Talking About the Ocean

In this blog, SSHORE co-founder Danine Farquharson (Department of English, Memorial University of Newfoundland) explores the importance of language to shaping our thinking about oceans: what they are, what they do, and what they need. All these issues can too easily be squeezed into familiar metaphors and paradigms that limit our understanding rather than advance it. It is a core principle of SSHORE that the Humanities and Social Sciences are key to charting those limits, and supporting efforts to move beyond them.

Deep. Mysterious. Dangerous. Unknowable. Frontier. Life-giving. Wondrous. Sublime.

Our languages will never find words or phrases to fully capture the world’s oceans and seas. That failure is neither surprising nor inappropriate. But the inability of language to grasp the ocean should also make all of us acutely aware and careful of the words we do use when talking about the oceans. Because, as the cliché goes, the language we use matters. We would do well to heed Christopher Connery’s warning from twenty years ago: “Ocean as source and ocean as destiny figure in the ocean’s mythological temporality; it is both life-giving mother and final frontier. Tropes of oceanic sublimity, need to be read against the ocean as created, mythological space, and it must also be borne in mind whose and what interests are served by that mythology.”

There is a challenge, no doubt, in talking about the ocean and that challenge resides in resisting the ideologically created and historically damaging myths about oceans. While any number of the words listed above could be the foundation of my blog, the one that is most interesting, troubling, and pertinent today is perhaps “frontier.”

Slate publishes a series of articles and blogs on emerging technologies, public policy, and society called Future Tense. One article, from 2013, was titled “Is the Ocean the Real Final Frontier” and a more recent one, which is more relevant to my thoughts here, is Lisa Messeri’s “We Need to Stop Talking about Space as a ‘Frontier’.” Messeri’s criticism of the space industry’s reliance on the same old frontier metaphor is clear: the language of the frontier not only glosses over the social and historical problems of imagining a frontier that is empty and beckoning but it also limits our imaginations. The historical problems that Messeri does not have time to outline in her article are potent and continuing when the frontier we’re talking about is not space, but oceans. In fact, unlike space, the language of ocean-as-frontier has specific problems that cannot be ignored.

In the 16th century Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that “Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world and consequently the world itself.” It’s worth noting that places this quotation under the category of “world domination” and Oil, Gas, and Mining notes the same quotation in an editorial about offshore disputes between China and Vietnam. Philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel wrote in the 19th century that “The sea gives us the idea of the indefinite, the unlimited, and the infinite; and in feeling his own infinite in that Infinite, man is stimulated and emboldened to stretch beyond the limited: the sea invites man to conquest.” The seas and the oceans have for centuries been conceptualized as integral to Western capitalist activities and colonial goals. It’s not too much of a stretch to write that Western capitalism and colonialism would not have the histories they do without ocean travel and transport.

Thus, the reliance on diction that smacks of colonialism and exploration is not surprising. What is surprising is the historical and continuing use of such diction. Anyone with any smattering of knowledge or awareness of the damage done by colonial enterprises would at least hesitate before invoking the various endeavours embedded within the colonial effort. The ocean as “frontier” is not new, but the description of the ocean as frontier – to be explored, to be mastered, to be tamed, to be managed, to be exploited – surely has seen its day.

What kinds of words or phrases should we use when talking about the ocean? One way to begin is to consider Hester Blum’s argument that “the sea is not a metaphor.” What Blum means, in part, is that the seas and the oceans should not be thought of as abstract spaces and should be considered as real, social places of experience. Another avenue of thinking could be along the lines of Shari Gearheard’s work on the ways that environmental change affects local and traditional knowledges and is reinforced through language. Yet another alternative is through the avenues pursued by nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s work on “rewilding” our lexicon of landscapes and natural phenomenon.

Whatever we do when we talk about the ocean, it is urgent that we do not rely on dangerous and damaging words or phrases from the past. We need to challenge our imaginations and our language skills in new ways and for good reason: the way we talk about the ocean affects the way we think about the ocean and the ways in which we interact with the ocean. As World Oceans Day approaches (June 8), there is no better time than now to do this work and the artists and scholars of the imagination might be the best people to listen to.


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