The Blue Humanities

By Gillis, John R. | Humanities, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Blue Humanities


Gillis, John R., Humanities


ALTHOUGH FULLY HALF OF THE WORLD'S PEOPLES NOW LIVE WITHIN A HUNDRED MILES OF AN OCEAN, FEW TODAY HAVE A WORKING KNOWLEDGE OF THE SEA. As a science, oceanography is still in its infancy. "More is known about the dark side of the moon than is known about the depths of the oceans," writes the sea explorer David Helvarg. Yet large numbers of people know the sea in other ways, through the arts and literature. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, fiction has been imagining undersea worlds that explorers were unable to reach. Rachel Carson, who did as much as anyone to open up the marine sciences, was inspired by the arts and literature. She wrote in 1951 that humans were destined to return to the sea from which they had emerged eons earlier, but this time they would do so "mentally and imaginatively." This cultural turn to the sea began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and by now there is a vast trove of writing, painting, and music that awaits examination under the rubric of what English professor Steve Mentz would like us to call the "blue humanities."

A shift in attention from land to sea is under way in several fields simultaneously. Archaeology has moved offshore, revealing previously unknown aspects of prehistory that had been lost to rising sea levels. Anthropology, which got its start on islands, now focuses on the seas between them. Maritime history, once largely about what has taken place on the water's surface, is now concerned with life in the ocean itself. It is rapidly merging with marine biology, becoming indistinguishable from natural history. What had been a blue hole in environmental history is beginning to be filled by studies of particular species of fish and marine mammals. Even more recently, we have begun to explore the history of ocean currents, tides, and even waves, phenomena once thought to be timeless, like the "eternal sea" itself.

The historicization of the oceans is one of the most striking trends in the blue humanities. History no longer stops at the water's edge. The Mediterranean Sea was an organizing concept for ancient historians, and now Atlantic history is an established part of early modern scholarship, with the Pacific looming large in contemporary studies. Some global historians, in fact, chafe at oceanic as well as continental divisions, arguing that our globe is dominated by one great seamless body of water, covering seven-tenths of the planet's surface and affecting weather, climate, and life on land as well as at sea. Geography has finally begun to take an interest in the oceans. Beginning with Philip Steinberg's The Social Construction of the Ocean (2001), a vast area of exploration has opened up. Historians of science have come to recognize how the voyages of the early modern period produced what the environmental historian Richard Grove showed were the first glimmerings of ecological thinking, when mariners discovered the damage that invasive species of plants and animals could do on small islands around the world.

Sea stories, chanties, and marine painting are by no means new, but it is only recently that they have been subject to academic scrutiny. The seascape, once a minor genre in art history focused mainly on ships and harbors, took on new interest when nineteenth-century painters like J. M. W. Turner and Winslow Homer pioneered the representation of light and movement on canvas, "pure seascape," as some critics have called it. Comparative literature scholars like Margaret Cohen have shown how sea stories, concerned originally with the mechanics of sailing, came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to focus on the ocean itself, turning it into a space within which to imagine modernity. The modern novel was born at sea with Robinson Crusoe, reaching a new level of metaphysical sophistication with Moby-Dick, and carried forward by the watery science fictions of Jules Verne. Melville's observation that "meditation and water are wedded forever" anticipated by almost a century Carson's evocation in The Sea Around Us (1951) of humankind's mental and imaginative turn to the sea. …

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