Swimming Into the Blue Humanities

Image by Caroline Grondim, via Unsplash
Tuesday 29 October 2019
4.00 - 5.30pm

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Seminar Room 650, Level 6, Social Sciences Building, University of Sydney


Join SEI in welcoming visiting scholar Professor Steve Mentz for his keynote lecture, Swimming Into the Blue Humanities.

Ocean swimming can serve as embodied ecological meditation for the Anthropocene. In touching the great waters, we feel something. Immersion works through feeling – both the ‘feel for the water’ emphasised by swim coaches and the ‘oceanic feeling’ rhapsodised by poets and psychologists. That feel and that feeling lure us into the water, and sometimes frighten us away.

Swimming is only a semi-natural practice for terrestrial humans. At best, we engage the water slowly, awkwardly, and at considerable personal risk. Western literary culture confines swimming to super-heroes such as Beowulf or Odysseus, whose exceptional prowess emphasises the inability of most humans to survive in water. The rise of ocean swimming as popular recreation in the second half of the twentieth century changes the relationship between human and ocean. In plunging our bodies into an inhospitable environment, we encounter an alien presence, soothing and dangerous at the same time.

The ‘blue humanities’ names an effort by academics and others to engage the oceanic blue of our planet’s living surface. Swimming occupies a key node in this network, as a place of intimate contact and risk. The long human history of swimming from the so-called ‘aquatic ape’ to Diana Nyad and Michael Phelps tells a story of love and practice. A little-known but essential text for Anglophone swimmers is Everard Digby’s illustrated 1587 how-to-swim manual that pictures humans swimming like dogs, frogs, ships, and dolphins. Literary depictions of swimming range from Homer and Shakespeare to contemporary swim-memoirs by Leanne Shapton and Diana Nyad.

From the shipwrecked swims of Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe to the immersive poetry of Byron and Whitman, swimming captures the human experience of environmental alienation. The swimmer’s entrance into the great waters embraces ecological uncertainty. The ocean swimmer captures environmental risk and human vulnerability in to the Anthropocene.

This event will be followed by a performance from Baptism in Courtyard Bar. 


Steve Mentz is a Professor of English at St John’s University, New York. He has directly engaged with port and harbour studies in New York and Bristol, and has authored numerous publications including Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization 1550-1719, (2015) and At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009). A forthcoming book in the Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series is titled Ocean.


David Schlosberg (Introduction) is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations, Payne-Scott Professor, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental justice.

Ann Elias (Q&A Moderator) completed a PhD in art history at the University of Auckland. In 1990 she was appointed lecturer in art theory at Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney, teaching students training to be artists. In 2017 she was appointed to a position in the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney. Current teaching and research address the history and theory of art and visual culture, and themes in contemporary art.


Baptism, a collaboration between Charlie Sundborn and Solomon Frank, mythologises the ocean to construct ritualistic performances. Both Solomon and Charlie use their wind instruments as conduits for the environmental force of the ocean; performing within it and developing a musical language where the instruments are submerged. Baptism is a fantastical enigma that has attracted the curiosity of Sydney’s experimental music scene through their surrealist public performances at beaches and waterways around Sydney on the solstices.