Image description: Underwater sculptures at Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park. The sculptures are shaped like humans standing in a circle, facing outwards, and holding hands. The sculptures have the same greenish hue as the water they are immersed in, and they are covered by what looks like alga.
Monster studies and the blue humanities share a common interest in examining the ontologies and ethics that determine encounters between human and more-than-human forms of life. Where monster studies seek to challenge the structures of sameness and difference that determine categories such as the “human” or “nonhuman,” the blue humanities searches for more fluid metaphors to reconcile historical and materialist perspectives and to describe encounters where human bodies and “bodies of water” flow into each other (Neimanis 2017).
In this meeting place between more-than-human bodies, where anthropocentric perspectives fall short, we find many maps and myths depicting the ocean as monstrous, ranging from Olaus Magnus’ fantastic Carta Marina to Homer’s descriptions of Scylla and Charybdis in the Odyssey. Here, I believe we can also find good metaphors to explore both the transformative capacities of water and the ambiguous bodily boundaries that make up the monstrous. Yet so far, I have seen few attempts to bring these two fields together.
In my own blue humanities PhD project, I therefore seek to explore sea monsters as figurations for unstable Anthropocene oceans. Specifically, I am looking into speculative feminist narratives featuring humans who become one with the water, who eschew bodily integrity and normative notions of futurity in order to merge with the oceanic environment and transform into something more than human. Inspired by Melody Jue’s latest book, I believe that these stories about adaptation and transformation might help estrange us from anthropocentric ways of looking at the world by offering a new “amphibious perspective” on our ever-changing environment (2020).
I first started thinking about the transformative and strange-making capacities of water after watching a screening of Trondheim-based Sámi artist Sissel M. Bergh’s short film #tjaetise (water) during my first month as a PhD student. Part of the series knowhowknow, this visual poem explores modern and traditional ways of knowing the sea through contrasting film clips—trawler nets, drones, brittle stars, walks on the beach—overlaid with an unearthly soundscape. Toward the end, it shows a woman dressed as the coastal goddess Gorrijh Gujne as she walks out into the sea, the camera fixed on her staring (then bulging) eyes as she plunges into the water and slowly transforms into a fish.
I find similar scenes in speculative narratives about women and the sea across different media and genres. There is Joan Slonczewski’s ecofeminist utopian novel A Door into Ocean, with its oceanic planet and symbiont Sharers; and Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film The Shape of Water, with its fish-monster romance and reverse fairy-tale transformation. There is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, a novel that imagines shape-shifting coral-like aliens and a marine biologist who turns into a mermaid; and there is a host of other Afrofuturist texts, from the electronica-mythology of Drexciya to Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep, that imagine underwater societies formed by the water-breathing descendants of enslaved African women.
I follow Elizabeth DeLoughrey in referring to these diverse narratives as “submersion stories” (2015). According to DeLoughrey, submersion stories are oceanic narratives about interspecies encounter and transformation that offer a hopeful alternative to apocalyptic imaginaries of the world’s oceanic future. The term originally comes from her reading of New Zealand writer Keri Hulme’s short-story and poetry collection Stonefish—an indigenous reflection on the ordinariness of sea level rise and multispecies kinship—but it seems to fit perfectly as a heading for my odd corpus of feminist, queer, and monstrous texts.
One of the things I like most about these texts is the alternative they offer to long histories within science fiction media of imagining the ocean as an alien realm beyond human history and concern (Alaimo 2014)—from Stanislaw Lem’s inscrutable sentient ocean in Solaris, to H.P. Lovecraft’s xenophobic sea-dwelling nightmare in “The Call of Cthulhu.” I also like that submersion stories’ emphasis on women’s perspectives shifts the focus away from the masculinist narratives that have tended to dominate literary and filmic representations of the sea, from heroic figures like Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe to modern explorers like Jacques Cousteau or James Cameron—all of them participating in a “poetics of adventure” as old as the Western literary tradition itself (Cohen 2010).
By contrast, women tend to be the ones left behind on shore. Otherwise, they are the monsters lurking in the deep, dark waters below the ship, from abovementioned Scylla and Charybdis and the Sirens that precede them, to Grendel’s mother and (the perhaps less threatening) Melusine. Just like the supposed non-normativity of women’s bodies has led to comparisons with the monstrous (Shildrick 2001), their apparent fluidity and unruliness has caused comparisons to the dangers and unknowability of the sea.
In submersion stories, this comparison is not contested but rather compounded with indigenous and posthuman critiques that point to the fault lines of human narratives and ideals. It is important that the protagonists here are not conquering heroes and explorers aboard ships, but rather female sea monsters who refuse the call to sacrifice in order to become “part of your world”—as the song goes in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Instead of becoming human, they choose to cross borders and become portentous monsters, signalling futures of transgressive femininity, playful queerness, and more-than-human worldmaking.
In troubled times, I think the world needs more of these lively and sometimes messy metaphors and stories for learning to swim against (or maybe with) the tides. For Donna Haraway, whose work is thought alongside jellyfish and other Chthulucene monsters, telling new stories adapted to change is a way of “staying with the trouble” of multispecies entanglements and futures (2016). This phrase, almost a slogan for monster studies and the environmental humanities, has already been invoked several times on this blog. I choose to repeat it here to emphasise its value as a rallying point for different fields interested in more-than-human worlds. As I continue to work on my dissertation, mixing metaphors and methodologies, I can only hope to find more stories about adapting to submersion and more studies that recognise the promises of sea monsters.
Celina Stifjell is a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where she is part of the HAVANSVAR blue humanities initiative and the Environmental Humanities research group. Her in-progress dissertation is due autumn 2022 (but she keeps getting distracted by theoretical tangents).
Alaimo, Stacy (2014). “Feminist Science Studies: Aesthetics and Entanglement in the Deep Sea” in G. Gerrard ed. Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Cohen, Margaret (2010). The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth (2015). “Ordinary Futures: Interspecies Worldings in the Anthropocene” in E. DeLoughrey, J. Didur and A. Carrigan, eds. Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities. New York and Abingdon: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Neimanis, Astrida (2017). Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Shildrick, Margrit (2001). Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: SAGE.