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Imagining Lexicons for Changing Seas 2

Turbulent geo-political conflicts between powerful, rich nations of the north and those of the economic south almost scuttled the United Nations Convention on the Law (UNCLOS before it opened for signature in 1982 (Reid, n.d.). Private commercial interests and national concerns for economic development dominated the conflict with the extractive interests of industry and state interests swirling in the undercurrents of the convention’s late negotiations.

Extractive development interests were not always so explicitly dominant. In the foundational period prior to UNCLOS negotiations in 1982 (Reid, n.d.), Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s advocacy and visioning buoyed a spirit of cooperation and imagination toward economic and social justice, and the need to share responsibility for protecting the ocean environment. Recognised by the United Nations as one of the co-architects of the Law of the Sea (United Nations 2002), Mann Borgese organised the foundational Pacem im Maribus (Peace in the Ocean) conventions–the first of these in 1969. These conventions helped seed the conceptual resources and ambitions toward a cooperative, international governance instrument for the ocean. At the time of the Pacem im Maribus events, and throughout her contributions as a diplomat and law of the sea expert, Mann Borgese recognised the critical need to re-imagine how we think about what she called ‘planet ocean’ (Mann Borgese 1969, 46, cited in Reid, n.d).

In her later work, Mann Borgese recognised that a new ‘ecological consciousness’ could emerge from the ocean (Mann Borgese 1983, 489; 1998, 57). She proposed a blurring of perspectives in order to open toward new oceanic ones (Mann Borgese 1998, 3, cited in Reid, n.d.):

‘[E]verything in the ocean flows and is interconnected’—it is a ‘a medium different from earth […] that forces us [an all-encompassing ‘us’ most likely referring to the book’s Western audience] to “unfocus”, to shed our old concepts and paradigms to “refocus” on a new paradigm’ (Mann Borgese 1998, 5–6).

As with Mann Borgese, cultural theorist Macarena Gómez-Barris also recruits the concept of blurring (Reid, n.d.). Their ‘submerged perspective’ offers ‘blurry counter visuality’ as a strategy for unsettling dominant extractivist imaginaries (Gómez-Barris 2017,15 cited in Reid, n.d.). For both Gómez-Barris and Mann Borgese, it’s as if blurring is a conceptual strategy to smudge out the certitude of dominant regimes and thereby create the space in which alternatives might be imagined (Reid, n.d.). Unsettling the certitude of extractive imaginaries toward such possibilities may well call for such a blurring strategy. What other conceptual methods and aids might be needed to re-imagine the ocean, our relations with them, and the materially embodied, ecological subjectivity that is brought into relation with the seas?

Ghost octopus, among the 90 percent of unknown/yet to be described marine beings, is found at 4,290 meters depth.

Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Hohonu Moana, 2016.


Gómez-Barris, Macarena. 2017. The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Duke University Press.

Mann Borgese, Elisabeth. 1998. The Oceanic Circle: Governing the Seas as a Global Resource. New York: United Nations University Press.

———.1969. “Lecture on the Ocean Regime by Elisabeth Mann Borgese : [Typed Draft].” File MS-2-744, Box 139, Folder 16. Dalhousie University Archives.

Reid, Susan. n.d. “Imagining Justice with the Ocean.” (Ph.D. under review), Sydney: University of Sydney.

UN, United Nations. 2018. “United Nations.” A/73/221. Geneva: United Nations General Assembly.

United Nations. 2002. “PROFESSOR ELISABETH MANN BORGESE, CO-ARCHITECT OF LAW OF SEA CONVENTION, DIES AT 83 | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, February 8, 2002.