Notes from the Sea: An Oecologies Reading Group

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California, Davis

On Saturday, November 13th, 2021, Dr. Tom White led a discussion amongst fifteen scholars from the U.S, the U.K., and Canada that engaged with two recent blue humanities publications: a chapter on “Interface” from Melody Jue’s Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater (Duke University Press, 2020) and an essay, “Noise on the Ocean Before ‘Pollution’: The Voyage of Saint Brendan,” by Liam Lewis (forthcoming in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment). (Lewis is a core member of “Earth, Sea, Sky.”) Tom White opened the discussion by prompting members to think beyond the technologically mediated space of the sea: what happens when we move beyond accounts of instrumental mapping or measurement to consider Jue’s conceptual term “volumetric”?  What new perspectives might we gain if we approach oceanic materials through a “volumetric” that asks questions of duration, pressure, and saturation rather than reads for more usual terms like “surface” and “depth”? What are the volumetrics of ocean and sea noise?

The conversation currents flowed from the recent documentary on Jacques Cousteau that opens Lewis’s essay to medieval texts such as Havelock and biblical stories (Jonah and the Whale), to Marlowe’s early modern poem Hero and Leander. We talked about the difference between sound as human effect (voice, speech, rhythm) and noise as nonhuman phenomenon that might generate a disruption of human logos. At what point does rhyme becomes a hubbub? How might lyric be simultaneously transformative and also a drunken sea shanty such as we hear in The Tempest? Is rhyme surface or is it a deep embrace? Song, one participant noted, was also a practical tool of sea labor. The repetition of sound might measure the passage of time (and servitude) as well as provide formal literary structure.

Another current followed how we might rethink notions of “pressure.” How might this consideration extend to a scholar’s own sense of pressure to publish, to be productive and to meet university metrics? The physical process of decompression within diving lessons was posed as a useful model for rethinking how to release “pressure.” Intensities of color and saturation were additional art-historical concepts posed as offering “volumetric” ways of thinking through the sea that move us away from textual of language-based forms of analysis.  Finally, recent debates about “surface” reading were tossed around, and a lively conversation ensued about how the term “volumetrics” might shift the debate.

The reading group was a great chance to restart conversations for the 2021/2022 academic year.  Stay tuned for the winter (February 18) and spring (April 22) reading groups that will begin to transition our collective conversation to axis points where sea meets sky. 

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