The Obstructed Horizon: Charting Our Shifting Oceanic Paradigm

by Bruna Ciulli

A couple of years ago, when listening to The Big Sky, in which Kate Bush exclaims, “I’m looking at the big sky/ You never understood me/ You never really tried,” I was hit with a bout of cosmic horror; a torment regarding the unintelligibility of the big sky’s apparent infinitude. Through subsequent sifting through Benjamin Betts’ geometric diagrams of consciousness, fractals and apeirogons, and roaming through Stellarium and Google Earth, I became intrigued with mapping, making the incomprehensible comprehensible. As with the sky, the earth’s oceans are impossibly vast and impenetrable. Standard maps do not do justice to this vastness. Maps of oceans disguise rigid perspectives. They create a false binary between land and sea, human and oceanic. Although coasts are porous, we are accustomed to viewing them as harsh, immutable black lines dividing blue and green. As scholar, and educator Alexis Pauline Gumbs wrote in her essay Being Ocean as Praxis, “Can we imagine beyond the binary between land and sea? Maybe we should, and soon. The ocean is rising.” With its parallel urgency and hesitation this has become a mantra for me as I write to re-evaluate our aesthetic understandings and imaginings of the ocean. 

King Cnut of England was fabled to have cast his crown to God after his orders to the tides to stop rising, were obviously inefficacious. Cnut’s virtue is his recognition of the agency of the sea, one which no amount of kingly and, therefore, godly authority can overpower. Faced with the push and pull of the tide, the agency of the ocean, I imagine Cnut encountered an oceanic feeling. Coined by Romain Rolland in a letter to Freud, an oceanic feeling is a religious feeling “totally independent of all dogma, all credo, all Church organisation, all Sacred Books, all hope in a personal survival, etc., the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the “eternal””

The current paradigm has wasted the oceanic feeling. Using technology can feel eternal, but like chasing a white whale or horizon line it can too easily become heedless and spiritually torturous. Even bathymetric maps don’t foster an oceanic feeling. Though I have no doubts accelerating oceanographic projects are crucial (after all, <25% of the seafloor have been mapped!) I doubt these images will linger in the imaginations of most people or encourage much climate action. It is technology’s sterility which engenders the nihilism of a secular apocalypse- or eventual burning planet.

“Using technology can feel eternal, but like chasing a white whale or horizon line it can too easily become heedless and spiritually torturous”

In her potent eschatological essay Ocean Sensing and Navigating the End of this World, sociologist Jennifer Gabrys notes the futile search for visible evidence in discourses surrounding plastic pollution, when it is in fact a “soup” of microplastics. This, Gabrys suggests, raises the question, “to what extent do environmental problems need to be visible in order to be actionable?” Certainly, if we consider the climate crisis to be a hyperobject, a term describing an object immense compared to a human spatial or temporal dimensions, then its invisibility is what necessitates its very status as a crisis. The nature of global warming’s impact on the ocean as a hyperobject is more pervasive than one might initially think. Elisa Gabbert points out, for example, in Big and Slow, “time-elapse gifs of melting ice don’t help; their extreme compression only minimises the impact of what’s happening at actual size.” 

The ocean itself is a sort of hyperobject, what is beyond the horizon, below the surface may always be obscured. Gabrys writes of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and by extension the Pacific Ocean itself, as a  “society of objects in process”. The technologization of the oceans into the Internet of Things: buoys, remote satellites, instrumented drilling platforms, and high-frequency radar aim to quantify and predict oceanic processes, yet reveal an “ungovernable” ocean.

The sensory society of objects Gabrys describes echoes political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett’s invocation of the Deleuzian term ‘assemblage’ in her book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Bennet describes assemblages as “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts… living, throbbing confederations” and uses the example of an electrical power grid, where elements work together synonymous to an organism. In the case of a blackout on this power grid assemblage, Bennett argues there is not a doer and deed but a “a doing and an effecting by a human-nonhuman assemblage.” Indeed, this can be said of our current marine catastrophes of rising sea levels, bleaching corals, plastic oceans, not to evade responsibility for disaster but to properly reckon with the whole world’s oceanic entanglement. Gumbs put this deftly, “The ocean ourselves is not a mistake. It requires our relation.” Correspondingly, writer, surfer, and scholar Karin Amimoto Ingersoll has discussed the emergence of an “ocean-body assemblage.” 

Scholars such as Gumbs and Amimoto Ingersoll have made waves to shift the current paradigm towards re-embodied commune with the ocean. Being Ocean as Praxis reminds us that we are not simply in assemblage with the ocean but in fact humanity is a body within the oceanic assemblage alongside currents and waves to jellyfish and shipwrecks. Gumbs suggests that “a reckoning with the story the ocean is telling us about climate change” requires “a divestment in being human.” This is not misanthropy but a ceasing of our white suprematist, anthropocentric imaginations. A particularly notable example Gumbs draws upon is the racialized taxonomy the coral Leiopathes glaberrima, whose name Gumbs states is “etymologically related to Leiotrichy, a name for smooth hair in racist ethnology.” In all regards Gumbs calls for, as Gabrys might also suggest, an end of the world made “unbreathable.”

“the rising ocean is wiping out coastal communities, crustaceans can longer form their shells as the ocean acidifies, and between 10-15% of sea life are at immediate risk of extinction”

The colonial nature of the current land-sea paradigm is further critiqued by Amimoto Ingersoll in her book Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Amimoto Ingersoll contrasts Euro-American cartography which is “militaristic, capitalistic, and touristic,” the imperialist forces which Amimoto Ingersoll has defined as threats to Hawaiian culture and environments, with indigenous Kanaka oceanic literacy. Euro-American culture has developed an obsession with boundaries which has been expressed across realms, oceanic striations, sport arenas, and the roots of ‘Otherness’ in Greek literature. Consider, for example, the Euro-American tendency to refer to the seas as something to ‘conquer’ or the ocean as the site of imperialist projects from the transatlantic slave trade to contemporary surf colonialisation.    

Contemporarily, the ocean becomes the centre of colonisation not by traditional conquering, but by the silver-tongued surf tourism industry, who facilitates coastal pollution through the built environment and exploitation of precious water supplies. This form of colonialism is assisted by the “visual vocabulary” of films and postcards, and the “symbolic appropriation though the renaming of surf spots.” He’e nalu (surfing) itself then becomes a language of decolonisation in Hawai’i, one aspect of Kanaka oceanic literacy. 

Kanaka oceanic literacy is an embodied one, which encompasses not just he’e nalu but also poetry, oral histories, art, na ko’a (altars) used to mark fishing grounds and honour gods. It is the application of ‘seascape epistemology’; knowledge of where the sea is shallow and deep, the breadth of a coral reef and the drops in the seabed, the rhythms of the tides and limitations of one’s body, patterns in the clouds, seaweed, and ripples. Kanaka oceanic literacy is “an aesthetic political literacy” with “the ability to engage all types of movement” engaging with the ocean through emotional experience, “empirical observations,” and “subjective sensations.” Time and space are altered through a process of “de-creating and re-creating.” The binary is broken down as the ocean becomes ambiguous “extensions” of the land and self. The ocean shapes us and we shape it. We are fundamentally made of the same stuff – our blood itself is a kind of salt water. We are both enmeshed with its diversity and yet the exact same ‘thing.’ 

Now, emerging from our oceanic assemblage, the rising ocean is wiping out coastal communities, crustaceans can longer form their shells as the ocean acidifies, and between 10-15% of sea life are at immediate risk of extinction. Why are we denying the oceanic nature of our bodies? Why are we suppressing oceanic feelings? To counteract this form of alienation so violent it risks the future of life on earth we must reject the illusion of separation. After all what is the horizon but an unreal phantasm- out there is the edge of the ocean! Through our bodies make the rising tide visible, uncover the waves beyond the horizon. Allowing humanity not to be destroyed but dissolved. 

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