Review comment on Alexis Wick’s “The Red Sea: In search of a lost space” (California University Press)

news-credit-tamara-maartook-aub-hosts-book-launchingThank you for this chance to take part in an exciting panel about a fascinating piece of work. Ali Wick is an altneu friend so to speak, my next door neighbor, and one of my favorite colleagues at AUB; but this is not why reading the book I felt so good, intimate and …lucky. When Waleed kindly asked me to be part of this sea panel, I thought that my boarding card was my current research interest on the politics at sea exemplified at the Gaza Freedom Flotilla the ethnography of which I am currently writing. My work on the Flotilla prompted me to discover the sea as a formidable and understudied research field, thus for my current class on research methods in international affairs and anthropology, we have set up a Sea Research Lab. Since I am rather a new recruit in these uncharted waters you can imagine how lucky I felt to have an immediate neighbor who has just published a book on how to best navigate them. However, after having read the book, my feeling of intimacy took further twists. I wish to explain this through three main themes.

First theme: Subject. To be sure, this work’s epistemological and political implications sound quite familiar to an anthropologist. How does history makes its subject? asks Ali, paraphrasing a question posed in 1982 by anthropologist Johannes Fabian, namely: How does anthropology make its subject? Expanding the so-called “reflective turn” beyond anthropology, Ali invites his own discipline, as well as geography, to reflect on their celebrated study subjects as well as the craft of historiography at large, a truly formidable task – but I will let the historians and geographers on the panel and in the room to comment on this.

The book begins with a stark realization of an absent Subject, namely a historical account of the Red Sea, even remotely comparable to Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean. Given Ottoman effective enclosure and century-long control of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Black Sea, among others, why is Ottomanity not related to maritimity asks Ali. Why was not the Red Sea a legitimate historical subject? He responds that Ottoman maritimity was silenced because the Europeans – explorers of the seas and the armchair alike – claimed it for themselves and for modernity, which was denied to the Ottomans; in their Eurocentric eyes, the sea, as the state – both with capital S – was a unique product of the modern era, a genuinely European subject; hence the Ottomans were anonymously considered, excuse my anachronism, a formidable non-sea Actor, a un-maritime Other.

Ali shows how Europe, all while ignoring Ottoman maritimity, turned the Red Sea into a modern subject in multiple guises, i.e. a subject of science, intervention and ultimately control. The Red Sea became subject to imperial ambitions and colonial calculations, entered the maps and the Atlases of scientists and navigators. From a space with roots it became a route to a place – namely the colony out there. Ali shows how powerful technologies such as the map and the steam engine, but also structural forces such as global trade, colonization and modern science striated the otherwise smooth space of the Red Sea – if you allow me to use the beautiful metaphor penned by Deleuze and Guatarri in the Thousand Plateaus. The scientific discovery of the sea is neither nor, warns Wick. Western maritime science was – and perhaps still is – intimately connected to the colonial project. Furthermore, the sea had to first be silenced in order then to be discovered. Ali’s is a powerful critique of Eurocentric, colonial and Christian framings of the sea, which gestures to the silenced, ignored, taken-for-granted Others: the Ottoman seafarers, the sailors of the Red Sea, the non-modern craftsmen, the ‘repressed’ – in Ali’s words – who sought to tame the sea without however mastering it.

Ali looks at the masters of the sea; In my own work I explore the masters of peace in Lebanon and, by implication, in the wider Middle East. My ‘master peace’ – the title of the manuscript – is a genealogical exploration of the emergence of peace as a subject of study after the end of the Cold war, which curiously resonates with Ali’s findings on the emergence of new thalassology around that same period. Yet, Ali is more daring than me in attempting to rig the historians’ craft: instead of falling for the false division between reality and representation, he advocates for the hybridity of genres, the return of semiotics, the embrace of messy accounts. However daring this call might be it remains somewhat unexplored in the book, apart from a floating Borges in the conclusion. Hence my first questions: Is another thalassology possible? How do you imagine a muddled, hybrid way to write about the sea?

Second theme: Craft. This work’s conceptual and methodological approach on the sea intimately mirrors my take on peace, since we both focus on nexuses of power/knowledge, expertise, techno-politics, and intellectual frames, in brief on the role played by different crafts in mastering the ways we know and intervene in global issues. How does the craft of the scientific discovery of the sea relate to the subjectivation of the sea? asks Ali, thus attaching his exploration of the making of the modern object Red Sea to the assemblage of critical thought on advanced by the likes of Foucault, Latour and Mitchell among others. In tackling the question of crafting the sea, Ali rightfully turns his attention to different kinds of craftsmen and experts: explorers, navigators, oceanographists, scientists, and finally historians and geographers. He describes in meticulous detail the work of purity that they undertake in order to come up with the final product, their representation of reality. The book does a great job in showing how from a myriad muddled beginnings, mixed genres and messy domains emerge pure, distinct, sovereign entities, such as oceanography, navigation, maritime science, maritime history and finally the Sovereign Sea itself.

Creating the Red Sea a legible and scripted space meant to purify Science from War and Colonialism, but also the Human from the Non-Human (either in the form of the Divine or the Sublime), and the freedom of the seaman from the enslavement of the native.

In this, Ali’s treatise is in tune with the maritime novel, whose beloved theme was the thalassic craft, namely “the exploits and techniques of work – the profitable and difficult work of sailing and navigation”, as Margaret Cohen notes in her literary study on The Novel and the Sea. Yet, while the metis of Odysseus and the craft of other literary seafarers is a constant act of acrobatics between heroic acts and grandiose failures in this book the work of purification seems utterly successful in silencing the noise of hybridity, the abrupt eruptions of the impure, the eternal return of a messy reality. It seems to me that in order to make the polemic argument Ali succumbs to the success of the modern project and thus turns his back to the imperfection of modern purification. In other words, I think – with Latour – that We have never been thalassic!

Third theme: Actor. This work is in terms of theme, approach and impact intimately close to my current research project on the politics at sea. In exploring the emergence of the Mediterranean Sea as an actor in the politics of global solidarity to Palestine I ask: How does the sea act beyond the human? What kind of actor is the sea? Anthropology has always been concerned with non-human forms of agency and personhood, but recently this long-standing interest has taken the form of radical critiques against anthropocentrism, especially in the debate on the Anthropocene, the ontological turn and the new Materialism. Ethnographers seek to give voice to nature through a multiplicity of actors: namely indigenous populations in the Americas, deep sea microbes in the Monterey bay, and “thinking forests” in the Upper Amazon.

On the face of this research, I wish to interrogate Ali’s claim that the sea has no archive of its own; that the sea will never be able to make history. While reading the book, I received an email with a link to a video featuring a Syrian refugee singing to the sea, which he has just crossed over to reach Greece: “Oh sea, give us love, we are Syrian, do not send your waves against us, we are Syrian, I swear our story is a sad one”. Arguably, this plea to the sea is a different kind of anthropomorphism, a different kind of archive, and it indeed makes a distinct maritime history, which perhaps future historians will call it a Brown Mediterranean in the sense of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.

Finally, while sailing along with Ali’s book, I wondered about the fate of three absent but somewhat necessary passengers: Leo Tolstoy, Carl Schmitt and Gilles Deleuze. I wondered for example if there were Tolstoyian thalassographies of the Red Sea, namely maritime micro-histories, tales from below, from the hold of the ships, indeed counter-currents to the heroic, the modern, the sovereign. I also wondered if the Schmittian take on the sea as the dangerous domain that turns free people into fish people would help to soften Ali’s suspicion on the thalassic approach. I finally wondered if Deleuze and Guattari could partake in Ali’s scripted travel, as they do in mine, infusing it with their optimistic, radically materialist analysis of the sea as the nomadic, smooth space often claimed but never fully conquered by the striation of the State and the War Machine.

I wish to conclude with spelling out what Ali invites us to do with the sea, as I see it. While my previous work questions those who want to give peace a chance, I think we have all good reason to give …sea a chance. While peace is nothing but a floating representation, the sea is very much there, tangible and defiant. I think that the intellectual project behind Ali’s superb work is to give sea her own voice, to approach it in its own right, beyond Eurocentric and anthropocentric representations. Paraphrasing Spivak, I believe that The Sea Can Speak. It can express much needed arguments about the Mother Earth and the unity of cosmos, the abnormality of borders and states, the absurdity and idiocy of our polluting, power-thirsty and pathetic human species. Everywhere around us, oceans, seas, rivers and aquatic horizons are the forefront of an urgent need to rethink political futures within an increasingly post-humanist world and changing relations between the human and the non-human. The Sea Can Speak and articulate much needed utopias, indeed thalassutopias. I therefore thank Ali Wick for his immensely important invitation towards a truly new thalassology. I cant imagine a better place for this than AUB.

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