Reflections on Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s visit to York

We were delighted to welcome Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey (UCLA) to York earlier this week for what was a hugely enjoyable day of productive conversations on maritime and oceanic themes.

Professor DeLoughrey led a workshop based on a selection of readings, before giving a talk, entitled ‘The Sea is Rising: Visualizing Climate Change in the Pacific’, for which you can read an abstract here. What follows is an attempt to draw together some common themes from the day, which we hope to build on during the conference later in the month.

With the help of Professor DeLoughrey, we chose readings for the workshop which we thought reflected some of the most interesting scholarship taking place on the sea today. You can read the selections here.

The sea provides an underpinning element for many, if not most, of the resources we will be discussing at Resources of Resistance, given its fundamental role in systems of world trade, and seemed to be the ideal starting point for our explorations into global cycles of production, consumption and transformation. It’s also a topic which is very much present on the literary agenda at present, as well as in the many other disciplines that were represented at the workshop, which included art history, geography, history, and politics.

Professor DeLoughrey began with seven reasons why the sea was proving such a popular topic right now. These included a new awareness of the place of the sea in American foreign policy (which Professor DeLoughrey termed ‘a scramble for the sea’); the rise of Marxist and postcolonial transoceanic histories of migration; and the topic of Liz’s later talk, the presence of the sea in discussions of climate change, where it represents both a threatened and threatening environment.

Professor DeLoughrey also explained her personal interests in the sea, and how these have developed since the publication of her landmark Routes and Roots in 2007. Some of these new and exciting directions included oceanic waste, the anthropomorphisation of the ocean, and geopolitics of the sea.

What followed was a discussion loosely based on the readings, taking in what Dr Anthony Carrigan (Leeds) helpfully summed up as ‘political, philosophical and pragmatic’ questions, as well as the crucial and complicated ways in which we might navigate between these three categories.

One of the key topics which surfaced a number of times was the way in which theoretical debates, such as whether we should prefer the term ‘anthropocene’ or ‘capitalocene’, can be translated into pragmatic action. Relating to this, we considered how to move between structural and specific examples of climate change and its causes. Many of us felt like we had the critical resources to discuss the macro level we encounter in theory and the micro examples we encounter through our work, but agreed that there seems to be a shortage of theoretical tools which might allow us to link these scales together.

Ideas of scale also came up in connection with the representation of the sea itself, in its matter, movement, and in oceanic metaphors. We often think of the sea as a large mass, but as Professor DeLoughrey pointed out, it is also composed of tiny particles changing shape inconceivable amounts of times per second. Similarly, we tend to think of sea life in terms of large mammals (the ‘charismatic megafauna’ of popular environmental campaigns), but the ocean’s inhabitants are as much bacteria and micro-lifeforms as they are visible to the human eye, as Stefan Helmreich, the author of one of our readings, discusses in his book, Alien Ocean. In the case of climate change, its effects aren’t just in rising sea levels, as tends to come to mind most readily, but in rising temperatures and acidification; a topic which Liz returned to later in her talk.

These discussions of representation led to debate on its ethical dimensions. How can literature and art account for these multiple scales and complex effects of climate change? Can it do so through particular forms? Does medium matter, and what are the relative benefits of photography, video, fiction, and science writing? Here the question of embodied and sensory experiences of the sea came up strongly – while visual mediums such as video suggest the sea’s movement, they are limited in their capacity to convey major aspects of an encounter with the ocean, such as its rhythms, in currents, tides and waves.

As we discussed, areas that might help us to enrich our understanding and representations of the sea might be indigenous and non-western ontologies, which are explored by Professor DeLoughrey in the first part of Routes and Roots; we also discussed the potential value of research into the practices and knowledges of maritime communities. Many of us had examples from our research of these kinds of local knowledges, embedded in particular places – yet, what might it mean for these practices and cultures to be threatened by the environment which produced them? Could they persist as maritime communities are threatened by climate change with displacement?

One of the questions which came up persistently in our discussion was the relationship between materiality and metaphor. Perceptions of and encounters with the sea are strongly conditioned by metaphor, which can have powerful ideological consequences, as found in the apparent legitimation and naturalisation global capitalism finds through metaphors of circulating oceanic flows; yet at the same time, materiality places limits on the kinds of metaphors that are available to us, as well, as we discussed, on the kinds of memories and memorialisations that can be attached to the sea (an example suggested by Prof. DeLoughrey and seen in the image of this post was Grenada’s eerie and poignant underwater sculptures, by Jason de Caires Taylor, which are a monument to slaves forced overboard from Atlantic slave ships).

Professor DeLoughrey’s talk, ‘The Sea is Rising: Visualizing Climate Change in the Pacific’, was based on a chapter of Professor DeLoughrey’s current book project. It was kindly introduced by Dr Carrigan, who will be delivering a keynote lecture at Resources of Resistance, and with whom Professor DeLoughrey is working on a new and highly-anticipated edited collection, titled Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities: Postcolonial Approaches (also co-edited with Jill Didur).

Professor DeLoughrey’s talk explored the legacies of imperial and Cold War island myths, as these have been inherited by contemporary environmentalist discourse, and the effects on islands and islanders of rising sea levels.

The kind of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ described by Renato Rosaldo, and found in much earlier writing on the South Seas and on island tropics, has, Professor DeLoughrey argued, been translated into a new environmental idiom in which it forms an ‘ecological elegy’ in which islands are Edenic and doomed – a paradise before the Fall, and a laboratory in which the environmental polluters (i.e., predominantly non-island dwellers) can see our own future.

Professor DeLoughrey examined this narrative through a very effective discussion of the many documentary films on island communities that have emerged in recent years, and which deploy a strikingly similar range of images and tropes (indigenous belief systems, children dancing, tropical sunset, among others).

A question posed by Professor DeLoughrey, and returned to again in the questions, was: how can we avoid these tropes and represent the real problems posed for island communities by climate change, in ways that which neither deny them their agency nor present the need to leave the island as inevitable? This is a task for critics and artists, and, as Professor DeLoughrey highlighted, we need to negotiate a balance between creating new, more responsible, tools, at the same time as not being afraid to use existing ones strategically, to draw on their known effects in influencing policy and practice.

Professor DeLoughrey ended with the following poem by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, which provided a fascinating take on modes of visualising climate change in the Pacific – and a powerful reminder of the urgency of doing so.

Hannah Boast

 

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3 comments
  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    An excellent write-up of Liz DeLoughrey’s visit to York earlier this month.

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