Stranded Objects / Stranded Whales
or The Whale’s Tooth
Kathleen Coyne Kelly
My collection is focused on stranded
whales, representations of stranded whales, and objects made from whale
parts, including scrimshaw, the eighth-century Franks Casket, and two antique
carved whale’s teeth that sit on my desk. My title riffs on Eric Santner’s notion of the stranded object, that “tiny spark of contingency,” as Benjamin
says, which Santner reads “as an index of a
historical opportunity that was left unrealized but that still remains
available as a sort of energy potential that continues to dwell in history”
(1990, 153). In this context, the stranded whale and its parts might have, in
some elsewhere and elsetime,
evaded human consumption and design, might have become something else — such as
whale fall, a complex underwater
ecosystem comprised of a cetacean carcass and its deep-sea inhabitants.
Humans aren’t the only ones who interact/intra-act with dead whales and their parts.
Whale fall is the term given to the complex ecosystem that develops when a dead whale body sinks to the sea floor at depths of 6600 feet or more. Whale falls are home to all sort of sea creatures: bristleworms, crabs, giant isopods, hagfish, lobsters, mussels, prawns, sea cucumbers, shrimp, sleeper sharks, squat lobsters. (In shallower waters, the whale carcass is consumed by scavengers.) Whale fall — it’s Miltonian: one sees the huge body, life extinguished — natural causes? too many close encounters with the prows and propellers of human-piloted ships? — the blue-black body in slow-motion, dropping, drifting, end over end, finally settling on the deep ocean floor, sand and debris (most likely the remains of other, smaller fallen bodies) rising in languid clouds in the dark.
While an implicit narrative organizes the texts and images, this assemblage is also characterized by a certain serendipitous randomness — a contingency — inherent in any sort of hunting and gathering. Visiting flea markets, garage sales, junk stores, antique shops, even garbage-picking, and certainly beachcombing, are exercises in surprise.
Searching, one assigns value to something one didn’t even know one wanted until seeing the thing and surrendering to the tactile, hefting the object in the hand and stroking its smooth or rough or cold or warm or plush or threadbare surface. The desire to possess has nothing to do with need or utility. However, like Proust’s exquisite madeleine, collecting may have everything to do with recuperating memory and imagining the self. One of the appeals of eBay is that one can find and re-possess the artifacts of one’s childhood: Grandma’s Pyrex casserole dish, the Barbie with the bubble cut. I want to stress the tactile: owning a photograph of a seashell or a Barbie doesn’t work. One needs the thrill of contact to evoke the memory of an earlier self. Imagining an other or better or more beautiful or richer self by proxy of ownership is the very stuff of consumer capitalism.
My hand makes a sea-monster shadow. The shadow’s bumps and dips
echo the nubbed surface of the spiny Florida jewelbox clam (Arcinella cornuta, family Chamidae).
Anthropocentrically speaking, the ratio of a human to a one-inch seashell is 70:1. Surprise constructs the beach’s allure, in part, of course, because the seashore changes over the seasons and daily with the tides. Fantasy also contributes to shore-love: maybe today, surely, one will happen upon a half-submerged chest of doubloons, or a message in a bottle will roll up out of the surf; maybe today a smiling or fierce or simply lost and bewildered mermaid will rise out of the foam. Maybe today, that perfect stone or shell or piece of driftwood or bone or anything else the ocean leaves behind will fall into the hand. Beach drift, it’s called — everything that collects at the tide line.
Here, however, with whales in mind, I look up from the wave’s edge to explore the surprise of the oversize — what doesn’t fit into the hand: the fifteen-ton sperm whale stranded on the beach, depicted and described in the Middle Ages and now.
Over the past several years, I’ve had a few encounters with whales, living and dead, in their entirety and in their parts. These experiences inspired me to scale up my beachcombing to focus on the huge, the colossal, the gigantic — that is, in human terms. There are no giants in nature. (I’m paraphrasing Susan Stewart on the miniature in On Longing, 1993, 55.)
Chilmark Pond, 2015
In the summer after the Big Snow of 2015, I kayaked across Chilmark Salt Pond. The winter storms had breached the barrier beach, and, at high tide, the ocean was rushing into the salt pond, pouring through a narrow opening. Such breaches are good for salt ponds and keeps them from getting too stagnant. This time, we saw two huge forms in the shallow water of the pond. What were they? As we paddled closer, the shapes resolved into two whale carcasses. One was old, nothing but the cleaned bones of huge vertebrae. The other still had flesh on it, slowly waving in the water’s current. The carcass was actually half a whale, clean cut off, a row of vertebrae and the tail remaining. Perhaps it had been cleaved in two by a ship. Instead of sinking to the ocean floor, the whale’s severed body had been washed into the pond. Only the illegality of harvesting whale parts prevented me from lifting a vertebrae the size of a footstool into my boat and taking it home. As I accumulated, sorted, and arranged images, texts, and ideas for this project, I came to realize that my quest had no end, especially after I decided to beachcomb the web using the search term stranded object and taking screen shots. Collecting, then, is also an exercise in incompleteness: one obsesses on what one doesn’t have. There is pleasure in the undone, the unfound — the mise en abyme of desire. If I had drilled down a few more pages on the net, who knows what stranded treasure I would have discovered? The Net is also an ocean: could I ever cast a wide enough net to capture everything? Moreover, after I said “finished,” I kept collecting, often through sheer serendipity: I met a nine-year-old on the street who was proudly carrying home a small wooden trunk that he made at school. He had painted a whale on it, and added in shaky lettering, thar she blows! I read Raphael Carter’s cyberpunk novel, Fortunate Fall, which features a whale. The Middle Shore project is not intended to be complete: readers, viewers, and listeners can add to any collection, express their own delight in beachcombing — and then I can have what you have.
Collecting is also an exercise in decontextualizing — a given object is pulled from someone else’s life, some other historical-cultural moment, and re-placed in one’s own life. A bust of Beatrice sits next to a dragon puppet on a shelf. An Il Dottore mask is nailed to the wall above crammed with bird figurines. With respect to natural things, either in their original found state or as they are shaped by the human hand, how far does such decontextualizing go? How does collecting shells or bones or driftwood — dead parts of once-living entities — gather nature into culture? Like Adam naming the animals, does collecting parts of living things serve as an exercise in dominion?
Penguins at Jane Slater’s Oversouth Antiques. The ethics of collecting first emerged as a question for me when I bought two whale’s teeth carved into the shape of penguins. The visual attraction was instant — but holding the teeth in my hand was even more compelling. The teeth feel slightly ribbed, massy, cool to the touch. One’s thumb caresses, following the direction of the sailor’s scraping tool as he created the flippers and the feet and turned the pointed tip of the tooth into a suggestion of a beak. My pleasure in the teeth continues, partial and ambivalent, sensuously satisfying but ethically disturbing. While some species of birds and rats collect random and often shiny objects, what other creature besides homo sapiens collects the body parts of other creatures?
In this respect, collecting is also an exercise in redemption; the collector, as John Clifford says: “discovers, acquires, salvages objects” (1985, 239). One may feel that one is saving a thing from loss or destruction. Perhaps such a belief is only a pretext. Susan Stewart, for example, argues that the museum offers “an illusion of a relation between things” which “takes the place of a social relation” (1993, 165). Baudrillard describes “the environment of private objects and their possession” as “essential as dreams” ( 2005, 103). Moreover, a museum of natural history or one’s own cabinet of curiosities may well be testaments to a stranded human desire for, as Thoreau says, “Contact! Contact!” with the more-than-human world. This is, I am aware, the most benign reading to be made to explain our desire — located in the visual, the tactile, and in the ebb and flow of the emotions — for things given by — or stolen from — the sea.
Kathleen Coyne Kelly
Department of English
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