The Floating Laboratory of Action and Theory at Sea (FLOATS) held its first open meeting on the Greek island of Lesvos in July, with the objective of exploring the practices and theories of utopias at sea. The full index for PoLAR’s conference report is here.
By Venetia Kantsa
The Floating Laboratory Of Action and Theory at Sea that was launched in summer 2018 on the island of Lesvos, Northeastern Aegean, Greece posed this question among many others. The emergence of FLOATS during a period of growing interest among social scientists in ocean, seawater, flows, and tides called for an interdisciplinary approach and prompted us to reconsider common and (un)common topics from another perspective. As an anthropologist of kinship my perspective is often related to soil, blood, descent, alliance, siblinghood, family, household, spiritual affinity, exchanges of goods (bridewealth, dowry, inheritance), substances (milk, blood, sperm, oocyte womb), and names. How could sea encounters motivate an anthropologist with these interests to reconsider her perspective?
1st story: My grandmother whose name was Venetia Fratzeskou (after her marriage she took her husband’s family name, i.e. Kantsa) was born during the last decade of the 19th century in Phocea (Eski Foca, old Phocea), a bourgeoning boomtown that was located on the shores of Western Anatolia. In 1914 she was still there, while her oldest five brothers and one sister had already moved to France, US, and Greece. She was staying with her father who took care of the family’s estate, comprised mainly of olive grooves and vineyards. In June 1914 my grandmother fled with her father –and with thousands of other Ottoman Greeks- due to the atrocities in Phocea. Although the boat took them firstly to capital city of Lesvos, Mytilene, they decided to go to Plomari, a seaside town in the southern part of the island. My grandmother’s father insisted that he wanted to be able to have a view of his olive groves and vineyards even from the opposite shore. Two years later, in 1916, they felt safe enough to return back to Phocea. But in winter 1922 her father died and a few months later in summer 1922 my grandmother became a refugee for a second time due to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. Only this time she fled to Thessaloniki in northern Greece to meet up with her oldest sister.
I had never truly realized that I was a second generation refugee until I came to Lesvos at the beginning of 1990s. Until then I had never questioned why we do not have a village which we could call “our own”, a grandfather’s or grandmother’s country house, neither was I troubled by the relative ease with which the members of my family changed homes and threw away “unnecessary” items. Yet, when I came to Lesvos –first to study, then to do my ethnographic research, and finally to work- and became friends with locals, I was astonished by the fact that they had lived in the same house, road, neighborhood for three generations or even more, had an extended kinship network and could easily draw a genealogical chart that covered many pages. In contrast to me who was “floating” among different spaces and places, the people I met on the island were strongly connected with reference to soil and blood.
For me the closest “grandparent” house was at the shore across the sea—a house that I have actually visited twice, in 2004 and in 2013; during my first visit it was abandoned, and by my second it had been turned into a boutique hotel. I have gazed in its direction across the shore a number of times; as my grandmother and her father did. And it was at this point I recognized that for me a “grandparent’s house” was probably the sea itself. The blue surface of the Aegean Sea that connected my family’s routes. From Phocea to Lesvos, from Phocea to Thessaloniki, and finally from Thessaloniki to Lesvos.
2nd story: However, my interest in kinship from the perspective of the sea was not motivated only thanks to personal family stories. During my training in sailing many years ago one of the first and foremost things we had to learn was the way we could find our geographic location at sea, using lines of longitude and latitude, i.e. imaginary lines that cut across the surface of the water. Later, as an anthropologist of kinship, this navigational technique prompted me to reflect on representations of “classic” kinship relations –i.e. descent, alliance and siblingship- as topological endeavors in “uncharted waters” by cutting across (segmenting and uniting) different lines.
In recent years anthropologists have reconsidered the meaning of water in anthropological studies and focused on the interconnections of water and human interactions. Thus, Stefan Helmreich (2011) explains how seawater “has operated as a ‘theory machine’ for generating insights about human cultural organization” drawing on sea-set ethnographies, maritime anthropologies and contemporary social theory, while Kristen Hastrup and Frida Hastrup are interested in “diverse ethnographies of “waterworlds” in their effort to “explore social life as configured by water in one form or another”(2017: 1).
Following their traces and reflecting on FLOATS’ challenge of how to “think through water” I began to be interested in kinship (re)considerations from the perspective of sea. More specifically in how recent visualization techniques in reproduction—i.e. ultrasound and the image of free-floating fetus as described by Marilyn Strathern (1992: 50)—and new technologies of assisted reproduction—i.e. gamete donation, surrogate motherhood, and “reproflows” a term coined by Marcia Inhorn in 2011—draw on a different sea topology, and imply the re-imaging of kinship conceptions.
FLOATS has enabled its crew/participants to think on/with/through, sea, water, seawater, ocean and reflect on them not as neutral natural entities but as Helmreich suggests “material entities whose descriptions have been shaped and reshaped by rhetorics of gender” (Helmreich 2017: 30) but also for that matter of race, sexuality, kinship -to name just a few. It is partly due to these constant processes of shaping and reshaping that the sea and water may contain utopian and dystopian potentialities. Further, the stories, projects, experiences presented in FLOATS have exposed that sea and water are not just “good to think” but also inseparable from our lives.
Venetia Kantsa is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology, at the University of the Aegean. Her research interests focus on anthropology of kinship and family, anthropology of assisted reproduction, anthropology of gender and sexuality, and anthropology of science. Furthermore, she is interested in the history and theory of kinship in anthropology, in gender epistemology and methodology, in feminist and queer theory, in Greek ethnography, and ethnography of the Mediterranean region. Her recent research addresses assisted reproduction and shifting conceptualizations of kinship and science, the distribution of authoritative knowledge in the context of emerging social and technological transformations, and interrelations among medical technology, law and religion. She is an experienced sailing crewmember and motorboat skipper and participation into FLOATS enables her to rethink anthropological theory, -kinship in particular-, in relation to perspective(s) of/from the sea.
Hastrup, Kirsten, Frida Hastrup. 2017. “Introduction. Waterworlds at large”. In Kirsten Hastrup, Frida Hastrup (eds) Waterworlds. Anthropology in Fluid Environments, 1-22. Oxford-New York: Berghahn Books.
Helmreich, Stefan. 2011. “Nature/Culture/Seawater”. American Anthropologist 113(1): 132-144.
Helmreich, Stefan. 2017. “The genders of waves”. Women’s Studies Quarterly 45(1&2): 29-51.
Inhorn, Marcia. 2011. “Globalization and gametes: reproduction “tourism”, Islam bioethics, and Middle Eastern modernity”. Anthropology & Medicine 18(1): 87-103.
Strathern, Marilyn. 1992. After Nature. English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press