A busy day in Zoomlandia on 27 May. From Sheffield to Seoul, all from my office in Short Beach!
I plugged in around sunrise and caught the last few words of Killian Quigley’s presentation on the first of two sessions on Blue Extinction, hosted by ASLE UK and the Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre. Hats off to the organizers, Veronica Fibisan and Rachel Murray for excellent hosting! It’s entirely my own fault that, a few hours later, I failed to share my images via Blackboard Connect, so the assembled Zoomies were forced just to look at my face as I talked about whales, extinction, empathy, violence, Melville, beach strandings, and at the close a crazy-intense description of imaginative incorporation in whaleflesh in Caroline Bergvall’s Drift. ‘Twas a wild ride!
One of the best things about this event was variety of modes across the six presentations (OK, only five that I heard) in the two sessions. My own archive was my usual literary / historical / experiential poetics sort of thing, with generous helpings from Moby-Dick and a chance encounter I had with a stranded whale’s body in an Oregon beach in 1985. In the morning session, Tom Bristow of James Cook U in Queensland, Australia, presented via a short film, of which I heard most of the audio and only interrupted snatches of the video, as I shuffled through early morning puppy care and coffee prep. Third of the morning group was Maria Beger‘s exploration of “tropicalisation,” a process through which coral and fish from tropical warm water reefs are moving into higher latitudes with ocean warming — i.e., they’re moving away from the existing geographical tropics, south in Australia and north in Japan. Perhaps it’s better to say that the tropics are expanding.
The afternoon session opened with me failing to share my slides properly, but I plowed through different visions of whales and humans, vai Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a 1658 pamphlet about a whale that swam up the Thames to Greenwich (where it was horrifically murdered), Melville, Philip Hoare, and eventually Bergvall. Next was a great paper by Dolly Jorgensen about the Caribbean monk seal, which was declared extinct in the twentieth century, but of which a few taxidermied specimens exist in modern museums. The question of what research does to its subjects and how the act of learning a about a thing might change or even injure that thing was powerfully present, especially since one of the images Dolly presented included a dead seal being dragged out of the surf by scientists. Last of our trio was Tom Webb, a biologist at Sheffield, who gave an overview of documented extinctions in land and sea. I was especially struck by his comment about animal species that are not extinct but whose populations have been massively reduced, including oysters, north Atlantic codfish, and many species of cetaceans. At massively depleted levels, these animals no longer perform the same ecosystemic functions they did before anthropogenic reductions, mostly in the 19-20c. I wonder — is extinction the thing we need to understand, or is it depletion? How do those things relate?
A lively Q&A followed, which featured our Australian panelists Killian and Tom B. hanging in late at night to ask searching questions about how we try to know things we can’t really know about marine life. I was left thinking about that urge all of us, scientists and humanists, have to understand, to categorize, and to manage — in many cases that urge can be a good thing, and I very much concur with Tom W.’s ambivalently hopeful prognosis about the viability of managed fisheries (if we can successfully manage them). But I can’t help coming back to knowing-through-violence, as with Dolly’s monk seals or Melville’s whales. Does knowing about an alien thing require or invite a kind of violence on it? Can we unlearn that kind of knowledge acquisition? Or to some extent disavow it?
Update: The quick circulation of a recording enabled me to listen to Killian’s talk out of order but on the same day. (Thanks, Vera!) As I expected, it was a wonderfully generative talk, exploring visions of a future ocean dominated by slime and jellyfish, as described by marine biologists such as Daniel Pauly and Jeremy Jackson, and considering these dystopias through an aesthetic lens. The slime ocean, Killian notes, echoes the “radically unaesthetic” vistas of the pre-modern sea described by Alain Corbin in The Lure of the Sea, a book about the transformation of Western ideas of the maritime that was deeply influential on me when I first read it in the 2000s. Killian didn’t push the point too hard, but I wondered if premodern ideas about the ugly or disorderly sea might have something to say about the jellyfish aesthetic in which we may all be swimming soon. Corbin, like others including W.H. Auden, overstaes the extent to which the seaside gets “discovered” by modernity. But the idea that the less pleasing and more abrasive seas of pre-modernity might be returning seems very interesting, especially to a pre-modernist like me!
Just after listening to Killian’s talk I took my first open water swim of the season, on a gorgeous spring day in water that has just nipped over 60 degrees F (15 C). It’s still a bit chilly for me, so I wore my shortie wetsuit, but it was glorious to be back offshore, watching sea birds from a wave’s eye view, and bobbing up and down with the standing waves that reflect off the sea wall at high tide. After Killian’s talk, I was thinking about jellyfish, but fortunately didn’t encounter any — though they are there in my local waters, usually more common when everything warms up in midsummer. Ever year I plunge my unseeing arm through a few jelly colonies. It’s not my favorite thing about sea-swimming, but I wonder — is there a jellyfish aesthetic waiting to be discovered? To be imagined? To be engaged?
The last stop on the Zoom-train started at 9 pm local time, which was10 am Friday morning in Seoul. I gave an introduction to the blue humanities talk to John Eperjesi students at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, which also gave me a chance to think through my own sense of the changes of the discourse for the dozen or so years the terms has been in circulation.
In the last few Zoom-talks I’ve given, I’ve been fingered as the “coiner” (a strange, oddly state-power-ish term) or once the “dean” (an administrative term?) of the blue humanities. It’s flattering to think that people value my work, and I do remember — as I told the group in Seoul — dreaming up the phrase while walking my dog back in the summer of 2008. But I also, as I said last night, on a core level don’t like claims of ownership or mastery. Lots of people all over the world use the term “blue humanities” these days. It’s in special issues of journals, conference titles, twitter hashtags, even a “lab”-style classroom in Australia. Some of those people connect to my work, but many don’t, and many see other people as key figures in the discourse. That’s all just as it should be. No ownership of ideas on the high seas!
The frame of the Zoom-talk to Kyung Hee traced the pathways of blue humanities scholarship from my earlier work on Shakespeare and early modern English literature, esp in the article “Toward a Blue Cultural Studies” (2009) and the book At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009), to my current interest in global and Pacific literatures, as represented by the poem “Praise Song for Oceania” by Craig Santos Perez. It wasn’t a cage match, and I am happy to report that both The Tempest and “Praise Song” came out undestroyed. But it was fun to think through the paths my work and the blue humanities have taken since the end of the 2000s. As a special treat, which was a surprise, Craig himself Zoomed in from Hawaii for the talk — which was fun for me, and for the students, who had read “Praise Song” earlier this semester.
A few terms from the talk —
- “Offshore Capacity” — thinking through Perez and Shakespeare about oceanic vectors and dynamism
- “Beyond My Atlantic” — tracing my personal history from the New Jersey Shores out toward all the world’s oceans
- “Trajectories of the Blue Humanities” — “wet globalization” “salt aesthetics” “blue ecocriticism” “shipwreck modernity”
- “Shakespeare as Crisis and Limit” — maybe here I am mostly thinking about my own work?
- “Blue Humanities as Collaboration / Conversation / Immersion / Connection” — trying here to foreground the creative and public impulses of this scholarship, the way it sometimes gather academics together in wetsuits in the surf, as well as behind lecterns and Zoom screens
The students from Kyung Hee had great questions and thoughts that were only sometimes inhibited by troubles with my wifi. I hope I answered all the questions — though I also think that the best questions are the ones that we can’t answer, and instead have to sit with, or work toward. How should we save and serve and preserve the ocean and our relationships with it? That’s a tough one!
Final thoughts on this long transoceanic day had me imagining the Ocean as collaborator and co-creator. It doesn’t speak or make requests. It’s not (just) a symbol or source of all the best metaphors. But it’s out there, moved by moon and winds, holding heat and structuring history. We’re writing to it and with it, as best we can.