Environmental Humanities

Ocean Ontologies

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

How have cultures understood relations among salt water and terra firma, and what’s becoming of those relations in the course of anthropogenic climate change?

It is regularly observed that humanities and social-science research is making an ‘oceanic turn.’ This marine reorientation is justified in myriad ways, not least by clarifying the essential roles oceans play in the workings of our planet’s climate system. At the same time, the oceanic turn has been keenly contested by those who ask just whose interests and knowledges it serves, and whose it neglects.

This project takes an historically and culturally comparative approach to examining whether and how oceans have been interpreted as sites of poetic, aesthetic, and geographic difference. It is motivated by the fact that when cultures recognise salt water as ontologically incommensurable with dry land, this has consequences—for life, labour, governance, and a great deal more besides. It is motivated, moreover, by the fact that some cultural traditions have not understood oceans as the ontological other of terra firma. Acknowledging plural marine sensibilities, across time as well as space, is a core practice of an integral ocean studies.

Ocean Ontologies strives to reflect this pluralism. Its areas of focus range from the strange and overlooked tradition of marine pastoral in European literature and art to the cosmopolitan cultural history of pearl-shell diving in the Timor, Arafura, and Coral Seas. Through analysis historical and contemporary accounts of inundation, this project is also exploring how distinct cultural understandings of relations among landscapes and seascapes are generating distinct responses to anthropogenic sea-level rise. Another, multispecies aspect of this project considers how submarine invertebrates have challenged conventions in the conceptual history of nature, and indeed of life.