Opinion

Eating the Ocean and going below the surface

David discusses the importance of Prof Probyn’s work on food and the ocean.

On International Woman’s day, SEI in partnership with Macleay Museum hosted Mermaids and Herring Quines: Gender in the more-than-human, in celebration of the launch of Professor Elspeth Probyn’s new book, Eating the Ocean. The launch included comments from myself and Mandy Thomas, the Executive Dean of the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT. Professor Thomas is an anthropologist who has published widely on the lives of Vietnamese people who live under a communist regime and has also worked extensively with migrant groups in Australia on the migration experience.

For some background, and to explain how Prof Probyn’s work fits with that of the SEI, it helps to understand food studies at Sydney as made up of three pillars of research. The first is food production, based in agriculture and, increasingly, in engineering and robotics.  Secondly, there is a broad concern with the relationship between food and health, based primarily in the Charles Perkins Centre, but including public health, medicine, and more. Lastly, there is an important third pillar – food systems studies, which explores the cultural and political issues and realities surrounding the circulation of what we eat. This is the focus of food studies at the SEI.

And here, Prof Probyn has been a leader on a range of issues in – one of the anchors (to use a bad ocean pun) of our food systems studies research group at the Sydney Environment Institute. But more, Prof Probyn’s work on Eating the Ocean combines that focus on the circulations and cultures of food with other major areas of study of the SEI, including our research on oceans imaginaries and on the sustainability of the practices of everyday life.

Eating the Ocean opens with an important discussion about some tendencies in food studies, in particular about broadening the discussion from the standard foodie fixation with localism – along with an important critique of the tendency in the movement for moralising, paternalism, and condescension. That set of critiques is applied to this whole new realm of the ocean, and the creatures we take from it to sustain ourselves. Rather than an example of moralising, or paternalism, this book is much more about a working with – working with entanglements, working with human and more than human, working with practices and cultures and traditions. Eating with the ocean, rather than just eating it up.

This turn to the ocean is a risk. We are such a superficial species. We mostly play on the surface of the ocean, both in everyday life and in cultural representations of it. Prof Probyn notes this, and applies the Aboriginal notion of how colonisers move along the surface of country without knowing it to our lack of depth of knowledge of the ocean. The underneath is this unknown, dark, foreboding, frontier – the ‘upside down’ filled with monsters, like in the series Stranger Things. We tend to lose the depth of our understanding and analysis as we go deeper into the water.

So Prof Probyn offers an antidote of sorts – especially when she goes swimming, or we learn about the flows that sustain oysters (and how they sustain their environments), or about the intertwined lives of the silver darlings and herring lassies of Scotland. But this turn – to both the ocean and to depth – requires an openness to complexity, to fully relational thinking, to entanglements of human and more than human lives – and Prof Probyn does what she sets out to do, to make that complexity interesting, exciting, and engaging. The story of Bluefin tuna/human entanglements, for example – from production to eating to tourism to the lives of immigrants – is beautifully and viscerally told in the tuna chapter.

There is a fantastic and important trend in the environmental humanities of the use of ethnographies, personalised case studies and stories, what Anna Tsing calls (and demonstrates in her work) ‘the art of noticing the entwined relations of humans and other species.’ That is exemplified stunningly throughout Professor Probyn’s book, but is most visceral to me in the tuna chapter (maybe because it’s the species in the book that I both like the most, and feel guilty about liking the most). It’s about the majesty and tragedy of the Bluefin, while it offers a humanisation of the supply chain and a personal reflection on the meaning of the author’s relationship with the fish – individually and as a species.

Donna Haraway’s idea of the contact between human and more-than-human as ‘fleeting as a touch’ is physically manifest in the books description of the swim with tuna – and Prof Probyn then draws out this material brush with the fish and all of the entanglements that go with it. In addition, and crucially, as part of this presentation of complexity and relationality, as a complement to the idea of being with the fish, the particular meaning of ‘queer’ that Prof Probyn articulates is really helpful. The idea of queer as across or athwart (a word I don’t think I’ve used in any of my writing, even in work on critical pluralism, where it would make so much sense) just fits incredibly well both as an expression of the ethnographical methodology and as a representation of the relationality Prof Probyn illustrates throughout the book.

So this is a book about how we eat the ocean, but one done thoroughly through a particular set of ethnographies that bring us to the middle of – athwart – a set of entanglements, relationalities, and materialities. It illustrates and tells the tales, the roles of fish, oysters, and oceans, in the making of community, the making practice with human partners, and the more general construction of deep and thorough human/nonhuman entanglements.

At one point, Prof Probyn asks how we are to come to care for such complex entanglements. Clearly, one way is to tell entangled stories, and there are many excellent ones in this book that invite us, or even push us, below the surface. Ultimately, Professor Probyn is just really successful in that storytelling, and in getting us to further understand that crucial distinction between Eating the Ocean and eating it up.


David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. 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. He is the author, most recently, of Defining Environmental Justice (Oxford, 2007); co-author of Climate-Challenged Society (Oxford, 2013); and co-editor of both The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford 2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (Oxford 2016). Professor Schlosberg’s current research includes work on climate justice – in particular justice in climate adaptation strategies and policies, and the question of human obligations of justice to the nonhuman realm. He is also examining the sustainable practices of new environmental movement groups – in particular their attention to flows of power and goods in relation to food, energy, and sustainable fashion. And he continues with theoretical work at the interface of justice, democracy, and human/nonhuman relations in the Anthropocene.

Image: Women and fish, Morgan Richards © Elspeth Probyn