How does our perspective change when we think not only from the sea, but with the sea?
Over the past two decades, the sea has slowly crept into human geography. Together with colleagues in the emergent field of critical ocean geography, we have been making the argument, time and again, that geography has historically been a land-locked and terra-centric project. Geography is ‘earth-writing’, and earthliness has been taken very literally in shaping the spaces in which geographical study has taken place.
As we have been arguing, new geographical knowledge can be unearthed when thinking from the sea, and an increasing number of scholars are joining in this project. Studies from the sea are becoming more commonplace as we appreciate that ‘our world is an ocean world’ (Langewieche, 2001, 1). Subjects, objects, knowledges, and forces – seafarers, migrants, offshore protesters, fishermen (and women), naval officers, fish, ships, fossil fuels, consumer goods, laws, currents, and infrastructures have all featured in the numerous publications that now pay attention to life at sea.
This project is still ongoing.
Most recently, though, inspired by a recent raft of work on verticality and volume, movement and mobility, time and the Anthropocene, territory and space, we have been exploring not just how we can think from the sea, but how we can think with the sea. How can the sea’s three-dimensional, wet, volatile form, — with its ongoing processes of repetition and differentiation, dissolution and recomposition, stasis and dynamism — help us rethink some of the key questions that are driving critical social and political sciences?
In ‘Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces’, our article published in Society and Space volume 33, issue 2 (Steinberg & Peters, 2015), we seek to question how the sea – its materiality, motion, and temporality – allows for new ways of thinking that are not possible when only thinking with the land. We develop what we term a ‘wet ontology’ – a way of thinking about the world that comes from a wet, watery perspective. This, we argue, opens new frames for thinking geographically.
But that raises a methodological question: How one can write about so ‘slippery’ a subject. How can one describe the ocean as an object without obliterating the reformative dynamism that makes it such a powerful trope? And how can one write about the ocean as something to think not only with but from without reducing it to a metaphor?
One approach is to couch our analysis within an extended series of theoretical debates. This is what we do in ‘Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces’, writing in the grammar of an academic, and, in particular, a Society and Space journal article. Another tactic is to work through an extended series of ocean encounters. We do this in a related piece in Harvard Design Magazine (Peters & Steinberg, 2014), where we use the search for two contemporary marine phantoms – the Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370 and the ghost ship Lyubov Orlova – to plough the depths of ocean-space. In this post, however, we take a third approach, reflecting on the ocean(s) in our lives as a route toward exploring the power of a ‘wet ontology’, threading personal narratives with excerpts from the Society and Space article to ‘give depth to volume through oceanic thinking’.
When I moved to west Wales, a few years ago now, the sea became enfolded into daily life. At first, this happened in quite an obvious way.
After work I used to skirt town, along the North Road.
I liked the elevation of the street. From this vantage, behind the Victorian villas, flat blocks, commercial buildings, and the crescent of houses lining the promenade, you could glimpse the sea.
It would be peeping over – emerging between – the solid vista; the foreground.
The ocean, though, became my foreground.
It was novel, I suppose. To live by the sea. That walk, the walk that would skirt the town, loop down to the beach, before folding back to trace a path along the shore, was out of my way. My house, some miles away, looked inwards to the land. Yet I was drawn to the sea. To walk by the sea. To watch the sea. To listen to the sea. To feel the sea. Mostly, I was drawn to the waves. Constant. Changing. Chaotic. Calming. Encompassing.
On the waves there may … be “nothing but waves”. But these waves pose provocative questions for those who would seek to develop an ontological perspective that problematises accepted notions of time, space, mobility, and materiality.
The sea was more than simply waves.
The … waves, in their repetition but also in their individuation and variation and in the ways in which their whole is greater, but also less, than the sum of their parts, forms a “nautical murmur”… As “background noise,” the ocean subtly insinuates itself into the ways in which we understand and organise subjectivity, temporality, and spatiality.
There was nothing subtle about this sea, however. It became my foreground.
My life had changed so much. When I moved to west Wales, it was one of a handful of moves. A web of connections; a shadow of self, left here and there; packing, and unpacking life from a box; journeys woven in faint lines across the country.
The ocean [is] not…a space of discrete points between which objects move but rather…a dynamic environment of flows and continual recomposition where “place” can be understood only in the context of mobility.
It seemed that nothing stayed the same. Yet I could guarantee the sea would be there. Elemental stability in a world of flux. Yet as I walked, and seasons changed, the light grew dim, and the wind whipped up the waves.
That sight of the sea, slipping between the buildings on the North Road, would rise and fall (depending on whether the tide was in or out). In the bleak winters, the waves seemed angry. The water – murky and grey.
Tipped with white peaks, ebbing and flowing not back, not forth, but like some sort of cauldron, swirling. Yet in the summer.
I could smell that salt on my skin. And you could have walked on that surface, hardly a ripple tainting the plateau. Yet there was something below. A restlessness.
The materiality of water, and especially sea water, is evocative as volume. What might first appear as a horizontal, still, and empty plane, can, through perspective, proximity, and angles, become fully spherical or voluminous… There is a persistent, underlying churn – a dynamic pattern of repetition and re-formation.
Everything appeared still; more permanent for me. But beneath, change.
Over time, the container of life became full.
I walked by the sea less. A salty memory. Of old sunsets turning the liquid blue, pink; of spray so light, dancing on across my face, enfolding dry life, on dry land.
The ocean suggests that we think with a different, non-linear, non-measurable notion of time.
Oh. I wish I had more time. So, in spite of its physicality, the sea took on another life. It became a metaphor.
I remembered these words I’d heard before.
There is a point when water comes in more quickly. You can say it’s the relative depths of nearshore and foreshore. You can recall how the gulls are able to stand a long way out, how the incline isn’t steep.
Only it always surprises me. Comes in at a rush. A white marker I put up is swallowed. A patch of stones clings on in the backwash. And I find I’m moving my shoes above the flood mark. Again. (Debney, 2013).
I’d heard, when you live here long enough, that you don’t notice the sea. It disappears. Becomes a background. Behind the beach, and the tourists with their ice creams, the image positioned at the rear of a postcard.
The ocean – through its material re-formation, mobile churning, and non-linear temporality – creates the need for new understandings of mapping and representing; living and knowing … Like the ocean itself, maritime subjects and objects can move across, fold into, and emerge out of water in unrecognised and unanticipated ways.
Growing up, I never thought much about the sea. When I did, the sea was subsumed by THE BEACH. The beach (to be precise, New York’s Jones Beach, named, as E.L. Doctorow notes, “for the common man”) was not a place but a journey: a hot, sticky car ride on vinyl seats, parents in the front debating which route would have the least traffic, brothers in the back, bored. And finally a long trek through the parking lot, across the sea oats, to a hot strip of sand packed with fellow pilgrims listening to the Yankees, or perhaps Billy Joel, on their AM radios.
This was not the sea. The beach ended at the sea. The water, ostensibly the point of the journey, was just an excuse for performing an earthly ritual. As in Kim’s Aberystwyth, the sea was idealised as background: the “image positioned at the rear of a postcard.” You went into the water to ‘cool down’ but the tactile experience was meant to be temporary and fleeting, not absorptive. Shortly after going into the water you got out and warmed up again. Beachgoers were to engage in predictable cycles. Like waves.
Sunbathers had brief licence to detach from the crowd and gaze across the ocean’s expanse. I liked to fantasise that I was looking across the horizion to Portugal. Then one morning I looked at a map and realised that with Long Island’s orientation I was really looking south toward Venezuela! It didn’t matter. Regardless of where I was looking, I had to be careful not to do it for too long. The cool kids listened to music or played volleyball or even read, with occasional dips in the water to remind them why they were there. Only social misfits used the sea as a space for thinking.
The fluid unknowability of the ocean generates lines of connection that cut through classic geopolitical lines of division, much as the ocean similarly facilitates both connection and division in economic and cultural spheres.
When I ventured into the surf, I was less impressed by the waves’ height than by the water’s darkness. Was the foreign object that I just stepped on a stone, a piece of glass, a jelly fish, a waiting shark?
Whilst the vertical nature of the ocean has confounded both direct visual observation and satellite surveillance, it has been the ocean’s volume – that is its existence as a hydrodynamic arena in which waves (of water) restrict investigators’ ability to observe the reflection of other waves (of light and sound) – that ultimately, is making surveillance, and, more generally, governance, so challenging.
Would the seabed support me like ‘normal’ ground, or would it sink below me, rising, falling, and enveloping me like the water that was embracing the upper half of my body? Would a wave break on top of me, presenting its volume as mass, and then drag me under, reminding me that in the end that it is volume after all? Or would the wave break some ways out, imparting me with just a gentle, knowing nudge?
One can hike on a mountain trail without realising that one is traversing a landform whose existence is the result of tectonic subduction. It is much more difficult to step into the surf without encountering and reflecting on both water’s mobility and its depth.
Today, when I look back at Jones Beach I think of it less as a space of escape or romanticisation, than as an achievement of landscape architecture: one piece of an infrastructural assemblage (highways, fueling stations, jobs that paid enough to subsidise family automobile purchases). The urban beach turned immigrants, every so briefly, toward the waves that had brought them to New York, only to return them back to their homes as ‘citizens’, as Americans, as New Yorkers.
But this analysis falls short. Is the ocean simply a unidimensional and flat functional surface of connection, repurposed as a romantic but fleeting icon of difference? Is it not instead, both something more dramatic, and more prosaic?
The ocean’s value as a “theory machine” lies not in its existence as an object of alterity (whether real or imagined) but in the ways in which its materiality intersects with global political economies and territories, constructing a “world interior of capital” that both facilitates and disrupts the flows that constitute expansive capitalism.
Since leaving New York, I have lived by many oceans. In Ohio, I swam in the shadow of a steel mill in Lake Erie, discovering, for the first time, that my native country had a ‘North Coast’ and gaining new appreciation for the Russian habit of calling large bodies of water ‘sea’ whether or not they are salt water. In California, I observed the periodic movement of surfers and how these intersected with the periodic breaking of the waves. On the barrier islands of Florida, I came to understand how the migrations of sand bars and, ultimately, dunes, confound an idealised, horizontal division of space into stable, solid land and fluid, liquid water.
It is the chaotic movement and reformation of matter, which is seen most clearly in the churnings of the ocean, that both enables and disrupts (or reterritorialises and deterritorialises) earthly striations.
And now, in Newcastle, I am living in a city that defines itself by the sea. There is a point on the River Tyne a few miles east of Newcastle and a few miles west of Tynemouth, where, on the south bank of the Tyne, Nissans built in Sunderland await shipment across to Europe and, on the north bank, scrap yards prepare the ghosts of old cars for recycling in China.
On many days, one can turn to the sea and find on the horizon an empty car carrier, riding high in the water, waiting for the next load of Nissans for just-in-time delivery.
Twice a day, life on the river is punctuated by the ferry connecting Newcastle with Amsterdam. The region’s shipbuilding days are gone, but Tyneside still produces undersea cables and offshore oil and gas platforms, and ships still drydock there for repair.
Local histories recount Viking invasions, and regional redevelopment plans call for a new ferry to Norway to welcome a new generation of Norse seagoers. The city is brought to the sea, and the sea is brought to the city.
And yet the view from the point at which the Tyne meets the North Sea reveals that even as city and sea are being brought together they are being separated. The infrastructure is solid, unyielding, as much an act of force directed against the ocean’s material nature as an act of linking. There is striation amidst the smoothing.
Even on a relatively calm day, the sharp walls, the uneven surf, the multiple colours and moods of both sea and sky, reveal that the maritime world is a chaotic space and not merely one of flows, and this too can spur critical thinking.
As someone who now not only thinks with and from but also across oceans, I am reminded of the ongoing significance of the ocean as a space that both opens and forecloses futures. As I continually remind my parents in New York, the air journey from Heathrow to JFK takes less time than the two-flight journey that I used to have to take from Tallahassee. And yet, my parents rebut, that isn’t reflected in the cost of travel or, they wryly note, the frequency of my visits.
The ocean still matters, not in spite of but because of the way in which its complex substance complicates our understanding of society and space.
*All boxed quotes are excerpts taken from the published article.
Debney P 2013 Littoral. Bristol: Shearsman.
Langewiesche W 2005 The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime. New York: North Point.
Peters K and P Steinberg 2014 Volume and vision: toward a wet ontology. Harvard Design Magazine 39: 124-129.
Steinberg P and K Peters 2015 Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33: 247-264.
All photos are by the authors, except:
Jones Beach postcard: Boardwalk and beach, Jones Beach, Long Island, New York. Babylon, NY: Tomlin Art Company, ca. 1930-1945. Available via the Boston Public Library’s Digital Commonwealth website, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/3r0769128.