Thinking with the ocean, thinking with islands

A reflection on the themes of our course KINSHIP: World as Archipelago, from advaya's Head of Storytelling, Tammy Gan. In this reflection, she discusses the problem of globalisation and generating solidarity across difference, and considers thinking with oceans and islands as a way forward.

“The ocean is not merely our omnipresent, empirical reality; equally important, it is our most wonderful metaphor for just about anything we can think of. Contemplation of its vastness and majesty, its allurement and fickleness, its regularities and unpredictability, its shoals and depths, its isolating and linking role in our histories [...] the sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.”

“The Ocean in Us”, Epeli Hauʻofa

The sea’s simultaneously isolating and linking effects remind us that while we might feel alone, we have always been intimately connected. In the past these vast distances have been conquered by imperialists who carry with them their root identity, so unwilling to let go, so desiring to impose, to see these passageways as opportunities for domination.

But there are other ways of thinking of how to traverse these distances: as French writer, poet, philosopher Édouard Glissant speaks of the Caribbean, “[a] sea that diffracts”, an “explosion of cultures”, a “violent sign of their consentual, not imposed, sharing.” In this way the sea opens up pathways for globalisation that embraces relation rather than root. “It is not merely an encounter, a shock (in Segalen’s sense), a métissage, but a new and original dimension allowing each person to be there and elsewhere, rooted and open, lost in the mountains and free beneath the sea, in harmony and in errantry.”

Glissant’s perspective is perhaps now no longer as groundbreaking, as we have begun to question the forces of globalisation in capitalist modernity, though his words invite fresh ways of thinking in a time when globalised supply chains have been destabilised, when errantry (travelling in search for adventure) has been questioned, and when identities, personal and national, are being reformulated. How do we renegotiate borders and separations in this time?

Glissant writes: “Relation identity is linked not to a creation of the world but to the conscious and contradictory experience of contacts among cultures”. We do not bring ourselves and our root identities across the sea: we meet the world, and each other, as is. This revolts against the outdated, yet ever-present, doctrine of discovery, against neocolonial creating of new worlds and exploring new frontiers, whatever industry they may be. Instead, this process embraces contradictions, difference, diversity, facing it head-on, with a sureness that our ‘selves’ will only be even more clarified with the ‘Other’, and only so because we allow our selves to be—and are not threatened by this—mutable.

At the heart of it is how we encounter difference. For Glissant, this is where opacity comes in: accepting it, clamouring for the right to opacity, as Glissant would say, means acknowledging that difference can just be that. It does not have to be reduced or widened, power does not have to be wielded in this dynamic. It rejects the approach of the coloniser, the traditional anthropologist, the Christian missionary, the extractivist entrepreneur: all versions of the same.

“To feel in solidarity with him or to build with him [...] it is not necessary for me to grasp him. It is not necessary to try to become the other (to become other) nor to “make” him in my image. These projects of transmutation [...] have resulted from the worst pretensions and the greatest of magnanimities on the part of the West.”

I think the real power of thinking with oceans, islands, the sea between us, lies in how it reminds us of how the colonial voyage, imperialist mindsets, are not so far away in history. They are not a thing of the past. We are still in desparate need of reimagining how to traverse the vast distances between us. And islands continue to generously offer wisdom on this front.

Islands are not only metaphors. Islands today are sites of confrontation, sites of heightened crises, but most importantly sites of resistance.

As American historian and professor Daniel Immerwahr notes in How to Hide an Empire: “even in this age of globalization, territory has not gone away. Not only does the United States continue to hold part of its colonial empire (containing millions), it also claims numerous small dots on the map. Besides Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a handful of minor outlying islands, the United States maintains roughly eight hundred overseas military bases around the world.”

“These tiny specks—Howland Island and the like—are the foundations of U.S. world power. They serve as staging grounds, launchpads, storage sites, beacons, and laboratories. [...] Today, that empire extends all over the planet.” Easily erased from view because of how small and isolated they can be, these “specks of land acquired special importance in the twilight of formal empire.” For the so-called United States, the control they have over these islands has always been strategic; for all its calls to freedom and democracy, these islands are evidence of stark hypocrisy.

Echoing Epeli Hau‘ofa here, poet and professor Craig Santos Perez said: “Oceania signals that these aren't just separate little dots on the map, but actually a blue continent where all our homelands are connected by the ocean, thus giving our voices much more resonance and power”. Thinking with islands here opens up radical possibilities for true solidarity: recognising that the sea connects all, though without flattening or homogenising each island, seeing ourselves in each other, without attempting to transmute.

More importantly, thinking with islands is important because thinking about them is a vestige of colonial thinking.

Yes, islands are sources of wisdom and knowledge. More and more people know this now. David Chandler and Jonathan Pugh note that, in the era of the Anthropocene: “Island life is widely understood as constituting a living system that the rest of the world may learn from; exemplifying the creative potentialities or ‘emergent’ powers of life itself – ‘system effects’ – that cannot be accessed directly by way of modern frameworks of reasoning.”

A case in point: Aylie Baker, reflecting on her experiences sailing by canoe under Micronesian Master Navigator Sesario Sewralur: “To become a navigator in Satawalese culture [...] It’s not only memorization of star bearings and sea marks that is necessary to reach this threshold. To be initiated, one must know how to read the weather, how to build and repair a canoe, how to prepare and administer traditional medicine, and how to uphold the intricate cultural protocols that govern the sea-lanes a navigator may cross during a lifetime. [...] a navigator’s movements are guided not only by the phenomenal world but also by a deep respect for the ancient, living agreements that exist between ocean peoples and all ocean life.”

More broadly, we return to the ocean here, as author and professor Renisa Mawani writes of how “oceans as method excavates forgotten histories, alternative timescales, and other registers to work with. Thinking with oceans as interconnected and entangled parts of a planetary whole, invites different imaginaries, as Indigenous, Black, Caribbean thinkers and Asian and subaltern seafarers have taught us. These include other views of the sea as entangled histories and futurities guided by overlapping currents, rhythmic movements, and human/non-human interrelations that flow over and cannot be contained in the horizontal and vertical lines of a legal grid.”

But islanders and ocean navigators are not merely sources of knowledge to extract from, nor should their ways of life be fetishised and romanticised. This is where we return to the central problem of how we encounter difference. Radical solidarity is a practice and discipline, an active relationality, a negotiated and re-negotiated kinship, that holds simultaneously our similarities and differences, while remembering what connects us all: a consentual togetherness, not imposed.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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