Flow as Problem
If I would ask you to describe the material qualities water, what words would you use? Maybe you would start with terms such as wet, or liquid. And perhaps you’d even say that it flows.
In last week’s blogpost, I describe ways in which blue humanities scholars argue against metaphorizing the ocean since this can distract from its historical and physical materiality. The thought that I would like to offer today is that even when focusing on materiality, you might still end up metaphorizing the ocean. That sounds paradoxical, but there are a few more scholars I’d like to introduce today to help unpack this point. In this post I illustrate the metaphor and/or materiality debate by zooming in on a specific metaphor that has been subject of critique in the blue humanities: flow.
Flow, in other words, can carefully describe a specific material process, but it can also be a generalizing metaphor. In the introduction to the essay collection Thinking with Water (2013), Cecilia Chen, Janine Macleod, and Astrida Neimanis state it quite simply: water does not exist as an abstraction. Water is always part of something, whether it be bodies or landscapes. Lisa Blackmore and Liliana Gomez draw on Neimanis’ book Bodies of Water (2017) to similarly emphasize that a universalized engagement with liquidity is not the point: “water is always sometime, someplace, somewhere.”
What is especially interesting about Blackmore and Gómez’s introduction to Liquid Ecologies in Latin American and Caribbean Art (2020) is that they engage critically with notions of “liquidity” and “flow” as metaphors that support specific economic and political models. Flow, in other words, can contribute to extractive imaginaries of frictionless economies that see water as nothing more than a resource to be used in the most efficient manner. While it would seem that a way to contradict such extractive imaginaries is to show how water is not only a mute resource but a material that flows between ecologies and economies, that is not always the case.
That is because while water flows through our bodies and societies, it does so unevenly. As Elizabeth DeLoughrey and Tatiana Flores state in the article “Submerged Bodies: The Tidalectics of Representability and the Sea in Carribean Art”: yes, water merges bodies, but attention to this merging fails to address racialized and gendered experiences or histories. A potent case in this regard is made by Chen et. al., who state that watery relationality is not only romantic interconnection because pollutants and toxins and plastics also travel across bodies and sites. Racialized, gendered, and classed histories of flow, in other words, keep in focus how flow is differently distributed among bodies and environments.
The clean water coming out of the taps elsewhere in Copenhagen is not the same as the water covered by a film of oil, in the picture above, that separates the two sides of Tuborg Boulevard in Hellerup. Flows of clean and contaminated waters have different trajectories.
Therefore, the authors that inspire this piece argue, the object of our analysis should never be flow us such, but the specific ways in which flow is mediated. This mediation happens historically, but also biologically, as Blackmore and Gómez powerfully phrase it: “porosity is mediated by membranes, from cellular ones that operate biologically to infrastructural ones that work hydraulically or, as this book contends, aesthetic ones.”
So, when I intend to describe the materiality of water, the risk is that I will use exactly those decontextualized or universal metaphors that I am trying to get beyond. The task is not to describe some kind of universal water, but to be attentive to the fact that water is never just one thing. The way in which I experience, imagine, and analyze flow is always a situated and contingent exercise.
 Cecilia Chen, Janine Macleod, and Astrida Neimanis, “Introduction: Toward a Hydrological Turn?,” Thinking With Water (Montréal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 8.  Neimanis in Lisa Blackmore and Liliana Gomez, “Beyond the Blue: Notes on the Liquid Turn,” Liquid Ecologies in Latin American and Caribbean Art (New York, Routledge, 2020), 3.  Blackmore and Gómez, “Beyond the Blue: Notes on the Liquid Turn,” 3.  Elizabeth DeLoughrey and Tatiana Flores, “Submerged Bodies: The Tidalectics of Representability and the Sea in Carribean Art,” Environmental Humanities 12, no. 1 (2020): 149.  Chen, Macleod, and Neimanis, “Introduction: Toward a Hydrological Turn?,” 12.  Blackmore and Gómez, “Beyond the Blue: Notes on the Liquid Turn,” 3.
Blackmore, Lisa and Liliana Gómez. “Beyond the Blue: Notes on the Liquid Turn.” Liquid Ecologies in Latin American and Caribbean Art. New York: Routledge, 2020, 1-10.
Chen, Cecilia, Janine Macleod, and Astrida Neimanis. “Introduction: Toward a Hydrological Turn?” Thinking With Water. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013, 3-22.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth and Tatiana Flores. “Submerged Bodies: The Tidalectics of Representability and the Sea in Carribean Art.” Environmental Humanities 12, no. 1 (2020): 132-166.