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  • "A Problem in Small Boat Navigation"Ocean Metaphors and Emerging Data Epistemology in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" and Jack London's "The Heathen"
  • Regina Schober (bio)

One of the biggest assets of our data-driven world is the ability to manage, analyze, and make sense of the floods of information that relentlessly stream into our lives. The more data are electronically and automatically aggregated, the stronger our desire to acquire the navigational tools necessary to prevent drowning in the seas of information. As the vocabulary in this passage demonstrates, nautical imagery is frequently employed in descriptions of the information age. We navigate or surf the Internet, speak of data flows or streams, and denounce those who steal as pirates. Mark D. Bowles compellingly argues that water metaphors for the internet "signify control" (235), suggesting (the potential of) human mastery in view of an increasingly experienced sense of information overload. Especially during the Cold War's information race, Bowles maintains, metaphors that suggest human control were utilized to react to the rapid development of computer technology. The very term "cybernetics," coined by Norbert Wiener in 1947 to denote a new science of control and communication, is based on the Greek kubernetes (helmsman) and "signified the potential mastery over water/information through the semblance of a one steering a ship [sic] … (representing a packet of controlled information) through the uncontrolled waterscape of information noise" (Bowles 234).

Today, we still rely on nautical metaphors to describe our information environments. Klaus Mainzer, for example, remarks that "the search for patterns in the sea of chaotic signals has been vital" ("lebensnotwendig") in our ability to reduce complexity (35; my translation). In an intriguingly naturalist vein, he thus makes explicit the necessity to navigate and make sense of the seas of information in relation to human survival. As I have argued elsewhere, water/sea metaphors abound in our language about digital culture, but they have always formed part of our conceptualizations of [End Page 70] knowledge, information, and data (Schober 9-12). The ocean, as a mysterious and liminal space, has long been related to human curiosity as well as anxiety towards (yet) unknown terrains. Ishmael, in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, declares, "I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans" (116). Elizabeth Bishop writes in "At the Fishhouses" that the sea "is like what we imagine knowledge to be, / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world" (78–81). Cultural imaginations of the ocean often emphasize the epistemological allure of the seemingly endless depths and resources of the ocean. In the U.S. in particular, "seascapes continued to provide a foil for various national, political, and philosophical projections," thus shedding light on the creative engagement with and critical negotiations of cultural, technological, and global challenges (Benesch 10). Yet, as a preferred metaphor for the abundant yet elusive masses of information and data, the ocean represents one of the most powerful epistemological metaphors across time and cultures. It resonates with the idea of knowledge as at once intimidating, diverse, and creative.

Colonial representations of the ocean, especially during the Age of Discovery from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, celebrated the ocean as a window to endless possibilities of exploration and expansion, both in terms of knowledge and territorial power. In contrast, naturalist depictions of the ocean foreground the dynamic forces of the sea as a sovereign and threatening environment to human agency and survival. The ocean, for naturalist writers, offers a productive metaphorical realm that allows them to experiment with tropes such as the confrontation between human beings and their environment, the search for and inaccessibility of knowledge amidst the chaos of inundating data, the emergent and thus unpredictable manifestations of large-scale knowledge systems, and the unattainability of individual integrity and self-knowledge.

In reading two naturalist tales set in and around the ocean, Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" (1897) and Jack London's "The Heathen" (1909), I will investigate the cultural and ideological functions of sea imagery in relation to an emerging data epistemology negotiated in naturalist fiction. In these texts, I claim, the ocean both exemplifies and challenges the potentials and...


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pp. 70-88
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