Seascapes: tides of thought and being in Western perceptions of the sea. GARP14

Phelan, Jake. 2007. Seascapes: tides of thought and being in Western perceptions of the sea. GARP14. Other. Goldsmiths, London, UK. [Report]

[img] Text (Copyright)

Download (805kB)

Abstract or Description

For traditional British anthropology the ‘other’ was overseas, to be found and studied in static, bounded fields.
Anthropology’s intellectual agriculture of the ‘field’ is rightly celebrated as being fundamental to the discipline. In recent years though, it has turned into something
of a quagmire, in which anthropologists get stuck (or ‘dwell’) while others move around them. The sea meanwhile, and the movement of those upon it, has been sorely neglected. It has been given no place, theoretical or otherwise, by a discipline that from its beginning travelled
across the sea’s ‘vast emptiness’ yet in which “The discourse of ethnography (‘being there’) is separated from that of travel (‘getting there’)” (Clifford, 1997: 23). Field-work, at most, has been muddy. Anthropological theory, rooted in the land, has often been constrained by
a sedentary bias.

In departing from the land I do not wish to go overseas but out to sea, to take travel as part of ethnography and to
uproot the groundedness of being and dwelling and see it instead in terms of fluidity, movement and change. The aim
of this paper, then, is to better understand perceptions of the sea and the movement of seafarers, and to explore the sea’s potential as an idea, metaphor and human practice. In all, to set forth a prolegomena of an anthropology of the sea, an anthropology of “They that go down to the sea in ships, That do business in great waters” (Psalm 107).

It is unsurprising, I suppose, that anthropology has had so little concern with the sea, yet the sea affects the land
in countless ways. It has been the site of various European ‘discoveries’ and of numerous historical voyages, yet such
voyages are seen as liminal events between the more interesting aspects of colony and metropole. Britain in particular not only has a maritime climate but a maritime
culture. The sea is condemned as a blank environment, an empty space or void. Yet, to pass over a region so lightly – one that covers the majority of the earth’s surface, that affects countless people’s lives through fishing, tourism, travel or flooding, that mediates global trade, is a battleground of national powers, and has a dominating
role in global ecology – seems ill-advised. And so I wish to emplace the sea, to create a space for it within the anthropological domain. Not by ‘grounding’ it, but by conceptualising its very fluidity.

Item Type:

Report (Other)

Identification Number (DOI):


Additional Information:

Jake Phelan graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2004 with a BA in Anthropology, after which he worked as a researcher in South Sudan. He went on to do an MA in Anthropology of Development at SOAS and to work for an NGO in landlocked Afghanistan, from where he dreams of returning to sea.

Goldsmiths Anthropology Research Papers, Eds: Mao Mollona, Emma Tarlo, Frances Pine, Olivia Swift.

Additional copies of this publication are available from the Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW.


anthropology; the sea

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

?? garp ??



Item ID:


Date Deposited:

16 May 2008 15:29

Last Modified:

23 Jun 2014 13:20


View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)