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Widening the Narrows: Straits and the Oceanic Turn

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Organizer: Maxwell Uphaus

Co-Organizer: David Alvarez

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Over the last decade, the “oceanic turn” has moved oceanic space from the margin to the center of literary scholarship. However, this new ocean-centric scholarship has tended to blur the diversity of oceanic space by focusing chiefly on the open ocean. Only recently have practitioners of the oceanic turn started attending to the distinctive roles and meanings of the more contained maritime spaces that line the edges of, and mediate between, the open oceans. As the editors of the 2018 collection Oceanic Histories put it, “such ‘narrow seas’—bays and straits, channels and deltas, as well as other connective and intermediary bodies of water—will attract increasing historical attention in future.” This seminar aims to further this project by exploring representations of straits—a kind of “narrow sea” that, as the present saber-rattling in the Strait of Hormuz makes clear, carries a wealth of cultural, ecological, and geopolitical significance.     

 As befits their practical importance and conceptual polyvalence, straits figure prominently in world literature. For Homer's Odysseus, the Strait of Messina—figured as Scylla and Charybdis—is a site of dread, which is analogous to how the real-life 13th century Arab traveler Ibn Jubayr experiences it. In Victorian England, Matthew Arnold envisions the Strait of Dover as both a bulwark against continental Europe's turmoil and a reminder of unsettling historical and geohistorical transformations. In our own time, a panoply of novels, plays, films, and songs has documented clandestine crossings of the Strait of Gibraltar in the wake of the European Union’s hardening of its external border regimes. For Dante’s Ulysses, this same Strait—the nec plus ultra of classical Antiquity—is a limit that must not be breached, on the other side of which there lies not merely chaos but also that which threatens orthodox knowledge and dogma. Though punished for having ventured into the forbidden realm beyond the Pillars of Hercules, Ulysses speaks of his journey through the Strait with evident zest. This seminar invites similarly zestful forays into the figure of the strait in literature, film, and other modes of cultural representation and inquiry, from any location and time period.

 Possible topics include, but are not limited to:
  • Specific straits: e.g. Mytilini, Malacca, Magellan

  • Straits and the oceanic, maritime, and littoral turns

  • Straits and state formation and de-formation

  • Straits and disciplinary formations

  • Straits and configurations of trans/nationalism

  • Straits, gender, and sexuality

  • Straits, genre, and form

  • Straits and clandestinity

  • Straits and the un/commons

  • Straits, geology, and human/natural history

  • Straits and local, national, regional, planetary scales

  • Straits and the Anthropocene/Capitalocene/Cthulucene

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