In 1930’s Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud discusses Romain Rolland’s notion of “oceanic feeling,” defining it as the sensation of an unbreakable bond between oneself and the outside world. Rather than any assertion of autonomy or mastery, oceanic feeling is a quasi-sublime state in which the integrity of the self is lost, or at least compromised, in a sense of limitlessness, unboundedness, and interconnectedness. For Rolland, this feeling formed the basis of religious sentiment; Freud does not question its existence, but disagrees that it is the source of religion, understanding it rather as something akin to an acknowledgement he finds in a line from Christian Grabbe’s 1835 play Hannibal: “Out of this world, I cannot fall.”
Extending Freud’s move away from a theological interpretation of oceanic feeling, these six screenings will take his metaphor literally, returning this “feeling of indissoluble connection, of belonging inseparably to the external world as a whole” to its aquatic origins. The programme will drift idiosyncratically through the history of representations of the sea in documentary cinema, in search of reflections on what it means to belong to the whole of a world in our time of ecological, humanitarian, and political emergency. The dispossession of the ego and decentering of the human found in oceanic feeling will serve as the ground for a practice of implication, remembrance, and care.
To leave terra firma and delve into the liquid flux of oceanic feeling is to undertake a radical reorientation of perspective. “Yes, out of this world, we cannot fall. We are once and for all within it,” Freud quotes from Grabbe: this statement may be true, but it seldom happens today that we dwell on its ramifications, even as moments of violence and catastrophe perhaps capable of forcing such a reckoning seem to accumulate faster and faster. Too often we neglect to attend to our constitutive interdependence and mutual vulnerability. Whether in the realm of ecology, economy or sociality, fantasies of autonomy and mastery proliferate. Pushing back against this paradigm, a heightened attunement to the ethical possibilities of the interconnectedness proper to oceanic feeling—possibilities admittedly not central to Rolland or Freud’s articulation of the capacious concept—might offer a way to live less damaged lives in the age of what many term the Anthropocene, a time when anthropogenic changes to the environment and climate can no longer be ignored and colonial epistemologies remain in need of undoing.
In “Our Sea of Islands,” Tongan anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa proposes that the idea of Oceania as a series of confined, tiny islands is an imperial construct, one predated by a more holistic perspective that understood the ocean as an inhabited place uniting a large exchange community. Expanding Hau’ofa’s proposal to a global scale, this programme brings together an array of cinematic practices to ask: what if the ocean does not divide us, but connects us? What politics, what ethics, would follow? It equally follows literary scholar Hester Blum in her suggestion that we must approach the sea not merely as theme, but affirm that “in its geophysical, historical, and imaginative properties, the sea instead provides a new epistemology—a new dimension—for thinking about surfaces, depths, and the extra-terrestrial dimensions of planetary resources and relations.” It is a matter of embracing the sea not just as a topic but as a method, exploring its role in forging connections between people, between communities, and between the human and nonhuman. It involves refusing the arrogance of mastery and keeping watch for the affinities, responsibilities, and solidarities that emerge from the watery depths.
In the great magnitude of the oceans—which cover over seventy percent of the Earth’s surface and are on average 3.5 kilometres deep—resides a vast and fluid archive. It is an archive of horror, wreckage, survival, and beauty, within which histories of capitalist accumulation and still-reverberating traumas flow alongside the captivating wonders of marine environments and the romance of the waves. This programme will explore these diverse dimensions of the ocean and suggest how this deeply mythologized site might activate forms of relationality that prompt one to think beyond the individual, beyond a singular territory, and beyond the binary between nature and culture.
This text has been adapted from Erika Balsom’s An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea, published by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand, in 2018. Special thanks to the Govett-Brewster and especially senior curator Paul Brobbel for their support of this project.