Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Life of Forms: An Indirect Commentary via the Sea

In her intimate piece below, Jessica Webster explores the shifting moods of the sea alongside questions of formlessness.

I have always had some misgivings about the sea. These misgivings are more or less the same when someone speaks to me of the ocean. Or not less, only that there is a difference in how I have misgivings between the sea and the ocean. When someone speaks to me of the ocean I think of much wider expanses of sea seen from a plane or satellite photographs of the earth. Here the ocean gives contour to continents with flats expanses of cerulean blue between. Shadowy darker blue dots certain places; we are told that some of these places are seep that they have never been visited by man. Human beings have achieved higher altitudes than deeper depths.

From a high viewpoint or a satellite photograph these deep areas look like shadowy ink blots and the flat expanses which span continents can be measured between my fingers. From where I am the truth of the ocean is an utterly different thing. I have to imagine how far the flat expanses stretch and how deep the deepest canyons hollow. The responsibility for this imagining is as big and serious as the ocean, and this causes me some misgivings, because I am bound to leave something out. That I leave something out unnerves me, because there is a sense that that something may be what is most important. The sea, as it is a part of but different from my image of an ocean, gives me a similar ambiguous sense. I am missing something important. This thing causes me to have misgivings.
Corey Arnold, The North Sea, 2011

Others have found a satisfying form in the sea by documenting in precise detail all the empirical data to be had of the sea, and can therefore largely shrug off the weight of the sea in imagination. They document how far the sea stretches from bay to bay, how the sea is the ocean by dint of its precise location on a carefully detailed map, how deep its crevasses hollow, how high its mountainous ridges rise, how much water that is seawater weighs, why it is so salty, a measure of the strength of its tides, precisely what type of creature lives in salted areas, what type of person lives off what sea creature, what type of person has access to certain parts of the sea, what happens when certain people fish in dangerous areas. We have a lot of data on this issue of the sea, and it ranges all over, and it is imbricated in complex structures. The sea goes on regardless.

From the porch of my seaside cottage the view out to sea is high enough for the press of the ocean. If I place a colossal image of myself standing in front of where I sit on the porch, the shore stretches just to the point below my kneecaps. In the area of my kneecaps, rocks and swirls of white foam spoil each other. But from the roots of each kneecap stretches upward a large expanse of sea which folds over the top of my shoulders, cutting off my neck and head, which are lost in the clouds. The sea is the trunk. If I place an image of myself standing in front of where I sit, I am truncated by the sea such that the sea is my trunk. The trunk is, as we all know, the place where all the meaty stuff is set. It is set there in the trunk in such a way that it can remain largely inert and unaffected by the sweeping actions of the limbs. The meaty stuff, in their thanatotic rhythm, have their own life independent of a movie on a Sunday evening, or a call from your mother. To be sure, what you eat affects the machinations of the organs but these are affected by whatever you eat – they have value for the level of nutritional substance absorbed but otherwise your trunk has no time for meaning whatsoever. 

The sea is largely the same. There is an original dependence on the sea for the functioning of life. We plumb its depths for oil to make our rollercoasters faster and guns penetrate harder. We fish all sorts of fish so that someone with pertly held chopsticks and neat ankles can say ‘I luurve sushi!’ We ride its shoreline peaks with long and short, body, knee, and kite boards all carefully rubbed with beeswax. If you are carried along by a wave towards the shore you feel very comforted and loved by the brilliance of ‘your’ wave, as if you are in togetherness, a working in concert to achieve a given aim of riding, as if on a rollercoaster. Here nature is kind and supportive of your desire to be held, to be carried swiftly, lovingly. When you are being drowned by the sea in a tidal wave or undercurrent, you feel as if the sea has something terrible against you, nature has colluded in air and water to suck you down against your will. Nature is wild and unkind.

People say, ‘I love the sea’ and ‘I am happiest when I am near the ocean’ and other things that assert an attachment to these waters. They assert this humble attachment by pronouncing it to others. It affirms a value of connectedness to this most primordial form of nature, the origin of life. People feel humbled by this awareness and via this connection feel themselves to be humble. But even as we view the sea humbly and acknowledge with gravity the ocean beyond it, the sea lives on regardless. It pulls and pushes its mass, churns and whips along. The sea does not love or hate, it has neither love nor hatred in any of its parts, if indeed there is anything of the sea to partition.

In lieu of the contradiction the various gifts the sea can bestow, some people will say with a knowing face, ‘You need to respect the sea’. But the sea has no time for respect. The sea wants nothing of us. It carries on churning and whipping regardless. You cannot measure one’s regard for the sea between your fingers, or in statements that bounce off the surface of the water not even to echo back at you. We can only measure our regard for the sea with respect to the regard held by others (even if in this regard they are drowned); the sea has nothing to do with it.

This clean cut between you and the sea, between me and the sea, requires a degree of imagination in crossing over from where I am writing, a crossing that can take us to the sea. But this degree of imagination, where it takes the form of deciding on your love or hate for the sea, misses something essential when we take into account that the sea has no time for nominations of love or hate. Is there a form free from ‘love’ and ‘hate’? Kant would refer to it as the ability to judge ‘pure beauty’; psychology calls it the unconscious.
People come and watch the sea. People lay down blankets and towels, tents and umbrellas, and day after day we sit and watch the sea: at least, it is a European fashion to congregate at the sea in this way. But people, as a universal principle as much as they are in proximity to it, look out to sea.

I have a past, a collection of memories attached to my sea in one hand. In the other hand, I have a vast array of scientific data about the sea. Between these, there is only my trunk, which carries on churning and grinding regardless of what I hold in my hands. The trunk is what is left when I have sifted all my memories through my fingers, when I pinch large granules of data between my fingers and allow the finer grains of no concern to escape. Yet the trunk is a large area to call a remainder. It escapes my sifting and sieving, because it has no interest in the actions of my hands. It is absent from the entire process.

People stop at car accidents, and they watch the sea.

Jessica Webster is an artist and PhD Student with the Wits School of Arts 

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