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Institute of Advanced Study

Maritime Criticism and Lessons from the Sea


I wish to suggest, in a very tentative and exploratory fashion, that insisting on the centrality of the sea and ocean space to the enterprise of modernity promotes the adoption of a more fluid cartography. The presumed stability of the historical archive, together with its associated ‘facts,' and the cultural identifications proposed in territorial museums, academic syllabuses and political understandings, can all be set to float: susceptible to drift, unplanned contacts, even shipwreck. Deposited in the sea are histories and cultures held in an indeterminate suspension, connected, rather than simply divided, by water; they suggest other histories, other ways of narrating both a local and planetary modernity. Such histories promote a necessary passage from the self-assurance and closure of critical certitude to the vulnerabiliy of an altogether more contingent criticism, one whose uncertainties and hesistancies register sustainable procedures of thought and practice. Consensual understandings of ‘progress,' ‘development' and ‘growth' are here exposed to unauthorised questions, called upon to respond to a world that does not merely reflect such conceptual imperatives. 

I have approached this argument drawing upon three interleaved dimensions.  First, by considering the sea as a liquid archive and the associated floating foundations of modernity. This, in turn, leads to the interrogation and interruption of the facile evaluations of a linear mapping of time and space, disciplined by the land-locked desires of unilateral progress and a homogeneous modernity. Finally, in considering how to ‘map' or at least register an unstable sea of histories I have turned to the disposition of ‘art,' not so much as an aesthetical witness to the past and the present, but as an affective and ethical configuration of time that is neither merely homogeneous nor simply the property of ‘progress.' 

The sea is a space, like nature itself, that is socially constructed (which is not the same as saying that both can be reduced simply to the ‘social').  Hence it is continually susceptible to political figurations. We discover that the sea and the ocean is not, as generally assumed, a void or an emptiness to contrast with the ‘fullness' of life on land, but rather promotes another, interrogative and critical space.

Insights Paper