Back at the end of 2020, I circulated a survey, with the hope that some #bluehumanities people would have time and inclination to share their thoughts with me as I get ready to write An Introduction to the Blue Humanities for Routledge. I was so pleased the range, insight and brilliance that flowed onto my Google doc! I won’t reveal any names, but I wanted to share some of the ideas these generous people have been helping me think.
The most surprising and pleasing thing about the thirty-eight responses was the wide range of disciplines represented. Like most academics, I’ve spent a substantial part of my career, and all of my training, inside a somewhat narrow disciplinary community, in my case English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I’m simply dazzled by the wide range of specialties that respond to the call of the blue humanities, from scholars who work in Environmental History to Media Studies to Archeology, Religious Studies, artistic practice-led research, and many other things. To the extent that I’m thinking of the group who responded to the survey as a kind of volunteer first audience for the book I’m writing, I’m humbled by all the things that these people know that I don’t, and I’m thinking about how to write a book that might be interesting and useful for all of them.
With that in mind, I come away from the roughly 9,000 words of survey responses with two somewhat opposed ideas bubbling around in my imagination. The first idea, which mostly dominates my water-thinking all the time, considers water as dynamism and pleasure, through such things as the famous “oceanic feeling,” the biological connection between water and life, and also the way water functions as respite from the dry isolation of terrestrial habits. But it’s also true that water, especially salt water, represents an alien space into which human bodies enter only tentatively, at some risk, and for a short time. In the first sense, the blue promises ecstatic immersion. In the second, it threatens human bodies with drowning. Love and strife, as the philosopher says.
My sense is that these entwined and opposed sensations, blue promise and blue threat, float together throughout water stories and waterscapes. I’m hoping my book can draw out the tension between these ideas of water-human relationships by sketching some broad tendencies through which different kinds of water, in different places and times, have become entangled with human ideas, practices, histories, and forms of art and culture. I’m hoping to have something to say about how that has come about, with attention to environmental and social justice and access. I appreciate how much the survey has given me ideas, directions, and suggested readings for how to get started on this task.
Lastly, I’ll point to a thought from the survey that will serve as a caution on my shoulder over the next eighteen or so months before my deadline with the press – the suggestion not to overly romanticize the wild blue. That’s a good thought, and a welcome corrective against my personal tendencies to get Romantic when faced with clear or cold or frothy waters. Romanticism, and especially the imperial egotism of the Romantic sublime, seems a particular lure and trap for water-writers, or at least I feel it to be so for me. I hope to avoid its rocks and gyres, while also saying something about its alluring songs!
I very much wish 2021 was shaping up to be the sort of year in which I could plan to buy drinks for each person who contributed to the survey, in New York or Connecticut or some far-off shore. I’d love to be able to plan long or short conversations with anyone else who’s interested in the #bluehumanities. Maybe some of those things will still be possible, in the summer or fall, or at least on Zoom. Here’s hoping!