Politics Beyond the Human / How We Forgot the Sea

Epsen Rasmussen

New York City has nearly six hundred miles of coastline. We turn our backs on the waters that surround us to our great peril. For many years, experts of various stripes have been warning about the threat posed to the city by climate change-induced rising tides. In 1999, for example, the Environmental Defense Fund published a report titled “Hot Nights in the City: Global Warming, Sea-Level Rise, and the New York Metropolitan Region.” A decade later, MoMA and P.S.1 collaborated on a design competition, “Rising Tides: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” that was intended to explore innovative solutions to the city’s heightened vulnerability to storm-surge induced inundation. Yet when Hurricane Sandy struck New York just over a year ago, the city seemed almost totally unprepared for the infrastructural and human emergencies provoked by this natural disaster. Numerous factors combined to make New York vulnerable to Sandy, but underlying them all was the fact that we’ve largely forgotten our city’s links to its maritime environment. Since the spread of mass air transport, few of us travel long distances on the surface of the planet’s oceans. Even fewer of us actually depend directly on the sea for our livelihoods. In the words of the filmmaker Alan Sekula, the oceans have become the world’s “forgotten space,” an occult zone absolutely crucial to global economic exchange and yet almost totally elided from cultural representation. This is the story of how we forgot the sea.

Ashley Dawson is Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. He is the author of the Routledge Concise History of Twentieth-Century British Literature (2013) and Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Michigan, 2007), and co-editor of three essay collections: Democracy, the State, and the Struggle for Global Justice (Routledge, 2009); Dangerous Professors: Academic Freedom and the National Security Campus (Michigan, 2009); and Exceptional State: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the New Imperialism (Duke, 2007). Dawson is editor of Social Text Online and a member of the Social Text collective. He is currently at work on a manuscript called Sea Change, which focuses on global cities and climate change.

Readings: Rob Nixon, Introduction to Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (p. 1-44)

In the series following-up from last Fall’s Forms of Survival and the Politics of Vulnerability, Politics Beyond the Human continues to address notions of survival and how survival can act as a license to force and at other times a basis for resistance, while expanding the scope of inquiry to include discussions of the nonhuman world. The workshop is developed and led by Michelle Ty (PhD candidate English, Designated Emphasis Critical Theory).

Introduction: Michelle Ty, PhD candidate in English, Designated Emphasis Critical Theory, UC Berkeley