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  • Aster Hoving

Metaphor and/or Materiality

In this early stage of exploring blue humanities scholarship, there is one debate that particularly catches my attention. I’ll call it the metaphor and/or materiality debate. This debate circles around the question of the relationship between the ocean as representation or mediation on the one hand, and the ocean’s specific material properties on the other. The debate takes shape in literary studies but also travels along disciplines, and as such I have tried to trace part of its movements. Below, I describe a few key moments and authors in this debate and their relation to each other.

The “Oceanic Studies” Theories and Methodologies section of PMLA seems to start this discussion in literary studies. Hester Blum, in the introduction to the section, opens with the capitalized sentence “THE SEA IS NOT A METAPHOR”.[1] Blum argues that she sea as a figure of transnationalism has often rendered the ocean immaterial, obscuring attention to the historical material labor conditions at sea.[2]

A few years later, in an ACLA forum on “Oceanic Routes” in Comparative Literature, Kerry Bystrom and Isabel Hofmeyr actively avoid commentary like this by organizing the contribution under the headers “oceanic” and “routes,” where the latter refers to transnational circulation and enclosure.[3] If the “routes” approach is a more traditional way of reading, the editors argue, then the “oceanic” opens up to other interpretive practices by foregrounding the geophysical properties of the ocean.[4]

And even more recent, Laura Winkiel, in the introduction to the “Hydro-criticism” issue of English Language Notes, similarly defends the works in the issue against a concern expressed by an anonymous reader. That reader asked whether scholars reduce the ocean to “a fashionable metaphor” when they textualize it.[5] In literary studies it almost seems that the consensus at the moment is that the historical and ecological materiality of the ocean should receive at least as much analytic attention as the literatures that mediate it.

Only almost, however. Literary scholar Serpil Oppermann takes a position that is less dismissive of the metaphorical. She advocates an understanding of ocean metaphors and materiality as equally constituting our knowledge of the ocean.[6] The materiality of the ocean is not disengaged but actively shapes knowledge, she states, and in this sense the ocean is both an ecosystem and as science/story/art-making entity.[7]

Stacy Alaimo similarly advocates that the ocean as object of inquiry is never separated from the art, literature, but also science that “metaphorizes” it.[8] Neither is the artist, writer, or scientist separate from the ocean—the ocean, its metaphors, and those investigating those two are part of each other. Alaimo refers to this as “material-semiotic immersion”.[9]

And then there is a voice from outside the realm of literary studies, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, who actively positions his own work as being in tension with the new or feminist materialisms developed by authors such as Oppermann and Alaimo. Helmreich argues that while the ocean, and waves in particular, are definitely material, they are only knowable through abstraction.[10] In this sense, his take on the relationship between metaphor and materiality is also different from the anti-metaphorical current in literary studies. Helmreich states that the material world should not be separated in our analyses[11]—but, importantly, that does not mean he regards them as inseparable at all.

Whereas the waves Helmreich investigates are both “concrete and conceptual”,[12] he concludes that another ocean is purely semiotic. Google Ocean allegedly does not contain the materiality of seawater at all. [13] Even though Helmreich states that new materialisms wrongfully regard the material as being outside the realm of signification,[14] implying a rightful connection between the two, his take on the relation between the ocean as metaphor and material is not one of ontological inseparability. It is more one of occasional convergence.

I am clearly interested in the question all these authors ask themselves, but I also wonder about the limits to the debate. Though the positions I describe above are definitely different, they all appear strangely similar to me as well. That is perhaps because each author, in their own way, affirms the categories of “materiality” and “metaphor” as distinct analytical tools, even when arguing against the separation of metaphor from materiality. What, I ask myself, could be other kinds of tools, and what different conversations would they make possible?


[1] Hester Blum, “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies,” PMLA 125, no. 3 (2010): 670. [2] Blum, “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies,” 670. [3] Kerry Bystrom and Isabel Hofmeyr, “Introduction,” Comparative Literature 69, no. 1 (2017): 2. [4] Bystrom and Hofmeyr, “Introduction,” 3. [5] Laura Winkiel, “Introduction,” English Language Notes 57, no. 1 (2019): 5. [6] Serpil Oppermann, “Storied Seas and Living Metaphors in the Blue Humanities,” Configurations 27, no. 4 (2019): 446. [7] Oppermann, “Storied Seas and Living Metaphors in the Blue Humanities,” 451. [8] Serpil Opperman reads (447) Alaimo’s work as similar to Bystrom, Hofmeyr, Blum, and Winkiel’s work because Alaimo states that the films, texts, and photography she discusses in the essay “Feminist Science Studies and Ecocriticism” pose the ocean as a vessel for scientific and aesthetic control (193). This reading is not entirely correct in my understanding because, as Alaimo states a few sentences later in the same article, aesthetic encounters might be thought of kinds of entanglements as well (193). [9] Stacy Alaimo, “Feminist Science Studies and Ecocriticism,” in the Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, ed. Greg Garrard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 189. [10] Stefan Helmreich, “Waves: An Anthropology of Scientific Things,” Hav: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 3 (2014): 266. [11] Helmreich, “Waves,” 266. [12] Helmreich, “Waves,” 267. [13] Stefan Helmreich, “From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures,” Social research 78, no. 4 (2011): 1236. [14] Helmreich, “Waves,” 266.


Alaimo, Stacy. “Feminist Science Studies and Ecocriticism.” In the Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, edited by Greg Garrard, 188-201. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Blum, Hester. “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies.” PMLA 125, no. 3 (2010): 670-677.

Bystrom, Kerry and Isabel Hofmeyr. “Introduction.” Comparative Literature 69, no. 1 (2017): 1-6.

Helmreich, Stefan. “From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures.” Social research 78, no. 4 (2011): 1211-1240.

------. “Waves: An Anthropology of Scientific Things.” Hav: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 3 (2014): 265-284.

Oppermann, Serpil. “Storied Seas and Living Metaphors in the Blue Humanities.” Configurations 27, no. 4 (2019): 443-461.

Winkiel, Laura. “Introduction.” English Language Notes 57, no. 1 (2019): 1-10.


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