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  • Introduction:Science Studies and the Blue Humanities
  • Stacy Alaimo (bio)

I am pleased to introduce this special volume of Configurations, focused on science studies and the blue humanities. Scholarship in what Laura Winkiel, in her cogent introduction to a recent volume on "Hydro-Criticism," calls the "oceanic turn,"1 has been rapidly expanding, along with the theoretical, literary, and artistic projects that "think with water" more broadly.2 For this volume, I have chosen the term "blue humanities" to underscore the environmental orientation of oceanic and other aquatic scholarship. While science studies has been vital for the environmental (green) humanities, it is even more essential for the development of the blue humanities, since most aquatic zones, species, and topics exist beyond human domains, requiring the mediation of science and technology. The fact that most of the ocean cannot be encountered directly by terrestrial humans means that the ocean and many of its species spark disciplinary, methodological, ontological, and epistemic questions and quandaries. Indeed, D. Graham Burnett concludes his massive, extensively researched, nearly eight-hundred-page volume, The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century, by stating, "The fundamental lesson I have taken from the research and writing of this book amounts to nothing less than a kind of sweeping epistemological humiliation."3 What is "exportable" [End Page 429] about his undertaking is, he contends, an "anti-analysis," about what he has "not figured out."4 While a recognition of epistemological limits has been articulated as an ethical stance within feminist theory, environmental theory, and animal studies as a means of countering colonizing epistemologies of mastery, Burnett seems stranded within his own strict division between the archives of whale sciences and the actual whales. He warns us, early on, that there will be no whales in this book, "Only words about whales." He continues, "What were the whales saying? I have no idea. Do I give too much agency to (human) words? Maybe. It is ever thus with bookish folk. If it is whales you want, you have to go to sea."5

Burnett's rather coy conclusions dilute or evaporate the potential for science and humanistic (or posthumanistic) inquiries to yield something solid or lucid that could enable us to understand something of the creatures of the sea. By contrast, the enunciation of recent headlines such as "A Big-Hearted Iron Snail Is the First Deep-Sea Species to Be Declared Endangered Due to Seabed Mining"6 seems to issue forth from a rather solid stage, where data about even the most remote creatures are accurate and available. And yet the article itself, appearing in DSM Observer: Deep Sea Mining News and Resources, explains the difficulties of listing deep-sea creatures on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, given the strict protocols of the list on the one hand, and the insufficient data about many deep-sea species on the other. "Insufficient data" is putting it mildly. Since so little is known about so many species in the deep and pelagic seas—including, most intriguingly, the creatures that likely exist but have not yet been discovered—it is unlikely that there are not many species in the deep seas that have already become extinct due to anthropogenic causes, besides deep-sea mining. Extinction and "discovery" may happen simultaneously in the Anthropocene seas, paradoxical places that are greatly altered but little known, harboring both compressed and expansive temporalities.7 Add the economic drive for deep-sea mining to this scene, and the [End Page 430] need for robust, complex, revealing, transdisciplinary inquiries plus environmental and political interventions becomes apparent.8 Even the rather straightforward DSM Observer tenderly notes the "giant heart" of this snail, whose habitat "covers only a few square meters of area in a vast, unforgiving ocean."9 The rather intimate portrait of this armored snail suggests wider oscillations in depictions of sea creatures, which cast them as alien and weird but also as aesthetically marvelous—unfathomably distant yet worthy of beholding. The often highly aestheticized aquatic figures underscore how the arts and humanities are essential for understanding the scientific captures and dissemination of particular narratives, tropes, and styles across science...


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pp. 429-432
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