Cultures of the Sea: Literature, Oceanic Thinking, and Maritime Modernity

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Søren Frank


University of Southern Denmark


DKK 698,610




Monograph Fellowships


Throughout human history, mankind has had a complicated relationship with the sea. In my book I chart four different, yet interrelated maritime world pictures dominated by gods, humans, technology and nature respectively. Focusing on the significant shift from sail to steam in the nineteenth century, but also employing a longer perspective, I analyse a wide range of literary, maritime and philosophical sources that deal with the problems of how to understand the fluid ocean and how to represent it. Melville and Conrad, but also Hugo and Sandemose play key roles. So do Fenimore Cooper, Lie, Skram, Bjørneboe and many more writers.


The mutual dependence between epistemology and poetics define texts by poets, novelists, philosophers and sailors and reveal a distinctive oceanic thinking that thrives in the fluid, contingent and unpredictable. These texts, often unstable in their formal design, evoke a different conception of modernity than the one dominated by ideas of progress, rationality and individual freedom and by terra firma spaces such as the city, the domestic home, the factory and the colony. Instead they express a maritime modernity in which human agency and autonomy are challenged by nonhuman forces and the stable ground is replaced by fluid forms. The sailor's experience of ship life at sea can be read as a precursor for our contemporary predicament of having to navigate in a fluid modernity.


I will work on texts (and images) from different national traditions - the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Scandinavian countries - and written in varied forms - novels, short stories and poems as well as logbooks and treatises of natural history and philosophy. My approach to these generically varied material combines different disciplines and methods, including historiography, close reading, philosophy of technology, eco-criticism and new materialism. The general aim of outlining an alternative modernity that is maritime and characterized by an oceanic thinking will be reached through conceptual prisms - ways into describing maritime existence - such as history, rhythm, technology, materiality, ecology and aesthetics.

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