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Institute of Advanced Study



This piece presents preliminary, exploratory thinking toward a cultural - perhaps ethnographic - study of how people in a variety of domains use watery metaphors and symbols to think about wave phenomena, from physics to biology to social theory. To be sure, ricochets of analogical thinking about waves have been tracked before. Historians of science have provided documentary accounts of how models of electromagnetism congealed around water wave comparisons. And literary theorists such as Gillian Beer have examined the calibration of wave theory to the rise of early twentieth-century modernism and some of its epistemological accompaniments, including relativist attitudes toward the relation of the real to the represented (are waves real or an artifact of how we frame questions?) as well as scientifically inflected apperceptions of worlds unseen, from the unconscious to the realm of wireless radio imagined as an etheric ocean. Today, scientific and popular visions of reality as constituted by waves endure - with watery imagery never far behind - and often underwrite universalizing claims about the world, from quantum mechanics up to descriptions of the rise and fall of social movements (e.g. waves of feminism). Such visions - which often refer to ripples on ponds, breakers on the shore - signal a tendency to construe waves as ordinary, even canonically natural phenomena. But more self-conscious deployments of waves have lately come into view, ones that call attention to waves' varied cultural and, indeed, natural weight - as, for example, with research into the military-industrial production of shock waves, the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the politics of surfing in post-colonial Hawaii. Inspired by such reflexive deployments, this essay is a thought experiment that plays with ways to think, today, about the matter and meaning of water and waves. It is meant to be impressionistic and suggestive rather than authoritative.

Insights Paper