I have been thinking a lot more about the ocean recently. Maybe it’s because this Newfoundland spring has brought about a particularly striking seascape.
Earlier in the season, harbors were packed with ice, and although visually it was quite beautiful, it certainly made it difficult (and sometimes, impossible) for boats to come and go.
And now, icebergs are ‘in season’. Those ‘bergy bits,’ which are the inspiration for this ‘Theory Thursday’ blog series, draw out locals and tourists alike. Those glacial giants are picture perfect, but of course there is more to them than meets the eye. Well, there is 90% that we don’t usually see, if we want to put a number on its underwater mass. But what about the rest of the iceberg’s story? What was its journey? How did the crashing of waves work to carve each berg’s unique shape? What of the glaciers from which they came?
What else can we learn when we think more about the water? About the movement, the current that brought these bergy bits to our harbors? How does the ocean influence the journey?
While I touched on ideas of water briefly in my post on the movie Moonlight, I would like to open up the theoretical dimensions of the ocean a little bit more here.
Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds (2006) has been particularly eye opening for her take on the Atlantic Ocean through a black geographic perspective (thanks, Sonja, for the recommendation!).
Referring to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, McKittrick says:
I want to read The Black Atlantic, and the black Atlantic, differently: as an ‘imbrication of material and metaphorical space,’ in part because the text is so noticeably underscored by a very important black geography, the Atlantic Ocean, through which the production of space can be imagined on diasporic terms …
I suggest that if The Black Atlantic is also read through the material sites that hold together and anchor the text – the middle passage, the Atlantic Ocean, black travelers in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, the slave ship, the plantation, shared outernational musics, fictional and autobiographical geographies, nationalisms – it clarifies that there are genealogical connections between dispossession, transparent space, and black subjectivities. Historical and contemporary black geographies surface and centralize the notion that black diaspora populations have told and are telling how their surroundings have shaped their lives (xxi).
So often, the “naturalization of identity and place” leaves experiences of diasporic populations out of geographic conversations. How then, can we change the conversation?
Ultimately, McKittrick aims to reaffirm that “black Atlantic cultures have always had an intimate relationship with geography” (xxi). She challenges the notion of the Atlantic Ocean purely as a metaphor for “placelessness” and “vanishing histories,” rendering black writers as “ungeographic.” Instead, she emphasizes the material significance of physical geographies on black lives (xxi).
McKittrick pushes our perceptions of space and place further. What happens when we bring an element of fluidity to our notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’? What if we really consider the physical of the so-called ‘placeless’, or if we actually apply geography to the so-called ‘ungeographic’? How might we see diasporic differences, differently? Can we somehow reconcile the metaphoric with the material?
When we look to the water, what else can we learn? Or better yet, how else can we learn?
Geographic solutions to difference and political crises (such as segregation, imprisonment, ghettoization, genocide, the sexual-racial division of labor, surveillance, as well as social theories that “add on” a subaltern body) are undermined when difference is taken seriously, when a sense of place does not neatly correspond with traditional geographies, when transparent, stable political categories are disrupted by places unbound, and all sorts of humans open up different, less familiar, alterable geographic stories (McKittrick 34-35).
McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.