Amsterdam canal, 2016. photo: Sonja Boon
In a 2013 article, Astrida Neimanis proposes a “watered” form of feminist subjectivity, one that attends not only to human concerns, but also to ethical engagements with the nonhuman.
Extending feminist posthumanist conversations initiated by such thinkers as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, she observes that “In purely descriptive terms, we are bodies of water, but we also reside within and as part of a fragile global hydrocommons, where water – the lifeblood of humans and all other bodies on this planet – is increasingly contaminated, commodified and dangerously reorganized” (103).
What does it mean to imagine ourselves as water bodies? How might our approach to politics change if we think ourselves through our relationships with the nonhuman, rather than against them? What new possibilities might emerge?
Shallow Bay, Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon
“We are all bodies of water,” Neimanis writes (2012; 2013). Imagining ourselves as watery bodies forces us to locate ourselves within rather than against the nonhuman world, and simultaneously, to acknowledge all watery bodies – both “human waters and ecological ones” (Neimanis 2013, 27) as having agency. This encounter paves the way for thinking through hydrologics; that is, the ways in which water organizes itself. Water, Neimanis writes, can be simultaneously imagined as conduit, memory, archive, facilitator, and gestational milieu. It is past and present. It is intimate and planetary.
Kid the elder, North Sea, Scheveningen, The Netherlands, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon
Water isn’t a new topic for this collaborative blog. I’ve written about it before, as have the graduate students – Lesley Butler and Daze Jefferies – associated with this project.
Among other things, we’ve explored oceans and rivers as sites of theory and in relation to mapping and questions of place. We’ve also looked at water as a site of story, myth, and history.
campground. can’t remember where. Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon
I’ve long been fascinated by the liquid, the fluid, the stuff that resists borders, flows beyond them, and renders them obsolete.
And so it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m drawn to theorizing that begins with water. Some of my favourite theorists – the “friends” I made during my doctorate – draw on the fluid or the liquid. Hélène Cixous, for example, starts with the “white ink” of the lactating maternal body as a source for a utopian feminist imaginary, ideas which have been taken up, extended, expanded and explored by numerous other thinkers, among them Alison Bartlett, Fiona Giles, Robyn Longhurst, Rhonda Shaw, Margrit Shildrick, Iris Marion Young, and Quinn Eades. Indeed, Elizabeth Grosz, in her foundational Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, suggests that women’s embodiment has been constructed in a “mode of seepage.”
All of this thinking relies on boundary breaking, on reimagining social relations through a fundamentally different way of imagining bodies. No longer discrete entities, the bodies of feminist theorists are porous. They leak. They seep. They expel. This is theory founded on touch, on porosity, on connection.
loo with a view, Bay Roberts Newfoundland, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon
But the more recent work of thinkers like Neimanis and Karin Amimoto Ingersoll moves beyond the fluxes and flows of the human body. The fluid is not just about the human, they argue. We need to situate ourselves – our bodies and our knowledges – within a larger, nonhuman world.
What, then, are the implications, really, of that seemingly simple – almost facile – statement, “We are all bodies of water,” that underpins Neimanis’ work?
My older son, who is linearity and logic embodied in human form, would contest the very premises of the statement. “No,” he would say, “we’re not. We’re only 60% water. That statement is inaccurate.” Older son is very literal. The body of the ocean and the body of the human are not the same body. The water is not the same. And as such, there’s no more conversation to be had.
Georgia Strait between the mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo: Búi Petersen
My younger son, much more given to flights of imaginative and conceptual fantasy, would start with the 60%, but he’d be much more amenable to thinking through relationships between watery worlds – the world of the ocean and the world of the human body. He’d start thinking through various possibilities (which would likely include Captain Underpantsy thoughts in some form or another, but would also become more philosophical). He’d start thinking about how the ocean sounds and feels. He’d think about swimming.
And he’d turn, too, to a piece his youth choir commissioned and performed just last month.
Twillingate, Newfoundland. Kid the younger as cheeky monkey. Photo: Sonja Boon
They’d spent months rehearsing the program, and we’d hear updates after every session. “We’re singing this new piece about the ocean and it has 9 part harmony!” His face was luminous, his voice eager. He talked about the fun of learning it and about the colours and textures the music evoked. Every rehearsal was a new adventure, and for us, as parents, a thrill to experience vicariously.
The concert itself was breathtaking. Ocean was composed by Tim Baker. Now a member of one of Newfoundland’s best known musical exports, Hey Rosetta, he’s also former Shallaway chorister. Ocean, based on poetry by Sue Goyette, asks singers and audience to think with and through the sea. As Baker wrote in the program notes, “Not … the scientific sea, full of resources and ecosystems and carefully mapped tides and temperatures, but… the sea as it is when you sit with it.” As he read Goyette’s Ocean, he listened to the ocean, to its stories, to its histories, to its meanings, and he imagined himself and his forebears – all members of coastal communities – trying to understand it: “a mystery, sometimes dark and furious, sometimes gentle and glittering, and always shifting and always inscrutable.”
What emerged from these meditations is a hauntingly beautiful work that calls on us to think with and through the ocean: “How can we commune with the ocean to know it better? How can we tame it, so to be blessed with its bounty, and spared its fury? How do we ask it questions, and how do we listen when it responds?” he asks in the program notes.
Middle Cove Beach. Photo: Sonja Boon
Ocean, in the end, is a series of questions, a longing, a keening, a wondering. It’s a love song and a lament. With its repeated refrain, “are we listening?” it asks us to think again about our relationship with the sea, and about the stories it might be trying to tell us.
…have we forgot how to see in the dark?
…have we forgot how to hear your tongue?
…are you talking to us? are you crying out?
…are you calling to us? are you trying now?
Similar questions lie at the heart of Neimanis’ theorizing about watery bodies. Who are we, watered? And why might this matter?
“As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation. The space between ourselves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin – the traces of those same oceanic beginnings still cycling through us, pausing as this bodily thing we call ‘mine.’ Water is between bodies, but of bodies, before us and beyond us, yet also very presently this body, too.” (Neimanis, “Hydrofeminism” 85)
Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon
In her recent book, Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology, Karin Amimoto Ingersoll draws on Indigenous Hawaiian ways of knowing that are premised on the ocean. This “seascape epistemology” is:
“an approach to knowing presumed on a knowledge of the sea, which tells one how to move through it, how to approach life and knowing through the movements of the world. It is an approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual, and embodied literacy of the ‘aina (land) and kai (sea): birds, the colors of the clouds, the flows of the currents, fish and seaweed the timing of ocean swells, depths, tides, and celestial bodies all circulating and flowing with rhythms and pulsations….” (5-6; see also 16)
For Amimoto Ingersoll, a seascape epistemology is a deeply embodied and profoundly holistic way of knowing; a knowledge gained only through deep and close encounters with the nonhuman world and the stories it has to tell.
As she writes:
“Finding the words to express the seascape as it wets my skeleton and salts my veins is a thirst that drives me. Interacting with this swirling life form taps me into unseen possibilities. Attempting to articulate our relationships with nature, with the ocean, is to be human. That is why humanity is found in the sea. I am the moonlight hat shines from the black heaven, dispersed through the watery prism of swells into another realm. The unseen can be seen in my imagination as a being both integrated and free. I can become my own process of becoming within this universe unto itself, with life, rhythms, colors, and sounds unique to this watery sphere. Inward I go.” (184)
These ideas echo, in some ways, those put forward Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker in their 2014 article, “Weathering.” In thinking through the politics of climate change, Neimanis and Loewen Walker propose a rethinking of the concept of home.
“Like other climate change theorists and activists, we propose to bridge the distance of abstraction by bringing climate change home,” they write (559). But the home they propose is not the “Western, urban, and domesticated home that more often than not seeks to extract itself from the weather-world” (559). Rather, they suggest something much broader: “we … invite our readers to be interpellated into the ecological spacetime of a much more expansive home, at once as distant as that melting icecap, and as close as our own skin” (559).
Weathering, for Neimanis and Loewen Walker, is a way of moving beyond the traditional nature/culture divide to acknowledging the ways that human and nonhuman are entangled with one another.
Fort Amherst, Newfoundland, 2017. Photo: Sonja Boon
Drawing on Stacy Alaimo’s understanding of transcorporeality, they propose a theory of “weather bodies” shaped by and through the natural world, even as they also shape that world: “The ebb and flow of meteorological life transits through us, just as the actions, matters, and meanings of our own bodies return to the climate in myriad ways” (560).
Commewijne River, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon
Weathering in a Newfoundland context brings to mind the peeling paint on outport clapboard houses, the leathery skin of those who have made their livings on the oceans. Weathering is a landscape shaped by glaciers, waves, winds, and storms. It is the hunched tuckamore growing sideways along the coastline, the clothing dancing on a line in the middle of winter. Weathering is a whole family lost at sea; it is a crying ocean no longer filled with cod.
Weathering is a “worlding with [the earth]” (567).
“are we listening?”
Amimoto Ingersoll, Karin. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Duke UP, 2016.
Baker, Tim. “Program Notes” for Ocean, “Oh Canada: A Canadian Choral Celebration,” Shallaway Youth Choir, 8 April 2017.
Bartlett, A. Breastwork: Rethinking breastfeeding. University of New South Wales Press, 2005.
Bartlett, Alison. “Breastfeeding as headwork: Corporeal feminism and meanings for breastfeeding.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 25.3 (2002), pp. 373–382. doi:10.1016/S0277-5395(02)00260-1
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” French feminism reader, edited by Kelly Oliver. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, pp. 257-275.
Eades, Quinn. All the Beginnings: A Queer Autobiography of the Body. Tantanoola, 2015.
Giles, Fiona. “Fountains of love and loveliness: In praise of the dripping wet breast.” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 4.1 (2002), pp. 7–17.
Giles, Fiona. Fresh milk: The secret life of breasts. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile bodies: Towards a corporeal feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Longhurst, Robyn. Bodies: Exploring fluid boundaries. London, UK: Routledge, 2001.
Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker, “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia 29.3 (2014), pp. 558-575.
Neimanis, Astrida, “Feminist subjectivity, watered” Feminist Review 103 (2013), pp. 23-31.
Neimanis, Astrida. “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water.” Undutiful Daughters: New Directions in Feminist Thought and Practice, edited by H. Gunkel, C. Nigianni & F. Soderback. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 85-100.
Shaw, R. “Theorizing breastfeeding: Body ethics, maternal generosity, and the gift relation.” Body and Society, 9.2 (2003), pp. 55–73. doi:10.1177/1357034X030092003
Shildrick, M. (1997). Leaky bodies and boundaries: Feminism, post-modernism, and (bio)ethics. London, UK: Routledge.
Young, Iris Marion. On female body experience: “Throwing like a girl” and other essays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.
(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2017.