Christina Vagt is a media theorist, writer, and Associate Professor of European Media Studies in the Department of Germanic & Slavic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sebastian Vehlken is a professor of media theory and media history at the ICAM Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media, and Senior Researcher at the MECS Institute for Advanced Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation at Leuphana University Lüneburg. Together with Wolf Kittler, they are editors of Modeling the Pacific Ocean, a new stream in UC Press’s open-access journal Media+Environment.
UC Press: Congratulations on the recent publication of your new stream (for our readers: a kind of special issue) in Media+Environment!
CV/SV: Thank you, it is great getting a chance to talk about this. We are thrilled! It was a great pleasure for us to work together with all the authors and contributors who brought in such diverse perspectives on the Pacific and on ocean modeling!
UC Press: What inspired you to bring together Modeling the Pacific Ocean? And what is it about the Pacific in particular?
CV: Historically, “The Pacific” is derived from a Spanish colonial name that refers to both an ocean and a world region, which spans approximately one third of the globe’s surface. In the history of continental Europe, it figured for a long time as the Other, whose cultures and ecosystems were exploited, dominated, or even annihilated.
From today’s perspective, the Pacfiic has just been passively suffering the greed of changing superpowers for centuries, but when I look at the role that the Pacific Ocean plays in global climate models, the whole story looks quite different. Suddenly, everything seems to depend on how warm or cold or acidic the Pacific Ocean gets, if we can keep the pretty cumulus clouds over our heads here in Santa Barbara and what their disappearance might mean in terms of wildfires that seem to be raging around the clock these days.
One might even call “the Pacfic” a cipher for the global dimension as such, and as such, it cannot be adequately grasped, depicted, or represented as an object. In a way, “Modeling the Pacific” is really signifying an impossibility, both scientifically and historically speaking.
When I relocated to California in 2017, I became very interested in how this impossibility is nevertheless tremendously productive, and I started to talk to Sebastian and colleagues in Germany about organizing a conference, and I and Wolf Kittler started to look around campus for scientists who would be willing to collaborate. At UCSB, the ocean is so present, that one can find someone who is working on marine topics in pretty much every department, not just the sciences. But when it comes to research projects, there didn’t seem to be that much overlap between sciences and humanities, so we were looking for a way to start a conversation about how people turn the Pacific—standing in for either oceans in general or the cultural-political region of the same name—into topics and objects.
In Germany, I worked with an interdisciplinary research group of material scientists and cultural theorists, and I worked on how to read the scenarios of computer simulations in biomaterial science as mathematical fictions. In material science, every computer simulation runs on a custom-made computer model that is attuned to a specific organism or real-world system that is being investigated. They don’t exactly work like novels, but they require the construction of narratives and scenarios, a plot so to say, as well as the production and analysis of images. Computer simulations require a lot of experimental trial and error, before the design of a viable model appears. Philosophically, they take an active part in what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible”: they make things sensible, visible, describable, that otherwise could not even be taken into account. That is also the reason why computer models—the processes and techniques of modeling—are not just a new form of theory building, but also intrinsically politically, because policy making and market decisions are based on them.
Sebastian and I have known each other since graduate school, and because he is an expert on media and oceans, I was very lucky that we had the time and funding to organize a conference in 2019 on this together with my colleague Wolf Kittler, bringing together scientists and engineers from California and humanists from all over the world.
SV: Although I lived far away from any shore for most of my life, I remember always being captivated by the seas. And I am convinced that, as a scholar, your research topics more often find you than the other way around. Thus, in hindsight, it was rarely surprising that my academic interest for the connection of media and oceans initially was spurred by my work on Swarm Intelligence: Part of it was a media history of research in schooling fish throughout the 20th century. For all fish school analyses the surrounding environment of their research object—that is, oceans—constantly posed a formidable challenge. If you want to learn something about the movement of schools under water, you need to use media technologies that subtract all the visual and acoustic noise of seawater. However, the history of fish school and other swarm research showed that this was quite unfeasible, and that the behavior of animal collectives was way better describable with synthetic, computational approaches, or more concretely: with computer simulations. This work then further led me to a broader interest in the media history of oceanography and of ocean modeling.
With MECS we then were able to create an interdisciplinary research environment on media cultures of computer simulation which wanted to take seriously the mission to bring together fellows and guests from the sciences and the humanities alike. This resulted in very fruitful conferences, e.g. on climate change or agent-based modeling, and a widespread expert network. Thus, I was very intrigued by Christina’s idea to combine this background with her new environment and contacts to oceanographers and ocean modelers at UCSB and in the UC network. This brought me much closer to the shore, so to speak. And this being the Pacific coast was even better—also for conceptual reasons, as I hope that we can put across here.
UC Press: In your introduction to the stream, you write that you take an “oceanic approach” to the collection of writings. What does it mean to take an oceanic approach?
SV: This seems indeed a term which may require further explanation. We took it from a paper by Matt K. Matsuda, a historian from Rutgers University and expert on postcolonial comparative history of the Pacific. Matsuda differentiates between a mainstream of academic occupation with the Pacific which focuses on ideas of “mastering” this vast seascape which were (and are) developed on American and Asian riparian states—he calls it the “rim approach”—from a mere side show of “oceanic approaches” which focus on perspectives developed by actual inhabitants of the Pacific space—the confluence of vast marine spaces and small islands sprinkled about it. Whereas the former approaches problematize the ocean as an object of separation and uncontrollability which has to be tamed with technological and geopolitical power, the latter offer conceptualizations of multiple entanglements of humans, marine space, and a knowledge of its particular dynamic. For these islanders, the Pacific for millennia has been a space that connected people and things, so to speak. These people and cultures thus developed an “oceanic world picture” which is quite different from continental concept of ocean space.
We found it fruitful to apply Matsuda’s cultural historical distinction to media-technological aspects: We think that a detailed and media-specific exploration of oceanic knowledge, histories, and narratives challenges conventional modes of objectification, stratification, and analysis in both the sciences and the humanities. Our idea was to collect contributions which focus on the specificities of oceanic media technologies. And if we take Stefan Helmreich’s illustrative example of the FLIP research platform and its—at least on first sight—eerie design, one might get an idea of these necessary specificities. Regarding “the large seas” as a knowledge space which is downrightly defined by the features that disturb and disrupt the modes of access to that very knowledge, we ask what scientific methods, media technologies, and procedures are necessary to account for the multiplicity of interfering phenomena in the knowledge production processes. For us, taking an “oceanic approach” means to assess novel fields for scientific procedures whose “reality filters” significantly differ from land-based conceptions and modes of operation. It fosters new perspectives and reflections on social, economic, or cultural phenomena and processes on the continents. And not least, the oceans are at the center of a critical environmentally-oriented thinking, which—due to the vastness of this (non-) object, its challenges and potentials—can only be mobilized by a joint effort of thinking across the disciplinary boundaries of the sciences and the humanities and social sciences.
UC Press: Tell us about some of the contributions to the stream.
CV/SV: During the Modeling the Pacific conference we organized in 2019, having scientists and humanists on the same panel worked out great because everybody presented their work orally and we had lots of time to discuss everything. But when it comes to the question of how to publicize our work, scientists and humanists work very differently, and the papers are not necessarily intelligible to the other side. We asked for contributions that are theoretically sound and yet transmissible to a broader public, and we let everybody choose if they wanted to write up a classic research paper or make the video of their talk available, a sort of dual publication strategy, where the audience can get a quick intro, i.e. into the technicity of modeling and simulations of oceans floors, by watching the video presentation by Eckart Meiburg on “Modeling the Pacific Ocean on the Computer” or learn about the history, politics, and environmental impact of sonic ocean floor explorations by reading Lisa Han ’s paper “Sonic Pipelines at the Seafloor.”
A similar juxtaposition of closely related topics, though from different disciplinary perspectives, would be the video presentations by Sabine Höhler on “El Niño – The Boy. Local Stories and Global Satellites in the Pacific Ocean” and Samantha Stevenson on “What Climate Models can tell us about Pacific climate variability.”
Stefan Helmreich’s paper “Flipping the Ship: Ocean Waves, Media Orientation, and Objectivity at Sea” is written from an anthropological STS perspective, refracting the practice and discourse of marine scientists with the materiality of oceans and instruments. Melody Jue is doing something similar in “Pixels May Loose Kelp Canopy. The Photomosaic as Epistemic Figure for the Satellite Mapping and Modeling of Seaweeds,” by conceptualizing the agency and aesthetics of seaweed in science and industry.
I also like to point out Tyler Morgenstern’s paper “Etherealization in a Racial Regime of Ownership: Marconi in O‘ahu, circa 1900,” as it provides an important postcolonial perspective on the history of media infrastructures in the Pacfic Region, which is hardly ever taken into account in any scientific context.
The juxtaposition of scientific and humanists positions is the surplus of this stream, in my opinion, and it was only possible because Media+Environment is an open-access online journal that allowed us to explore new publication formats like this.
UC Press: Thank you for this contribution to Media+Environment, and for talking to us about it today!
Media+Environment is an open-access, online, peer-reviewed journal of transnational and interdisciplinary ecomedia research. The journal seeks to foster dialogue within a fast-growing global community of researchers and creators working to understand and address the myriad ways that media and environments affect, inhabit, and constitute one another. Founded on the premise that media and environment is a crucial conjunction for our time, the journal thus encourages both traditional and multimodal forms of scholarship.
Media+Environment is made possible in part by the generous support of its sponsors: the Carsey-Wolf Center at UCSB; UCSB’s Department of Film and Media Studies; UCSB’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts; the EcoCultureLab at the University of Vermont; the Environmental Humanities Initiative at UCSB; the Global Media Technologies & Cultures Lab at UCSB; and the Environment and Media Research Program at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.