Senses Can Help us Engage with a Political Seascape

Politics is often thought of as a hyper rational realm where logic and logic alone should rule judgement. This tradition of Western politics traces its roots back to René Descartes, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am.) However, a subtle and additional approach to political thinking in this modern times of globalization and upheaval may benefit from the valuation of emotive and metaphysical. That is to say, “I feel, therefore I am.” This approach to political movements could have the potential to offer more inclusive participation and a democratization of voices in a space which traditionally erases or denies other ways of knowing (indigenous, feminine, etc.) Further it is particularly useful, and some would argue necessary, when creating imperfect solutions to complex environmental issues on the scale of global climate change.

When we engage our senses in the sea we are able to expand our ways of knowing beyond dominant Western methods that draw a binary between mind and body. Rather than placing the senses and emotions in a less valued hierarchy of knowledge a seascape epistemology draws equally on sense and empirical knowledge. In politics this approach could offer an alternative framework for understanding and better addressing communities whom policy affects. As described by feminists Political Scientist Sarah Wiebe in her article Sensing Policy, a “sensual” approach to activism and research invites a chance for democratization of knowledge production through co-creation and collaboration. Without the fluidity that alternative epistemologies offers, politics is limited. Opening the space through a participatory policy process that understands, acknowledges and values non-western knowledge allows for communities, including non-human, to be better served.

The ancient Polynesians who navigated the open ocean were scientists; they used the tools available to them which were their senses and their storytelling to create hypothesis about courses and act in changing ocean conditions. One of the tools available to them was “the gut”, literally the intuition one feels within themselves on a physical level. As reflected in many Austro-Malayan languages the gut is the source of emotion and soul. For example to be heart broken in Indonesian (patah hati) literally means to have one’s liver broken. For the Polynesian sea voyagers of old, this gut-listening is an excellent example of how local people’s lived experiences, storytelling and gut-listening can achieve incredible feats. If we are able to imagine a political environment, both locally and at larger scales, where local knowledge and sense is recognized alongside western scientific ones many possibilities for positive change emerge.

What would this look like in practice? In her 2016 book Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology, Karin Amimoto Ingersoll suggests that one of the ways to begin realization of this would be through education that de-centers dominant Western thought without excluding it completely. Because they exist in a geopolitical space, both human bodies and bodies of water are political. Policy affects bodies in corporeal and nonmaterial ways by influencing change in lived experience and expanding or bottlenecking opportunities for movement within a given polity. This effect is not one sided. Bodies too, through their movement and certainly through their collection, can create powerful momentum in political spaces for the purpose of policy change. An excellent example of this concept is the current iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement and its multiple arms across the country. Even “disorganized” or violent actions of bodies in interaction with the structures that come to represent oppressive policy prove that physical action is potent. In coming into direct bodily contact with non-human physical features an articulation occurs that finds the possibility of power from a place-based metaphysical experience.

Our bodies and feelings therefore are powerful political tools.

These are important concepts for anyone working in the field of politics or advocacy to take along on a journey towards a more environmentally just future, not just for the ocean but for the globe. A relational approach to education and policy creation is based on deeper understandings than previously available and has the potential to be a powerful tool with which to obtain climate justice. To quote Dr. Wiebe, “The privileged academic then plays a role in the act of documentary, deepening understanding, building relationships, and translating lived experiences for a wider audience.”

What about you? I’d love to hear from my peers about how this approach could serve you in your endeavors

Anthropology MA at University of Hawai’i Manoa. Studying enviro-cultural memory at the intersection of art and technology.