Arts, Science, Oceans, and Futures of Inquiry

What role does imagination play in science, and science in imagination?

“Imagination” comes to modern English from the Anglo-Norman ymaginacione, meaning the mind’s talent for creating images and ideas, and for organizing its creations. It’s a word we often associate with fancy, and with fiction: a “vivid imagination,” by some lights, is a faculty for convincing artifice, for cultivating belief in that which does not really exist. This connection has occasionally led writers to suppose that imagination must be distinct from, if not antithetical to, science. Several years ago, that esteemed poet of place, the Kentuckian Wendell Berry, wrote that imagination, “like science,” is “the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable.” Berry was referring specifically to myth – Greek, Christian, and so on – and the power myths possess to communicate truths, truths that do not rely for their validity on empirically-verifiable evidence.

Berry’s thesis understands imagination and science as independently valuable structures of thought. But what of the role of imagination in science, and of science in imagination? Last month’s Arts, Science, Oceans colloquium at the University of Sydney resounded with questions like these. Fish population biologists, visual artists, historians of science, coastal geomorphologists, architects, literary scholars, and other dispositions besides – we made a heterogeneous crew, hailing as we did from New South Wales, Queensland, Alabama, and Tennessee. Among the day’s greater discoveries, for this writer, was the degree to which art, science, and the humanities share a common debt to imaginative thinking. Whether asking questions of the world or lending structure to the answers it provides, investigators not only detect what exists but create novel pathways, connecting things known and extending the futures of inquiry.

Those investigations are diverse and distinct. Some of us spend numberless hours submerged in surf at the edges of coral reefs, studying distinctive forms – called spurs and grooves – that mediate between reef flats and the waters that surround them. Others, inspired in part by science fiction novels, create minutely executed maps which give form to the consequences of climate change, for oceans and for the shorelines they break upon. Much as the people behind projects like these might feel a neighborly curiosity for their colleagues across the disciplines, it isn’t immediately obvious that they’d have much to say to – or learn from – one another. Thus the clear and salutary challenge an undertaking like ours poses for itself. One of our meeting’s most provocative insights came from the artist Lucas Ihlein, of The Yeomans Project and Sugar vs the Reef, who talked about a need to avoid reductive forms of interdisciplinary work. Such, he explained, are the kinds that enlist collaborators for narrow, tokenistic ends, instead of pooling imaginative resources and embarking on genuinely multidimensional inquiries.

Lucas’s comment suggested new horizons of method and meaning that lie outside the limits of conventional thought and practice. It’s possible, I thought, that we have difficulty conceiving of paradigm-shifting approaches for the simple reason that the paradigm has yet to shift. Nonetheless, Arts, Science, Oceans testified, in its structure and its cooperative imaginings, to the potential for real progress. The morning began with an absorbing address from Janet Laurence, current artist in residence at the Australian Museum. Her Deep Breathing (Resuscitation for the Reef) installation is the product of explorations carried out at Lizard Island Research Station, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. After a sojourn at COP 21, in Paris, Deep Breathing is, as of this writing, glowing spectrally in one of the AM’s primary galleries.

Laurence’s work is a confrontation with coral bleaching, a process that has left large parts of the GBR – not least Lizard’s fringing reef – pallid and precarious. The scene suggests an antique laboratory, or apothecary’s shop, or – with its transparencies, and in its near-total huelessness – the ghost of the same. Coral specimens, medico-scientific equipment, and a quantity of colored string combine to produce a fantasy of recuperative care. Laurence has experimented with these arrangements before, to rouse her audiences to empathize with, for instance, plants. She declares a similar aim in Deep Breathing, but for me, the piece elicited a related, but somewhat more ambivalent, response. To what extent, I wondered, is it possible for us to forge empathetic connections to polyps, algae, coral bommies, or barrier reefs? And how vital is it for the ocean that such connections form?

One of Laurence’s masterstrokes is her use of mirrors in the architecture of Deep Breathing. So much reflection not only contributes to the general shimmer, but summons the viewer herself to flash from the boxes, beakers, and coral branches. These energies had a memorably formative impact on the Sydney colloquy. Laurence’s call to empathy resonated not only with the artists, writers, and other humanists at the table, but with the scientists, some of whom spoke vividly about hope, wonder, passion, and the importance of aesthetics – of beauty – for their own research.

Our enthusiasms were neither uniform nor uncomplicated. Several among us, Laurence included, spoke of the pernicious myopia that often seems to afflict definitions of natural beauty, and of the narrowness of some aesthetic categories. One of our number described the oversimplifications wrought by certain narratives of coral reef degradation – narratives that have tended, for instance, to focus so intently on the impact of crown-of-thorns starfish that they neglect other factors. And the empathetic quandary spurred vigorous, and often sobering, discussions of the role of self-interest in conservation, and in conservationist rhetoric and research. Is it possible, or desirable, to ponder ocean ecology – and ocean health – without thinking primarily in terms of homo sapiens?

These were and remain knotty matters, but our colleagues at Arts, Science, Oceans proposed an edifying, and appropriately ambitious, array of hypotheses. A progressive approach to empiricism would better acknowledge the importance of sensation, for cognition as well as for intellection. An aesthetics of function, or of system, might more successfully reflect an ecological orientation, and would more sensitively assimilate scientific knowledge. These were the makings of projects and revelations to come, but from my chair, the day appeared already to have accomplished a new known: a new style in interdisciplinary research is possible, and its potential contours are oceanic.

Killian Quigley recently received his Ph.D. from the Department of English at Vanderbilt University. Since 2014, he has been an affiliate of the Exploring Ocean Imaginaries group at SEI. Two articles, “Boggy Geography and an Irish Moose” and “Indolence and Illness,” are forthcoming, from The Eighteenth Century and Eighteenth-Century Life, respectively. He writes on things oceanine for the SEI blog, and reviews books for MAKE.

Janet Laurence 2015