2017 Robert E. Knoll Lecture, Stacy Alaimo’s “Deep Sea Speculations: Literature and Science in the A
I have always found myself drawn to deep sea documentaries. The hypnotic and wonder-full displays of these underwater dwellers turn me into a child all over again. I imagine my excitement as something akin to what British readers would have felt as they scanned the pages about the hummingbirds of North America in William Bullock’s Six Months’ Residence and Travels in Mexico (1824). He writes:
[T]he sides of the laminae, or fibres of each
feather, being of a different colour from the
surface, will change when seen in a front or
oblique direction; and as each lamina or
fibre turns upon the axis of the quill, the
least motion, when living, causes the
feathers to change suddenly to the most
opposite hues. Thus the one from Nootka
Sound changes its expanded throat from the
most vivid fire-colour to light green. (273)
Hummers were/are only found in North America, so outside of making the journey in the early nineteenth century, the public had to rely on these first-hand accounts and some crummy taxidermy specimens. The fragile birds could not endure the rigors of sea travel.
Today, we have a multitude of technological gadgetry which facilitates scientific and recreational observation of nearly any species or place on earth. Yet mystery still abounds in the deep abyss of the sea.
Stacy Alaimo’s Knoll Lecture on March 28th, “Deep Sea Speculations: Literature and Science in the Abyss,” centered on early deep sea exploration, specifically the explorer/writer, William Beebe, and the aesthetics of imagination in scientific discovery. Alaimo claims that Beebe’s Half Mile Down (1935) as well as his manuscript notes, “Mid-Ocean,” exhibit the merging of science and sentiment. Earlier visions of what “science” was (or could be) were situated in objective, passionless, and exhaustive examination. As one could guess, such earlier models of this “good science” left little room for sentiment or imaginative reasoning. In fact, modern scientific practice appears often to pit science and emotion against one another.
Alaimo positions her theoretical approach as a kind of “post-humanist musing,” following Jacques Rancière and Bruno Latour. She notes that the unseen abyss of the deep sea benefits from a “stylized aesthetic” as a kind of epistemological anchor to understand (or speculate) about underwater life. Alaimo furthers this by noting that in the case of Beebe, this took on a “surreal aesthetic” - most notably in the Else Bostelmann’s illustrations of Beebe’s deep sea dives (see illustrations throughout). According to Alaimo’s explication of a number of Bostelmann’s drawings, they often signal not just a surreal aesthetic style, but aspects of the creatures themselves signify the imaginative potential in the depths below.
From one of Beebe’s descriptions in Half Mile Down, we can begin to detect how fancy mixes with observation. At 800 ft. down, he writes:
Again the word “brilliant” slipped wholly free of its
usual meaning, and we looked up from our effort to
see a real deep-sea eel undulating close to the
glass--a slender-jawed Serrivomer, bronzy red, as I
knew in the dimly-remembered upper world, but
here black and white. (125)
Not only does he need to recast words such as “brilliant,” but even his observation of an eel is rooted in creative deduction. Because light is limited, he must “imagine” the bronzy red color of the eel. Moreover, there are practical limitations, both for in Beebe’s time and our own, that these underwater nonhumans must be mediated or interpreted through. For Beebe the medium was literary embellishments written and communicated to Bostelmann for her surreal illustrations. Today, we have National Geographic and the BBC. We also have the soothing lull of David Attenborough’s voice. Yet we are still not able to encounter these deep sea dwellers in the flesh. Not really. Like the hummingbird of the early nineteenth century, the specimens drudged up for examination fail in comparison to the living organism in its own place, its own context. Instead we must rely on layers of mediation, and in this an inherent distance.
Alaimo’s presentation underlines the need for both scientific fact and free speculation. The risks of disregarding one over the other will place limits on our own epistemological and ontological existence. We risk stagnation if our desire for objective fact overshadows our capacity for imaginative speculation. Likewise, we also risk the perpetuation of environmental degradation from a lack of subjectivity as well, and by this subjectivity I mean more than human subjectivity. The deep abyss is an ideal location to work against our anthropocentric tendencies because it is a place which rejects our presence, a location which (outside of a small submersible) we cannot enter easily.
There does seem something separate about the sea. We obviously don’t live in it (houseboats aside). If we do not want to get eaten by a shark, we easily could avoid that scuba trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Deep sea, however, seems even more separate if we consider that it is near impossible to have living contact with the nonhuman life which inhabits this ecosystem. There are no vacation packages that advertise that you can “swim with angler fish!” While we share a connection to these nonhuman animals, this appears one much different from our orientation to terrestrial nonhumans or even sea life in the Epipelagic Zone (i.e. the first 200 meters down). They are not alien lifeforms because we can directly affect their ecology, but they are the “other” beings that we never really confront.
Beebe, William. Half Mile Down. John Lane The Bodley Head, 1935.
Bullock, William. Six Months’ Residence and Travels in Mexico. John Murray, Albemarle-Street,