Material seas




In the last week I’ve spent an improbably large amount of time thinking about various philosophical conceptions of maritime space. This is due partly to Monday’s British Waters and Beyond: The cultural significance of the sea since 1800 at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, and partly to my increasing obsession with sailing directions.

With our paper at the symposium on Monday and a final article out (we hope) next year, Hannah Cobb and I are coming to the end of a small philosophical adventure into maritime space.

Amid the recent material turn in the Humanities, the need to reconsider our understandings of seas and oceans has become apparent. Across the diverse philosophical conceptions deployed in disciplines from geography to law and literature, there’s a provocative tension growing between aesthetic and material imaginings of maritime space. Yet the former is proving increasingly problematic when we try to move beyond metaphor to material seas and oceans, and particularly when we want to address human habitation of watery worlds.


Hannah and I have been exploring what archaeology and anthropology can bring to this discussion. Using a little of what Jane Bennett termed, rather wonderfully, a ‘countercultural kind of perceiving’ (i.e. not anthropocentric, but attentive to things and their affects), we started with seascapes and moved quickly on to assemblages and material seas.

I’m not sure this exploration of material seas is quite over for me though, because I keep coming back to my Channel Pilot. It’s a huge volume published by the UKHO that offers sailing directions for the English Channel and its western approaches through a combination of text and charts. At 504 pages my 2005 edition is comprehensive – you couldn’t call it a handy guide. But for me it’s spellbinding because its dense bulk reflects perfectly the problem of trying to pin down the experience of sailing within a dynamic environment, where places (confluences, sandbanks and fishing grounds) shift with season, tide and weather.


Maritime geography is underpinned by real-world experience, a lived knowledge that is as much about intuiting and interpreting the world at that moment as it is about depth, current and tide. This experiential knowledge is gained through the bodily practices of wayfinding and navigation at sea and all the multisensory engagements – with currents, winds and weather and with instruments of measurement, the bodies of other sailors and the ship itself – involved in the tasks of seafaring in a weather-world.

Codifying these embodied understandings of maritime places and attempting to produce an externalised hydrography suitable for transmission via text, diagram and chart is therefore no small feat – and produces, perhaps inevitably, a hefty tome.