Is it possible that we have been considering the oceans as an “absence” rather than a presence? What histories and practices have “erased” the oceans, and how do histories and practices of alterity and liminality relate to planetary futures? How can we situate our thinking within wetness and turbidity, rather than from distanced positions that aim to turn the ocean and its waters into an object of research? Daniela Zyman, artistic director of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, interrogates different “ethics of knowing” and why oceans hold an important key to answering these questions.
“The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan,” writes postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Planet Earth is the medium of alterity, materially and otherwise. Nothing distinguishes it from other non-terrestrial universal matter. Its superficial form is the result of accidents, shaped and molded by the rhythms of atmospheres. Its organic life was developed from the code teleported through molecules fabricated in space. Yet, Earth is being subalternized for the sake of the human project, soon beyond “planetary boundaries.” “Subaltern” is the term Spivak coined to describe the conditions of submission and humiliation, of becoming unheard and deprived of speech.
The so-called “human enterprise” is often considered the culmination of ingenuity and rationality–transforming and terraforming matter into consumption. The socioeconomic metrics of the post-1945 acceleration are interpreted as “signs not of a devastated or even warmongering humanity. Instead, the graphs indicate postwar consumer confidence, affluence, and even peace as signaled by the exponential rise in international trade, travel, and telecommunications,” writes media arts scholar Jennifer Fay. Worldbuilding is celebrated as the result of humankind’s uncontested shaping power, without ever problematizing the larger repercussions of its unlimited agency. Despite the ruination of planet Earth, the human can claim innocent and demonstrate its cooperative and cosmopolitan ambitions.
About fifty years ago, chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis inaugurated a concept of planet Earth as Gaia. Gaia is a self-regulating entity; an aging, sensible apparatus that rules and controls herself. The discovery of the Gaia hypothesis—relabeled and systematized in the 1980s as Earth System Science—is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs opening up ways of understanding ecological processes and relations. Harnessing the heat from our star, Gaia has produced the conditions that have led to the creation of life and humans are but a variation of her own matter. Life has transformed planetary alterity to habitability—so much so that we are inclined to forget about the planet’s otherness.
“Keeping Earth cool is a necessary safety measure for an elderly planet orbiting a middle-aged star,” warns Lovelock. Offsetting the risk of the Earth’s heat collapse, it is indeed the ocean’s role to cool our planet and to steady temperatures in the habitable zone—the area that in astrobiology is called the Goldilocks zone. The oceans are covering the planet’s vast surface majority and they drive its climate. The uncontrolled Gaian experiment that is underway and accelerating during our lifetimes is driving the planet’s heat engine beyond its self-regulatory capacities.
Ignoring Gaia’s unruly alterity, we keep adding particles, energy, and heat into her systems. The ocean’s increased heat content (sometimes called the “ocean heat budget,” one of the most important indexes for understanding the impact of climate emergency on our future) is the result of greenhouse gases that have accumulated over years and decades. This so-called “committed warming” is causing sea levels to rise well into the future. Increases in tropical cyclone winds, rainfall, and monstrous waves already exacerbate extreme high water events and coastal hazards. Heat is only one of the drivers of the transformations of the oceans into conditions of incalculability. Acidity is another one. Around 30 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emitted mixes with seawater. Warming, acidification, and ice loss affect key biological and biogeochemical processes of aquatic ecosystems and induce ecological regime shifts.
This new Gaian equation stakes out essential perspectives on how the oceaned Earth will regulate possible futures on this planet and indicates the lack of biocentric frameworks for its care and safeguarding. My interest lies in locating the oceanic as part of a wider political project to develop post-human ethics of knowing and conviviality grounded in civil society’s engagements with the fullest spectrum of marginalized existences. This form of environmental justice doesn’t turn a blind eye on power relations inherent in environmental racism for the sake of greater visibility, transparency, and in the interest of a shortsighted economic rationale. And it also serves to articulate alterity as the fertile medium for relationality that ought to be preserved from systems of assimilation or worse from subjugation.
Bodies of water
We owe to the hydrofeminist scholar Astrida Neimanis an important queer archive of water-knowledge, familiarizing us with many ways to think with water. What Neimanis calls water is not “global water”—the transparent, tasteless, odorless, and lifeless medium that circulates in PET bottles; not H2O, the water’s chemical denomination. Neimanis invokes foremost the ancestral and timeless hydrological cycle, the water that flows through rivers, bodies, seas, and the water that falls as rain and freezes as ice. She reminds us that all the waters on this planet are connected and that 97 percent of all water is contained in the oceans. Waters are transfusing bodies, transporting ancestral wisdom from ocean to rain to plant to rock to human. This is the water that Standing Rock protesters in North Dakota are fighting to protect. “Water is Life” is their mantra.
Furthermore, water is in constant movement and agitation. Its kinetic force is difficult to regulate. It seeks to break boundaries and enclosures. One of the most harrowing challenges to the human enterprise is ocean water’s (human-induced) tendency to rise, swell, and to expand. The rising oceans will exacerbate, I suppose, modern man’s enduring horrors as he witnesses his technological prowess fail. For his lust and desire for mobility and circulation and the inability to control the movement of “others” is about to turn into a fractious menace. After all, movement and circulation encapsulate the paradigm of modernity and modernity’s rule over the forces of nature.
Neimanis and other eco-feminists point to the fact that some elementary concepts elaborated under Holocene modernity—such as nature, human, water, and ocean—no longer serve us well to front vital Gaian questions. The modern conceptual repertoire—the terms, ideas, and laws by which we designate and divide things and lives—was sharpened and stabilized under the longue durée of technological, scientific, and racialized ingenuity. The neat separation between the historic figure of the “human” (what Sylvia Wynter has labeled as the ethnoclass of man) and the entities called animals, ecosystems, mountains, creeks, rivers, seas, and ice sheets is both the result of and conducive of particular forms of social and economic activities—and the reproduction of capitalist, colonizing, racist, and patriarchal relations.
What would an oceaned understanding of water-sea-and-ice worlds be, one that could counter or at least correct the ethnoclass’ inscriptions written into the world’s oceans? Neimanis steers us towards the relationality of water bodies. Where life dwells, water flows through it. Our bodies are of water; they are hydrophilic environments. Humans share the salinity of the oceans. All cytoplasm consists of more than 80 percent water. Margulis calls this watery symbiogenetic interconnection by “the catchy name ‘hypersea.’” The “animated water” of the hypersea is, referencing paleontologist Dianna McMenamin, the rhizomatic, interliving system of plants collaborating with fungi to pump water from the soil towards their photosynthesizing stems and leaves. “Animated water is an excellent description of life,” she concludes.
Water asks: How are we all related not just horizontally, but also in exchange with all the bodies before and after us? The same sea where life evolved about 3.5 billion years ago is still the water that flows through the Earth’s arteries. We are all related, water says, but not the same; not a big puddle of all the same thing. Water teaches relation in difference. Bodies of water are, according to Neimanis, not just a metaphor, but an attempt to reposition subject formation in cooperative trans-species, trans-body, and trans-knowledge entanglements; in horizontal, lateral, cellular, and symbiotic transfers and exchanges.
The relationality and interconnectedness of all life and being in the water is tangible, visible, and graspable. Water, other than air, is a palpable medium of relation. Water’s residence time can last hundreds of thousands of years (in ice), holding particles and toxins in suspension before releasing them into the hydrological cycle. Nothing ever gets lost in water; every life form that ever existed in the seas has become sea. But seawater also decomposes, dilutes, and dissolves. It is a queer archive, one that also teaches to forget. In this double capacity of disassembling and preserving, it functions like our memory, remembering and forgetting traces and micromolecular evidence of plastic, antibiotics, residues, bodies, and their history.
The ocean’s many waters suggest that water carries many identities, individualities. Whatever this materiality might be—dirty, lively, fresh, saline, contaminated, hypoxic, or deadly—it asks difficult questions. Thinking with the oceans, most importantly, obliges us to take them all seriously, as partners in thought, as that which has needs and desires. How then can I reciprocate, Neimanis ponders? How can I, while thinking with the oceans, attend to them; how can I pay homage to ancient wisdom, release the oceans from its service to me?
The predicament of thinking with the oceans calls for careful attention to the socio-political relations to the oceanic, including specific forms of dehumanization, discrimination, and the necro-political conditions embroiled with its waters. Recognizing how the oceans are silently complicit with histories of violence throws into sharp relief the ways the oceans themselves have been victimized through historical and spatio-temporal displacements. This opens deeper reflections of the power relations that pervade the Anthropocene, not only in terms of relations to water and land but also in identifying parallels between the colonial complex and the exploitation of nature.
Modernity-as-coloniality represents a veritable catastrophe on so many accounts, the lens through which the world ended up being partitioned according to shades of being human or nonhuman. “This catastrophe can be considered metaphysical because it transformed the meaning and relation of basic areas of thinking and being, particularly the self and the other, along with temporality and spatiality, among other key concepts in the basic infrastructure that constitutes our human world,” asserts Nelson Maldonado-Torres.
The metaphysical catastrophe affecting the ocean, I would argue, is also its invisibilization, reification (being a thing rather than a living entity), and peripheralization in the modern world-system. If the oceans have been erased, it is the effect of law, enslavement, steam power, extractivism, fisheries, deep-sea mining, plastic, pollution, nuclear tests, oil spills… activities based on quasi unlimited human agency and impunity. Crimes obscured by the sea’s vastness and impenetrability are being perpetuated to this day, sometimes referred to as the afterlife of coloniality. Let’s summarize:
1. The oceans have been conceptualized as an absence; a negative, terra nullius. They have been invisibilized. They have long been the “blank” on the map; the route, the space to cross rather than the space to dwell in. The vast emptiness on the sixteenth-century map is only speckled by a few mighty ocean-going Galleons, multi-decked sailing ships used as armed cargo carriers.
2. The oceans represent sites for extraction, exchange, and the annihilation of life. Mare liberum, the free sea, also implied free for all—not simply free passage. Indeed, the first and most innovative legal codification of the oceanic space, Hugo Grotius’s founding maritime treaty from 1609, was commissioned in response to the capture of the enormously valuable Portuguese merchant ship by the Dutch East India Company. Grotius’s legal justification maintains that “every nation is free to travel to every other nation, and to trade with it.” The Free Sea disputation demonstrates that by the early seventeenth century geopolitical and mercantile interests, nested in ships and greatest possible mobility rather than embedded in a terracentric order became the foremost priority for rising merchant and colonial powers.
3. The oceans figure as deep archives for the histories of capitalist expansion and colonial subjugation through war, power, science, navigation, and enclosure.
“It was aboard ships—on deck and in the hold—that distinctions between human/inhuman and slave/free were produced, debated, and violently enacted,” analyzes legal historian Renisa Mawani. When viewed oceanically, the jurisdictional workings of race become the foundational structure of colonial and imperial command, one that demarcates people, differentiates populations, and divides seas from continental regions. Extended to the territory proper, the racial logic rehearsed on the carracks resulted in the annihilation of about 95 percent of the indigenous populations of the Americas. The fundamental racist dilemma planted at the heart of European enlightenment is that it considered the majority of humans as brutes and with it a whole spectrum of beings that communicate and act.
Cartography of relations of power
For the past three years, the London-based architects Territorial Agency have been working towards the creation of a visual form that permits to wrestle with the manifold transformations of the oceans under the impact of humans. The first iteration of their research is currently on view at Ocean Space in Venice. When consulting open-source data sets connected to the oceans, Territorial Agency realized that data are collected, analyzed, and operationalized by a myriad of neatly separated institutions. To model the vast majority of the oceans, their project had to establish inter-semiotic relations between fine-grained artifacts and iterative data textures stemming from several scientific, cultural, and social environments. From these data aggregates, Territorial Agency subsequently created an esthetic interface making the oceans readable and sensible in ways that would otherwise be inaccessible, therewith seeking to engage the public in modalities of knowing and observing techno-ecological processes and relations that connect earth science and political theory.
The questions that Oceans in Transformation begs to ask are, “How are we to make sense of some of the most important physical and conceptual developments arising from the observation of ocean-space to safeguard the oceans’ future livability?” “How can the Earth’s water bodies become a presence rather than absence and/or how can the invisible be made sensible and comprehensible?” And lastly: “How can we develop a framework for the oceans which bridges categories such as ‘world system,’ ‘ocean as sensorium (agency),’ and ‘ecological governance’ and which research strategies can we adopt to unfold this theoretical space.” Re-editing the relationship between land, water, and atmosphere, recognizing the continuity of terraqueous environments, and uncovering the multiple ways—past and present—in which these interactions have shaped the oceans seem, to me, a key to their project.
While trying to torque the concepts by which we address land and sea, connection and fluidity, we are also invited to revisit and re-read the cartographic methods which have cast an “image” of the oceans, and the semio-material agencies both acting upon them and are registering electromagnetic interactions. At stake in the Territorial Agency’s research project are the techno-scientific and political assemblages that shape the Anthropocene ocean. While the research contains many important revelations, I want to explore in this context the cross-discursive connections between cartography and post-continental thinking. Their important project relies, as I see it, on a critical cartographic method which according to post-human scholar Rosi Braidotti can be defined as follows: “A cartography is a theoretically based and politically informed account of the present that aims at tracking the power relations operational in and immanent to the production and circulation of both knowledge and subjectivity.”
It is well known that geographical frameworks are essentially a cartographic celebration of existing power relations. The orderly arrangement of the continents—expressed in terms like first-, second-, and third-world—turned the globe into a jigsaw puzzle hierarchizing the differences among various human societies. As the continental system was thus formalized, its categories were increasingly naturalized as real physical phenomena. And yet, the entire system of continental division remains contested.
What holds true for geography is all the more important for “thinking.” Post-continental philosophy emerges from the desire to displace the seductive lure of continental reason by formulating critical interventions into manifold forms of normativities, rooted in the epistemological locus of the West. The dis-normalization (and dis-naturalization) of racial/sexual/gender/spatial/spiritual/esthetic/temporal/epistemic/economic/etc. master narratives are debated on the grounds of a precise examination of the questionable cognitive vision that shaped the cartography of the sixteenth century and onwards (see Walter Mignolo). Dislodging the notion of objectivity cast in the “point zero” cartographic neutrality dealt a powerful blow to the entire imperial and colonial architecture of knowledge, science, and its socio-cultures and opened possibilities for transformations that aimed “to displace the order of man altogether,” as argues Zakiyyah Iman Jackson.
I suggest, in debt to thinker and philosopher Sarat Maharaj, that we combine today geo-post-continental and epistemo-post-continental approaches in trying to unpack the agencies active in the Anthropocene oceans. To experiment with any kind of oceanic and island thinking, we need to sever the lineages and tethers to many forms of continentalities. We need to not only think from islands, archipelagoes, atolls, but from the ocean depth, the water column, the coastal “contact zones”—between inside and outside, and the in-between space of ice-worlds.
Conclusion: “de-”, “re-”, and “un”
While pursuing artistic, academic, curatorial, and life projects, thinking with the oceans, I hope, inspires us to address and undo some of the exclusions, the enclosures, and the subordinations that have shaped our cosmopolitics. Well into the twenty-first century, many of us share the feeling that so much needs to be realigned and rediscussed to decolonize and ecologize our institutions, our knowledges, and social environments. We feel a deep sensation of de-stabilization as we try to make sense of the present and the futures-to-come. While we dedicate ourselves to the long project of unlearning and reconceptualizing, we face many difficult crossroads: “Unlearning imperialism,” writes artist-scholar Ariella Azoulay, “involves different types of ‘de-,’ such as decompressing and decoding; ‘re-,’ such as reversing and rewinding; and ‘un-’ such as unlearning and undoing. These particular practices pertain not only to the products of shutters—images, faits accomplis, facts, legal statuses, and museum objects—but to the division of rights that these products naturalize.”
Engaging with what has been “shut off,” repressed, and naturalized through convention and calculation, furthermore invisibilized and silenced by means of racialized, gendered, and anthropocentric hermeneutics requires a great deal of counter-research and counter-visibility. Respectfully interrogating the oceans’ alien unknowability and alterity, and rekindling our relations with the many waters that flow in, through, and across us and them, can be an important lesson of learning and unlearning for how to stay with the trouble.
Cover image: Territorial Agency: Oceans in Transformation, Metropolitan Asia, the mouth of the Pearl River Delta with Hong Kong in a multitemporal transformation analysis of multispectral satellite data. © Territorial Agency