Writing the Environmental Crisis at Sea: Tangibility and the Potential of the Jellyfish

3 March 2022
By Rosanne van der Voet

I open my laptop, smoothening out the corners of my notebook. A logical list of tasks forms itself in my head, in a word document. But the page keeps shifting, slowly slipping away as I try to pin it down. My mind keeps drifting off into a sea of other thoughts, where terrestrial logic dissipates. As I think of that watery being, my hands follow a tentacular path that does not stick to this rectangular page space. Ever more strangely, a fluidity overflows these words, spills their ink into the margins of this text. The words drip off the corners of the page, cascading into different stories that do not emerge in black letters against a white background. For here is a creature who is no more than water held by translucent skin. Here is a story told in the gentle pulsations of a lobed and bell-shaped body, in the trembling of an oral arm, the coiling of a tentacle. Almost identical to the sea itself, this animal lives as water.[1] Multiple selves sprout from its single larval beginning, and many live on when some part of the same being has died. An ongoing process of watery metamorphosis displaces this human hand, slowly nudges it to tell a different story. And when the fully grown Medusa swims into the narrative, there is no me, no you, there is only a dissipated, multiple self afloat across the oceans of the world.

In her wonderful book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Tsing combines academic scholarship on the matsutake mushroom’s journey through capitalist systems of commodification with an innovative writing form that reflects its nonhuman subject matter. Aware of the global context in which it emerges, the structure of Tsing’s book, which she defines as a ‘riot of short chapters (..) not a logical machine,’ mirrors the patchiness of the world it describes.[2] She even invites the body of the mushroom into the fabric of her chapters: ‘I wanted them to be like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after a rain: an over-the-top bounty; a temptation to explore; an always too many.’[3] In the context of my own work with the jellyfish, I wonder if Tsing’s method can be developed into a relationally transformative writing practice. For does an experimental approach such as Tsing’s not only impose text onto mushroom but also mushroom onto text, altering the language and its structure in undeniably mushroom-like ways, potentially affecting broader, non-textual human-mushroom relationships?

My research explores what kinds of stories and writing styles can make tangible the environmental crisis of the oceans. Adopting a trans-corporeal definition of the human as always intimately connected to other beings and processes, I try to make this intimacy material on the page. Destabilising the dominance of human subjectivity, I am attempting to find a way toward a non-anthropocentric writing style. This approach does not negate my own human perspective, but it builds on the idea that acknowledging this fundamental human-nonhuman intimacy creates a useful opening for thinking about how we may write the nonhuman experience of the environmental crisis while being critical and aware of the limits of human imaginations. As the jellyfish encroaches ever further on my writing, its tentacular and fluid nature shapes the structure of my work. Now that I have written on this animal at length, it influences my writing in ways I could not have foreseen, enhancing experimental elements, such as a blending of creative and academic writing styles and a variety in form and narrative voice.

The presence of the jellyfish in my work poses the following question: what can such experimental writing, which explores an intimacy with its nonhuman subject matter, mean for the future of the oceans and our relationship with them? Compared to terrestrial environments, we have traditionally had less access to the oceans, and thus less knowledge of them. Moreover, as marine animals – with the exception of cetaceans – tend to rely on physiologies quite different to our own to survive in the oceans, it is difficult to feel very connected to them. Indeed, given the economic benefits of this approach, it is still quite common for the oceans to be perceived as a vast repository of resources for humans.[4] The resulting lack of human empathy for many marine animals is connected to a lack of interactions with them. If we rarely encounter these animals, how do we form a relationship with them? And without any relationship, how will we care about or even fully register how human practices affect them?

Against this background, I am exploring how creative writing can become a relationally transformative practice. Textual stories are material; they ripple out beyond their page space, connecting to broader cultural approaches and human practices. They link human perspectives to other nonhuman narrative potentials. In the context of the oceans, Serpil Oppermann argues that marine animals exhibit their own narrative agency in their complex interactions with their surroundings, projecting ‘a storied existence conveyed in signs, colors, sounds, signaling and codes we may or we may not yet fully understand.’[5] Questioning the idea that storytelling is an exclusively human practice, she asks: ‘What if there are narrative pathways for marine organisms to express themselves in contingent patterns of creativity?’[6] Throughout my thesis, this is one of the questions I explore creatively, employing the writing process itself as a form of research. In terms of approximating nonhuman experience on the page by expressing a sense of human-nonhuman intimacy, I think that the act of writing can be a first step to cultivating relationships with marine animals. These textual relationships can lead to more widespread awareness and empathy for these creatures, with the potential to ripple out beyond the textual, stimulating a cultural and political change of approach to widely polluted and overfished oceans.

Throughout my chapters, the jellyfish overflows my writing, dissipating sentence structure and inviting unexpected experiments. It challenges me to write in a plurality of voices that constantly interrupt each other. Using sidebars and extended white spaces, the jellyfish refocuses attention, exhibiting a textually material jellyfish-human intimacy. Its strange life cycle and ongoing metamorphosis structure my short chapters into various stages. Some texts drift into a sea of words like planula larvae, moving very slowly, exhibiting only small and tentative ideas. Others drop down through the water column, securing a temporary sense of fixity, a remnant of terrestriality. Attached to a rock, they grow like a polyp from a coiled root, in a stacked structure of layers. Some chapters are released into the sea yet again, growing from a star-shaped beginning like ephyra larvae, swimming on with more direction this time, more determination. Only a fraction of my chapters completes the full cycle, coalescing previous topics and experiments into something strange and medusa-shaped, flowing on into the sea beyond.

Even as the end of this project looms on a not so distant horizon, the jellyfish continues to challenge my writing process. It has certainly helped me to navigate the issue of tangibility I explore in my research – the question of how to represent global environmental issues in any concrete and tangible way. For it is difficult not to conceive of the widespread and far-fetched negative consequences of a practice such as offshore oil drilling when a Cotylorhiza tuberculata jellyfish swims into my words, its body trembling under the pressure of the soundwaves. When the acoustic pollution materially enters its gelatinous body, literally disintegrating its internal structure. When the words on the page break and fall apart as the jellyfish’s sensory epithelium vibrates so violently that significant hair cell extrusion occurs. When the page becomes ever more blank, representing the void of a numbed perception. When a lopsided, no longer concentrically symmetrical body drifts on, its crystalline skin ruptured, with questions strewn around itself in slow pulsations. When the words cease and a very tangible sense of loss dawns on an empty page.

[1] Stacy Alaimo, ‘Jellyfish Science, Jellyfish Aesthetics: Posthuman Reconfigurations of the Sensible,’ in Thinking with Water, ed. by Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), p. 153.

[2] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. viii.

[3] Tsing, p. viii.

[4] Sidney Dobrin, Blue Ecocriticism and the Oceanic Imperative (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), p. 128.

[5] Oppermann, p. 452.

[6] Oppermann, p. 452.

Featured image: “File:Cassiopea Jellyfish (Cotylorhiza tuberculata) – Mar Jonio, Italy.jpg” by Antonio Sontuoso is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.