e-flux journal issue 112: “the ocean”

e-flux journal issue 112: “the ocean”

e-flux journal

Erna Lilje and Eben Kirksey, Flourishing with Undead Kin, 2015.

October 15, 2020
e-flux journal issue 112: “the ocean”

edited by Julieta Aranda and Chus Martínez; a collaboration between TBA21–Academy and e-flux journal

with John Akomfrah, Mary Walling Blackburn, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Latai Taumoepeau, Taloi Havini, Chus Martínez, Greg Dvorak, Ben Woodard, Julieta Aranda, and Eben Kirksey

Hannah Arendt coined a beautiful concept that describes the current situation we dwell in: worldlessness. If the word “world” is used to name the space of sociopolitical life, then to lose the world would mean to lose all the gains that have been made in the sociopolitical sphere, setting off all the dangers that this loss entails. Therefore, it seems mandatory, in this lack-of-world, to attempt to maintain the bonds between people, to preserve the decades of efforts dedicated to extending the social bond to nature. It is in this lack-of-world that we must try to reinvent the most important element necessary for this bond: a public realm. Now, it appears that today’s public realm is a complex composite of all the solitary cells inhabited by individuals in isolation, with all conversations happening through privately owned tools like Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, and Instagram, all the streaming, the sprawling autonomous media, and so on.

By the nature of its inception, this apparent public realm not only runs through private channels, but is also deeply fragmented. And it invites a question about social interaction: When the social body lacks a body, is it possible to regroup the pieces into a singular something? That is: In a moment when bodies, en masse, are virally dangerous, and when governing bodies increasingly dodge democratic procedures to flaunt authoritarianisms, neocolonialisms, and corporate-state capitalisms, is it possible to regroup from our individually isolating cells (domestic, digital, molecular, political) into some other collective form of transformation? Is there another body to look to for inspiration? Take the ocean, for example: a body of water with limitless potential for reorganizing the coexistence of life and its ever-liquid spaces as we know them.

If there is a shared purpose to this fragmented human experience, beyond the repetition of limited variations of the exercise of self-confinement, it may be that in the past months we’ve become certain that it is indispensable to include nature in a new political contract to create another life for culture. Taking the ocean as a theme for this issue addresses the possibility of a new world, of a political philosophy capable of reopening a debate on justice, freedom, and public space. From concrete issues on conservation, exploitation, and infrastructures and technology, to the possibility of a new interpretation of the world-with-nature via indigenous thought and the transformation of current art and cultural systems, the texts here aim to create a sense of affirmation and a space for politics.

Perhaps when thinking about cohesion, it could help to revisit the notion of “oceanic feeling,” a psychological term conceived by Romain Rolland in the course of his correspondence with Sigmund Freud. According to Rolland’s definition, this feeling is a sensation of an indissoluble bond, as of being connected with the external world in its integral form. This feeling is an entirely subjective fact and is not an article of faith. To Freud, this feeling is a fragment of infantile consciousness from when the infant begins to differentiate himself from his human and nonhuman environment. (He goes on to criticize the oceanic feeling of limitlessness in The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents).

Issue #112 of e-flux journal is a special collaboration with TBA21–Academy, focused on the ocean as a living entity, an intersectional and intrinsically interconnected ecosystem of systems for coalitional imagination and collaborative inquiries. The ocean has been the subject and the theme of TBA21–Academy since 2011. By asking for new modes of engagement while insisting on the importance of keeping a multifaceted approach, the academy resonates with both life sciences as well as socio-anthropology, and with art as a crucial, bridge-building force for shaping a new oceanic literacy. 

Our call in this issue of e-flux journal is simple. As the deck reshuffles, as our current forms of relation and isolation unravel, let’s keep this in mind: the entirety of the ocean. Not as a memory, but, like the mystic poets, let’s allow our senses to become ocean, so as to regain together a sense of all that is fundamental for our near times. It may be that oceanic feeling, and by extension the image of the ocean, are the best places to start rethinking the differentiation and order of hierarchies between human and nonhuman environments, and to elucidate to what point this differentiation is real, and to what point it is a construct. As we live through the cascading effect of a zoonotic disease, and as we see the images of the other inhabitants of our cities coming out to play now that so many are locked in, the need to answer here and now for our life on earth with others becomes clear.

—Julieta Aranda, Chus Martínez, Markus Reymann 


John Akomfrah—The Sea Is About Us
“We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!” —Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Mary Walling Blackburn—Swim to Us
Now, in strata 2020, after the cytokine squall—both national and personal—parts of my brain seem to have floated away from one another … and I am suspended in an immensity that is something distinctly different from “being Someone.” Could this be a backdoor through and out of capitalism? For all whites to cease being Someone? I paw at the ground. The exit should be a trapdoor. A chute with no return. 

Elizabeth A. Povinelli—The Ancestral Present of Oceanic Illusions: Connected and Differentiated in Late Toxic Liberalism
The tsunami of colonialism was not seen as affecting humanity, but only these specific people. They were specific—what happened to them may have been necessary, regrettable, intentional, accidental—but it is always them. It is only when these ancestral histories became present for some, for those who had long benefited from the dispossession of other people’s labor, thought, and lands, that suddenly the problem is all of us, as human catastrophe. The phrase “all of us” is heard only after some of us feel the effects of these actions, experience the specific toxicities within which they have entangled the world. Let’s not have critical oceanic studies be taken by this con—not have an oceanic feeling be that which annihilates the specificity of how entanglements produce difference in order to erase the specific ancestral present.

Latai Taumoepeau and Taloi Havini—The Last Resort: A Conversation
When we’re looking at our Pacific Island nations, one of the things that holds us together is the body of ocean which we know as the Pacific—also a name that’s come from somebody else. That’s why it becomes crucial to look at the relationships we have as Pacific Island people to this body of water—the largest continent in the world.

Chus Martínez—Gathering Sea I Am!
While it would be wrong to think that when one says “ocean,” one is naming a “subject,” we might be so radical as to posit that to say “ocean” is, today, to say “art”—art without the burden of institutional life, without the ideological twists of cultural politics, art as a practice that belongs to artists, art facing the urgency of socializing with all who care about life. In other words, to say “ocean” is to replace the historical notion of the avant-garde with a code that is not determined by form and the invention of new gestures, but by an investigation of the substance of life, identifying this as the mission of art.

Greg Dvorak—S/pacific Islands: Some Reflections on Identity and Art in Contemporary Oceania
As my late friend and mentor Teresia Teaiwa, a scholar of Banaban and I-Kiribati heritage and one of Oceania’s greatest minds, punned in her own writing, it is essential to emphasize the urgency of specific notions—or rather “S/pacific n/oceans”—of Oceanian history and art: the specificities of genealogies, crossings, colonialisms, wars, struggles, and resilience of the people who live throughout the Great Ocean. I am interested in nudging this conversation beyond the ambiguities of the ocean to the specificities of Oceania, in order to foster more receptivity toward art and artists from this region.

Ben Woodard—Slime on a Wire
To see technology only as a form of anthropogenic violence would again ignore the generative synthesis of mechanistic analysis and materialist supposition. The denial of progress, even if limited to the technological output of human beings, requires treating technological objects both mechanically and materially, as well as demonstrating particular forces and matters. Or as philosopher Gilbert Simondon approached it, technology can be defined as a designed tool on the one hand and as having a life of its own on the other.

Julieta Aranda and Eben Kirksey—Toward a Glossary of the Oceanic Undead: A(mphibious) through F(utures)
By speaking about the ocean, invoking some of the bodies that inhabit it, we invoke: the disappeared, the decaying, the poisoned, the waterlogged, the bodies that float back to the surface and haunt us.

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October 15, 2020

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