Blue Humanities

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April 20, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Although fully half of the world’s people now live within a hundred miles of an ocean, few today have a working knowledge of the sea. As a science, oceanography is still in its infancy. “More is known about the dark side of the moon than is known about the depths of the oceans,” writes the sea explorer David Helvarg. Yet large numbers of people know the sea in other ways, through the arts and literature. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, fiction has been imagining undersea worlds that explorers were unable to reach. Rachel Carson, who did as much as anyone to open up the marine sciences, was inspired by the arts and literature. She wrote in 1951 that humans were destined to return to the sea from which they had emerged eons earlier, but this time they would do so “mentally and imaginatively.” This cultural turn to the sea began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and by now there is a vast trove of writing, painting, and music that awaits examination under the rubric of what English professor Steve Mentz would like us to call the “blue humanities.”

A shift in attention from land to sea is under way in several fields simultaneously. Archaeology has moved offshore, revealing previously unknown aspects of prehistory that had been lost to rising sea levels. Anthropology, which got its start on islands, now focuses on the seas between them. Maritime history, once largely about what has taken place on the water’s surface, is now concerned with life in the ocean itself. It is rapidly merging with marine biology, becoming indistinguishable from natural history. What had been a blue hole in environmental history is beginning to be filled by studies of particular species of fish and marine mammals. Even more recently, we have begun to explore the history of ocean currents, tides, and even waves, phenomena once thought to be timeless, like the “eternal sea” itself.

The historicization of the oceans is one of the most striking trends in the blue humanities. History no longer stops at the water’s edge. The Mediterranean Sea was an organizing concept for ancient historians, and now Atlantic history is an established part of early modern scholarship, with the Pacific looming large in contemporary studies. Some global historians, in fact, chafe at oceanic as well as continental divisions, arguing that our globe is dominated by one great seamless body of water, covering seven-tenths of the planet’s surface and affecting weather, climate, and life on land as well as at sea. Geography has finally begun to take an interest in the oceans. Beginning with Philip Steinberg’s The Social Construction of the Ocean (2001), a vast area of exploration has opened up. Historians of science have come to recognize how the voyages of the early modern period produced what the environmental historian Richard Grove showed were the first glimmerings of ecological thinking, when mariners discovered the damage that invasive species of plants and animals could do on small islands around the world.

Sea stories, chanties, and marine painting are by no means new, but it is only recently that they have been subject to academic scrutiny. The seascape, once a minor genre in art history focused mainly on ships and harbors, took on new interest when nineteenth-century painters like J. M. W. Turner and Winslow Homer pioneered the representation of light and movement on canvas, “pure seascape,” as some critics have called it. Comparative literature scholars like Margaret Cohen have shown how sea stories, concerned originally with the mechanics of sailing, came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to focus on the ocean itself, turning it into a space within which to imagine modernity. The modern novel was born at sea with Robinson Crusoe, reaching a new level of metaphysical sophistication with Moby-Dick, and carried forward by the watery science fictions of Jules Verne. Melville’s observation that “meditation and water are wedded forever ” anticipated by almost a century Carson’s evocation in The Sea Around Us (1951) of humankind’s mental and imaginative turn to the sea. In what is now being called “ecoliterature,” we are discovering the scientific side of writers like John Steinbeck, whose close collaboration with the naturalist Ed Ricketts in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, published in the same year as Carson’s classic, can be seen as one of the first examples of this genre.

The emergence of the blue humanities is a belated recognition of the close relationship between modern western culture and the sea. Before the nineteenth century, attitudes toward the oceans were more utilitarian than aesthetic. The sea was portrayed as dangerous and repellant, ugly and unfit for literary or artistic representation. Oceans were explored as a means to reach distant lands, and little attention was paid to the waters themselves. It has been said that “the deep sea made hardly any impression. . . . Even oceangoing explorers were more land than ocean oriented; they used the sea merely as a highway to get to the next landfall.” This was a discovery more by sea than of the sea.

Adapted from Neh.

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Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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28 Comments


  1. Human in the study of oceans has increased from all angles-literature, history, art..

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  2. MI: 19th cent –> shift to sea studies and sea art

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  3. BH = Ocean known more in lit. (cw)

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  4. artists and writers focusing on sea

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  5. Art and literature preceded and influenced the interest in science for ocean/seas.

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  6. MIP: 19th cen = shift blue humanities = study ocean/sea +

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  7. MIP: oceans are now explored in literature/art; tone = neutral

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  8. BH = shifts the focus to the study of sea/ocean through art, humanities and science

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  9. sea= modernly BH= recently known as art + lit +imagination up for academic scrutiny

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  10. Shift towards scientific research/education of sea since Late 18th century and early 19th century. History of the sea has lead to Blue Humanities.

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  11. MI: more attention to ocean (Mentz,Steingberg, Grove & other authors)
    Tone: Direct (+/0)

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  12. Blue humanities = shift more attention to sea + in several fields + historization of the ocean + study sea with more academic scrutiny (recent) + aesthetic view of sea

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  13. The ocean is a vast, complex entity which has recently become the focus of an array of subjects from biology to art/literature.

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  14. Something more important to me is: For those of you who read the passage, how many minutes did it take you to read it?

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  15. Cultural turn to the sea from late 18th cen to nowadays = blue humanities = art focus on the sea itself.

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  16. MI: Ocn= inc use in art/lit and many fields of study
    tone: neut

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  17. sea = perceived from lit and art is now being explored more and given more attention

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  18. Blue Humanities = growing interest

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  19. MIP: Ocean sciences/history expanding

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  20. MIP: study sea more (different disciplines)

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  21. Rachel Carson & other distinguished professionals pushed for Blue humanities, a branch of study that is representative of the appreciation for the imagery and beauty of the oceans; which have transitioned from a mere utilitarian purpose to now being given an aesthetic environment many sympathize with.

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  22. Sea is becoming more popular to study in different faculties; Blue humanities = western culture + sea

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  23. Few= Knowledge of the sea+ oceanography= infancy+ studied via lit and art
    land—>sea= increased study
    Blue human= culture + sea

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  24. MI: Ocean exploration: Art > Science/utility , Other fields transition to ocean focus

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  25. Before, the sea was expressed differently, and usually seen as a body of water lacking any aesthetic value. People mainly focused on land and only used the ocean to travel. However in the 18th and 19th century, the ocean was portrayed in a manner of art, and seen in literature. It was now aesthetically pleasing and opened a door to a wold of oceanic study and analysis.

    Reply

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