An ocean dwells in us

#1 Terrestrial, MUCK Library 

To bury something in the ground, some steps should be taken:

—procure a tool that has potential for disrupting the derma of the soil. it could be inorganic, or could be one’s own hands

—exert force on the soil with the chosen device. if using a stick-like tool, insert it at an optimal angle, ideally that of 75°. if hands are selected, excellent choice. there’s nothing like scratching the ground, ending up with some dirt wedged under fingernails.

—remove the loose soil from the soon-to-be pit every now and then. the displaced earth should be set aside in order to cover up the hole.

—stop digging once desired size of hole has been achieved.

—carefully lower object/animal/any other intangibles to the bottom. fill the hole with the previously displaced soil, gently patting the fresh mound.

—congratulations on a successful burial.

Burying could, in most parts, comes from the right of the soil. But sea burials do happen too. I had been to one, off the coast of Singapore. Grandfather had died and it was decided to scatter his ashes in the sea. Somehow it was the family’s consensus that he would be most comfortable returning to water. Bones are resilient, even to the flames. I held what it seemed to be a shard of femur and dropped it. The waters were welcoming, and consumed it whole. It disappeared almost immediately, losing opacity, its optical whiteness. Soon after, it became comfortable once more to look at the surface of the sea, with the only disruption made by its own currents. It was everyone’s first time on these waters, and safe to say that it was probably Yeye’s first too. And even then, it felt like he had returned home.

Shifting the Terracentre

The majority of humans dwell on earth (and not the planet Earth that is capitalised as a noun); and naturally notions of home are tied to the land. Too often decolonialisation has been instinctively thought of through the earth, with the focus set on land-based conquests and exploitation. It should be noted that this essay is not a disqualification of the inherent goodness of the terraform; after all, it nourishes and provides for Earth’s land dwellers. No doubt, earth remains a heavily burdened term in decolonial thought, with traces of this found throughout histories: settlers who robbed fertile lands; Indigenous driven from their motherland; slaves who sowed the earth for the imperial trade; neo-capita-colonial economy extracting oil, gold and rubies (just to name some of the natural resources mined for trade). What is identified as a terracentric bias nullifies water bodies as non-places,1 a nullo loco passively sitting on the periphery. A heterotopic black hole, where nothing significant mankind can identity with—at least for the majority of modern humans.2 Lands are considered nations, countries and homes, but not the sea or ocean. According to Marcus Rediker, a bulk of maritime historians ‘continue to see the oceans as unreal places, as voids between the real spaces’.3 With the lack of acknowledgement of water than it being just a resource, the sea has also been denied a voice, a history and a future.4 Through watery thinking, it asks that we deterritorialise the terraform in order to connect to the wider Other—beings, spacetimes and locations.5 By recognising and reconciling water as alterity, the extra-terrestrial, perhaps the terrestrial (and the anthropocene) could expand, making space for waters to flow.6 This piece of writing looks to shake up terracentric cosmologies, particularly displacing the cartographic gaze that has permeated human understanding of other geographies and people
1 Auge, M. (1995) Non Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Translated by Howe. J. London: Verso.

2 Foucault, M. (1984) Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. Leach, N. (ed.) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, 330–336

3 Rediker, M. (2004) Villians of All Nations: Atlantic Priates in the Golden Age. London: Verso.
Tay, K. (2019) The sea is all highway: Singapore and the Logistical Media of the Global Surface. Singapore: Temporary Press

Chen, C. (2013) 'Mapping Waters: Thinking with Watery Places', Chen, C., MacLeod, J., Neimanis, A. (eds.)Thinking with Water. McGill Queen's University Press, 274–298.

Tay, K. (2019) The sea is all highway: Singapore and the Logistical Media of the Global Surface. Singapore: Temporary Press.

Becoming Wetness

Our bodies consist of nearly 60% water, that of which is skin-wrapped, carried and walked about effortlessly every day, with little or no spillage. Simply (and clichédly) put, our bodies are mini reservoirs of water; an ocean dwells in us. But unsurprisingly, to regard our biological and ontological being as a watery pool instead of a sturdy mass is problematic in Western thought, where bodies are regarded as autonomous vehicles, subject to control and containment. Although brain wires our physiological movements, all internal activity flows with agency, independent from our mind. Matter of fact, we are more viscous that we think ourselves to be. Our exchange with fluids is constant in our habits of drinking, crying, peeing and sweating—our embodiment is not static, but aqueous.7

Looking towards a biologically embedded hydrological cycle, Astrida Neimanis draws up a visual explanation:

‘we are literally implicated in other animal, vegetable and planetary bodies that materially course through us, replenish us, and draw upon our own bodies as their wells: human bodies ingest reservoir bodies, while reservoir bodies are slaked by rain bodies, rain bodies absorb ocean bodies, ocean bodies aspirate fish bodies, fish bodies are consumed by whale bodies—which then sink to the seafloor to rot and be swallowed up again by the ocean.’ 8

With just a thin membrane of skin separating our fluids from the source, the majority of humans have lost the primal connection to ancestral water. An overwhelming portion of the Earth constitutes of water rather than land; anthropologists and thinkers suggest that this planet should be referred to as ‘Ocean’.9 Considering the active rising sea levels, our focus should expand out of the terra-anthropocentric to waters, to wetness. Water, is much of an oxymoron. It can be solid, liquid or gaseous; transparent, translucent or opaque; tangible or intangible. It is voluminous, stubbornly restless and unceasingly reforming.10 Its feminineness goes without questioning—as evidenced throughout pagan and indigneous teachings—although masculinity can also be implied. Because of its apparent passiveness, water has been denied agency. Mostly viewed as a resource and not a force, the potentials of water has been overlooked and taken for granted. It is, in fact, a fertile incubator for reassessing geopolitical structures and ungrounding notions of time and space that has been crystallised in History.11 To deepen our understanding of water, its counterpart, the terra, should first be understood. The earth is first and foremost, solid in its natural state. It is opaque and its molecular structure holds a greater “integrity”, as compared to water. It is masculine, grounded and tangible. Mostly stable in form (apart from natural land disasters), the E/earth exudes comfort which resonates with primal human instinct. Since we spend the majority of our lives being dry on the land, thoughts of embracing a wetness—even if it is through thought—seems alien and otherly.

Nemanis, A. (2017) Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. London: Bloomsbury.

Ibid., 5–6.

Helmreich, S. (2014) ‘Waves: An anthropology of scientific things’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4(3), pp. 265–284.

10 Steinberg, P., Peters, K. (2015) 'Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33, pp.247–264.

11 Ibid., 254.

Cartography as Power

Abraham Ortelius was a Flemish cartographer. In this map, the Malay Peninsula appears as an elongated extension of mainland Southeast Asia, and Singapore as an appendix, marked “Cincapura”, with a cluster of islets. As was common practice for the time, the map also has illustrations of mermaids and imaginary sea creatures (National Museum of Singapore, 2017)

An instrument of the empires, cartography was and still is, a result of determining, selecting and portraying what is important—in the eyes of the conqueror.12 Experiencing an exponential growth associated with the period of European Enlightenment, cartography was one of the embodiments of progress, a symbol of modernity.13 As a product of the imagination, maps are impressions of such a perceived reality, a visual manipulation of the landscape, not to mention its far-fetched mythification of the seascape. It is essentially, assault embedded, germinated from years of indoctrination under a breed of scientific ‘objectivity’. An attempt to exercise and legitimise its geopolitical and cultural power, the use of cartography could be said to be the unassuming instrument of power. Disguised under a field of study, cartography continued to privilege the Western bourgeois male and any other elite individual who had found ‘interests’ on foreign soil. In the words of Raymond Craib, there was hardly any ‘attention given to the people purportedly being ‘mapped’, who at most would appear as fleeting mirages on the surveyor’s horizon destined to be subsumed within empire’s expanding girth’.14

Cartography is also a form of slow violence,15 built incrementally and discreetly, akin to untraceable bacteria strain which only become visible when symptoms rupture on the host body. Although deemed a scientific instrument, it is laden with subjectivities, projecting essentialisms that have been encoded under generations of knowledge transmission in scientific and mass cultural fields. Used as a means of cultural and political self-representation, maps forge national identity and unity, also doubling as a tool of (un/dis)representing othered lands. National atlases are platforms for centralised bodies to map its ideals and claims. Maps concocted through and with the state’s interest usually depict the size of the country running proportional to its idealised power. Enforced by kingdoms and states, maps were mended and appropriated to align with that of expansion and defensive territorial interests.16 As suggested by geographer-cartographer Phillippe Rekacewicz, whoever controls the image of the territory is the controller of the territory itself.17

12 Chen, C. (2013) 'Mapping Waters: Thinking with Watery Places', Chen, C., MacLeod, J., Neimanis, A. (eds.) Thinking with Water. McGill-Queen's University Press, 274–298.

13 Craib, R. (2017) 'Cartography and Decolonization', in Akerman, J.R. (ed.) Decolonizing the Map: Cartography from Colony to Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 11–71.

14 Craib, R. (2009) ‘Relocating cartography', Postcolonial Studies, 12, pp. 481–490.

15 Nixon,R. (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press.

16 Craib,R. (2017) ‘Cartography and Decolonisation’, Decolonising the Map: Cartography from Colony to Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 11–71.

17 Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (2015) Philippe Rekacewicz. Cartography: Between Art and Politics. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRCkvz4Md2k&list=LLxmvzor-PySrYzXBWqDqN4A&index=3 &t=1s (Accessed: 1 August 2019).


McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World
(Stuart McArthur, 1979)

In an undoing of cartographic essentialisms, I suggest a system of countermapping as a stepping stone to thinking of water as method,18 where a recasting of the net onto subaltern geographies may take shape. Drawing from Chen Kuan-Hsing’s Asia As Method, we should head towards a porous and coalescence mode of embodying, fending off rudimentary mechanisms that could echo residual colonial thought.19 In resisting against a Northcentrism, specifically where the North of the compass points ‘up’, Australian Stuart McArthur constructed a remedial map where a literal inversion of the map was flipped 180°, cueing the eye to read the ‘Global South’ as the ‘Global North’s’ equal. Echoing a sentiment similar to Chinese compasses in the Han dynasty, where needles were south-pointing.20 Guided by the Earth’s magnetism rather than astronomy, the Chinese used lodestones that naturally gravitated towards the south, instead of north. Soon after, prominent landmarks were built in a south-north orientation: the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth, Temple of Moon, Temple of Sun. Arabic cartographers also followed the same orientation—maps were drawn and read south-up, as seen in Moroccan cartographer Muhammed al-Idrisi’s gift to King Roger of Sicily.21
18 Burton, A .et al. (2013) ‘Sea Tracks and Trails: Indian Ocean Worlds as Method’, History Compass, 11(7), pp. 497–502.

19 Chen, K.H. (2010) Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham and London: Durham University Press.

20 Sparavigna, A.C. (2017) 'Magnetic Compasses and Chinese Architectures'. Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/1709.07056 (Accessed: 30 August 2019)

Danforth, N. (2014) How the north ended up at the top of the map. Available at: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/2/maps-cartographycolonialismnortheurocentricglobe.html (Accessed: 29 August 2019)

A world map drawn by the Moroccan cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily, 1154 (Wikimedia Commons)


Diagram of coastal erosion
(Earth Science Australia, n.d.)

In the spirit of carrying forward a deterraining motion of thought, I would like to turn to the geological concept of coastal erosion, a freeing of landlocked sediments and sentiments which have been solidified over deep time. Erosion of coastal soil displaces age-old soil that has been land-locked in the earth for extended time periods. In environmental studies, coastal erosion is seen as something to be managed, controlled and prevented. With the growing number of sites affected by coastal erosion due to rising sea levels and storminess, reasons for exercising measures on coastal erosion is a given. Damaged sites include the village of Fuveme in Ghana;22 Withernsea seaside town in Northeast England;23 Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Beach;24 the coastal city of Penang in Malaysia;25 Kerala in South India;26 Texan town of Freeport.27 Powered by rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms planet-wide, erosion is no less a threat to coastal infrastructure, ecosystems and livelihoods. And in spite of the natural forces weathering coasts, anthropogenic meddling remains as the dominant driver of damage. Sand mining along the Mekong Delta in Vietnam has left a devastating mark on its river banks.28 Urban expansion in China’s Liaoning province has eaten up glaring amounts of its shorelines.29 Continuous human intervention on the Venice Lagoon has battered its natural form: the splitting of tributaries in prevention of sedimentation (15th–17th century); reclamation for urban development (1927–1960); natural gas extractions (1930); construction of anti-flood barriers (2003)
.30 It is imperative to note that this essay does not delight in nor mock the detrimental effects of natural coastal erosion. Rather, it is an attempt to rethink the analogous relationship between earth and water through reinforcing the double-edged sword of hyaluronic power in order to appreciate the sheer potential of water.

By using sea erosion mechanics as metaphor, we can better visualise the process of water exropansion. Best described as a loosening of solid metanarratives, exropansion is a combination of two movements—erosion (water displacing earth) and expansion (constant change in earth and water space). Erosion, in this case, refers to the hydro forces which carry sediments away from the land. Given its cyclical currents, sediments which were previously swept away may return to its providence. Or in other cases, it travels to various locations—to a neighbouring bay or a different ocean. Expansion points to the continual flux of land and sea space. Over time, earth and water borders expand and contract; any demarcating lines are impermanent and futile.31
In spite of cartographical control and determinism, territory between land and sea are as subject to the tides that rise and fall, the moon that waxes and wanes. Perhaps it is most useful approaching the concept of exropasion as a movement of undoing, unravelling and unlearning from a homogenous History.

Dwelling in this constant state of flux, I suggest we embody the thought of exropansion to dilute the concentrate of History into histories, displacing one-dimensional narratives and essentialist perceptions. To revisit the inherent nature of water, it might be worth questioning: how much can cartographical boundaries truly contain and deal with the perpetual relentlessness of the seas and oceans?32 Considering the permanence emanated through lines and grids in maps, how can we wade towards a liquidating of the map? How can we, as watery agents, water down the dominance exerted by the white, male, bourgeois explorer—otherwise an extension of the imperial system?33 How can we erode (but not erase), the top-bottom architecture on which History sits on, where the subaltern can seek refuge from reduction? By embracing a wetness in our thinking, we can then start to wash over forgotten fragments in perception and recall. By way of displacing—and not corroding—data that has been embedded in the earth, spaces for new and lost narratives can exist once more. With encouraged exchange between terra and aqua, synergised tributaries can flow into bodies of collective care.
22 Naadi, T. (2016) Ghana’s coastal erosion: The village buried in sand. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-36257360 (Accessed: 29 August 2019).

23 Internet Geography. (2018) Withernsea Case Study. Available at: https://www.internetgeography.net/topics/withernsea/ (Accessed: 29 August 2019).

24 Ortega, J. and Rapado, D. (2018) Fort Lauderdale Beach Erosion Raises Tourism Concerns. Available at: https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Fort-Lauderdale-Beach-Erosion-Raises-Tourism-Concerns-181 238971.html (Accessed: 29 August 2019).

25 Lingam, T. (2016) Erosion on Penang coastal highway threatens lives, say NGO. Available at:https://www.foe-malaysia.org/erosion_on_penang_coastal_highway_threatens_lives_says_ngo (Accessed: 29 August 2019).

26 Sheela Nair, L., Prasad, R., Rafeeque, M.K., Prakash, T.N. (2018) 'Coastal Morphology and Long-term Shoreline Changes along the Southwest Coast of India', Journal of the Geological Society of India, 98(5), pp. 588-595.

Beachapedia (2015) StateoftheBeach/StateReports/TX/BeachErosion. Available at: http://www.beachapedia.org/State_of_the_Beach/State_Reports/TX/Beach_Erosion (Accessed: 29 August 2019).

Anthony, E. et al. (2015) 'Linking rapid erosion of the Mekong River delta to human activities', Scientific Reports, 5.

Fan, J. et al.(2018) 'Assessment of coastal development policy based on simulating a sustainable land-use scenario for Liaoning Coastal Zone in China', Land Degradation and Development, 29(8), pp. 2390–2402.

Madricardo, F .et al. (2019) 'Accessing the human footprint on the sea-floor of coastal systems: the case of the Venice Lagoon, Italy', Scientific Reports, 9.

NASA (2019) World of Change: Coastline Change. Available at: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/CapeCod (Accessed: 29 August 2019).

Bear. C, Eden. S. (2008) 'Making space for fish: the regional, network and fluid spaces of fisheries certification', Social and Cultural Geography, 9, pp. 487–504.

Craib, R. (2009) ‘Relocating cartography', Postcolonial Studies, 12, pp. 481–490.