SEA MONSTERS:THINGS FROM THE SEA, VOLUME 2

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SEA MONSTERS EDITED BY THEA TOMAINI AND ASA SIMON MITTMAN SEA MONSTERS THINGS FROM THE SEA, VOLUME 2 EDITED BY ASA SIMON MITTMAN and THEA TOMAINI tiny collections…
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SEA MONSTERS EDITED BY THEA TOMAINI AND ASA SIMON MITTMAN SEA MONSTERS THINGS FROM THE SEA, VOLUME 2 EDITED BY ASA SIMON MITTMAN and THEA TOMAINI tiny collections SEA MONSTERS: THINGS FROM THE SEA, VOLUME 2 ©2017 Asa Simon Mittman and Thea Tomaini This work carries a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license, which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and you may also remix, transform and build upon the material, as long as you clearly attribute the work to the authors (but not in a way that suggests the authors or publishers endorses you and your work), you do not use this work for commercial gain in any form whatsoever, and that for any remixing and transformation, you distribute your rebuild under the same license. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/ This work first published in 2017 by tiny collections, an imprint of punctum books created by the Material Collective punctumbooks.com | thematerialcollective.org The Material Collective is dedicated to fostering respectful intellectual exchange and innovative scholarship in the study of the visual arts, in the academy, and in the broader, public sphere. We believe that excellent scholarship can grow out of collaboration, experimentation, and play, and we work to create spaces where scholars from many different backgrounds, both traditional and non-traditional, can come together for mutual enrichment. Tiny Collections are gatherings: thoughtfully assembled things, presented in warm light with a murmured “lookit” for introduction. Tiny Collections are the things we do, together. ISBN-13: 978-1-947447-14-1 (print) 978-1-947447-15-8 (ePDF) LLCN: 2017952203 Book design: Chris Piuma. Editorial assistance: Lisa Ashpole. SEA MONSTERS: THINGS FROM THE SEA, VOLUME 2 ©2017 Asa Simon Mittman and Thea Tomaini This work carries a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license, which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and you may also remix, transform and build upon the material, as long as you clearly attribute the work to the authors (but not in a way that suggests the authors or publishers endorses you and your work), you do not use this work for commercial gain in any form whatsoever, and that for any remixing and transformation, you distribute your rebuild under the same license. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/ This work first published in 2017 by tiny collections, an imprint of punctum books created by the Material Collective punctumbooks.com | materialcollective.org The Material Collective is dedicated to fostering respectful intellectual exchange and innovative scholarship in the study of the visual arts, in the academy, and in the broader, public sphere. We believe that excellent scholarship can grow out of collaboration, experimentation, and play, and we work to create spaces where scholars from many different backgrounds, both traditional and non-traditional, can come together for mutual enrichment. Tiny Collections are gatherings: thoughtfully assembled things, presented in warm light with a murmured “lookit” for introduction. Tiny Collections are the things we do, together. ISBN-13: 978-194744141 ISBN-10: 1947447158 LLCN: 2017952203 Book design: Chris Piuma. Editorial assistance: Lisa Ashpole. CONTENTS v Introduction: Lines in the Sand Thea Tomaini 1 Ocean is the New East Alan S. Montroso 9 Interlude I: Great Fishes and Monstrous Men (Shoreline) Megan E. Palmer 18 On the Backs of Whales Haylie Swenson 34 Interlude II: Great Fishes and Monstrous Men (Undertow) Megan E. Palmer 38 Quickening Sands Erin Vander Wall 43 Interlude III: Great Fishes and Monstrous Men (Tide Line) Megan E. Palmer 45 Conclusion: Sink or Plunge? Asa Simon Mittman 2 Works Cited 5 55 Image Credits 56 Author Bios LINES IN THE SAND INTRODUCTION · THEA TOMAINI This Tiny Collection gathers four essays that explore issues of the Ocean, Sea Life, and Monstrosity. The essays were presented on 16–18 October 2014 in Santa Bar- bara, CA, at the BABEL Working Group’s Biennial meeting entitled “On The Beach: Precariousness, Risk, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World.” They were part of a session entitled, “The Nature of the Beast/Beasts of Nature: Mon- strous Environments,” sponsored by MEARCSTAPA, or Monsters: The Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory and Practi- cal Application. The organizers of the session were Asa Simon Mittman (MEARC- STAPA President) and Thea Tomaini. While sitting on the banks of the lagoon outside the UCSB Student Union, Asa and I began a discussion with the contributors as to the order in which they would appear. We made a picnic of the meeting over giant veggie burgers oozing barbecue sauce, and home fries piled high on trembling paper plates. They looked like cafeteria lunches at the grammar school in Brobdingnag. It became a surreal moment, we being well-mannered academics in swell conference clothes with smeared red faces and hands, talking about monsters. From this scene emerged an idea: rather than present each paper separately in a traditional format, the presenters would employ a format that paralleled the liminality of the sand line and the movement of waves. Asa and I proposed that the presenters withdraw and decide among themselves over the next few hours how their ideas would flow and waft and crash, roll in and draw out, all four together, washed up for the audience to discover and interpret like found treasure. It was an astonishingly mad and monstrous idea, and it was groovy to boot. The paper by Megan E. Palmer was presented in three parts, appearing as interludes between the other papers. In this way, the papers generated a collective meaning in addition to the discrete meanings of each paper. They formed a new creature, at once familiar and startlingly new, which, like an arcane creature of the sea, defies categorization. Asa and I were thrilled. We approved with spicy, sanguine teeth. The collection begins with “Ocean is the New East,” by Alan Montroso. It addresses the sovereign/subject relation found in stories of medieval travels to the East and compares it to present-day attitudes toward the ocean and its creatures. Citing The v Book of Mandeville’s accounts of travels in the Mediterranean, Montroso likens the sense of wonders of a medieval journey to the exotic appeal of the ocean and sea life. Like the strange lands and unfamiliar life forms found in Mandeville’s book of travels, the ocean and its many marine animals are labelled as “monsters” by wide- eyed observers who both marvel at new sights, places, and creatures, and are eager to conquer and subdue them. Montroso establishes this construction, and then moves towards deeper waters, and unexpected ironies. His discussion of John Gower concerns apocalyptic visions that extend themselves to contemporary eco-narratives warning humanity of the dangers of human arrogance. Montroso calls us to an aware- ness of these issues with distinctive blue ink — our recognition of the flaws of human sovereignty in relation to the subjectivity of the nonhuman comes to us in letters formed from water, reflective of sky. Megan E. Palmer’s essay appears in three parts, echoing the structure of her presen- tation, as interludes between the other essays. This is not to say that Palmer’s essay is broken up, nor is it to say that its paragraphs represent interruptions, either of the essay itself or of the others. Instead, the sections on “Great Fishes and Monstrous Men” create a flow back and forth between the essays that imparts meaning to the whole group, in addition to the meanings they generate as individual essays. Palmer introduces broadsides and ballads of the Early Modern period that depict various forms of “monstrosity,” from the human to the animal, and creatures believed to represent an in-between state. Palmer examines an important paradox: the inhuman- ity inherent in human cruelty, as illustrated in the broadsides’ recountings of human reactions to wondrous sea creatures. To deepen the paradox, she connects these horrific reactions to the revulsion, evinced in the broadsides, felt for those with birth defects and aberrations of appearance thought to be caused by sin. Haylie Swenson offers a specific example of a situation that depicts a breakdown in communication between humanity and the creatures of the sea. Her essay, “On the Backs of Whales,” appears between the three sections of Palmer’s paper. She discusses the appearance of a whale that was stranded on the coast of Holland in 1547. The many people who flock to see the Egmond Whale, as it is called, treat it as a marvel. Some react with fear, others with wonderment, but all with an undeniable curiosity about a creature so strange to them. Swenson’s essay also discusses the legend of St. Brendan and his encounter with a living island — another whale. Swen- son inserts into her essay interpolations of her own — thoughtful pauses in which vi her memories of experiences with the ocean and sea life ground her discussion of the medieval and Early Modern incident in the immediacy of relatable human experience. Erin Vander Wall’s essay, “Quickening Sands,” plumbs the depths of quicksand. Neither land nor water, quicksand redefines the relationship between them. It is monstrous, deceptive, and, when it is animated, deadly, as in Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, where it consumes both Lord Ravenswood and his horse. Vander Wall states that we must view quicksand via two perspectives: a scientific one that acknowledges it as an ecological phenomenon, and a literary one that acknowledges its uncanny properties. The result is a set of shifting attitudes about quicksand that parallels our shifting attitudes about monstrosity: we waver from a desire — or perhaps a need — to rationalize and explain the natural world and a desire or need to have a channel for our fears. Quicksand occupies a liminal space: it is animated yet inorganic, a shifting series of meanings. Vander Wall’s discussion of Walter Scott’s novel connects the location of Lord Ravenswood’s death — Kelpie’s Flow — with the legend of the kelpie, a figure of Scottish myth with which Scott was familiar, so that the very land becomes indigenously monstrous. These essays, and the images that accompany them, are representative of the ses- sions of the 2014 BABEL Biennale: they explore progressive theories of eco-criticism in presentations that are at once grounded in current scholarship and that look beyond orthodox methodologies and approaches. As each of these four contribu- tors read their papers, the audience of the session could see, in the windows behind them, the blue stretch of the Pacific in late afternoon, washing right up to the cam- pus of UC Santa Barbara and out again, the ocean’s calm wide hands slowly pulling the sun down. vii viii OCEAN IS THE NEW EAST ALAN S. MONTROSO On a recent visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, I lingered a little while longer than usual in my favorite exhibit: the Sant Ocean Hall (see oppo- site page). Wandering with no telos in mind, I let myself bask before bioluminescent beings, tremble in awe at the improbability of the extremophiles, and gaze up like a supplicant at the model of Phoenix, a North Atlantic right whale. Deeply affected by these strange strangers,1 I stretched my imagination towards the inconceivable and wondered at the sheer breadth of possibilities for ways of living in the still-occult thalassic regions of Earth’s oceans. I found solace in the evidence that so many vast and heterogeneous lives can flourish without the intrusive light of the sun or human reason, and that such animacy is possible in the darkness, which is, according to Stacy Alaimo, a “world where the Copernican revolution is irrelevant.”2 I then with some discomfort imagined myself embodying an oceanic form, imagined breathing without oxygen, thriving at thermal vents, and manifesting light with my own body. I imagined myself as an aqueous and somewhat amorphous body squeezed and strangled by the just bearable pressures of the deep sea. I attempted a posthumanist thought project similar to what Alaimo describes in “Violet-Black,” her contribution to Prismatic Ecology, in which she insists that “thinking with and through the elec- tronic jellyfish, seeing through the prosthetic eye, playing open-ended, improvisa- tional language games with deep-sea creatures, being transformed by astonishment and desire enact a posthumanist practice.”3 Responding to the highly-stylized illustrations in books from the Census of Marine Life, Alaimo finds in such affective imagery more elastic ideas about what it means to 1 Timothy Morton coined the term “strange strangers” to emphasize the radical unpredictability and utter strangeness of any encounter with another being within the interconnected mesh of existence. See Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). 2 Stacy Alaimo, “Violet-Black,” in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 245. 3 Alaimo, “Violet-Black,” 247. 1 live in the world; following Alaimo, I assert that highly stylized depictions of radically inhuman forms of life can be put to work towards the dethronement of terrestrial ideas of sovereignty. Each Smithsonian display, like each vibrantly hued illustration of marine life, defamiliarizes this planet and renders a world that simply will not surrender to humanity’s hubristic desire for authority. And yet, as I wandered from station to station examining these oceanic bodies summoned from the abysses of the sea — lifeless, entombed in glass jars and carefully arranged for an American viewing public — I could not ignore the hierarchical relation between observers and observed, nor that human science and politics still fashion a sovereign/subject relation between humans and the myriad strangers that populate the seas. These marvelous displays represent discrete islands of monstrous creatures that expose humanity’s desire to safely navigate strange waters. I call these displays “marvelous” intentionally, for my wandering about the various exhibits reminded me of a medieval journey to the marvels of the East and, more specifically, of The Book of John Mandeville’s description of the monstrous islands of the Mediterranean and off the coasts of Africa and India. For the ocean, it seems, is the new East, compared with the way the medieval West- ern hegemony represented the East in its travel literature. The inhabitants of Earth’s oceans are put on display to be navigated, plundered, studied and represented by the sovereign powers of Western thought.4 Like Mandeville’s tale of fish that deliver themselves to the shore for human consumption, we expect the seas to divulge their mysteries for our ravenous desire to control by means of knowledge-making. In Chapter 13 of the Defective Version of The Book of John Mandeville (TBJM), the narrator announces that, having completed his tour of the Holy Lands, he intends to “telle of yles and diverse peple and bestes” (1380).5 This rather lengthy chap- ter is rich in peculiarity and marvel, a veritable encyclopedia of the monstrous. An 4 Geraldine Heng draws a similar conclusion as she reads Mandeville’s travels as rely- ing on the techne of the romance genre to organize and display the wonders of Oriental space to the stationary colonial eye of the text’s Western — and specifically English — readers. See Chapter 5, “Eye on the World: Mandeville’s Pleasure Zones; or Cartography, Anthropology, and Medieval Travel Romance,” in Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 239–305. 5 All quotations from Mandeville are taken from the The Book of John Mandeville, eds. Kohanski and Benson (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007). 2 allegory-generating female spirit grants riches and doles out commensurate conse- quences for her supplicants’ greed. Gendered diamonds mate and spawn resplendent children, challenging notions about the inertness of lithic objects. Nudists, cannibals, blood drinkers, as well as pygmies, Blemmyae and Cynocephali roam these foreign shores. TBJM fulfills the European desire to believe the East is wholly Other, a mon- strous and invitingly dangerous land abundant in resources and passively awaiting representation by the Western imagination. Yet, although its descriptions of the diverse beings of the East are certainly fantasti- cal, TBJM also lends a proto-scientific explanation for the monstrous by repeatedly attending to the omnipresent and unbearable heat of this region; the Mandeville- narrator6 offers a climatological cause for the wonders he claims to encounter. Ethio- pians hide from the sun under feet large enough to shield their bodies; men on the isle of Ermes suffer their “ballockys hongeth doun to her shankes” because it is “soo hoot ther” (1557). In such extreme climates precious stones spill from river banks, reptiles grow to enormous proportions and fish are so “plenteuous” that they offer themselves up for consumption. Heat is generative, and the corporeal peculiarities of the deserts as well as the fecundity of the tropical East are, in TBJM, responses to extreme climate — much like the extremophiles surviving sulfuric blasts of scorching heat from deep sea vents. In Idols in the East, Suzanne Conklin Akbari investigates the role of medieval climate theory within encyclopedic, visual and literary representa- tions of monstrosity and bodily diversity, and observes of The Book of John Mandeville that “in each land described, climate is adduced as the cause of the physiology of the inhabitants.”7 Although medieval climate theory is, as Akbari convincingly argues, often problematic in its ability to both construct and reify premodern categories of racial difference, I argue that the way it is deployed in TBJM evidences an attempt to think the porosity of bodies, the imbrication of environmental forces, and the 6 Since the author of The Book of John Mandeville remains unknown, and thus the self- proclaimed “I, John Mandeville” is likely an authorial creation, this essay will hence- forth refer to the in-text Mandeville as the “Mandeville-narrator.” See Ian Macleod Higgins, Writing East: The ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) for an excellent summary of previous attempts to identify an author for this text. 7 Akbari, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 146. 3 malleable materiality of life. Like contemporary scientific attempts to understand the intimacy between animals and environs once thought uninhabitable, the Mandeville- narrator offered something like a medieval ecological justification — unaccompanied by moralizing critiques or interpretations — for the diversity of beings he describes. Climate affects bodies, and each coastal country and island in TBJM is a unique ecol- ogy, an oikos or home to the various and varying creatures that inhabit these spaces. And each of these biomes is an island, seen from a — albeit imaginary — ship as it sails past these tableaux of nature’s monsters. The Book of John Mandeville, like the contemporary museum, presents discrete displays of wondrous beings and paradoxi- cally invites the pleasure of scopophilia just as its narrator attempts to demystify the monstrous with climatological language. Yet a vital element remains shockingly absent from Mandeville’s narratives of circumnavigation, the same element that is missing from the Sant Ocean Hall: water! As the wanderer at the Smithsonian moves between each display and notes the cerulean and violet lights signifyi
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