Cultural Geographies of the Sea

While contemporary studies of the political geography of the sea can draw upon a long history of political geographers studying maritime conflict, the study of marine issues is quite new in cultural geography. Of course, there always have been marine cultural geographies; seafaring and fishing communities invariably display distinct cultural formations that reflect and impact the surroundingmarine environment. Historically, however, few geographers have devoted their attention to the cultures of fishing communities and even fewer have studied the cultures of societies engaged in uses of the deep sea (e.g., whalers, naval personnel, merchant mariners, oceano graphic and fisheries researchers, or long distance fishers).

As has occurred throughout cultural geography since the 1980s, much of the impetus for new cultural geographic studies of the sea has come from outside the discipline, especially from anthropology, history, literature, and cultural studies. This turn to the sea – and to understanding the sea as a space of culture – perhaps emerged first in the discipline of history. Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II demonstrated that the ocean, far from being an empty space between cultures, was in fact a space of interaction in which cultures (and natures) were formed and transformed. This perspective, which directly challenged prevailing ideas in cultural ecology (as well as in history and anthropology) about cultures being rooted in place, was soon taken up by other historians who started new oceanbasin based organizations of history (most notably Atlantic history). In the 1990s, this work on the history of ocean regions began to be joined with work emerging from cultural studies (and, increasingly, cultural geography) on diasporas, hybrid identities, and transnationalism. Broadly, scholars associated with this school of thought stress the ways in which cultures are continually reproduced through movement and connection rather than through stasis in place. A key motivational book for integrating the ocean within this line of thinking was Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. Although Gilroy only indirectly considers the ocean as a material space of society, the book, which has been highly influential in cultural studies, suggests the power of oceanic metaphors, and, by association, oceanic spaces, in interpreting cultural formations.

To ground Gilroy’s metaphors, some geographers have turned their attention to shipboard life. Shipboard life provides a unique environment for geographic research, because it is simultaneously mobile and stable, it is both a workspace and a living space, it is both selfcontained and open ended, and a ship is both an insular community and one that typically brings people of many backgrounds and nationalities together. Again, work in this area has been aided by advances outside the discipline, in particular by social historians who have researched the role of the eighteenth and nineteenthcentury seamen, pirates, and whalers in constructing modern norms and disciplines of nation, class, gender, sexuality, and labor.

Within geography, the interdisciplinary Oceans Connect project, based at Duke University in the late 1990s, sought to reinfuse regional geography with an ocean basin based perspective that privileged interaction and transformation over insularity and stasis. These ocean basin based reconceptualizations of the region may be most effective when undertaken together with smallscale, place based studies. The foregrounding of the ocean as a space of connection, after all, should not lead one to forget that, for many littoral dwellers, the ocean is perceived as fundamentally local: as a set of distinct, known sites whose integration into everyday life is conditioned by place based traditions. However, by foregrounding the ocean as a space of society and culture, one can come to appreciate that even these highly localized systems exist within contexts of connection and interaction. Thus, for instance, scholars of islands (which were long considered by biologists and anthropologists as paradigmatic laboratories of homogeneity and isolation) increasingly use the ocean to reposition islands as nodes amidst channels of movement.

In other words, the ocean is being turned to by two groups of cultural geographers. Some have turned to the ocean to expand their understanding of the spaces of local life worlds. Others, attracted by the ocean’s character as a literal and metaphorical space of movement, have turned to the ocean in an attempt to decenter fixed ideas of nation, state, territory, and culture. These two perspectives, however, are by no means incompatible, and much future work in marine cultural geography will likely lie at their intersection.