Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ocean is the New East: Contemporary Representations of Sea Life and Mandeville’s Monstrous Ecosystems

Spring Break was, well, hardly a break at all, but I celebrated its conclusion with some friends from Ohio who were visiting for the weekend. We dined, we drank, we danced and we toured a few of the MUST SEE sights of DC. Our last stop was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where I reveled in the gorgeous new exhibit: The Sant Ocean Hall. The only one of our cadre enamored of oceanic discoveries, I hurried from display to display, basking in bioluminescent beings, awe-struck at extremophiles and trembling before the model of Phoenix, the North Atlantic right whale. Deeply affected by these strange strangers, I stretched my imagination towards the inconceivable and wondered at the sheer breadth of possibilities for ways of living in these still-occult abyssopelagic regions.

I found solace in the evidence that so many vast and heterogeneous lives can flourish without the intrusive light of the sun or human reason, and that such animacy is possible in the darkness, in a “world where the Copernican revolution is irrelevant.” (1) I attempted to think with and alongside such creatures, to make myself uncomfortable by imagining myself breathing without oxygen, thriving at thermal vents, manifesting light with my own body, an aqueous and somewhat amorphous body squeezed and strangled by the only just bearable pressures of the deep sea. I attempted a posthumanist thought project similar to what Stacy Alaimo describes in “Violet-Black,” her contribution to Prismatic Ecology, in which she insists that “Thinking with and through the electronic jellyfish, seeing through the prosthetic eye, playing open-ended, improvisational language games with deep-sea creatures, being transformed by astonishment and desire enact a posthumanist practice.” (2)

Responding to the highly-stylized illustrations in books from the Census of Marine Life, Alaimo finds in such affective imagery an invitation to new ways of thinking life, and consequently the possibility for the dethronement of terrestrial ideas of sovereignty. Each Smithsonian display, like each vibrantly hued illustration of marine life, defamiliarizes this planet and renders a world that simply will not surrender to humanity’s hubristic desire for authority. Each impossible way of being, now proven possible, works to dismantle what Mel Y. Chen calls the “animacy hierarchy” by begging us to reconsider just what the hell comprises an “animate” body anyway. (3) And yet, as I wandered from station to station examining these oceanic bodies summoned from the abysses of the sea, lifeless, entombed in glass jars and carefully arranged for an American viewing public, I could not forget the relation between observers and observed, nor that human science and politicking still fashion a sovereign/subject relation between humans and the myriad strangers that populate the seas.

Thus as I wandered the Sant Ocean Hall, I thought about what it means to “wander,” who gets the privilege of wandering (Americans, human knowledge-seekers), and what remains the stationary object of scrutiny (the nonhuman body, the foreign object, the subject of scientific knowledge). These marvelous displays are discrete islands of monstrous creatures that underscore humanity’s desire to safely navigate strange waters. I chose the adjective “marvelous” very carefully, for my wandering about the various exhibits reminded me of a medieval journey to the marvels of the East and, more specifically, of Mandeville’s travels around the monstrous islands just past the Holy Lands and off the coasts of Africa and India. For the ocean, it seems, is the new East, compared against the way the medieval Western hegemony represented the East in its travel literature. The inhabitants of Earth’s oceans are put on display to be navigated, plundered, studied and represented by the sovereign powers of Western thought. Like Mandeville’s tale of fish that deliver themselves to the shore for human consumption, we expect the seas to divulge their mysteries for our ravenous desire to control by means of knowledge-making.

In Chapter 13 of the Defective Version of The Book of John Mandeville (ed. Kohanski and Benson), the narrator announces that, having completed his tour of the Holy Lands, he intends to “telle of yles and diverse peple and bestes” (1380). This rather lengthy chapter is rich in peculiarity and marvel, a veritable encyclopedia of the monstrous. An allegory-generating female spirit grants riches and doles out commensurate consequences for her supplicants’ greed. Gendered diamonds mate and spawn resplendent children, challenging notions about the inertness of lithic objects. Nudists, cannibals, blood drinkers, as well as pygmies, dog-headed creatures and headless bodies with ocular and oral orifices on their chests and shoulders roam these foreign shores. Mandeville fulfills the European desire to believe the East is wholly Other, a monstrous and invitingly dangerous land abundant in resources and passively awaiting representation by the Western imagination.

Yet, although his descriptions of the diverse beings of the East are certainly mythical, Mandeville also lends a certain scientific explanation for the monstrous by repeatedly attending to the extreme heat of this region; Mandeville offers a climatological cause for the wonders he claims to encounter. Ethiopians hide from the sun under feet large enough to shield their bodies; men on the isle of Ermes suffer their “ballockys hongeth doun to her shankes” (1557). In such intolerable climates precious stones spill from river banks, reptiles grow to enormous proportions and, as I mentioned above, fish are so “plenteuous” that they offer themselves up for consumption. Heat is generative, and the corporeal peculiarities of the deserts as well as the fecundity of the tropical East are, in Mandeville, responses to extreme climate - much like the extremophiles surviving sulfuric blasts of scorching heat from deep sea vents. Each coastal country and island in The Book of John Mandeville is a unique ecology, an oikos or home to the various and varying creatures that inhabit these spaces, and like contemporary scientific attempts to understand the porosity between bodies and ecosystems once thought uninhabitable, Mandeville offered something like a medieval ecological justification for the diversity of beings he describes.

Thus I wonder if we can assume that the imaginative spaces – and the marvelous creatures inhabiting those spaces – drawn by medieval travel literature generated new ways of thinking about an environmentally and ecologically complex world. Can we not find in such texts an anxiety and ambivalence about an earth more vast and verdant than God’s rubric allowed? Although giants erupt from Biblical origins, and blood drinkers, flesh eaters and necrophiliacs may mark anxieties about their obvious Catholic analogues– remember, Christians believe a man came back from the dead, a man whose actual body and blood Catholics consume at every Mass – what of the other strange strangers that emerge from the pages of Mandeville, the Cynocephales and headless figures with sensory organs in their chest? Are these curious beings the imagined consequences of thinking through previously un-thought ecosystems? Although fictitious, these tropical creatures seems to signal the disorienting encounter with evidence that the Earth and its beings are more heterogeneous than previously believed.

There is something disanthropocentric, then, to Mandeville’s imagining the wondrous creatures of the East, just as Alaimo insists that encountering the enchantingly strange creatures of the ocean’s depths is a sort of posthumanist practice. The Smithsonian’s website might argue that “It’s hard to imagine a more forbidding place than the icy cold, pitch black, crushing environment of the deep sea ocean. It’s even hard to imagine anything living there,” (4) yet, like Mandeville, we MUST imagine new possibilities of living on this Earth, we must see through the eyes of the abyssal aliens, feel the torturous heat with medieval monsters, if we are ever to dethrone Humanity from the heights of ecological sovereignty.

(1)Stacy Alaimo, “Violet-Black,” in Prismatic Ecology, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: U of Minn Press, 2013): 245.
(2)Ibid, 247.
(3)See Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, Duke UP, 2012)
(4)“The Deep Sea,” The Smithsonian Ocean Portal website:

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