Blue History

JMW Turner, Storm at Sea, circa 1820-30

The ocean archive catalogues the ways we have been laid to waste and have wasted

ON New Year’s Day in 1738, the Dutch West India Company vessel Leusden found itself in trouble just off Suriname’s coast. As it foundered in the waters, the captain ordered the crew to put its cargo in the hold and nail down the hatches. The cargo, however, was not boxes, barrels, crates, nor even livestock; it was 680 women, men, and children bound for slave markets in the Americas. Nearly all of them lost their lives that day in the most fatal of such incidents during the slave trade. Despite extensive documentation, the wreck has never been found. It languishes beneath the waves: a hidden trace of capitalism’s birth, of hundreds of peoples’ deaths, and of the ocean’s power to transport, to wreck, to subsume, and eventually, we might imagine, to redeliver.

If the ocean has concealed some of slavery’s ruins, it has not so readily hidden all of the more recent traces of capitalist imperialism. In July 1964, during one episode in a long history of marine toxic dumping, the British merchant vessel Halcience began to discard packages of radioactive waste from several state-operated sites into the Bay of Biscay. Yet before the officers on the ship could even finish their mission, radioactive materials from the improperly sealed containers began to surface in the waters, with surgical gloves and bottles labeled “U-235” bobbing amongst the waves. This episode caused Britain to call into question its practice of dumping with impunity, although many tons of nuclear waste had already been discharged into the sea, its long life story still a mystery.

The stories above suggest an oceanic method for narrating history, one that emphasizes loss, wreck, violence, and waste rather than the smooth ascendancy of imperial knowledge and power. Cultural and postcolonial theorists find radical potential in the idea that the ocean keeps track of history and calls us to recount and record it. For many scientists, too, the ocean’s role as a record of history allows it to be studied in truly global ways. In this perhaps unlikely resonance of scientific and postcolonial thought, there emerges what I call the ocean archive: a record of life on Earth, formed and filtered through marine dynamics, and only available to us in partial and unpredictable ways.

In an era of climate change and capitalist globalization, it is easy to make local dynamics and relations subservient to larger-scale imaginaries. How can we speak of a “global environment” when it is experienced in frequently unequal and exploitative ways? The challenge is to build upon this resonance in the ocean archive and question it in order to rethink the relationship between planetary natural history and the ravages of unequal human experience.

THE traditional archive stops and isolates history; it periodizes and indexes the past. It sits in a building, often with limited access. The philosopher Jacques Derrida, who famously wrote that archives are in “house arrest,” also wrote that “[the archive] keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion.” This “unnatural fashion” of demarcating history is even more untenable in the Anthropocene, when we are constantly aware that we are already living in the aftermath of the industrial revolution and the atom bomb, among other events, and when we are increasingly realizing that it is impossible to stop or cordon off history. In this way, the concept of the Anthropocene can be useful: it heralds the end of an imagined distinction between human and natural history and emphasizes the ways the planet’s past extends into its present and future. And yet, many accounts of the Anthropocene approach history through a geologic framework that limits this usefulness by mimicking aspects of the conventional archive. With its focus on geological strata and fossil excavations, the Anthropocene paradigm can impart the idea that the planet records history in bounded layers of stable matter, from which past artifacts might be unearthed relatively intact.

The ocean, on the other hand, raises new possibilities for reading human-environmental history. However, the idea that it might be pertinent to the politics of historical knowledge is often unexamined. For much of Western history, the ocean was largely treated as a great void by scientists, industries, and governments alike; in the words of literary critic Elizabeth DeLoughrey, “the rise of modernity was reflected in its marine waste”; historian Joseph Hamblin explains that as late as the 1950s even oceanographers asserted that the ocean “could be considered a giant sewer.” Waste--whether sewage, radioactive byproducts, or corporeal remains--could be dumped into the sea, never to be seen again. The ocean could wash humanity clean, buffering us from the effects of carbon combustion, pollution, and nuclear experimentation.

But this view of the ocean has been revealed to be a dangerous illusion. Extreme storms, rising seas, and the mass death of carbon-sequestering ocean plankton forcefully show us the ocean’s key role in regulating the climate and fostering life on Earth. We are also reminded that marine biological and geological resources remain vital to the global economy and that 90 percent of modern shipping still occurs via marine routes. These are simply the most prominent examples of how the ocean has been re-centered in environmental, political, and economic imaginaries, a development that historian of science Naomi Oreskes calls “one of the most important cultural and scientific shifts of the 20th century.” The ocean reminds us constantly that what is put into its waters may sink for a time, but will circulate and emerge later--and not always predictably.

IN Poetics of Relation, cultural theorist Edouard Glissant offers a haunting description of undersea routes connecting the African diaspora, signposted by “scarcely corroded” balls and chains: all that remains of slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. He evokes an ocean that is truly global, even singular, but only thinkable through these traces of extreme violence and loss: “the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, make one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green.” In recent decades, a chorus of scholarly voices has joined Glissant, compelled by similar imaginaries of the sea’s enigmatic capacity to remember--but also recast--the more shameful chapters of human history. From Atlantic Studies, which mainly aims to contend with enduring legacies of the slave trade and resulting diasporas, to work on Oceania, which characterizes the Pacific as a place of robust exchanges and connections among indigenous peoples--a “sea of islands” in the words of anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa--ocean space compels necessary and at times defiant retellings.

These are stories of exploitation but also of resistance. They are stories of how capitalism and imperialism came to be, but also stories of how other worlds were both imagined and enacted. Alternative histories, told through the sea, emphasize the violence of global capitalism’s ascendency, and imagine a world that might be otherwise, characterized by communalist pirate ethics, antiracist and anticolonial voyages of solidarity, and the revival and recognition of traditional practices of seafaring and navigation. In contrast to stories of inevitable capitalist and imperialist supremacy, oceanic narratives instead suggest what historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker call a “multi-headed hydra,” the ongoing re-emergence and re-convergence of what was temporarily subdued and submerged.

And yet, as cultural theorist Maeve Tynan has pointed out, these histories can also raise a paralyzing conundrum. On one hand, Tynan argues, the ocean suggests different ways of writing history--alternative narratives of capitalist globalization that emphasize its brutality, its contingency, and its fragility. On the other, it questions legibility, suggesting erasure, circularity, and opacity--what we cannot know, let alone write. This is where some insights from oceanographic science can be useful. A closer look at the ocean’s material properties suggests that this need not be an either/or question, but rather an opportunity to more closely examine what it means to record history.

OCEAN scientists have traditionally studied the ocean from ships or on dives. But these methods are far from comprehensive. It is not unusual for rough weather to prevent data collection on half of the days or more of a scheduled oceanographic cruise. (Into the 1990s, most of the ocean remained un-sampled.) By the 1970s and 1980s, satellites, computer modeling, and communication technologies began to provide not only new optics but also the ability to create more complete pictures of ocean circulation, air-sea fluxes, and other ocean properties than ever before, and to store and share this data. Later, a new generation of autonomous sensing technologies further transformed oceanography. In concert with satellites, underwater robots roam every corner of the world ocean and remotely deliver temperature, salinity, and other data for a fraction of the cost of ship-based measurements.

Climate change has made oceanographic research more urgent than ever. As oceanographers have worked to understand the basic characteristics of ocean circulation in order to document and predict global warming, they have learned about the ocean’s vast potential for movement and memory and its ability to store and circulate heat, energy, carbon, and other materials and properties. Yet even as an unprecedented amount of ocean data becomes available, the ocean’s volatility continues to unsettle. Hopes of a final solution for nuclear waste in the sea were dashed when it not only resurfaced in distinct locations but could be detected throughout the global ocean. The collapse of various regional fisheries due to overfishing and nutrient depletion quelled scientific and humanitarian dreams of feeding growing populations with marine protein. And as one scientist told me, the ocean has become the “800-pound gorilla in the room” when it comes to climate change predictions--another reminder that it is the most difficult, yet influential climate system component to measure and model.

The ocean’s dynamics indicate capacities for memory and motion that shape the conditions of life on a planetary scale, but every advance in knowledge comes with the realization that so much remains unknown, and perhaps even unknowable. Scientists also consider the ocean to be the largest recorder of human history, even as learning this means admitting that it is also rife with inherent uncertainties. Philosopher Donna Haraway writes that being responsible to our entanglements in the world “requires one to know more at the end of the day than the beginning.” Despite the uncertainty inherent to the ocean archive, recognizing that we can learn more is a political and ethical decision. What does the ocean archive compel us to know, and what alliances must we form to know it?

THE ocean archive takes shape from the strange resonance between the “big science” of oceanography, and the hidden pasts and undecided futures that postcolonial writers describe. Unlike the conventional archive, which legitimates state formations through bureaucratic labor, the ocean archive does not have human experts at its center. The dominance (or even possibility) of transparent, certain scientific fact is called into question and other voices emerge, including the voices of the many dispossessed through oceanic engagements.

While both the conventional archive and the geological archive may seem to imply the careful ordering and easy readability of history (given the right tools), the ocean is a much more uncanny archivist. The ocean takes in what is surrendered to it, but always threatens to issue forth strange returns. Even as the ocean buffers humans and other terrestrial life forms, unpredictable weather, methane bubbles, and “blobs” of warm water hint at planetary transformation. Beneath these waves, plastic-loving creatures, dying corals, and immortal jellyfish trouble the line between nature and artifice as well as between life, death, and inert matter. We can’t account for everything that’s inside this archive, much less where, when, or how it will emerge from the depths and make itself available to human reading.

Any attempt to know the ocean comes up against the necessity of technological mediation. These technologies, too, help produce the ocean archive. The most recent iteration of ocean-sensing technologies delivers an unprecedented amount of information to humans, but they also have lives that are increasingly their own. As the director of the U.S.’s National Deep Submergence Facility told me:

The ocean is just so different in terms of supporting many of the ways in which we think of communicating and building our technologies […] there’s not only tremendous pressures and cold temperatures, but there’s really importantly no way for us to talk to our sensing network, or talk to our robots, […] except when they come to the surface, or through very imperfect and difficult-to-deploy means of communication.

These new technologies interact with other nonhumans in the sea. One of the biggest influences on their usefulness to human oceanographers is the degree to which they are colonized by mollusks, a hazard that oceanographers call “biofouling.” While new sensing technologies participate in new regimes of Earth system-surveillance, they also lead lives beyond the extension of human intention, due simply to their ability to survive in parts of the ocean that are out of bounds for humans.

Nonhuman animals are also at once ocean archivists and readers of the ocean archive. They sense and create changes in ocean composition at various scales. They even participate in oceanographic data collection. Scientists affix sensors to marine mammals, who inhabit parts of the ocean, such as icy seas, that are inhospitable to research vessels and satellite-dependent sensors. Unwitting citizen scientists, these seals and other animals not only record data about their behavior but also collect temperature and salinity data alongside their cyborg sensors.

Finally, the ocean archive is also read by people far removed from the ambit of ocean science, both at the sea’s edge and far from it. It is read by the bodies of those who consume marine proteins and catalogue the heavy metals that march through the ranks of bioaccumulation. It is read in climate records, in the traces of El Niño droughts and floods, and the famines and loss of life and property that have accompanied them. It is read imaginatively through diasporic genealogies, and through the holes and absences in these genealogies. It is read through artistic, musical, culinary, and various other customs and practices shared across and transformed by ocean basins.

As we consider Anthropocene pasts and futures through the ocean’s motions and transformations, we may ask ourselves how best to interpret the ocean archive when we do so consciously and unconsciously, in our bodies and minds, always with partial knowledge, always mediated by technologies and natural forces that change the story. While drawing attention to this change and uncertainty, the concept of the ocean archive also emphasizes processes of recording and learning. The ocean archive compels us to know more, even if that knowledge is always incomplete. Knowing more means learning in ways inextricably linked with many humans and nonhumans, stretched in relations across and through the seas. Scientific expertise will not teach us everything when it comes to the ocean.

Ultimately, to know more means to “cast oneself with some ways of life and not others,” to borrow Haraway’s words. We must not only recognize and value different ways of knowing, but also understand that we are all eventual material for the ocean archive: our bodies, our actions, our infrastructures. The ocean archive catalogues the different ways we have been laid to waste and have wasted, moving our materials in planetary dynamics that might memorialize and reshuffle inequalities, yet unevenly and without stable utopian promise. Ocean forces will continue to work on us, and offer up our traces in ways that will surely exceed our intentions. The ocean archive gives us a future that carries neither easy redemption nor the comfort of predictability, but instead is fraught--both a threat and a promise.