Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Watery Metaphor: Much-Belated Meditations on Oceanic New York


In this blog post, I’m trying out some ideas in response to Oceanic New York. See an excerpt from JEFFREY’s contribution to (what is now) a book project HERE and this recent update/meditation by Steve Mentz, the “Prime Mover” of the event and related book project (see HERE). [NOTE: The images and captions only impressionistically relate to the text.]

One of most compelling aspects of Oceanic New York was how its varied presentations aimed to explore and rethink metaphors of connectivity. The ocean is a conveyance-machine, a life-sustaining environment and agentive force in its own right, a dynamic medium/mode of transport that enacts the flow of matter, languages, and cultures. Emerging as another theme across the presentations was the idea that ocean invites us to adopt fluid modes of temporality as well. As I listened to the presentations, it became increasingly clear that thinking about the ocean requires a capacity to sustain different notions of scale concurrently. In a blog posting soon after the event (see HERE) Steve recalls “Nancy Nowacek’s direct statement that we must live in more than one temporal register at the same time.” Indeed, these presentations moved into multitemporal registers through a variety of approaches: eco-theoretical, linguistic-poetic, philosophical-scientific, aesthetic-artistic, architectural-communal. As Mentz observes: “There’s no way to capture the fluid dynamism of the event itself  but formal play and poetic experiments can gesture toward that multiplicity in different media.” What I hope to offer in my response is a more deliberate consideration of the “fluid dynamism” of the event, exploring my current (pun intended?) thoughts on its multiplicity and play.

[Above: Oceanic New York, St. John's University, Sep. 26, 2013.  EILEEN, displaying her love of #disasterporn, shows an image of a sublime green wave overtaking New York City.]

Linguistic Registers

A certain delight in wordplay and poetic experimentation with metaphor characterized many of the Oceanic New York presentations. In his etymological wordplay, JEFFREY (read THIS) evinces a transtemporal oceanic contact zone, and he does so in a writing style appropriate for relating the dispersal of peoples across time and thinking about the watery spaces they traverse.

Jeffrey’s multitemporal experimentation with etymology and near-puns implying motion and polyglot vessels of transport (“convoy, convey, convoke”) makes me ask how transportable different oceanic theories of connectivity become when they are expressed through poetic tropes (i.e., wordplay or metaphors). The transportability of oceanic paradigms (the question of whether a way of thinking about the ocean that derives from one context can carry over to another) is something that premodern scholars have contended with for some time. Indeed, it would appear that there is now a "critical mass" of different connectivity paradigms in play that are each to some extent unmoored from the specific oceanic spaces that generated them. I'm thinking of Sebastian Sobecki’s (2007) work on South Pacific connectivity and its (admittedly cautious) application to a networked medieval Irish Sea and North Atlantic (The Sea and Medieval English Literature14-15); or Jeffrey's previous work (2008), where archipelagic modes of thought migrate from the Caribbean to the British Isles; or explorations of connectivity informing the British archipelago to emerge in a forthcoming (2016) issue of postmedieval issue ed. by Sobecki and Matthew Boyd Goldie. Very recently, Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Karla Malette’s wonderful co-edited collection A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (2013) has helped Anglophone readers to revisit connectivity via the profoundly intertwined literary histories of languages and cultures throughout the medieval Mediterranean.

Akbari engages with recent work by David Abulafia (2011) on the longue durée history of the Mediterranean and Horden and Purcell’s seminal The Corrupting Sea (among others) to break out of constraining monolingual approaches to literary history; she finds in the medieval past a more expansive mode of (re-)de-territorializing discrete linguistic, literary, and national traditions. Most importantly for this discussion, Akbari also entertains how theories of connectivity that derive from this particular sea’s “enclosed” quality and movement of currents might actually transfer to other landed medieval “Mediterraneans”— such as the vast Sahara, or diverse terrain of the Silk Road (4). If there is a single global ocean (as this issue of PMLA posits and Steve Mentz entertains HERE in his article on blue cultural studies) then an “Oceanic New York” just happens to be one locality among many in a contiguous terraqueous globe. Rather than perpetuating a rigid distinction between land and sea, “both/and” orientations take connectivity as a feature traversing all spaces (a point I suggest in a different way in my own work – see footnote if you're interested).[1]

[Stone marks former site of glacial pond. St. John's University, Sep. 26, 2013.]

Watery Motion

In A Sea of Languages, Karla Mallette pinpoints an excellent linguistic metaphor to suggest new ways of thinking across different scales of time concurrently. In “Boustrephedon: Toward a Literary Theory of the Mediterranean,” Mallette puts Classical writing and reading practices in conversation with the medieval Mediterranean Sea for the benefit of modern-day readers. “Boustrophedon,” she notes, is a Greek adverb denoting “turning as the ox plows,” and insofar as the adverb denotes motion it provides a model for conceiving the back-and-forth transit of texts, languages, and ideas. As Mallette states, a “tidal rhythm of ebb and flow” implicates “our contemporary entanglement with the Arab world to the medieval Mediterranean,” a globe where Arab and European worlds implicate one another (260). This back-and-forth mode of thought registers — however unexpectedly — with Lowell Duckert’s presentation on “glacial erratics” and the flow of ice, and the Iroquois name for the Hudson (entity of water) as the “river that flows both ways.”

I love what these models of back-and-forth-transit achieve and would add that the materiality of the “boustrophedon” metaphor warrants further consideration, as it weirdly enacts an amphibious leap across land to water. That is, “boustrophedon” originally refers to the motion of a yoked ox in a profoundly landed, agricultural context— and it is being extended by analogy to a sea and the fluid modes of conveyance it enables. The landedness of the “boustrophedon” metaphor renders it simultaneously alien to and appropriate for limning the surfaces of an enclosed sea.[2]
As we test the flexibility of oceanic metaphors to structure thought, we are eventually faced with Heather Blum’s dictum: “The sea is not a metaphor” (670).[3] Or rather (as Steve suggested in his presentation) the sea is not only a metaphor. Adopting a spatial metaphor that thinks not in terms of back-and-forth surface motion but plumbs the ocean’s watery depths, Blum observes: “Oceanic studies calls for a reorientation of critical perception, one that rhymes with the kind of perspectival and methodological shifts ... seen [in] influential conception[s] of history from the bottom up” (671). In this shift to a vertical/horizontal orientation, Blum cannot help but wax poetic with a metaphor of her own: the conceit that one critical orientation “rhymes” with another.

[Moments in time: Spencer Finch's The River That Flows Both Ways (2009) documents a single day's journey along the Hudson through snippets of color. Finch photographed the changing colors of the Hudson once every minute. This combination of two photos was taken at the High Line on Sep. 28, 2013.] 

Waves (Sound and Water)

Blum’s use of “rhyme” to indicate critical orientations that resemble one another brings me ultimately to one physical, kinetic feature of the ocean: waves. And here I mean waves of water and of sound. Each of these presentations (in its own way) manipulated sonic phenomena to suggest the materiality of oceanic metaphors and watery poetics. Wordplay and the poetic effects of cadence and rhyme not only help transmit to ideas but they also implicate sound as a key mode of idea-conveyance. Sound, to adopt modern scientific discourse, is a vibration that propels itself as waves through a medium (be it water or air). It might not be surprising, then, that we can resort to stylized patterning of sound-waves to convey how we — terrestrial, air-breathing creatures — conceive transit through a water-filled environment. To communicate some sense of transit through waves and currents of water, we create verbal and linguistic “waves” (in medieval acoustic theory, sound breaking air) to enact analogous motion. As Patricia Yaeger observes, a contemporary “rush of aqueous metaphors [across oceanic studies] lends materiality to a world that becomes more ethereal every day, to a discourse that has taken to the air, that threats iPhones like oxygen saps, as if our very lungs and sinews could be extruded into cyberspace” (523).[4] I might tweak this observation slightly to say that attending to the materiality of metaphor and sound exposes how the ocean facilitates thought in a global (literary, linguistic, temporal) scale.

Oceanic New York has helped me to think more carefully about materiality of metaphor, or — to put it another way — to confront the physicality of thought. Sonic patterns and verbal tropes are one strategy for making ideas perceptible to the senses, so it is fitting that thinking about the ocean and diverse watery environments would provoke such varied concurrent modes of expression. These presentations in the original “event” of their oral-aural-sonic delivery and in their printed manifestation in graphic form cover a range of topics, but collectively they achieve a shared effect: they seek to embody varied modes of transit through space and time. (By the way, such embodied linguistic mimicry is not limited to sound: H-Dirksen Bauman’s work on Deaf literary theory notes the ASL gesture for the verb FLOW manually enacts a downward motion resembling water, enacting a “kinetic model of the world.”[5])

These acts of watery thinking in all their variety instill an attentiveness to the terraqueous worlds we inhabit. These concurrent critical modes — and ludic exploration of metaphor and language — reveal the manifold functions of the ocean and attend to the perpetual motion of all that participates in it, with it, and through it.

[1] In my own work on polyglot spaces, I’ve encouraged a similar “both/and” orientation toward the transit of tongues and people: a critical mode that attends simultaneously to landlocked (local, grounded) conditions of literary production as well as oceanic connective trajectories; see Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Ohio State UP, 2013), especially chapter 2 and the coda.
[2] The capacity of “boustrephedon” to connote concurrent temporal registers is a feature of fictive realms too. The constructed Antlatean language, which re-creates a proto-Proto-Indo-European language with non-PIE elements, is written in boustrophedon to evoke “back-and-forth movement, like water” (says the creator Marc Okrand, who also happens to be the creator of extraterrestrial Klingon).
[3] Hester Blum, “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies,” PMLA 125.3 (May 2010): 670-677.
[4] Patricia Yaeger, “Editor’s Column: Sea Trash, Dark Pools, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” PMLA 125.3 (May 2010): 523-545.
[5] H-Dirksen Bauman, “On the Disconstruction of (Sign) Language in the Western Tradition: A Deaf Reading of Plato’s Cratylus.” In Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, ed. H-Dirksen Bauman (U Minnesota P, 2008), 127-145, at 141.

1 comment:

Sebastian Sobecki said...

This is some good stuff, Jonathan. Your thoughts will certainly help shape my own thinking about connectivity.