Reading Notes from the Sea: an Oecologies Reading Group

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California Davis, English

On October 2, 2020, the Oecologies Reading Group gathered virtually via Zoom to discuss readings related to this year’s theme of “On the Sea and Coastal Ecologies.” It was also the inaugural “Sea” event for the Oe-adjacent Earth, Sea, Sky network, who are joined this year by faculty from a University of California Humanities Research Institute multicampus faculty working group. We’re thrilled to welcome these scholars and look forward to a series of virtual conversations across the year. 

Over twenty-five Oe scholars and affiliates from around the globe engaged with readings selected by the reading group facilitators, Vin Nardizzi (UBC, English), Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut, Maritime Studies), and Tom White (Oxford, English). The readings were 1) Helen M. Rozwadowski, “A Long Sea Story” from her Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2018), and 2)  Renisa Mawani, “The Free Sea” from her Across Oceans of Law (2018), and, as an optional third selection, 3) Surabhi Ranganathan’s ArcGIS collection of mini-essays, “The Law of the Sea” (2020). Joining us was one of the authors, historian of science Helen Rozwadowski, who engaged us productively in questions about her research on the sea.

Following brief introductions to the three essays, we divided into three breakout rooms to facilitate small group conversation. Each room developed its own oceanic ecological thread but with notable cross-currents. Vin’s group generated a set of words—cephalopod, flood, foam, plankton, fog, technology, bottom—that opened up conversations about relationships between depth and surface and the jurisdictional lines that delimit them. The etymology of “fathom-line” and its utility led to discussion of what it might mean to think about “ocean as method.” Similarly, in Debapriya’s breakout room, participants explored how we might define and know the sea. Questions of scale, especially as pertaining to a vertical or horizontal axis, prompted thinking about the relationship of limits to a “free,” “incomprehensible,” and “timeless” history of the ocean sea. The fluidity and mutability of the ocean also emerged as a theme in Tom’s group, where members drew on Rozwadowski’s long pre-human history of the ocean to frame changing and comparatively recent political fortunes and overlapping sovereignties in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Technologies developed for containing, mapping, and navigating the ocean, including the crucial chronometer, amplified our understanding of the relationship of colonial centers to the peripheries and margins, even on the “vast” and “free” sea.  This relationship was revealed, too, in the long legal influence of Grotius, and related Dutch and other colonial land reclamation schemes, an influence on infrastructure and oceanic shipping routes that in the early twentieth-century resulted in a spectacular challenge to Canada’s practice of excluding immigrants from India. When the Japanese vessel Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, Canada carrying several hundred Indians, most of the migrants were denied entry into the country and repatriated to Kolkata.

The reading group also began to compile a working bibliography of scholarship that came up in conversation. If you have thoughts or suggestions, I welcome you to send them to Laura Hutchingame (lhutchingame@g.ucla.edu ), one of our wonderful graduate research assistants, who is creating an Endnote database for the working group this year. 

Our next reading group will convene in February 2021 and will shift our disciplinary focus to art history. It will be led by Lyle Massey (UC Irvine, Art History) and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA, Art History).  If you’re interested to join us, please keep an eye out for further details on the Oecologies Facebook and Twitter feeds. 

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