Gavin Steingo — Learning from Alexis (Review of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals)


by Gavin Steingo

Review of Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020)

The recent documentary, My Octopus Teacher, is a sequence of clichés and banalities punctuated by the effervescent, astonishing world of an octopus.[i] The film documents the relationship between Craig Foster, a white South African diver and filmmaker, with a cephalopod in a kelp forest near Cape Town in South Africa’s Western Cape province. Around 2010, Foster began free diving—that is, diving unaided by the scuba technology of an oxygen tank—and he encountered a curious octopus whose reticence among humans seemed to be mitigated only by the bareness of Foster’s body in the water. Foster visited the creature almost daily for a year, during which time he earned the octopus’ trust; unusually for a cephalopod, this one comes into contact with Foster, and the viewer witnesses scenes of intimacy between the two beings.

The film works on two distinct and only occasionally overlapping registers. On the one hand, the viewer is treated to quite exquisite cinematography: we see the octopus curled into a ball, walking on two legs, propelling itself through its aquatic environment, camouflaging itself by virtue of its incredible amorphous body, conjuring sculptural figures from black ink, shape shifting. This is, to us, an incredible creature, almost our opposite.[ii] The second trajectory of the film centers itself on what we hold in common with the octopus. Indeed, despite its radical corporeal alterity, octopuses seem to possess “advanced” cognitive capacities. (I omit the complexities and pitfalls of this kind of language.)[iii] Unfortunately, on this register—at least to my eye and ear­—Foster undoes and undermines everything that might be interesting about his experience and about the film. Somewhat late in the documentary, we hear sketchy and hastily delivered information about Foster’s personal crises—how he was overworked, under pressure from various quarters, and so on. The narrative arc of the film then jettisons everything that is incredible and terrifying about the octopus, landing instead on the creature’s resilience. After losing a leg in an attack by a shark, Foster’s octopus “teacher” nurses herself back to health and ultimately gives birth to many baby octopuses. Foster is so moved by her tenacity that he founds an environmentally focused NGO. He waxes lyrical about how the octopus taught him to be a better person, a better husband, and a better father. His unmediated, “free” dives into the ocean, in other words, ultimately lead to his personal redemption.[iv]

The backdrop of the film—which is never addressed, or even really hinted at—is the settler colonial context of contemporary South Africa. Anyone who has ever been to the region of South Africa in which the film takes place will know that it is hardly postcolonial, or even neocolonial, but rather looks like an actual, full-blown European colony from some previous era. The wealth gap is staggering: Whites own almost all the extremely expensive beachfront property, while Black people are pushed to the vast shantytowns that sprawl on either side of the region’s highways. None of this is visible in My Octopus Teacher. The film ends with Foster and his son diving into the ocean in the octopus-protected area outside their glamorous home. This is the idyllic landscape of a white heteropatriarchal nightmare. What then, did Foster learn from his octopus teacher other than white middle-class family values—don’t work too hard, spend time with your kids, and so on—values that affirm and enshrine every form of oppressive normativity on offer in the twenty-first century?

It’s worth noting that at one point in the film Foster attributes his understanding of “Nature” to previous work with San animal trackers—as depicted, for example, in his film The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story (2000). This is perhaps the only moment in the film where Foster opens an opportunity to examine his relationship to Africa, but the moment is short-lived, and the region of the Cape where My Octopus Teacher is filmed is presented as if unpeopled. If indeed Foster learned how to learn from an octopus from a San hunter, then “learning from” is a double gesture in the film. But in neither instance does Foster see these lessons as ways of helping him become someone other than who he already is. (Or if he becomes something else, it is just a more relaxed, more successful version of his former self.) This is not a case, in other words, of “becoming octopus,” or, to use Antjie Krog’s perspicacious phrase, of white South Africans dealing with their colonial history by “begging to be Black.”[v]

Two months after the release of My Octopus Teacher, Alexis Pauline Gumbs published Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. On the face of it, the two cultural products have a lot in common, and indeed they both concern what we, as humans, can learn from the beings with whom we share the earth. But, in my view, Gumbs’ book is everything that Foster’s film is not. For, unlike Foster, Gumbs invites us to unlearn rather than shore up middle-class, white capitalist values. She invites us to think and feel otherwise.

In recent years, “learning from…” has proliferated as a way of combatting ecological and social crises. In many cases, the results are underwhelming, or even quite problematic, as was the case, for example, with the 2017 Documenta exhibition, which had the title “Learning from the South” (and which resulted, in the view of many, at least, in wealthy German art dealers landing in Athens during a moment of political turmoil and acting entirely irresponsibly—in other words, they learned nothing at all). “Learning from…” is often a hazardous exercise, especially in cases where a person or institution from a position of power claims to learn something from a vulnerable “other,” and especially in cases where the person or institution claiming to learn something, or claiming to want to learn something, can inflict suffering on the thing from which it claims to want to learn. (My Octopus Teacher is a textbook problematic example.) Gumbs’ book, which has the subtitle Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, faces exactly this political and ethical challenge. But she largely (perhaps entirely) avoids the pitfalls that others fall into, and this review presents some thoughts on how and why.

Gumbs is an idiosyncratic writer. Steeped in traditions of Black feminism,[vi] she works adjacent to but not fully within academia. This book, too, is at once intellectually challenging and rigorous, but also accessible to non-academics and especially to activists and teachers of all varieties (high school teachers and students will likely get much from this book as well). Perhaps most urgently, the book does something that animal studies often fails to, namely, make the connection between forms of animal and human oppression[vii]—in this sense, it is important to Gumbs that we share a world, and not only a physical planet with dolphins, walruses, and seals. The book begins with a powerful preface in which Gumbs introduces the concept of undrowning by marking the ocean as a tremendous space of death and survival for Black people on both sides of the Atlantic. The opposite of drowning, of course, is breath, and breath is a major concern of this book, of Gumbs’ other work,[viii] and, of course, of much recent Black critical thought and activism. Nothing can substitute for Gumbs’ own words:

I am saying that those who survived in the underbellies of boats, under each other under unbreathable circumstances are the undrowned, and their breathing is not separate from the drowning of their kin and fellow captives, their breathing is not separate from the breathing of the ocean,[ix] their breathing is not separate from the sharp exhale of hunted whales, their kindred also. Their breathing did not make them individual survivors. It made a context. The context of undrowning. Breathing in unbreathable circumstances is what we do every day in the chokehold of racial gendered ableist capitalism. We are still undrowning. (pp. 1-2)

Like other contemporary theorists, Gumbs thinks about breath as both an essential biological function (one that depends upon delicate ecosystems), and in terms of what Achille Mbembe recently described as “breathing beyond its purely biological aspect, and instead as that which we hold in-common, that which, by definition, eludes all calculation.”[x] In this sense, I am reminded, too, of Frank Wilderson’s comment, made in the conclusion to his “unflinching paradigmatic analysis” in Red, White, & Black, that looking anti-Black violence directly in the face means refraining from offering a “roadmap so extensive it would free us from the epistemic air we breathe. To say that we must be free of air, while admitting to knowing no other source of breath, is what I have tried to do here.”[xi] Undrowned, too, is about epistemic air—and real air, which all mammals depend on for their (and our) survival. Theorizing these two registers of air together is a central preoccupation of the book. And if Undrowned also refrains from providing a roadmap to some time-space beyond the extreme violence of the present and ongoing “environment,” it does offer many subtle forms of intervention. In other words, this is not a utopian book that directly presents or “imagines” a world beyond the paradigm of anti-Blackness, an imagining that may be strictly speaking impossible.[xii] Rather, the book acts as a forceful and urgent critique of “racial gendered ableist capitalism” as a constellation that holds the world together in a murderous, suffocating embrace.

A particularly compelling aspect of Gumbs’ work is how widely stimulating it is for fields outside of its direct purview. To provide just one example: by beginning from a totally different perspective to most environmental historians, Gumbs offers new and trenchant insights on the topic of whale song. (This is a topic of particular interest to me as a musicologist.) The conventional narrative has it that song played an important role in “saving” the whales. It is true that several species of whale were well on their way to extinction before Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered whale song, or rather, before Payne and McVay taught the American public to hear whale phonation as song. Despite the protestations and cringing of long-time marine mammal researchers, when it came time to make a case against the whaling industry, the gentle bellowing of a single male humpback some two thousand meters below the ocean surface proved far more effective than careful argumentation. Payne produced the recording Songs of the Humpback Whale in 1970, and together with McVay published the groundbreaking article “Songs of Humpback Whales” the following year.[xiii] When NASA opted to include an excerpt of whale song on the famous Voyager album that was sent into space, the president of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor, declared that “the whale has become a way of thinking about our planet and its creatures.”[xiv] Looking back on that period, scientist and whale song researcher Katharine Payne made this point explicitly: “There was a burst of realization that the world could change its relation to wildlife. The reaction people had to hearing these sounds made whaling obsolete!”[xv]

There is certainly some truth to this narrative, but Gumbs asks us to put pressure on aspects that many have accepted too easily. In an earlier book, written in a more experimental and poetic style (sometimes coming close, I think, to spoken word poetry or “toasting”), she writes:

between you and me, we knew it would never work. just because the singing of the whales had caused bumper stickers and rallies and international bans on their murder and the criminalization of the exploding harpoon (you know. that thing that got under their skin and destroyed them from the inside) didn’t mean it would work for us. i mean how long had we, black women, been singing.

when they decided the whale was an intelligent creature, nuanced, descriptive, they decided that the people who killed them were greedy, were savage, were less evolved. isn’t that interesting. the same people who forced the whaling indigenous into sale instead of ceremony now spoke of evolution. spoke of the humane and didn’t choke. this is why we didn’t have much hope. our intelligence and the multiple forms of proof required did not inspire the world to disentangle its hooks from our looks and our attitude.

we assert that it was not the song of the whales that saved them. if singing could save we’d be god. it was the fact of other sources of oil to move into, other deep black resources to extract. it was a fact. they could only save the whales once they knew they didn’t need them. it was a simple as that. and they haven’t found a way yet to say it. their needles in our skin, targeting us where we breathe. which is everyone we love. trapping us below and yet detracting us above. chasing us across oceans. they risk their very souls. they know it though. they need us more than gold.[xvi]

For Gumbs, then, the question of marine mammals and “us” is primarily one of value, of who and what matters enough to be secured within a political community in any given moment. Gumbs doubts that the success of the anti-whaling movement can be attributable to the discovery of whale song. She suggests, moreover, that the continued ensnarement of, and infliction of pain upon, Black women—despite the vaunted musical capacities of successive generations of Black women singers—may well be attributable to the fact that white supremacy depends on the survival and suffering of Black women for its continued existence.[xvii] This kind of critique compels a serious reevaluation of much marine environmental history. And later in this review I will comment in greater detail about her extended analysis of whale song in Undrowned.

It’s also possible to read Gumbs on a more general level, and in a way that connects directly to my own ongoing work.[xviii] In that work, I am interested in how the current political moment follows on the heels of what several writers, most notably Freud, have understood as progressive assaults on human narcissism. The first assault, argued Freud, was the Copernican revolution, which displaced Man from his position at the center of the cosmos. Second was the Darwinian revolution, which placed the human firmly in the domain of the biological animal. The third blow is more controversial; Freud names the blow of psychoanalysis, which decentered consciousness.[xix] Donna Haraway raises an eyebrow at Freud’s claim regarding the third blow but seems to concede the point. She postulates a fourth moment, namely the decentering of the human through technology, including, but not limited to cyborgic manifestations.[xx] Personally, I am not persuaded by Freud’s third periodization (the displacement of consciousness by the unconscious seems, to me, categorically different to the planetary and biological revolutions), nor am I persuaded by Haraway’s fourth (I would argue that the evolution of humanity, starting at least a quarter of a million years ago, has been thoroughly technologically constituted).

Rather, the most recent paradigm shift seems to be one of value. Until the twenty-first century, all forms of (Western) misanthropy were paradoxically and essentially optimistic. From Molière to Jonathan Swift, misanthropy has been the critique of particular societies with the implicit assumption that we, as humans, can be better. The twenty-first century is different. For the first and only time in history, many people are resolutely misanthropic: a misanthropy without redemption.[xxi] This new, full-blown misanthropy takes many forms and seems to have no political compass; it is as prevalent on the political Left as it is on the Right, where eco-fascism is a major if not dominant stream. Today, many people feel and openly express that the world would be a better place without humans. And in this light, it is possible to argue that the third major blow to human narcissism is a question of humanity’s “right” to a place on Earth.

Consider, for example, and by contrast, that Johannes Kepler remained certain about the ontological centrality of humanity, despite his famous contributions to post-Copernican science.[xxii] Nearly three centuries later, Alfred Russell Wallace (to whom the theory of natural selection is often attributed along with Darwin) continued to espouse the ontological centrality of the human even in the scientific paradigm of natural selection.[xxiii] The twenty-first century, by contrast, marks a moment in which even those certain of humanity’s “intellectual” superiority (and sometimes, in fact, because of it) doubt its ontological centrality as well as its value, and question whether the human deserves to survive as a species.

Although not stated in these terms, I read Gumbs’ book as a response to a world in which humanity’s stunning scientific and technological achievements are often dislocated from or even at odds with values. Fully recognizing the scale of destruction, Gumbs places emphasis not on the human qua species, but on structures (capitalism, the afterlives of slavery, and oppressive gender structures are key in her account). From that perspective, she uncovers what is profound about marine mammal life in terms of social arrangement, reproduction, and the way that various animals dwell in complexly entangled ecosystems. The wonder of nature is to be found in how different body plans and forms of relation coevolved with each other in ingenious ways. It makes sense that we who struggle with the fact of having bodies, we who struggle with elementary forms of being in common, might stand to learn something from animals who have been around for a lot longer than we have, and who have survived even in the face of our destructive tendencies. Bearing this in mind, it’s also possible to situate the book within a growing theoretical movement that understands the ocean not simply as a body of water “between” continents—as some kind of blank slate—but rather as a richly populated living system, and one long entangled with the traffic of goods, animals, and people.[xxiv]

Gumbs describes her book as a “guide,” writing that “this guide to undrowning listens to marine mammals specifically as a form of life that has much to teach us about the vulnerability, collaboration, and adaptation we need in order to be with change at this time, especially since one of the major changes we are living through, causing, and shaping in this climate crisis is the rising of the ocean” (p. 7). Gumbs does not view her work as a critique of science, and she uses what we have learned from scientists about marine mammals to pursue a form of “apprenticeship” (p. 9). But she does foreground a few aspects of scientific knowledge production that critical readers would do well to pay attention to.

To provide one set of examples: Gumbs notes throughout the book that marine mammal science is plagued by lacunae. This is fine as it goes, but scientists frequently rush to explanations in the absence of grounding or proof. For instance, attracting mates of the opposite sex is a default explanation for many as yet unexplained behaviors. About this, Gumbs writes: “Scientists make their own fictions. They say that the sound [of seals] is about mating, but [the male seal] doesn’t even mate until his life is half over” (p. 78). Or consider: “Walruses of any sex assignment can have tusks as long as a meter. The dominant theory is that the main use of these tusks is male struggles for dominance. But I am not convinced. Especially since tusks are not sex specific. And walruses regularly use their extended front teeth performing miracles, by pulling their up to 4,200 pound bodies onto ice” (p. 155). In a manner redolent of the Deleuze and Guattari of Capitalism and Schizophrenia—that two-part book which explodes the Freudian patriarchal structure in favor of wolf packs, rodent affinities, and so on—Gumbs’ displacement of simplistic scientistic explanations opens space for understanding wondrous animal maneuvers.

A second aspect of scientific inquiry that Gumbs responds to throughout the book is the will to knowledge. She emphasizes the reasons that some marine mammals are much better known than others. For instance, why do we know so much about the humpback whale? Gumbs suggests: “One thing that helps, when those who are studying you are capitalists, is that humpback whales are easy to identify as individuals because of the markings on their tails” (p. 71). On the other hand, many aspects about walruses are little known (hence the shoddy interpretation about their tremendous tusks). Walrus breeding patterns in particular have been little documented because of the difficulty accessing their living environs (which allows scientists to dubiously attribute whatever they want to walruses’ sexual practices).  And yet, the warming of the polar ice caps makes these creatures easier to study, to know, and to bring into our orbit.  For all of these reasons, Gumbs affirms those unknown, or only partly known creatures, those who have succeeded, against all odds, to at least partially avoid surveillance, capture, experimentation, torture, and death.

Undrowned, importantly, is not written in the kind of sentimental, fable-like manner of My Octopus Teacher, whose message is essentially “the octopus is resilient, and we should be, too.” To my own eyes and ears, the most trenchant and moving moments of the Undrowned are those where Gumbs moves between marine mammals and us in a somewhat elliptical manner that requires something of a stretch, a bit of mental gymnastics to fully appreciate. Returning, for example, to the seal—after providing a reason for why we should doubt the reductionist explanation of seal sounds, she writes: “They say it must be about [mating and] territory. But there is no one here but you. And us. Spread out across the whole bottom of Earth” (p. 78).  At such moments, the observation of a seal acts as a critique of scientific positivism, but also opens out onto a politics of the commons. In contrasting “there is no one here but you” with “and us… spread across…the Earth,” we sense Gumbs’ tenderness in writing to and for these animals, whose lives we are spatially disconnected from yet radically in contact with.

Such moments give value to aspects of marine life that are not intelligible to those working with the grammar of crass optimalization. Consider, for example, that a 2016 report on the relatively frequent practice of adoptive parenting among marine mammals ends in bewilderment. The authors of the report puzzle over the “costly” caregiving activities of Indo-Pacific dolphins, especially their frequent “allomaternal behavior” (what in human terms would be called adoption or foster parenting); the authors conclude that it is “unclear why an animal would invest its resources in this manner” (pp. 161-2).[xxv] For Gumbs, who has long been interested in practices of nonbiological, revolutionary mothering, such reasoning is myopic at best.[xxvi] “Who has not been mothered by someone genetically and socially distant from your birth situation, at some necessary time?” she asks.  “And if you have ever shared something, taught someone, shared responsibility for someone’s wellness for even a part of their journey, how would you measure what you gained from that potentially ‘costly behavior?’ We call it love” (p. 162).

Love is a leitmotif in Undrowned. Returning to the question of whale song (that, I admit, initially drew me to Gumbs’ work), she asks what happens when we think of other creatures “beyond the characteristics [singing, for example] most palatable to predatory ‘allies’” (p. 71). What happens, Gumbs queries, after we—and here the “we” shifts ambiguously to Black women, but also to any being at some point deemed intellectually inferior in the eyes of racial gendered ableist capitalism—what happens “after we finish proving we are smart and capable of feeling to those who somehow think that it is wise to boil the world…?” (ibid.). These kinds of pronoun shifts act as forms of identification and are placed strategically throughout the book. Addressing the humpback whale directly, she writes: “I love the parts of you that no one thinks are particularly special. I love the basic you of you unmarketable and everyday. I love to be around you because the round around you thrills me. And let’s get together again soon” (ibid.).

While never explicitly suggested by its author, Undrowned is a book almost crying out to be read aloud. The book is very much about breath, certainly, but the way the text unfolds across the page also seems to couple with breath, that is, with the corporeal rhythm of the voice. That this is the case should not be surprising, especially considering that Gumbs is a renowned orator as well as writer, whose work is in perennial dialogue with Black Southern spiritual practices and Caribbean oral performance traditions (the latter is most clearly articulated in her 2020 book, Dub). In this sense, it would be interesting to think about Gumbs’ work in relation to other histories of poetics, as well—for, example Charles Olson’s landmark “Projective Verse” (1950) manifesto, in which he advocates breath (rather than meter or rhyme, for example) as the structuring element of poetry. Gumbs would certainly be open to such relations, as she is to creative, performance-based versions of her work.[xxvii]

Very much in this spirit, Undrowned ends with a series of activities cultivating approaches to life based on sustainable forms of living and being together. From guided listening and American Sign Language (ASL) activities, to breathing and memory strategies based on insights garnered from the author’s “apprenticeship” with marine mammals, the final chapter of the book offers exercises that would be wonderful to perform in various settings, including, but not limited to, the college classroom. The exercises are redolent of those found in Tutorial Diversions (Bill Dietz), Sonic Meditations (Pauline Oliveros), Contra-Sexual Manifesto (Paul B. Preciado), Perceptual Education Tools (Ben Patterson), and Artificial Life (Maryanne Amacher): all of these texts, like Undrowned, can be used as guides for profound intervention into the quotidian. Refreshingly, Gumbs shows little interest in either advanced scuba-diving or the romance of free diving. Literally going into the water to meet the animals she writes about is beside the point, or even somewhat contrary to her aims. She is acutely aware of the resources required for direct interaction (think of Foster and his ocean-front property), the grotesqueness of animal captivity at places like Sea World (which she writes about brilliantly), and—while she does not address it explicitly—the proximity of much scientific experimentation to torture (I think of recent experiments trying to determine whether certain animals feel pain by maiming and dismembering them). All of the activities in the final chapter of Undrowned can take place in simple settings, and many are easily doable in the COVID era of social distancing and online interaction. Marine mammals are not mere metaphors in the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs. But to honor, and indeed, to love dolphins, seals, whales, and walruses, does not mean touching them, experiencing them, or knowing them in their every detail. On the contrary, recognizing our “individual bond with life” (Mbembe) means a careful consideration of when and how to care and know.

Compassionate, inventive, and politically astute, Undrowned offers a new kind of critical praxis equal to the complexities of our time.

I am grateful to Helen H.Y. Kim and Roger Mathew Grant for first talking this review through with me and encouraging me to write it. Many thanks also to Arne De Boever and Paul Bové for thoughtful feedback on the piece.

Gavin Steingo is a South African musicologist and composer. He currently teaches at Princeton University.

[i] For what it is worth, the film recently won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

[ii] Flusser’s book on precisely this topic remains a compelling read. See Vilém Flusser, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste, translated by Valentine A. Pakis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); originally published in 1987.

[iii] As I write this, the cuttlefish (a relative of the octopus) passed a version of the “marshmallow test,” which supposedly proves the animal’s ability to delay gratification, that is, to exert deliberate self-control. See Alexandra K. Schnell, Markus Boeckle, Micaela Rivera, Nicola S. Clayton, and Roger T. Hanlon, “Cuttlefish Exert Self-Control in a Delay of Gratification Task,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 288(2021): 2882020316120203161. On octopus intelligence more generally, see Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).

[iv] It is interesting to ponder which of the two registers led to its being awarded an Oscar.

[v] See Krog, Begging to be Black (Cape Town: Struik, 2009).

[vi] Prior to Undrowned, Gumbs penned a theoretical-poetic trilogy for Duke University Press, with each book in the trilogy serving as a direct, if somewhat elliptical, engagement with a single writer: Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017)—Hortense Spillers; M Archive: After the End of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018)—M. Jacqui Alexander; Dub: Finding Ceremony (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020)—Sylvia Wynter.

[vii] This is perhaps too reductive a way to say it, since of course much important work at this very intersection exists. Of particular note is the work of Colin Dayan; see, for example, The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[viii] I think especially of M Archive, although Dub is also relevant in this regard.

[ix] This is not meant metaphorically; as she writes elsewhere in the book: “Researchers say, if whales returned to their pre-commercial whaling numbers, their gigantic breathing would store as much carbon as 110,000 hectares of forest, or forest the size of Rocky Mountain National Park.” See Undrowned, p. 24.

[x] Achille Mbembe, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” In the Moment, 13 April, 2020,

[xii] On the topic of utopian thinking in relation to Blackness, see Linette Park’s recent and excellent, “Fantasies of Utopia: On the Property of Black Suffering (Review of Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism),” boundary 2 review, 25 March, 2021,

[xiii] Roger S. Payne and Scott McVay, “Songs of Humpback Whales,” Science 173.3997(1971): 585-597.

[xiv] As quoted in D. Graham Burnett, Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 530.

[xv] As quoted in Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (New York: Basic Books, 2008), p. 45.

[xvi] Dub: Finding Ceremony (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), p. 18.

[xvii] Frank Wilderson has made this exact argument with crushing rigor in a number of publications, including, most recently, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020).

[xviii] I am at work on a book tentatively titled, Splendid Universe: Music and Interspecies Communication.

[xix] See Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, translated by Joan Riviere (New York: Permabooks, 1958).

[xx] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[xxi] Examples of this new misanthropy range from a popular T-shirt design that states, “Dogs: Because People Suck,” to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement which proposes that, “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health” (, accessed on July 24, 2019). The form of misanthropy I refer to is indeed unprecedented, as a recent and very useful book by Andrew Gibson (Misanthropy: The Critique of Humanity [London: Bloomsbury, 2017]) confirms.

[xxii] On Kepler, see Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Copernicus seems not to have interested himself much with these kinds of metaphysical questions.

[xxiii] Wallace states this explicitly in several places, for example, in Darwinism (London: Macmillan, 1889). On this aspect of Wallace’s thinking, see Steven J. Dick, The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[xxiv] See, for example, Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); and a personal favorite: Jessica Schwartz, “How the Sea is Sounded: Remapping Indigenous Soundings in the Marshallese Diaspora,” in Remapping Sound Studies, edited by Gavin Steingo and Jim Sykes, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 77-105. Of course, there is a precedent to the recent explosion of literature on this topic, such as Marcus Rediker’s pioneering work. See, for example, his early Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[xxv] M. Sakai, Y. Kita, K. Kogi, et al., “A Wild Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin Adopts a Socially and Genetically Distant Neonate,” Scientific Reports 6(2016),; as cited in Undrowned, pp. pp. 161-2, footnote 50.

[xxvi] See Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016).

[xxvii] The fact that readers often respond to Gumbs’ work in creative ways (by making “dance works, installation work, paintings, processionals, divination practices, operas, quilts and more”) is a major point of pride, and one that she mentions often. The quoted list of creative responses in parentheses here is from her website: See also Undrowned, pp. 6-7.



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