Of Happy Fish and Wellermen: Notes on the Marine Politics of Brexit and Writing during a Pandemic

Part I: Happy Fish

Bear with me, as you will have to wait for the happy fish for a bit. Fish brought me back from a lockdown-induced writer’s block. Fish reminded me that the ways in which the pandemic changes our environments in very immediate ways need to be understood not only in terms of the greater or smaller outsides – how we “rediscover” nature thanks to the lockdown for example – but in the very particularity of our homes and our ways of talking about nonhuman others, the music we listen to and the jokes we laugh about. That is, even when we are chained to our desks while trying to juggle video conferences and childcare, certain things should not slip our attention. And yet, they are bound to. This is my attempt to not let this one go. I’ll begin at my desk and proceed to the British House of Commons. Next time I’ll board a Weller-ship and see where that gets me.

Not Writing in the Pandemic

The last couple of months have not been a good time for academic thinking (let alone writing). I assume they haven’t been particularly helpful for any kind of thinking and writing or work in general. I can only really talk about my work as an academic with a teaching load and a small kid at home, but I am sure many things are true beyond my own desk. The pandemic might be in its most intense phase – we are in another lockdown in Germany and around the world; daycare has been closed for weeks (since Nov 20, 2020 for my kid). There is just too much to do: make sure students (and myself) get through the semester (mostly) unharmed. I cannot make sure that they have a safe home or working internet connection, but I can design a course that makes sense in a digital format.[1] That takes energy, flexibility, time and all that on top of an already tight schedule. And then…and then…I have to discuss with my partner who gets to work and when (spoiler: the energy for night shifts was mostly spent in the first lockdown), we have to come up with activities that challenge and occupy a very lonely 5-year-old and we don’t dare to imagine when all this will change. 

I am grateful that my family is in a safe place. We’re healthy and well fed, but anxieties rise up nonetheless, we’re all stressed and bored at the same time. Staying at home – still the the sensible thing to do – sounds much easier than it is. The dulling drone of being in the same place all the time (and that is counting in the radius of our walks, which thanks to the growth spurs of our kid increases steadily), the tedium of household chores and the stress of constant multitasking take their toll. I’m often too tired to think, thus, not prepared to write and, quite honestly, I don’t feel like it most times. As satisfying as my work can be, it’s exhausting under the best circumstances.[2] But usually, it feels worth it and at best, writing and thinking re-energizes me in ways I don’t know from any other activity or substance. I don’t want to romanticize scholarship (too much), but I get to write about trees as non-human actors of stories and (possibly) narrators of human history, I get to think about ferns and their deep-time history and I get to sketch talks about monsters. What’s not to love!? But what sounds fun, requires a vast amount of resources, most of which I provide myself (given that I secured a job or research funding to pay for rent and books). The pandemic forced me to think about the way in which I extract these resources, namely: concentration, time, mental energy. And I realized that it’s a fallacy to assume, the resources you provide or even produce yourself are endlessly available. Just like all other resources, they are limited and exhausting them causes the system to collapse. This is so easy to write, yet so difficult (for me) to comprehend. But how we deal with ‘our’ resources is exactly what we should talk about at this “historical”[3] moment. 

Business as usual should not be an option; the exhaustion we usually delegate hits us right at this moment. And it does so at home, in our own bodies; it connects us in uncanny ways to other humans around the globe. Yet, we often fail to realize that this is the same kind of behavior that has been going on for decades and we’re doing it not just to ourselves and our human others, we’re subjecting every living thing to it that is condemned to share this planet with us.

What Fish have to Say

But why am I writing about this and what does it have to do with ecologies? Well, at a high point of my frustration with the state of things I remembered that this is a blog, not an academic journal and that it is meant to connect with, rather than abstract from my work and the way I work. So I can write when and what I want, here. Here, I am part of the work and I can write (relatively) fast, when something makes me angry. No, not angry: absolutely stunned by the ignorance and violence of a statement that seems like a joke to most. The text on sitting in/like trees will have to wait, because there are marine ecologies and politics to talk about first. Thankfully, trees – in contrast to myself – are patient and might not care at all whether I write about them or not. 

You might have guessed by now what the high point of frustration was that put fish before viruses and trees on my agenda. In mid-January, the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg declared, gloatingly, that 

“we’ve got our fish back. They’re now British fish
and they’re better and happier fish for it.” 

Jacob Rees-Mogg

That is such an absurd statement that it lends itself to mocking. And I, too, am convinced that the fish would rather not be caught at all than being caught by British rather than EU fishermen. Why else would the fish care about the lines humans draw and the changes in their agreements? Does Rees-Mogg foster green sentiments and assume the fish to be like him – to the point where they have nationalist desires?  Are the fish being issued passports? Is the UK planning on including non-human citizens? Don’t get me wrong, a British parliament of things would be exciting and might well be the only thing to convince me that something good has come out of “Brexit*. But, alas, this is not what Rees-Mogg means. Instead, he reaffirms anthropocentric and imperialist view that puts (British) humans at the center of a world in which the caught and exploited are assumed to identify with those who exploit them in the first place. It doesn’t get much more cynical. 

On the bright side – and I cannot believe, I see one in this – when fish get to be happy and British, if only in the brief moment of a political speech, their existence is acknowledged in ways that catching them by the ton usually doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that’s not what the MP meant, but that’s the beauty of language: it make things imaginable, possibly even ‘real’, if you want them to or not. 

And Rees-Mogg is not the only one. Fish have claimed an important role within the last days of Brexit-negotiations and, as Ariane de Waal has so aptly noted, if you’ve read your Donna Haraway, the irony of negotiations about fishing quotas turning up fish as subjects in sentences will not escape you. Even more so, they turn up as actors who could, in the words of EU Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen, “sink [the] Brexit deal”. Like Rees-Mog, von der Leyen probably doesn’t really expect the fish to care about Brexit, stilly her sentence gives them agency that is reflected in their importance, their relationship to humans and vice versa, rather than their desire to speak or sink any deals.

Power to the critters!

The way in which fish gain agency in and through language in the context of Brexit is significant. It highlights how we relate to nonhumans and environments. Language is capable to give agency to the ‘things’ that act in a sentence (it might even be reliant to do so to “make” sense). How a given language does that depends both on its grammar and lexicon and on the cultural conditions of its evolution. Many of those who deal with language – poets, novelists, nature and science writers, academics of almost all creeds – are looking for languages that are able to give nonhumans (plants, animals, slime molds) room enough to act. Or, rather, to show that they do already.[4]

Again, neither Jacob Rees-Mogg nor Ursula von der Leyen are too suspicious of smuggling environmentalist language into political discourse. Yet, they do open up room for questions. They practically force us – through the absurdity of the statements – to pause and think of the (possible) disruption. On top of that, the current historical moment might propel us to ask the absurd questions in earnest: What would make the fish happy and what would that have to do with “us”? The MP’s move however is to assign satisfaction, happiness even, to a group (of fish in this case) without bothering to ask them or even to think about what they might answer would they have been asked.[5]

The rhetorical function of Rees-Mogg’s exemplary speech is to put a full stop to the discussion: “we’ve got our fish back. They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.” Not: “they will be”, “they might be”, nor “they can be”. The story is over. This is the end of the speech and the end of the discussion. The PM produces the impression of merely stating facts. Yet, he hardly succeeds with his attempt. After all, the fish nearly sunk the deal. And, if they’re not as happy as Rees-Mogg claims, they might do something about it. We are uncannily, intimately in touch with non-humans who do not care about national borders or what we’d rather want to do. That goes for viruses but also for fish. British or not.

What Fish can do

In my angrier moments, I root for the creatures in Frank Schätzing’s eco-thriller: The Swarm (2004) in which unsettlingly Harawayian (or Lovecraftian) critters turn the tables and fight back. They escape the sea and kill humans in satisfyingly disgusting ways.[6] It’s not my favorite book but, its scenarios surpass those of many monster and disaster movies…

Frank Schätzing: The Swarm (US Cover)

As this is published on the internet and I don’t feel like having discussions about my occasional misanthropy, let me state the following explicitly: I write “kill humans in satisfyingly disgusting ways” not because I want humans to be killed by animals (far from it), but because my frustration about the violent silencing and exploitation of nonhuman (and, for that matter) human life, finds momentary relief in such stories. You might call it catharsis. However, as necessary if that kind of outlet is (for me at least), that does not get us very far, does it? So what might we take from this? 

Looping back to the beginning

In many ways, we are like the fish. Declared happy or “protected” by decisions that hardly involve us in the first place and, thus, disconnected from each other and our surroundings. This is more acute for many humans than for the privileged fraction of our species that (like me) can still take the time to ponder the question. Still, you would think the difference between the rhetorical function of large groups of people and fish in political speeches would be bigger.[7] In contrast to the fish, humans affected by the Covid-pandemic, Brexit and the horrendous (non-)decisions regarding wildlife-protection would have been able to answer questions quite easily – had they been asked, that is. In fact, many humans speak up (loudly!). Of course, some of those believe that everything is made up and I do hope fish would be smarter, but even those of us who understand and appreciate science, feel ignored by the statements of politicians who consider quotas but not actual fish in actual environments (well yes, “fish” means humans, too, here). Reduced to “primal screams”, the living conditions of human beings are sidelined in order to make the numbers work. This rings true not only under pandemic conditions but also with regard to Global Warming, biodiversity loss, pollution and the other looming disasters neatly grouped together as “environmental problems”. 

I am aware that this is a quick analogy and that it holds problems. However, I am convinced that the way in which ‘feelings’ and interests (such as a nationality) are assigned to groups of beings in order to legitimate political decisions is problematic enough that it is time to side with the fish. That is, turn “species thinking” around not to think for (all) humans but to think with fish (and trees, mushrooms and slime molds): Like the ex-EU-fish, we could (and “we” do) sink plans. It’s time to form alliances beyond the human! Acknowledging the agency of non-humans and their right to environments could be a first step to coexistence. On the plus side: it might also help with allowing for human desires beyond the economic. 

This is a rather more call-to-arms-type of ending that I planned for. All because I don’t have time and space to write? Yes. Because as I claimed in my first post – I don’t believe in neatly differentiated problems. The moment you feel justified to call fish “British and happier for it” and people only laugh at you because they know that’s code for: we got (almost) what we wanted, which is the freedom to exploit others for profit, is the moment at which we should listen very carefully, because it means us, that is, beings with desires who are dependent on environments and the decisions made by ‘our’ representatives. Don’t trust the myth of happy fish.

Part II of my marine excursion will ask for the hopeful potentials and entanglements of the Wellerman-Craze and how that (dis)connects to the happy fish. 

[1] That includes: making sure neither students nor instructor give up in the middle of the semester because it is too much, because the credit work doesn’t make sense or is tedious and a topic (if that is possible to choose) and red thread that pulls everyone through. The latter might have been a little too close to home at the moment – I currently teach a course on dystopias and the possibly prognostic capacities of fiction.

[2] Which are…well…often not great. You can look up #aCertainDegreeOfFlexibility on Twitter if you want to know more about the conditions of academic work in Germany

[3] I put “historical” in scare quotes because I am at once convinced and annoyed by the seemingly ubiquitous use of the attribute to “this moment in time”. Yes, we are experiencing something that we will be talking to our grandchildren about, but what kind of worth can a statement like this assume when you do what you can (individually and collectively) to pretend that business as usual is right around the corner or must continue at all costs? 

[4] This is a huge topic, and I will write more about it at a later point, but let me point you to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s excellent work on that question, for example her essay “Speaking of Nature” in Orion Magazine and her book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), see review here.  

[5] The use of the subjunctive is deliberate, here, and not a sign of academic obscurity. I follow Timothy Morton’s claim that “not being able to think in the subjunctive is also a big problem for ecological thinking. Not being able to be in the ‘may’ mode (…) edits out something vital to our experience of ecology (…): the hesitation quality, feelings of unreality or of distorted or altered reality, feelings of the uncanny: feeling weird” Timothy Morton: Being Ecological, 2018.

[6] While I am at it: Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s story The Violence of the Lambs (GQ October 2011) if you’re interested in decidedly unfluffly animal agency.

[7] What happens to people when they “become” crowds is explored in detail in the current issue of Coils of the Serpent: Crowd(ed) Futures (ed. by Mark Schmitt and Solvejg Nitzke 7/2020). Mark’s and my conversation also features some virus-related-thoughts.

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