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An interview with Killian Quigley


This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews Dr Killian Quigley, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University. Killian earned his PhD in English at Vanderbilt, where he specialized in the relationship between natural history and the aesthetics of spectacle in eighteenth-century Britain and France. He was subsequently awarded the Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney. Killian’s primary works reside at the intersections of the environmental humanities, literary studies, the history and philosophy of science, and aesthetic theory. His first book, Reading Underwater Wreckage: An Encrusting Ocean (Bloomsbury Academic, under contract), ecocritically theorizes shipwrecks and other seabed ruins. Working at the intersections of environmental hermeneutics, ecopoetics, and the environmental humanities, Reading Underwater Wreckage conceptualizes entangled histories, agencies, and articulations through encrustation, concrescence, and affiliated formal dynamics. Killian’s second book manuscript, The Vast Unseen Mansions of the Deep: Submerged Poetics, 1600-1820, examines the figures of sea-going and submersion in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English poetry in relation to histories of salvage and submarine science. Another ongoing project, Waves and Places, works between narratology and geographic theory to explore literatures of sea-level rise, with a special focus on the status of oceanic—and more broadly liquid—place. At the Sydney Environment Institute, Killian was research leader for the Unsettling Ecological Poetics and Ocean Ontologies projects. He is an Associate of the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South research group. In 2019, he was Researcher in Residence with Underwater New York and Works on Water.

        Hello, Killian, and thanks for joining me at Your interdisciplinary research spans a vast array of fields – from the environmental humanities, ecocriticism, and English literature, to the history and philosophy of science, imperial and post-colonial studies, and aesthetic theory. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in these particular themes and disciplines, professionally and/or personally?


Hey, Sophie. Thanks a million for this invitation, and for these queries. I guess the array you describe is a reflection, in the first instance, of my formation as a human subject. For as long as I’ve been passionate about anything, I’ve been passionate about reading and writing, particularly insofar as those practices have seemed to put me in touch with other, especially other-than-human, lives. I’m the grandchild, nephew, cousin, and brother of scientists, and I’m sure I’ll never fully resolve the FOMO I sometimes feel toward such of their knowledges as fascinate and challenge me. What sensitivity I have to colonial and postcolonial milieux derives originally from my having been born in the north of England to parents who had emigrated there from the south of Ireland—and who would emigrate again, with my sisters and me, to Nebraska, in the ‘Great Plains’ of the United States, when I was young. My family’s sojourning didn’t stop there, and neither, obviously, did mine. The possibilities and vexations of relating to places that aren’t one’s ‘own’ are preoccupations that I inherited from my parents and that continue to inform more or less everything I feel and do. Some of my favorite ways to attempt such relations—earnestly, if always imperfectly—are through walking, swimming, and diving, and the encounters I’ve had along those ways have also become central to my sense of the planet and how I’d like to inhabit it.  


The foregoing may go a fair way toward telling you why my professional interests have taken their current shape. But you won’t be surprised to hear that my becoming attuned to the disciplines I now inhabit was enabled by great teaching. During an undergraduate seminar on the literature of Britain’s maritime empire, I became fascinated by the roles of animals—goats, to be exact—in George Anson’s A Voyage Round the World (1748). My teacher’s encouragement to pursue this line of inquiry gave me the confidence not only to apply to graduate school but to credit my intellectual concerns as valid. I studied English for my PhD in an atmosphere that gave me the time and the freedom to simultaneously commit myself to other disciplines, especially history and philosophy. Above all, it was my continued good fortune to be the beneficiary of generous mentorship, in grad school and onward to the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI).


I could go on forever about how my colleagues at SEI (and in its vicinity) had and still have an impact on my work’s development. If I had to summarize that impact in a single sentence, I think I’d say that SEI’s intellectual community challenged me to think, speak, and write toward other-than-human neighbors in ways I simply couldn’t have comprehended without their colleagueship. I count myself very lucky, in this and not a few other respects.


        Together with Margaret Cohen, you co-edited the seminal volume, The Aesthetics of the Undersea (Routledge, 2019). What kind of empirical and conceptual work does this collection of essays aim to do?


Thanks for that kind description, Sophie. I think of The Aesthetics of the Undersea as

setting out to answer something like the following question: What do the past five

hundred (or so) years of Western environmental aesthetics look (and sound, and feel,

and smell, and taste) like if we dislocate them from lands and oceanic surfaces and

immerse them in sea-water? That ‘five hundred (or so) years’ signals one of the book’s

premisory claims, namely that even in the West, cultural histories of the submarine are

rather older and richer than the relevant scholarship has tended to suggest. The latter

work has tended to be guided by an overriding concern with suboceanic science and

technology, as well as with the ‘modernity’ those phenomena are taken to express.


What this frequently entails is an assumption that before the middle of the nineteenth century, subsea realms were either of no interest to Europe and its agents or were so epistemologically problematic as to have been the objects of mere fancy and nothing else. This scholarly convention makes some assumptions about ways of knowing that Margaret and I thought merited supplementing with a slightly longer historical view as well as a (broadly construed) aesthetic hermeneutic. By the latter term I mean not only a close engagement with subsea appearances literature and art but an attunement to the undersea as a distinctive sensory and perceptual domain, for and beyond human beings. I see the book as taking some significant but by no means final steps toward complicating and pluralizing our senses of the sub-oceanic and its entangled histories.


Edmund Dulac, from Shakespeare’s Comedy of the Tempest with illustrations by Edmund Dulac, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908.

        Could you tell us about the work you conduct in the capacity of Associate of the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South research group, and what this group aims to achieve in the realm of the environmental humanities?


I owe my membership in the network you mention to Isabel Hofmeyr (University of the Witwatersrand) and Charne Lavery (University of Pretoria), brilliant scholars who happen also to be inspired stewards of multi-sited oceanic conversations. One of those conversations has taken shape recently as Post-Imperial Oceanics, a project co-organized by Isabel, Charne, and Sharad Chari (University of California, Berkeley) which has pushed me to contemplate the specific implications of my work on wreckage for empire and its reformations, especially in Global South situations. (This feels pertinent to your next query, so I’ll say a little more about it then and there.) This pressure reflects what I take to be the foremost contribution, very broadly construed, of my colleagues in the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South Group: the creation and continuation of an intellectual ambience within which a ‘blue humanities’ or ‘ocean studies’ worth its salt (ahem) looks unsustainably partial if it confines itself to (for example) George Anson and his fellow European voyagers.


For me, this atmosphere has conduced (among other things) to a revaluation of subsea aesthetics through practices and technologies of pearl-shell diving in the region known by some as the Central Indo-Pacific. In addition to configuring oceanic worlds through works like the Torres Strait Islander Thomas Lowah’s memoir Eded Mer (My Life) (1988) and the Aboriginal Australian filmmaker Wayne Barker’s Cass: No Saucepan Diver (1983), this project highlights a few of the ways that the undersea has been an overlooked site of epistemological and technological contestation. What this research helps us understand, I argue, are the ethical as well as historical stakes of forgetting plural practices, histories, and ecologies of submergence. It’s my hope that these investigations might contribute to the collective work of unsettling recent and ongoing oceanic ‘turns,’ in the humanities and elsewhere. I’ve been privileged to be thinking about this not only with Oceanic Humanities for the Global South companions but with Craig Santos Perez (University of Hawai‘i) and Rebecca Hogue’s (Harvard University) Environmental Humanities in Oceania and the Pacific Islands collective. If you don’t mind me saying, it’s been a pleasure to become aware that you’re among the latter group, too.  


        In your 2020 inaugural postdoctoral fellowship lecture at the Sydney Environment Institute, you shared some fascinating insights into how encrusting marine life-forms take shape among and upon diverse substrates under the surface of the sea. Could you flesh out how you understand “encrustation” and its conceptual or theoretical import for rethinking more-than-human time, growth, and aesthetics? 


You’re very kind, Sophie. I have to shout-out my wonderful colleague Kaori Nagai (University of Kent), editor of Maritime Animals: Ships, Species, Stories (Penn State University Press, forthcoming). Upon inviting me to join that project, Kaori gave me an intriguingly specific remit: researching and writing about some other-than-human animal in relation to shipwrecks. So I set off to do so, and the more I learned, the more I became fascinated by marine sponges, a mind-bendingly diverse group of mostly sessile invertebrates famous for (among other things) their morphological unruliness. Legendarily frustrating for taxonomists, sponges are not only structurally promiscuous but materially transgressive: a member of one species of sponge may incorporate parts from another species into its body, fundamentally complicating any attempt at individuating and identifying it in any final sense.


Sponges are also prominent members of a much wider array of invertebrate animal,

algal, and microbial lives that frequently make homes of shipwrecks and other

submerged anthropic infrastructures. I find this home-making—this ecopoesis, if

you like—fascinating for lots of different reasons, not least for how it works otherwise

than through paradigms of soily rootedness. A sponge (for example) is often literally

superficial to the substrate it adorns, and I’ve been fascinated by how this kind of formal

relationship (among others) can put certain conventional understandings of location,

habitat, and even life to the test. ‘Encrustation’ is for me a useful but necessarily

imperfect epithet for certain among the undersea’s protocols of formation,

deformation,  and reformation. An ‘ocean in excess’ is Kimberley Peters and Philip

Steinberg’s term for marine materialities that involve but also exceed liquidity.

I’m hopeful that my  treatment of encrustation helps  cultivate the concepts and

vocabularies we use to  reckon excessive oceanities.


Many of the things I contemplate in Reading Underwater Wreckage, are encrusted ‘artefacts’ retrieved from shipwreck sites and interpreted in terms of what they are supposed to tell us about human maritime pasts. Following in the intellectual footsteps of persons like Caitlin DeSilvey while also attending, literarily and ecocritically, to language and image, my approach attempts to hold human histories, agencies, and forms in relation to the invertebrate, algal, concretionary, and more widely oceanic habits wrecky stuff can also be understood to express. My intention in so doing is to give us a few more (and perhaps better) tools for apprehending subsea materialities, especially but not strictly as they emerge from partly artefactual and partly ecofactual ruins. I’d argue that most of the ways we think about wreckage remain pretty binary: a sunken vessel, disused oil platform, or what have you tends to be interpreted either as a trace of human culture or a novel ecology (an ‘artificial reef,’ for instance). Encrusted thinking strives to dwell elsewhere than a dualism like that one in order to describe something rather more intricated—and, I think, more real.


Sea Sculpture, c. 1725, underglaze of cobalt blue decorated porcelain pieces fused together by fire and encrusted with shell and coral growths. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

        Finally, Killian, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying morethanhuman worlds?


What a brilliant question this is. I’ll do my best to articulate an idea I’ve been mulling recently, an idea that is of course significantly—and perhaps mostly—idiosyncratic. What I’ve been thinking about has to do with the ways that morethanhuman worlds (as you say) seem to me to require thinking, conversing, and writing across disciplines. Such crossings and recrossings are thrilling but they are also difficult, sometimes demoralizingly so—and their power to dispirit is a sign, for me, of the vulnerabilities that attend multidisciplinary practice. As perhaps goes without saying, said vulnerabilities are unspeakably precious, because they are integral to the labor of refreshing our interpretive pathways. What I think we don’t talk about as often as we should, however, is how extensively and intensely vulnerable such labor can make us—and how easily we can be thrown off-kilter by (for instance) institutional structures that demand multidisciplinarity while explicitly or (what’s worse!) tacitly according certain practices more or less credibility than others.


So I guess I’m calling upon all of us, especially those of us who may find themselves

in positions of relative power, to carefully observe the economies of vulnerability that

crop up around us, and to contribute to their being ethically constituted (and reconstituted).

But that doesn’t really answer your question! To scholars interested in studying

morethanhumanworlds, I’d say be open to the vulnerabilities that interdisciplinary labor

requires, but do your best to keep in touch with the value of your own particular disciplinary

aptitudes—and when those aptitudes seem under-recognized by structures you encounter,

remember that being dissatisfied with this is fair enough.


I hope that makes at least a tiny bit of sense, whether or not it feels relevant to your readers’ particular experiences. I’ll sign off with just one more suggestion, which is to reach out to colleagues with whom your inkling tells you you might have a meaningful rapport. Having good conversations with one another is a big part of why we’re here. Thanks, Sophie, for the chance to have another. Take care.

"What do the past five hundred (or so) years of Western environmental aesthetics look (and sound, and feel, and smell, and taste) like if we dislocate them from lands and oceanic surfaces and immerse them in sea-water?"

"‘Encrustation’ is for me a useful but necessarily imperfect epithet for certain among the undersea’s protocols of formation, deformation, and reformation. Encrusted thinking strives to dwell elsewhere than a dualism in order to describe something rather more intricated—and, I think, more real."

"Be open to the vulnerabilities that interdisciplinary labor requires, but do your best to keep in touch with the value of your own particular disciplinary aptitudes."

Sea sculpture 1.jpg

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