Every so often a book leaps to your attention like the strike of a fish on the end of your line: a sudden jerk, the hook sets itself, and you’re on for the duration. I’m not sure how the metaphor really works — am I the fish or the fisherman? — but in reading this book, I kept being reminded of the feeling every fisher know, that sudden tug from beneath the water. Yep, I’m hooked.
I first saw a pre-pub notice for the book sometime during the timelessness of 2020. I’m pretty sure I ordered it months in advance. Blue Ecocriticism and the Oceanic Imperative dives into the “ocean deficit” it diagnoses in twenty-first century ecocriticism and cultural studies. Along the way it explores the symbolism of the color blue, the ocean as hyperobject (in Tim Morton’s sense), protein economies, Object-Oriented Ontologies and the new materialism, Ocean as Object, writing studies and ecocomposition, and much more. What Dobrin calls the project of “unearthing ecocriticism” turns out to be a great ride.
Much of the material, for a blue humanities obsessive like me, is somewhat familiar, but the emphasis is sharp and, if I may repurpose one of Dobrin’s phrases about the ocean, compellingly adjacent to my watery work. Dobrin writes wonderfully about contemporary water cultures, including sport fishing in his companion volume Fishing, Gone? His writing on Google Earth (Google Ocean?), about OOO and the theoretical modes that engage with eco-ideas, and about the origins of the idea of a “world ocean” are all insightful.
Dobrin engages with many of my favorite blue humanities thinkers, especially Stacy Alaimo, Melody Jue, and Dan Brayton. He quotes me too, mostly my long-ago thoughts in At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean and “Toward a Blue Cultural Studies,” both of which appeared in 2009. He nudges me a bit on the question of how narrowly to focus on Shakespeare and on literature as such. I very much agree with the wider goals he sets for blue thinking — “Blue ecocriticism requires a more voluminous, heterogeneous trajectory beyond the sea of ink” (25). Exactly!
I’ve been noodling just a bit about whether there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between the “blue humanities,” which is mostly the term I use these days, and what Dobrin calls “blue ecocriticism.” I’m not sure the differences are that great. Maybe there’s a way that “humanities” carries some all-too-human baggage, which might ask us to follow ecological ideas into post-human directions, or into alliances with nonhuman creatures and environments? I also think one of the values of the “humanities” broadly speaking is its reflexive habit of questioning what “the human” really is. I very much align with and recognize myself in “blue ecocriticism” in Dobrin’s description, perhaps especially because we draw on slightly different archives and methods.
One of the joys of this book, for me, has been finding a blue fellow traveler who also combines oceanic recreations with academic writing. Dobrin’s professional work comes out of the world of composition studies, which I admire and have learned much from but is not my academic home. I wonder, though — maybe time and tide will enable an eco-Shakespearean and an eco-compositionist to grab a beer later this summer, perhaps on a humid August afternoon in Florida when I’m visiting my parents? An afternoon casting for the elusive tarpon or body surfing might be even more fun, but all of us, even blue thinkers, remained bound by circumstances and time. Stay tuned!