kelp Highway — the coastal routes that early human communities followed out of Africa to every continent except Antarctica — undergirded my talk about Shakespeare’s multiple categories of swimmers, including Caliban the tide pool poet, Ferdinand the muscle-bound water fighter, Trinculo the duck, Stephano the (bad) sailor, and Ariel the flyer-diver-flamer.
I also did a new thing for me, which was to expand upon the usual practice of a land acknowledgment and use this form as an opportunity to think harder and at greater length about the history of my own coastline. I ended up digging into the story of Little Liberia, a thriving 19c multiracial community in Bridgeport, CT. The talk ended up having a lot of moving parts, but I hope that too speaks to the experience of swimming, which overloads some senses, especially feeling and taste, while disorienting others such as sight.
But enough about me! Kevin Dawson’s wonderful round-table revealed his personal story of coming to be a water historian, after growing up as a Black surfer and free diver in Southern California. I was struck, as I would be again a few times over the three days of the conference, at how often water scholars talk about our own water biographies and ongoing practices — Melody Jue’s and Stacy Alaimo’s scuba, Dan Brayton’s sailing, my swimming, &c. This work aims to use academic methods and habits of thought to capture sensations and feelings that are visceral, physical, and hard to catch. I was struck too, at how almost the last comment of the conference, by the artist Kathie Foley-Mayer, described her sense of the inability of words to capture ideas about history and Ocean Memory. To write in this mode surfaces human weakness and vulnerability, whatever academic culture wishes us to perform in terms of rigor or mastery. There is no human mastery or dominion in the sea, which idea I was reminded of again by Kevin Dawson’s comments about swimming as a means toward freedom for transported Africans. I’m very excited to learn that he’s doing a project now on maritime maroon communities!
The second day began with the visual opulence of Conchophilia, a not-yet-published multi-authored book of Art History that explores shell collecting and decorating in early modern Europe. I always love hearing Art Historians speak intently about visual structures and patterns to which I’m not trained to attend. I especially love the sense that the images of shells and shell-made artifacts indicated what I might call a sea-thinking, an effort to salvage and trace human and nonhuman connections to oceanic space. I’m very excited for this book, with contributions by the four speakers I heard this weekend, Claudia Swan, Marisa Bass, Henneke Grootenboer, and Anne Goldgar.
I always love hearing my friends and admired colleagues Jeffrey Cohen and Julian Yates talk about their Ark Project, and really the only disappointing thing about their co-presentation on Friday night was that it could not be followed by Dark n Stormies & extended philosophical conversation at some likely dockside dive. I’ve heard them speak about and read bits in process of this project for several years. What struck me most intensely this time was the generative quality of their thinking and writing. Every time an interpretive fork or question of meaning arose in their discussion of multiple images and ideas about Noah’s ark, they framed their responses in the most open, dynamic, and plurality-making ways. (On how this mode might require choosing the Ark’s raven over the dove, see this great recent essay of theirs in Emergence Magazine.) I’ve long thought of these two writers, separately and together, as representing some of the best work in eco-minded premodern studies. I especially responded this weekend, after these long months of isolation, to their generosity toward their readers, their material, and everyone who grapples with questions of refuge and safety.
The last day of the conference gave space for the graduate students of UC Irvine and UCLA to showcase new work that engages with blue humanities paradigms. As has been happening often recently, I was dazzled by the variety, brilliance, and acute insights with which an emerging generation of scholars approaches these materials and methods. I hope my admiration for this work came through in my Zoom-questions, as I was again reminded this weekend that however well Zoom manages primary presentations, its video boxes support less well the less structured aspects of conference engagement, from Q&A (which Zoom manages OK) to post-talk chit-chat (which it doesn’t manage well) to happy hour philosophizing (alas). But suffice it to say that I loved these talks. Nicolyna Enriquez’s deft analysis of ship graffiti on inland churches in Byzantine Crete spoke to the sea as connection and possibly fantasy. Margaret Oakley’s great reading of early microscopic images of complex life in Thames water suggested how watery knowledge can be socialized, marketed, and yet remain strange. Abigale Berry discussed Bosch’s “Ship of Fools” and quarantine lazarettos as spaces in which water serves to alienate and isolate, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Gregory Sattler’s analysis of 9-10c Chinese mercantile connections provided a dense view into the premodern networks of maritime Asia, as he also showed how recent discoveries in underwater archeology are rewriting what we know about Chinese maritime history. Lastly, and inspiringly, Kathie Foley-Meyer discussed the underwater art of Jason deCaires Taylor and other artistic efforts to capture Ocean Memory. She also mentioned Drexciya, which wrapped the conversation back to the opening day. I appreciate that while my analogies between Drexciya and Shakespeare’s The Tempest were in part about the capacity of sea poets to grasp something about the sea, Foley-Meyer’s artistic examples were reminders of what lies beyond words.
Such a flood it was! Thanks to all who joined in Zoomlandia, and especially to the brilliant and generous organizational work by Bronwen Wilson, Lyle Massey, and Julia Lupton. Plus seamless behind the scenes work by Ryan Gurney, among many others!
Very much hoping to see all these wonderful people, including all the Zoomers, at a likely beach sometime in a post-pandemic world!