Thinking with Oceans

In her blog, Sonja Boon (Gender Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland) considers the myriad ways that we think through oceans. We think with our shared histories, our sense of scale, our sense of responsibility, and our collective scholarship to meet the challenge of the oceans’ complexity and interconnectedness with who we are, what we have done, and how we might think about ourselves in this oceaned globe.

Until almost exactly eleven years ago, I didn’t think much about oceans at all. Sure, I’d lived in Vancouver for over a decade, but the ocean that laps along the shores of Lotus Land doesn’t look, feel or smell like an ocean, not like a real ocean, anyway. Vancouver’s Pacific is a playground; it’s about nude bodies on Wreck Beach, cafes and dogs on Jericho Beach, fresh German sausages and sauerkraut on Granville Island, rollerblades along False Creek. Vancouver’s ocean is about whales frolicking between the Gulf Islands. It’s about draft dodgers, pot growers, and hipsters.  I’m simplifying, of course. There are many more stories to Vancouver’s oceanic edge. But these are the stories that I learned during my decade in that city. And they are the stories I lived. My ocean was an urban ocean: genteel, picturesque, and tamed by lattes, Goretex, and gentrification.

It’s a cliché, but it took moving to the edge of a windy rock in the North Atlantic (and from there into a new methodological research space) to really begin to think about oceans.


Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador, November 2018.

What might the oceans – and the oceanic – have to offer in terms of new ways of knowing, and from there, new ways of seeing, thinking, feeling, and being? How might oceanic thinking change the way we think about subjectivity, identity, embodiment? How might water, waves, currents, and tides help us to better understand long histories of colonialism and imperialism, and further, how might they inform contemporary relationships with others, both human and more-than-human, in the present day?

These are the kinds of questions that informed my most recent book project. Ostensibly written as a memoir, What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is an autoethnographic meditation on memory, history, archives, and the afterlives of slavery and indenture. Because it is based on family histories that traverse five continents, it is also, necessarily, about oceans. Thinking with and through oceans has been foundational to my attempts to make sense of a tangled – and tangly – family history, and further, my place in it.

For scholars like Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, the ocean is surf and waves; as a site of migration, it is also a space of transition and transformation. Ingersoll’s “seascape epistemology,” premised on Kanaka understandings of the ocean,  is “an approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual and embodied literacy of the ‘aina (land) and kai (sea): birds, the colors of the clouds, the flows of the currents, fish and seaweed, the timing of ocean swells, depths, tides, and celestial bodies all circulating and flowing with rhythms and pulsations…” (5-6). Elspeth Probyn (2016), meanwhile, looks at the ocean as a horizon – a site of encounter between the human and the more-than-human, the ocean can be understood as an entangled borderland. For Renisa Mawani, the ocean – and its currents in particular – offers a way into understanding the complexities of colonial bodies, politics, and migrations. Scholars of the Black Caribbean, meanwhile, figure water – here understood primarily as the oceans that managed the Middle Passage – as a site of haunting that is both life giving and life destroying (see, for example, Alexander 2006; Mustakeem 2016; Stipriaan 2003, 2007). Oceans are infested with ugly histories. Polluted with the debris of the Atlantic slave trade and histories of indenture, as well as the muck of penal ships and refugee journeys and detainments, these seas are not the “timeless, unchanging, unmarked, deeply unhistoric” waters of our imaginations (Perera 2013, 62); rather, they are weighted with the histories of colonial violence (Chambers 2010, 679).

Oceans, then, are surf, tides, waves, currents, rhythms, memories, sounds, history, life, death, migration, bodies, longings….

And yet, as numerous thinkers and writers have observed, the ocean is, within dominant western strains of thought, fundamentally unknowable. Too vast, it is overwhelming. Too mobile, it challenges desires for fixity, solidity, the ground beneath our feet. I know this, too, from my own research. As I write in What the Oceans Remember, my research process unmoored me. I didn’t know what it meant to dive into the ocean, to allow my body and my thinking to bob, roll, flow, churn, sink, float, drift, toss with the currents, rhythms, and memories of the sea. I was overwhelmed, sinking, drowning. I didn’t know how to make sense of oceans, waves, currents, histories, memories, hauntings.

Thinking with and through oceans has taught me to work differently with time and space. Stefanie Hessler observes that the tide, for example, “never returns to the same spot twice, and its movement is affected by several forces that themselves continually change: currents rising from the deep sea, the moon, the wind, and ecological conditions that complicate any plain dialectic view” (2018, 33). Renisa Mawani’s engagement with oceanic currents, meanwhile, reveals a complexity that also undermines any claims to linear time: “[c]urrents do not have a readily identifiable beginning, a fixed or static center, or a clear end.” She writes,

Animated by multiple movements and countermovements, they join distant coordinates, in both space and time. Through their lively physical properties, currents speak compellingly to the limitations of other transnational and imperial frames, including webs. Currents exist in several registers at once. They follow multiple trajectories, exhibit changing dimensions, and thus offer alternative metaphors and additional ways to chart the discrepant mobilities of colonial and imperial worlds. (2018, 21)

Time, here, is not linear; rather, it is relational, experienced through the interaction of different forces – terrestrial, aqueous, and lunar.


Looking out over a haunted Caribbean Sea, February 2015.

So, too, does oceanic thinking necessarily ask me to think about time in relation to memory. In the words of Janine McLeod, the sea might be imagined as “an infinite water in which everything is retained, and where all times mingle together” (2013, 40). Oceanic time cannot be contained in an endless march forward; it must be differently understood. After all, as Hessler observes, “a being dedicated to water is a being in flux” (2018, 33).

Further, oceanic thinking reminds me to pay attention to rhythm and movement: the open ocean is endless and always in motion. Linearity must be reimagined: as “an unresolved cycle” to follow Hessler (2018, 33), and “in several registers at once” to follow Mawani (2018, 21). As seafarers around the globe can attest, the ocean is a volatile space of transition and transformation, where different current buffet against one another in sometimes unpredictable ways. Thinking through this volatility, Mawani’s work suggests, offers new ways of working through the dense complexity of colonial and imperial relations.



The remains of the former Marienburg Plantation, Suriname. In operation from the eighteenth through to the twentieth century, this sugar and coffee plantation relied on enslaved and later indentured labour.

Oceanic thinking asks me to think about bodies differently. Following Astrida Neimanis (2013), what might it mean to think of ourselves not as autonomous, self-contained, solid beings, but rather, as watered? As she writes, “In purely descriptive terms, we are bodies of water, but we also reside within and as part of a fragile global hydrocommons, where water – the lifeblood of humans and all other bodies on this planet – is increasingly contaminated, commodified and dangerously reorganized” (2013, 103). Indeed, Elizabeth Povinelli reminds us of our intimate bodily relations with the more-than-human. “The tides and coastal headlands are another epidermal layer of my skin,” she writes, continuing a bit later, “We are able to breathe because we are the external lungs of the sea” (175). This “watery subjectivity” (Neimanis 2013) offers a way into an understanding of self premised on radical interconnectedness. We are not “men who hold dominion over the world” as biblical imperatives might have it, but rather, bodies shaped by, through, and with the oceans. What might it mean, following Indigenous understandings of water relations (Maracle 2017; Million 2014; Young Leon 2017), to kin with the ocean, to include oceanic intentionality in our webs of relations?

Indeed, oceanic thinking has required me to interrogate notions of boundaries and borders. Povinelli’s epidermal waves and oceanic lungs, Neimanis’s watery subjectivity, and Ingersoll’s Kanaka surfing body all evoke selves shaped through and with oceans, encounters that depend on ever evolving, ever-shifting relationships between the human and the more-than-human. This more-than-human: the wind, the birds, the waves, the currents – and in Newfoundland and Labrador, the icebergs – is not passive; rather, oceanic thinking reminds me of the intentionality and agency of the more-than-human, and also, and in this way, of the ultimate inability of such terms to capture the complexity of our interactions and entanglements.


Frozen ocean, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, March 2015.

 Finally, oceanic thinking has asked me to attend to questions of feeling and emotion. Oceans are repositories of human memory – both metaphorical and material. The ocean floor is littered with the souls of those transported across oceans: the enslaved, the indentured, the incarcerated, the displaced. In this haunted space-time, past, present, and impossible futures collide with one another. How can I make sense of histories of ruination? How can I live well in the afterlives of slavery and indenture?

Along the shore of my adopted island home, I listen to the rhythms of the surf, the water rising and crashing, the beach stones dancing. I feel myself, watery, watered. Breathing. Remembering. Thinking. Searching. Listening. Learning.


Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Chambers, Iain. “Maritime criticism and theoretical shipwrecks.” PMLA 125.3 (2010): 678-684.

Hessler, Stefanie. “Tidalectices: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science.” In Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview Through Art and Science, ed. Stefanie Hessler, 31-81. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.

Ingersoll, Karin Amimoto. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Maracle, Lee. “Water.” In Downstream: Reimagining Water, eds. Dorothy Christian and Rita Wong. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017.

Mawani, Renisa. Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

McLeod, Janine. “Water and the Material Imagination: Reading the Sea of Memory against the Flows of Capital.” In  Thinking With Water, eds. Cecilia Chen, Janine McLeod, and Astrida Neimanis, 40-60. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Million, Dian. “There is a river in me: Theory from life.” In Theorizing native studies, eds. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Mustakeem, Sowande’, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Neimanis, Astrida. “Feminist subjectivity, watered.” Feminist Review 103 (2013): 23-31.

Perera, Suvendrini. “Oceanic corpo-graphies, refugee bodies and the making and unmaking of waters.” Feminist Review 103 (2013): 58-79.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. “The Kinship of Tides.” In Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview Through Art and Science, ed. Stefanie Hessler, 165-176. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.

Probyn, Elspeth. Eating the Ocean. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Stipriaan, Alex van. “Watramama’s Transatlantic Voyage: Legacy of the Slave Trade with Suriname.” In The transatlantic slave trade: Landmarks, legacies, expectations, eds. James Kwesi Anquandah et al. Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2007.

Stipriaan, Alex van. “Watramama/MamiWata: Three centuries of creolization of a water spirit in West Africa, Suriname and Europe.” Matatu – Journal for African culture and society 27.1 (2003): 323-337.

Young Leon, Alannah and Denise Marie Nadeau. “Moving with Water: Relationship and Responsibilities.” In Downstream: Reimagining Water, eds. Dorothy Christian and Rita Wong. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017.


One thought on “Thinking with Oceans

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s