An interview with Sue Reid
Our guest this week is Sue Reid, a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Sue’s transdisciplinary research explores ocean governance imaginaries and the possibilities for ocean justice by drawing on posthumanist and feminist theory, multibeing justice approaches, ocean law, creative writing practice, and the ocean itself as a source of knowing. Sue is trained across visual arts, design, and law and holds double MAs - one in Design from the University of Technology, Sydney, and the other in International Law from the Australian National University. At the latter, Sue received a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, and was subsequently admitted to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory. Sue’s earlier training in visual arts includes a BVA from the University of Newcastle and a GradDipArts from the University of New South Wales. Sue’s contemplative writing and arts practice engages with more-than-human intimacies and relations and provides the ballast and aquifer of affect for her academic research.
Hello, Sue, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in oceanic and juridical imaginaries and the kinds of methods and theories you deploy in researching these themes?
Hi Sophie, thank you so much for your interest in my research work. Good to join the other morethanhuman conversations that you are bringing together! As a quick background, some years ago I did a Masters of International Law and one of the units in that course was the International Law of the Seas. It was a jam-packed maritime law bootcamp – the major conventions applicable to 71% of the earth’s surface were taught in less than a week. I was introduced to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea's dystopic seabed mining regime and the emerging seabed mining frontier during a perfunctory overview of maritime jurisdictional zones. Seabed mining regulations and seabed mining readiness seemed to be hatching together - the law enabling the industry, as if mining the ocean floor were an inevitability, an already agreed to plan. At the time, I had been involved in climate change activism and was already fired up about the blithe destruction of forests and sacred sites by mining companies. If miners on dry land could legally get away with these violences, I dreaded what might be possible on remote, deep seabeds. But I was also alarmed at the breadth of lawful exploitation of ‘natural resources’ under the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf regimes, in the context of biodiversity loss; and the regional fisheries authorities ‘exterminatory regime’, to borrow Jennifer Telesca’s description in her latest book Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna. I found no comfort in the idea that the law just had to be better, that a technical fix would be sufficient. There was a sense of something bigger, more complicit and fundamental at play.
So, I decided to shape the niggling into a PhD. Plenty of scholars were already thinking about how laws of the sea might be improved. Fewer were challenging how laws of the seas function together as a legitimating space for extractivism; or the complicity of imaginaries in marine biodiversity losses. Even fewer were thinking through the framework of more-than-human justice. It took me a long, fuzzy while and some exceptional support from my supervisory team to find the niche of my PhD in identifying the contours and conditions of possibility for ocean justice. I’m curious about what sits beneath ocean law, and how extractive imaginaries functionally orient both the law and our wider resource industries and their mutual production of ecological vulnerabilities. But I am also interested in what the ocean itself offers as a medium to think with, to imagine justice through; and how we might work with it to conceive relations with the ocean that are less world-emptying.
In terms of methodologies, I work with quite a few different approaches. A lot of it is text-based – routinely reading across marine scientific material, environmental humanities, queer and creative fiction and other artistic/creative practices to keep imaginatively and epistemically connected with the sea. I guess I mostly straddle feminist/queer posthumanism, critical environmental law, critical materialism, and multibeing justice (does that make me a quadripod?). Astrida Neimanis’ work and exceptional supervision has consistently guided my theoretical approach and methodology. I also participate in a few great reading groups and find their conversations enrich the textures of my thinking and soften the edges of research isolation. Intentional walking and swimming really matters in my practice as well, not just for obvious health reasons but substantively. Swimming and coast walks keep me affectively close to the ocean. Forest walks recalibrate my connections with more-than-human intimacies and, at least correlatively, help me speculate with unknowable ocean worlds and relations. We’ll see if it all works – I haven’t finished my PhD yet and my writing has hit what I can only politely describe as another pasty, beige sinkhole.
In a recent chapter published in the edited volume “Blue Legalities: The Life and Laws of the Sea,” you argue that thinking ecologically with the deep ocean and its long, slow-time relationalities requires placing time into our observations and responses. Could you flesh out this argument for us and how or why temporality matters in our relationships to the ocean?
Thanks for this question. I was thinking particularly in the context of deep ocean. Material-temporal matters are profoundly consequential in these worlds. Some of the water at the bottom of the ocean hasn’t seen sunlight for a thousand years. The seafloor sediment is constituted by particles slowing falling from the surface over time periods beyond our human scale. Seabed manganese nodules form at the rate of about a millimetre every million years. They’re home to vulnerable micro sponge communities and offer important substrates for many others. The pace of being in these sunless realms is entirely different to ours but can be snuffed in the flash of a miner’s spotlight or under the crush and vacuum of their machines. The warming effects of climate change are reaching deeper into the ocean’s heart – and the ocean’s waters are archival, so the deeper the reach of these temperature changes, the longer it will take for their effects to transition out. The intrusion of toxic runoffs and plastics will also be harbored in the ocean archive for some time. All these material changes stream cumulatively through the ocean and marine communities are incredible sensitive and exposed to them.
On a very practical level, we have only recently begun to find out about deep living worlds
and long-range systems. But of course, where ‘discovery’ goes, exploitation tends to follow.
The commercial interest in mining the minerals of the seabed and extracting the genetic
material from the water column give us all a good deal to be concerned about. As does the
annual hauling out millions of tonnes of slow-growing fish beings. The ambitions of extractive
capitalism seem to always be reliably freighted with a sense of immediacy and impatience.
But we desperately need to pause our industrial reach into the ocean so that we might better understand the profound implications for ocean lives and life-ways. If the words ‘slow down’ and ‘take fewer’ are dreaded, ‘moratorium’ is kryptonite for the extractivists – so they will defy any calls for pause or reduction in ‘productivity’ with every effort they can muster. And yet there are so many other less ecologically harmful options that can be amplified to provide the world’s materials and nutrition. The global economic order dominates our relationship with the ocean and it is rapacious and suffuse with haste – we need to proliferate alternatives. For a start, foregrounding those already existing relations cultivated over generations within Indigenous communities. But also imagining the conditions for new relations that take into account how multiple temporalities inflect the impact of our industrial incursions on deep living marine worlds. Thinking relation and time together allows us to respond better to the cumulative pasts of us already layered into the ocean, and of the ocean transitioning into unknowable futures.
In what ways does your interdisciplinary background as a lawyer, artist, and curator, shape your academic research practice – both in terms of analysis, writing, and other methods?
Most of all, my interdisciplinary background provides a wide reference base and a few different tools. I feel and orient to the world as an artist. Perhaps this creative tilt provides a contemplative and quirky synthesizing approach to my research methodologies. Not all the time but enough to know that when I am thinking well, it is a creative practice. But it is a disposition that can also sometimes leave me feeling overexposed to the world, or too far from it, so that what I am doing becomes unrecognizable or my analytical point is too abstracted. I added lawyer to my layers in my forties, initially to better understand the administration of environmental and social justice, which are ongoing interests, but mostly I was keen on legal philosophy. Law can sometimes inoculate people from wonder, so I am glad that I came to it with creative perspectives and a good modicum of suspicion.
Overall the art / law/ environmental activist combination is a pretty strong set and it probably ensures
that I don’t get too sedimented in one particular discipline - it is really more of a transdicplinary
approach than interdisciplinary. My PhD has also introduced me to some incredible theoretical
and philosophical resources. I find myself stitching back and forth from these to legal analysis.
Then, if that’s stagnating, I scamper back to imaginative work - image-making, writing, and
if that starts to wobble I get back to analysis. Then, I might walk the coast or a forest, intentionally
connecting with the more-than-humans that I love, making image scans. All these practices matter together.
Finally, Sue, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t first respond to the framing of this question by gently suggesting that whether someone is a scholar in their twenties or beyond, we all need to address structural ageism in academia because where’s the fun in discriminating against our future and past selves. If someone was interested in studying more-than-human worlds, I might suggest exploring the openness of the term itself. What does it mean to keep the human in this picture? In my take, the term is inherently about relationality – our co-being with many others, fleshy, vegetal, and mineral. But it also perhaps acknowledges that plenty of others get on just fine without us. There are excellent scholars working in some way in this field at the University of Sydney. One of them is you Sophie, but also people like Dany Celermajer and Thom van Dooren. Astrida Neimanis, again, of course. I can recommend joining the multispecies justice reading group that you co-convene. When I left Sydney to see the pointy end of the pandemic out in Queensland, I brought a handful of books with me – here’s a pic.
But so many others help me think in this more-than-human space - Kathryn Yusoff, Elizabeth Povinelli, Macarena Gómez-Barris, Zoe Todd, Deborah Bird-Rose, Val Plumwood, Isabelle Stengers, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Stacy Alaimo. Also - get amongst it - immerse into whatever worlds they find themselves, however they may be able.
Note: if you're interested in the multispecies reading group mentioned by Sue, feel free to get in touch!
“The global economic order dominates our relationship with the ocean and it is rapacious and suffuse with haste - we need to proliferate alternatives.”
“I'm interested in what the ocean itself offers as a medium to think with, to imagine justice through; and how we might work with it to conceive relations with the ocean that are less world-emptying.”