Material seas and political acts
Monday was wonderfully watery at the British Water and Beyond symposium. Our session was truly interdisciplinary, with papers from an artist, literary scholar, archaeologist and anthropologist all converging on questions of maritime space, modernity and material seas.
John Hartley discussed Deleuze, DeLanda and his own Contingency Research Platform, an absolutely amazing piece of marine hacking/boat building art. Julia Heunemann’s paper on Jules Verne, Matthew Maury, ocean currents and messages in bottles offered insights into, among other things, knowledge produced by the sea itself. Hannah Cobb and I presented material from her work on Mesolithic Oronsay, my Keralan backwaters ethnography and our own journey into maritime space. Add to that Andrea Thoma’s paper about her 2012 video work ‘Ocean’ from the earlier ‘Experimental Seascapes’ session and it was a rare afternoon.
Among all this maritime thinking, I was particularly struck by one observation during the discussion. It was pointed out that there was a political thread running through each paper in the session.
Our seas and oceans are often understood only as space to be traversed, where resources are exploited, as metaphors for our ideas and concerns, or as abstract, legal space (’territorial waters’ or ‘the high seas’). These understandings cast maritime space as a passive backdrop against which human action takes place (as nature set in opposition to culture). In contrast, articulating the ways in which maritime space is always historical, material, social and political is a key concern in my research – and the reason I began exploring assemblages and material seas.
Yet this is not what has resonated with me most since Monday’s session.
Instead, I have been contemplating how addressing the world in a non-anthropocentric way, beginning with a ‘flat ontology’ and allowing that both people and things as resonant with capacities to act and affect is itself a political act. If we understand ourselves simply as a part of multiple, continually-emerging, human-nonhuman assemblages, it alters fundamentally our position within the world. It requires a profound re-shaping of ethical, political and legal debates. In fact for Bennett, a political theorist, this understanding of the world offers the foundation for a more responsible, ecologically sound politics.
It also has energising consequences for my colleagues and I, consequences for what our materially-focused work can offer this larger debate, and, for how we view ourselves as archaeologists and anthropologists.