Ciliated Sense

Postdoctoral Fellow
Women’s Studies
Duke University

Assistant Professor
Department of Cinematic Arts
Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media Program
University of New Mexico

evahayward [at] gmail [dot] com

Figure. The Outer Bay, Hayward, 2000.

I have just passed a pod of sculpted White-sided dolphins, hanging some 30 feet in the air. They seem to surge toward the open water, but this is inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Just ahead of me is a place called “The Outer Bay.” There is a sign at the entrance. An imperative command: “The strange-seeming drifters are at home in a world very different from our own. Come closer and see.”

I enter into a large, circular space with azure walls and marine blue floors. The ceiling is remarkable. My look shifts from the horizontal to the vertical; here, what is above me matters as much as, if not more than, what is in front of me. Swimming around the perimeter of the overhead space, thousands of anchovies flash their scales in the light, making me aware of effulgence and iridescence, and also placing me under water, literally and visually.

Presented with another sign: “The sea is as near as we come to another world.”[1] I move to my left, into a darker space. A sign tells me: “Sixty miles out—you make your first encounter with the ‘Drifters.’” All are alien allusions.  All propose that I am entering a different place, a place of difference, a place of first contacts.[2]
Everything is shadowed in blue light. The ceiling is slotted, forming a wave-like pattern. Recessed into the ceiling are spotlights that project pools of dappling light onto the exhibit floor. The pools of light appear like water-refracted radiance in oceans where seawater torques the light into complex arrangements and patterns. I read: “Imagine diving into the waters of the outer bay, suspended far from the shore and far above the sea floor…endless blue water surrounds you.”

On the right, I notice a small plaque thanking Hewlett-Packard[3] for “making the Drifters exhibit possible.” The effects of post-modernity are dramatically registered. This “outer” space is Hewlett-Packard’s “endless blue water”; it is a twenty-first-century technologically generated oceanography that promises an aquatic realm full of gleaming biotic diversity. It is a wealth of beauty made possible by the accumulation of wealth, by the global impact of Hewlett-Packard computing.

I have been drawn to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), trying to figure out what are the poetics of the Drifters display in the Outer Bay exhibit. It is markedly different from the common habitat exhibits at the aquarium, which attempt to give the observer an authentic marine environment—such as the Giant Kelp or the Mid Waters exhibits. These exhibits are familiar; they provide a simulation of the real thing, soliciting the sensation of unmediated encounter with marine worlds. In their most benign form, they act as sites of ecological hope, maybe even compassion (Clifford 1997). However, they also give us what Ralph Acampora calls a “zo√∂scopic” experience, a totalizing view that disappears meaningful human-animal encounters at the price of reinvigorating anthropocentrism (2005). Many have also argued that these exhibits engage a story of looking with deep roots in “imperialism and the process of nation building… [constituting] a contemporaneous sense of what their observers are by showing them what they are (supposedly) not” (Desmond 1999: 144). The aquarium presents itself as a stage, an unspoiled garden in nature, a hearth for learning self from other or human from animal, a clarification of the ontological and epistemological disorders of nature and culture (Davis 1997). At their worst, aquariums use captive animals to evoke an anthropocentric sanitary zone, a generative and informative force in the purification of Western civilization.

Aquarium exhibits have long histories dating back to at least the nineteenth century in Europe (Kisling 2001; Barber 1980). Depending on what constitutes “an aquarium,” older dates are given for Japan and China.  Victorian glass aquarium exhibits—then called “aquavivariums”—offered windows that interposed between human senses and water, allowing observers to focus on creatures living in a medium far more viscous than air.[4]  The aquarium was a curiosity, a conversation piece intended for the bourgeois and affluent classes, and commended for simple visual pleasure and also for the scientific and religious insights that could be gained. The aquarium became a sacred space where cohabited forces of godliness and nature were contained, compartmentalized, and studied.  The animals enclosed in these aquariums became metonymic of the particularly non-human ecotone (environmental biome), a marine wild that fascinated and disturbed Victorian sensibilities. 

P. T. Barnum, who saw the spectacular potential of aquatic organisms and their display technologies, initiated the advent of the aquarium in the United States (Taylor 1993).  It was the New York Aquarium, followed later by the Waikiki Aquarium (1904) and the John G. Shedd Aquarium (1930) in Chicago that turned aquatic attractions into examples of monumental civic architecture. The New York Aquarium is constructed in Castle Clinton, a former fort established before the War of 1812 to defend Manhattan. The Shedd Aquarium, constructed on the shore of Lake Michigan, marked the beginning of erecting grandiose spaces inspired by oceanic themes to house underwater animals.[5]  These early aquariums, strategically placed at the borders of land and water and nation, offered the public a prescribed amount of underwater nature. The monumental scale and architectural detail of these buildings demonstrated the power of nation, the ability of culture (nationalism) to maintain dominion over its non-human inhabitants. The animal other, here, is subjected to a politics predicated on differential hierarchies of power. The most prized organisms were “exotics” from non-European environments, fueling ongoing colonialism in the mode of animal husbandry. As these spaces gave entry into inaccessible environments for most observers, they also suggested the extension of biological knowledge, the prowess of U.S. technological achievement, and the expansion of nation and its dominion under the salty waters.

I am not suggesting that the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and more specifically the Drifters exhibit, do not share in this “civilizing” history—they clearly do.  Instead, I want to follow out other resonances at work in these jellyfish displays: differences in display technologies; variations in viewing subjectivity and perception; and, alterations in cross-species encounters. Might the jellies literally matter in their displays such that questions about their agency or “actorship” (Latour 2005; Haraway 2008) should be asked? Are aquarium-goers (such as myself) shaped and reshaped by the immersive space of the displays, the movements and corporealities of the non-humans, and the architecture of animal capitalisms (Shunkin 2009)? Do jellies, technologies, and people sometimes exceed the promise of aquariums to offer immediacy?  How do the bodies of the display (organic or inorganic) exist simultaneously as not fixed or immutable, but also differentiated and always already constitutive, always “dynamically enacted,” and already “materially configured” (Barad 2007)? To begin to answer these questions, I turn my attention to the materiality of perception, display technologies, and the animals themselves. Studying the refraction of water and aquarium walls, the diffraction patterns of hermaphroditic comb jellies, and the sensuousness of immersion, I want to proffer that the rhetoric of domination is not the only discourse at work in aquarium displays, or at least in the Drifters display.

Figures. The Outer Bay, Hayward, 2000.

Then I see them, seduced into the eye machines (Stafford and Terpak 2001). Their strange, supple bodies glow, endlessly malleable—even my own language turns poetic rather that descriptive, returning the intelligibility of my discourse back to carnal foundations.[6] Luminous domes undulate through artificially illuminated water. Stinging tentacles and translucent, “ruffled limbs” sustain sensuous and continuous movement. These are members of the phylum Cnidaria.

Printed labels give information on genus and morphology: “Purple-striped jelly, Pelagia: Ruffled mouth-arms surround the jelly’s mouth and stream behind with its yard-long tentacles. The dimples on the jelly’s bell hide its sensors for gravity and light.” I am reminded that “jellyfish are not really fish at all”—a corrective to long-extinct classification that remains in popular terminology—“they are invertebrates.” There is more, but I move on because the larger exhibit draws me in. It is breathtaking. Circular, grand, and gorgeous, the exhibit is cavernous and surprisingly dark. The dark space holds several stunning tanks, all round or oval; curves and circles define this space.

Here, the circularity of the architecture intimates the globular, the planetary, or the encompassing associations with the ocean. Echoing the curved space, new-age sounds ascend: soft whirls, vibrations, fluted notes, splashing water, all produced by synthesizers, all digitally fluid.[7] The sound is piped-in with all surround effects—I feel immersed in the aquatic space. John Huling produces these sounds: “Jelly Music” and “Lost Ocean.” The wavering murmurs and bubbled soundings of Huling’s music suggest ceaseless flux, resonance, and immersion. The music is a compilation of pan flutes and the sound of ocean waves, distant whale songs and coastal tidal pools as background sound. These sonifications exaggerate patterns and relationships that might not be clearly seen, but are readily perceivable with the ears (Helmreich 2007). Each tone entices and enchants, perhaps even soothes. Oceans are vast entities of unprecedented complexity; here, sound bridges the space: trans-ing, transforming the visual space into a layered acoustic, virtual, aquatic sensorium.  Surrounded, I am sounded-out, touched.

Lead aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, David C. Powell, a key figure in designing the Drifters exhibit, provides the mission statement of the aquarium. “The plan, an ambitious one to be sure, was to exhibit all the environments and microhabitats of Monterey Bay. . . . It would be the first major aquarium in the United States to focus exclusively and in depth on local species displayed in natural communities” (2001: 185). Opened in 1984, the MBA would rely on its neighboring bay environment to produce realistic displays, offering the observer a virtual look into the near shore and offshore waters. While many of the exhibits share some similarities to the bay environment, the observer discovers that the aquarium’s rendition is surprisingly clearer and healthier than what would be seen in the bay. Between the absent storm weather, seasonal changes, and seawater pollution, the MBA’s exhibits are more idealizations and, in the case of sea otters, acts of conservation (Clifford 1997). The differences between what gets to count as nature and what is artificial is different enough that to describe the exhibits as simulations of the “natural” would be misleading. The project, here, would seem to be about epistemology, profit, and conservation; that is, the aquarium goer is entertained into caring about environmental ethics and marine biology.  The aquarium is a savior by enacting a moral imperative to protect local ecosystems. The parochial becomes the new cosmopolitan; the local stands over the global in an effort to pay attention to one’s own. The observer is plunged, at a symbolic-immersive level, into the local nature, extending the reach of culture into the local (and therefore authentic) benthic and pelagic zones.

The technology, artistry, and biology that produced the Drifters display emerged from many transnational and transdisciplinary exchanges, starting in 1985. The United States, Japan, and Germany provided marine biologists and display technicians and designers: Freya Sommer (marine biologist)[8], William Hamner (UCLA marine biologist), Yoshitaka Abe (aquarist and curator), John Christiansen (designer), David Powell (aquarist and designer), an ocean scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Laboratory, and, of course, local populations of the jellies themselves.  Yoshitaka Abe, curator of the Ueno Aquarium in Tokyo, and William Hamner, marine biologist, were instrumental in designing the tank technologies. Abe had succeeded in designing a tank that would hold both the sexually reproducing adults and the asexual polyps. He shared his design plans with the MBA—the results were quite successful. However, the aesthetics still lacked refinement. Enter William Hamner.  Working from an earlier German design called a “Planktonkreisel” that had been developed to study planktonic animals in a research laboratory, Hamner designed and built a small tank for keeping planktonic animals on shipboard, called a Kreisel tank. The success of Hamner’s design was in creating circular currents that kept the delicate bodies of the jellies safely away from the overflow screen or the suction of the pumps.

Powell begins to imagine how Hamner’s design can be improved for display purposes, he writes: “At this point it struck me that this basic design could be modified to create an exhibit tank that looked, so to speak, as if it wasn’t there” (2001: 260). Powell imagined an environment that simulated jellies drifting in the open waters. “The tank would have a rear-illuminated translucent blue back, to simulate the blue of the vast ocean, and we could take advantage of the angles of refraction of light passing between air and water to make the side, top, and bottom walls of the tank disappear” (2001:260). Using lights and colors and organisms, the Drifters exhibit would suggest an immersion into the waters not unlike those the jellies populate. Immersion, in this design, becomes a mode of contact that attempts to background captivity, while foregrounding proximity.

But, it would seem that the Drifters exhibit exceeds its strategies of simulation. It certainly tries to re-present an underwater experience, but at all times it highlights the very apparatuses that produce the experience of immersion. The luminosity of the exhibit is dramatic, even theatrical. The aqua-optics—optics of water—of the display are potent, but not equivalent to the real physics of underwater viewing where the human eye loses focus at short distances.  The new age sounds are anything but reminiscent of a diving experience. And, the radiant colors of the jellies are far from the translucent, pellucid, and nearly invisible qualities of jellies in open waters.  The Drifters exhibit, an immersion into ocean waters through sophisticated display technologies, constructs an interface, maintaining and blurring the distinction between being immersed in water and being immersed in built natures and display apparatuses. 

And just for a moment, immersed in this liquid-light and aurally wet space, in my flesh, I imagine myself breathing in water. I am moved deeply and touched throughout, stirring my bodily senses and my sense of my body. Sensitized, I am in a primal time, when my own gill arches ache and then breathe. It is not an act of regression, not a womb-wish, but a recollection of evolutionary lifelines, of our own fishier days, or perhaps a sci-fi evolutionary future of new bodily sensations we are yet to feel, an embodiment we are yet to be. The space has a phylogenetic register, for it represents sub-marine realms and aqua-spheres that are evocative of primal states, both ontogenetic and evolutionary, and of “future primal” states (Gaian fulfillment?) of the “critters” we might become.

Although the perimeter of the tanks is circular, the front transparent wall is flat. The back, opaque wall is indeterminate. The acrylic of these tanks is convex, producing an osmotic—movement of fluid through semi-permeable partitions to equalize pressure across the membrane—space; that is, the liquid interior of the tank and the airy darkness in front of glass meld into each other, equalizing the pressures exerted by each interior’s inhabitants. Through diffuse backlighting and the water’s own distortion of light, I cannot see where the back wall begins or ends. Consequently, the tanks appear to have no depth. The jellies seem to occupy the same space as me, rather than the familiar animal display space of over-there.

What is remarkable about the convexity of this jellyfish display is that the luminosity that passes through the convex plane is not unidirectional. This display does not easily define who is looking at whom, suggesting that we, not unlike the jellies, are on display, under the microscopic view of the display.

The distinction between inside and outside is, if not materially, at least symbolically blurred. More importantly, inner and outer are sensually blurred. There is no primordial division, but continuity between my physiological and affective responses of “here” and “there”—this should not be read hierarchically, my embodiment is of the display space, at once the space’s subject, its substance, and its partner. Illuminated from the bottom and distorted by the curve of the tank, the jellies occupy the same space as I do.  The light seems subject to the fluid rules of osmosis. The organisms seem to swim in the same blue-blackness that envelopes me. I, an oversized observer, am undulating with the drifters, both “here and “there,” both to sense and to be sensible, both “subject” and “object” of the display.

 The luminescent back walls of the tank and the dark exhibit space erase my reflection from the acrylic. Even the distance that reflectivity might produce becomes transparent and unfixed.  On closer inspection, I notice that in addition to the backlighting there is side lighting that illuminates the mostly translucent animals. These lights give the jellies a spectacular glow; they are, corporeally, light shows, a show that my hominid eyes, and all their attending flesh, are part of.

Deep-sea diving? Immersion? Suspension? These tropes have puzzled my thinking about the Drifters exhibit and its production of subjects and objects. Yes, the exhibit attempts to authenticate itself as a simulated dive. The exhibit uses the fluidity of the aquarium apparatus and its illumination to produce a sense of submersion.  Walking air-breathers feel plunged into dark fathoms without the safety of air tanks.  In the immersion of the Drifters display, the apparatus of seeing is tempered by multiple sensory energies: sound, vision, hapticity, movement, and proximity.

Immersion conveys the experience of being totally inside a world, a state of mind, cultural and historical forms, and intellectual reflection. Immersion is used as a trope of engagement associated with a variety of media, narrative and non-narrative. Roland Barthes’ description of leaving a darkened movie-theater into the daylight is the well-known evocation of the transitional experience in the levels and foci of consciousness (1989). This state of absorption is temporary and partial. Disavowal, or “I know it’s not real, but nevertheless . . . “ is the formula for the splitting of belief in the unreality and reality scenes. Thus, even though our actual surroundings might be occluded or apparently “frameless,” we do mistake virtuality for reality. Nor is the engagement of our bodies and psyches in immersive experiences ever total—diving alone requires technological support around the body. Immersion is then not unreality or reality; rather it is awareness divided between being conscious enough to engage an interface and the wonder and horror of the deep. In this sense, immersion is a more somatic trope than the metaphysics of identification. Immersion produces co-habitation, not identification. It is a visuality that requires the whole body, one with all its grappling hooks. A visuality that relies on proximity rather than distance; look but don’t touch doesn’t work here. The moving and touching body becomes a visual apparatus, or the visual apparatus is the touching body. Immersion cannot happen without the body, nor a purely symbolic space or a spiritual realm, an amniotic ocean where one might be washed in symbols and emerge reborn. The observer seeps into the space, not so much penetrating as infusing it. Our bodies, then, become more porous or more liquid. The boundaries are not eroded, not bad boundaries, but are figuratively osmotic, allowing for permeation. The virtual dive suggested by the exhibit is accomplished only by immersing the observer sensually into a heavily mediated space. 

The display technologies of the Drifters display purposefully pull at the foundations of familiar order and space, shifting and configuring the relationship between the observer, water, and the jellies. Here again, the jellies are at the center of this deep engagement. The contracting radial muscles and pulsing bells of scyphozoans invite the visitor into the immersive state. That is to say, the repetitive, suspended movements of the jellies absorb our attention. Their physiology enables the observer to be pulled into this semiotic fluid—the immersive state. Immersion in the exhibit is an “intimate conjunction with matter,” not a transcendent baptism, nor a metaphysical turn of attention. We do not identify; instead, we encounter an environment inhabited by illuminated jellies.  The Drifters exhibit creates an environment of intense involvement, where familiar orderings are transposed, altered, and refigured. Yet, with virtual gills, somehow gotten through the visual/acoustic/haptic apparatus of the display, we breathe water and are not smothered by its filling our lungs. Through the display apparatus, the amphibious observer is entangled in sensibility, and able to move with and encounter the jellies on display.

Nigel Rothfels has noted the attempt by zoo designers to re-narrate and mask the captivity of animals (216).  Transparency functions as an illusion of freedom and mobility for both the observer and the animal. Transparency allows for the sensation of immersion, while always erasing its own power of confinement. Instead, containment and control are eroded and replaced with patron comfort and pleasure. As in the exhibits Rothfels critiques, immersion does function in the Drifters exhibit as a pathway through which imagined closeness is achieved. However, the aquatics and brilliance of the exhibit foreplace the display apparatus and explain the workings of that apparatus. In fact, it is as if the display immerses us in the apparatus as much as in the virtual “outer bay.” The necessity of transparent acrylic to display marine creatures is not hidden, but rather amplified. Light floods through the display, making what is usually diaphanous appear overdone, gorgeous, aglow. Transparencies, here, transfigure the light, exposing its vulnerability to mediation, making it something in the world rather than an extra-terrestrial, transcendent energy. 

The very workings of the eye are plunged into the experience, not luminously lifted from their sockets. Refraction folds the observer back into the space and the body. The Drifters exhibit is about bringing us and the sea and the jellies inside. Certainly we are dunked into virtual tides and seawater, a permeating plummet into metaphors. And yet, we are equally encountering materiality. The exhibit makes perfectly tactile its structures. We dive into blue-material-discursivity: transnational research exchanges, local marine environments, bio-tourism, Hewlett-Packard computer technologies, and the artful presentation of marine science displays. We experience the very real dioptrics—the science of refraction. Refraction through transparencies crisscrosses the observer into the very substantive architecture of light and space. The perceptual experience does not produce a casual, objective observer, but an incarnate, fleshy encounter. To enter the exhibit is to inhabit, if for only a moment, deep histories and bodily functions not transcendental positions.

Those bright, red tentacles are full of sting—“very painful” reads the label—glide and tangle, loop and sink.  The shocking orange bells of twenty individuals, gelatinous masses, are vividly contrasted by the ultramarine of the lighted water. The profligate color is shocking. The nettles’ bodies are translucent, yet thick. The size of dinner plates, they drift, and then swim in rhythmic contractions. They appear as all verbs instead of noun: they contract, expel water, propel themselves in the opposite direction.

Sea nettles are part of the class Scyphozoa, the order Semaeostomeae—the ever common and conspicuous typical jellyfishes with their large size and abundance, “playing an important role in near shore, oceanic, and deep-sea ecosystems, serving as predators and sources of food for other organisms.” These are the sexually reproductive medusas—the common image of the jelly. (The name medusa originates from their fancied resemblance to the snaky tresses of the mythical gorgon, Medusa.)

Their tentacles, packed with nematocysts—stinging cells—that can deliver a nasty wound, seem all knotted together. I worry that their confines are over-crowded, causing snares in their tentacles. But the panel reassures me, informing me about dense jelly blooms in which hundreds of thousands, packed on top of each other, take over beaches and bays. Although constrained by space, the jellies fare better in the constant, gentle flow of the aquarium rather than in the slashing surf where fragile, gelatinous bodies tend to be torn and ripped by the rowdy waves. Though obviously miniscule in comparison to the open waters, the tank is well over twenty feet long and approximately ten feet high. The tank dominates the exhibit space; everything seems to flow toward it. It is no accident that I don’t pull myself away from it or them.

I can’t help but overhear the whisperings of other patrons—they too are enactors of the Drifters display with me. “They look like hot glass.” “Gorgeous.” “I think they are disgusting.” One child calls them pumpkins. The child’s young caretaker says, “But they could hurt you.” She is right, and yet I press close to the acrylic, feeling its cold touch—water controlled by thermo-regulators—almost disbelieving the pane’s presence, and the predatory tentacles pass delicately across my fingers and eyes. I am not stung, but my tactile foresight knows better.

Then I notice that these medusas are all contracting toward the bottom of the tank. Why coordinated, oriented, inverted this way? This awesome, mesmerizing tank not only alters up and down, but also inside and out. The aquarium is a different kind of eye machine, and eye machines are also “epistemology engines” (Ihde and Selinger 2004). These tanks invite a different set of questions: Where is the surface? Interface? Who is inside and who is outside? Are we passing the jellies on our dive down into deeper waters? Signifying jellies and embodying technologies rework the space I am part of. I am part of the relay of animals, technologies, and epistemologies, such that my body is enfleshed by and through this encounter.  In some carnal modality I am able to touch and be touched by the substance of the display, to feel the aquasphere envelop me, to experience the need for air, to dive into seawater while standing relatively firmly, to be flooded by the sound.

While jellies have drifted through each section of this paper—absorbing observers (as enactors) and floating in brilliant lights—I want to dive deeper into their role in the Drifters exhibit. I want to think seriously about their presence; their stories; their biology. How are they actors? In their artificial world, what part do they play—no longer adrift in ocean flows, but in socio-economic currents and riptides, as well as technologically sophisticated displays? The jellies are potent predators in their own habitat, always eating, always moving. They are also major actors in their ecosystems. They are quick adjusters to polluted waters: Mnemiopsis in the Gulf of Maine, big magenta-colored Pelagia in the French Riviera, and sea nettles in the Chesapeake Bay. “No one knows for sure, but jellyfish blooms may occur in part because we overload a body of water with fertilizers and sewage. This leads to an increase in the planktonic plants and animals on which jellyfishes feed and creates a low-oxygen environment in which fish die but jellies thrive” (Coniff 2000: 98). These same drifters, well adapted to change, have driven tourists from beaches and bays. In Japan, jellyfishes have clogged seawater intake pipes and forced a nuclear power plant to throttle down (97). This is some sort of planetary power. But my question is: How do these actors matter in the glittering display of the Drifters exhibit?

Retooled and intended by the technologies of the display, how have these stinging, gelatinous blobs come to have such appeal? Powell writes: “In the case of the jellies, I knew that the beauty and grace of these gently pulsing animals would produce a strong emotional response in visitors, and their fascinating life cycles and anatomy would satisfy visitors’ intellectual needs” (2001: 263). He was certainly right. The Monterey Bay Aquarium spent half a million dollars advertising the exhibit. In the first year, the exhibit generated an annual attendance of 1.6 million visitors or higher.  Jellies proved profitable for the non-profit institution, and they need to be; a small Kreisel tank costs an aquarium $500,000 to manufacture. If this isn’t non-profit bio-capitalism, then I don’t know what is. Again, jellies are at the center of the story.  How do we account for their improbable presence in the apparatuses of immersion, refraction, and transparency? In this immersive environment—where boundaries are not so much leaky as they are transilluminated—what interchange takes place between jellies and patrons?  Who is stung?

There is no question that the jellies have been refigured by the light. Reworked by light and display, these beings are narrated as “like alien creatures, but at the same time…their true origin [is on] our planet, the water planet” (263). Jellies in their familiar habitat are mostly transparent, with the occasional burst of bioluminescence. They are predatory masses of baroque tissue. This is not to say that jellies are not beautiful, certainly they are, but it is to say that jellies do different visual work here than in the other “outer bay”—out there in the non-virtual Monterey Bay and observers are different in these two locations. 

Describing the Drifters display at MBA, Jane Desmond writes:  “These jellies are so abstractly beautiful in shape and movement they are nearly aestheticized right out of the category of animal” (1998: 168). She continues: “They become surrealistic white shapes, odd mixtures of volume and line continually changing against an ebony background, ebbing and flowing without sharp punctuation…” (168). She goes on to suggest, “[W]hile we enjoy the jellies as beautiful objects (living objects), we do not identify with them as sentient beings” (168). Desmond proposes that the beautification of the Drifters makes cross-species identification impossible. I wonder if there exists any conditions in which identifying with marine invertebrates would be easy. She holds out hope that identification, seeing familiarity in other organisms, is a map for empathy and critical engagement.  Identification, for Desmond, appears to be a counter to the objectification of radically different organisms. The “transmutation of non-identification into aestheticization” allows the observer to gawk and marvel at dissimilarity, making difference a marketable feature (168). She urges us to see how “The intimate exhibits position us as separate from, but powerful over, the objectified physical oddities on the other side of the glass” (181). This argument suggests that the tank’s work is to create idealized visual pathway into the world of the jellies. The tank is a presence, a dominating instrument that expands the observer’s eye through the subjugation of non-humans. Desmond’s argument speaks against a liberal humanism that wants to save, preserve, and conserve vanishing “wildlife,” while ignoring the exploitation and concomitant idealization of nature. Through this double move, stewardship of nature can be sold for a “moral” price.  Animals function, then, by embodying nature, that which is imagined as radically different from culture. The MBA is a boundary object—existing at the border of nature and culture—that function as public spectacle, public enlightenment, and conquest of the animal other. Desmond’s argument proposes that the jellies stand-in for what observers are not, a bodily product of natural processes.    

In some ways I think Desmond is right. Current ongoing cruelty toward animals, species extinction, and ecological devastation offer good evidence for both their cases. There is no question that the jellies in the Drifters exhibit are marketable figures that embody all kinds of movements in capital. The jellies are produced as profoundly different—even “alien”—from observers, and this difference is fashioned as markedly beautiful. Certainly the immersivity of the exhibit bends toward spectrality, motion, and simulation.   Nonetheless, I wonder if there are modes of captivity that do not rely on total domination as the only modality of power at stake? And if power is more discursive than anthropocentric, might the anthropocentric project of identification or reflectivity—that animals are really reflections of ourselves—be the wrong framework not only to think about immersion, but also cross-species encounters?  Do the display lights—that seem to be one vast conjugation of the verb “to glow”—shine new meanings of interchange between jellies and visitors? My reader may read this line of questioning as apolitical utopianism, but I am trying to imagine seriously how acts of benign to deadly commoditization have produced the jellies as actors. These gelatinous beings have survived the incredibly over-fished, over-polluted, and otherwise misused Monterey Bay. They have moved from pest to starring roles in their local ecology. They are refiguring and refigured by Bay economies. They have been destroyed, transformed, and conserved by various actions and ambitions of Homo sapiens.  They are not just symbols. We—humans and jellies—are linked in ongoing nature-cultures.

I read about the “egg yolk jelly” or “fried egg jelly,” Phacellophora camtshatica, and its symbionts, juvenile crabs and amphipods. The panel describes the yellow, central gonadal mass, resembling an egg yolk. I learn that these jellies have a mild sting and feed on gelatinous zooplankton, especially other medusas. They are drifters, spending most of their time motionless with their tentacles extended over ten feet, netting the waters for food.

Nearby are iridescent lobed comb jellies, the ctenophores. Almost transparent, they move through the lit water with slow, continuous grace. We are taught that these jellies belong to their own “phylum, Ctenophora, sharing only resemblances—modes of predation, translucency, and gelatinous consistency—with the medusa-generating jellies of most pelagic— always in the water column—cnidarians. Most ctenophores are hermaphroditic, and many are able to self-fertilize.”

Panels explain how light passing around the cilia of this jelly breaks up into exuberant color, making them look like “alien vessels.” “Alien,” again, proclaims the fantastic form of the jellies.[9] Alien” also has roots in the foreign, the “other,” that which is not familiar. What seems to me more important than the “foreignness” of “alienness” of the ctenophores is that the space (technology and architecture) and organisms touch my body, producing reflexive, rather than reflective, comprehension through my body. My body knows that I am not in the kingdom of vertebrates, with all their supposedly predictable binaries. Their light show is not only for human observers, but plays important role in their interactions with each other and other critters. You and I are only one species among many who find ctenophores “distracting.”

Figure. The Outer Bay, Hayward, 2000

I want to turn to the hermaphroditic diffractions of ctenophores to think about the ways this display space, intentionally or not, refracts discourses of captivity and visuality. Working through an ethics of difference, Donna Haraway turns to diffraction as a metaphor for talking about “a history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, difference” (1998: 273). She writes: “Reflexivity has been much recommended as a critical practice, but my suspicion is that reflexivity, like reflection, only displaces the same elsewhere, setting up worries about copy, and original and the search for the authentic and really real” (273). Reflexivity, for Haraway, is a trope that produces unproductive oppositions between the literal and the figural.  She makes a radical departure from traditions of representation toward a “material-semiotics” that favors contiguity between virtuality and reality predicated on a theory of materiality. Diffraction, she contends, is an “optical metaphor for the effort to make a difference in the world” (273).

In a technical sense, diffraction is the spreading out of light waves as they pass through a small opening or around a boundary. Diffraction arises when two waveforms interfere with one another, or in the patches of smooth water and choppy little crests in a tide race when waves cross one another. Depending on the phase differences and the amplitude of the light waves, elements of composite light—or white light—are reinforced, weakened, or eliminated by each other alternately. So this is the point of diffraction: its patterns are not the same as whatever it was that produced them. The consequences of these interference patterns is changing color, a phenomenon that is a common occurrence in structures produced by living organisms—feathers, the scales of butterfly wings and fishes, beetle carapaces, etc.

Linking the physics of diffraction with a tropic emphasis on difference, for Haraway diffraction is about “heterogeneous history, not about originals” (273). She deploys diffraction to think about a “critical difference within.” It is a practice for situating the human and non-human in enfoldments that matter, a trope for both ethics and history. Diffraction: an enactment of materiality, an optics that “does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of differences appear” (Haraway 1997: 300). Diffraction: returned to its etymological roots, the action of turning, or state of being turned, away from a straight line or regular path; the bending of a ray of light, at the edge of a body, into a geometrical shadow; the modification of the form of a word to express the different grammatical relations into which it may enter. To diffract, is to put concerns, entities, relationships, and actions into process. Diffraction is a simultaneous move toward the abstract and the worldly. But like any verb, to diffract is appended with consequences, responsibilities, and possibilities. “Diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of differences appear” (300). What often appear as separate entities (or separate sets of concerns) are constitutive? She argues that the co-constituted nature of distinct entities is not static; they exist in a state of ongoing differential becoming. This is to say, that subjects and objects are specific parts of the world’s ongoing figuration and dynamic structuration. Haraway urges us to consider how experience is made through enduring and different histories of encounter with these encounters interfering with one another, producing altered and indefinite arrangements of knowledge, perception, encounter, and experience.

Ctenophores with their diffracting cilia and fluible mesoglea are living, respiring, metamorphosing diffraction patterns– their own discursivity is diffracting, a constant state of transposing, metamorphosing, and troping. And here the emphasis is on the pleasure of dis/orientation, of knowing what is occurring in the states of doing and being. The genuine, reflective theory, mediating distances, seeking what has already been discovered by the self laboring in history, bends around the cilia where things are living, where surfaces are dynamic, where differences are about relatings.  It is more and more difficult to ignore what has always been true—that the material and the semiotic do not pre-exist their involvement (Haraway 1997). Sign, matter, and action live together (living together); they are symbiotic—through parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism.  The great divides of what used to be called-with a confident sense of spatial integrity-the word and the flesh are bumptious with living verbs.  Such an intra-thriving of text and tissue brings a repositioning of the human-animal-machine and the non-human-animal-machine.

Making sense through senses—for the ctenophores and me—is produced through a distributed sensorium (King 2009). Relays of perception that are always already co-shaped (e.g. the sense of touch is at work in seeing) are also distributed across species zones. Sense perception does not belong in isolation—rather than an umwelt of non-sharing but overlapping (Agamben 2004)—I want to suggest that sensations are produced through relationships, that literally sensing is a distributed process. I want to call this form of distributed sense, sensation, and sensorium ciliated sense to honor the cross-species relays that matter in this display of jellies. Ciliated sense is a sensuousness made by the convergence and synaesthetic force of perceiving and feeling, processing and mattering, knowing and being. Ciliated sense is about undoing structuring lacks or primordial division through transposing on senses. The architecture of containment, the temperature of water, immersion and kinesthesia, visuality and visibility, and numerous haptic registers: ciliated sense is distributed sensation, diffracting and locomoting ctenophores make light about motion and touch for their own lifeways, their own capacities, and for me, their movements make light material, corporeal, and spatial.

To further contextualize ciliated sensing, I want to turn to Karen Barad’s questions about ethical mattering and prepositional agency. Working with Haraway’s trope, Barad brilliantly extends the analysis of diffraction to think about brittlestars, differential becomings, and ethics (2007). For Barad, diffraction is a metaphor for different modes of relating and encountering, for patterns and contingencies, for theorizing and living in a technoscientific world of cohabitations, copresences, and coevolutions. Her articulation of the diffracting lifeways of brittlestars foregrounds the necessarily fragmentary and partial relation between the perception of an event and the event itself. Brittlestars embody a sense of becoming that is predicated on differential materializations. She writes “The ongoing reconfigurings of its [brittlestar’s] bodily boundaries and connectivity are products of iterative causal intra-actions—material-discursive practices—through which the agential cut between ‘self’ and ‘other’ . . . is differentially enacted” (2007: 376). Space is an iterative “intra-active” encounter, and bodies (such as brittlestars) are also co-constituted performances of that dynamic spatiotemporailty. Barad suggests, “Bodies are not situated in the world; they are part of the world” (376). The prepositional shift of “in” to “of” emphasizes the way bodies do not preexist their environments; ecosystems constitute becoming in the flesh.

About the ctenophores in the Drifters display, the technologies of display, and their human attendants and visitors we might say, following Barad, that they co-constitute each other through a variety of “intra-actions.” But, can I say that captivity, then, is diffracted? Do these relays of inter- and intra-action constitute a cross-species ethics? Barad seems to answer these questions in saying: “Ethics is about mattering, about taking account of the entangled materialization of which we are part, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities . . . “ (2007: 384). Attending to the enmeshment of space, light, medium, and embodiment of the Drifters room is an ethical matter. While misuse of ctenophores and power may also be at work, so to is an ethics of concrescence.  And indeed, the terms of power and even domination in this context seem less precise, less critical when an ethics of mattering is accounted for.

It is an ethics of mattering—partly intentional, partly relational, partly unconscious—that the iridescing comb jellies and aquarium’s heterogeneous zones of encounter are generating. Their bodies in relation to techno and human agents record and are records of all the interactions within the Drifters display that I have attempted to outline. They document the lights that produce immersion, that produce transparency and refraction. They are eyeless witnesses of a history of interaction; they do not look back.  The ctenophores in the Drifters exhibit form a space enfolded into enactments and encounters, transfiguring the labor and pleasure of humans and non-humans and animals and non-animals. The ctenophores teach us that humans are not the only enactors in the encounter—they teach us that encounter is generative and continuous. Ctenophore iridescence is about understanding the ambivalent, powerful, and elusive ways that ecology is composed through histories of interaction, relationality, interconnection, and materiality. Theirs is not a calculus of speech acts, subaltern or agential; it is a relational matter—it is not simply about whom has agency as if it were a substance to be owned. As an aquarium-goer my attention/resources/etc are solicited by the ctenophores in the display, a display that instrumentalizes the jellies diffracting cilia, cilia that moves the jelly, jellies that diffract light and attract my attention. These specific organisms in this specific ecology make me adapt to them just as my entrance fee ensures that their lifeways become one of the substrates of biocapitalism. That is to say, these displayed jellies make impositions on humans and machines (such as aquariums and pumps) just as machines and peoples make incredible demands on them.

Yes, these jellies are retooled, imagined, destroyed, and loved through our interactions with them. But, there needs to be some recognition of the jellies’ participation in worldhood. Animal displays are not simply about seeing the human reflected back upon us. This reflectivity—full of stories about representation and identification—continues to miss and imagine how animals are part of complex interference patterns of reactions and effects. Iridescence is about understanding the ambivalent, powerful, and elusive ways that the jellies take part in these histories of interaction. This does not suggest that the jellies embody some active or inherent intentions. I am suggesting that participation is a relational act, the overall effect of convergence. The jellies are (en)actors; their bodies shape the display space and the experience of visiting. They shape-shift themselves and us in the immersive fluid.

The jellies and the aquarium-goers are both immersed in environment—differently, of course: one can leave; the other lives and dies there. The lifeways of the jellies have become embedded in the aquarium: reproduction (sexual and asexual), predation, and drifting all takes place within the acrylic walls of the aquarium. They are watched over, they are loved, they are protected, they are fed, and their human stewards sometimes destroy them. The display is not just an uncritical prophylactic that only over-stimulates the senses; it is not a substitute or representation of some real experience. When we are immersed as observers, as patrons, as spectacle goers, we are not only immersed in virtuality; we are immersed in deep marine techno-science worlds. We as observers become part of the histories of fluiluminality that the ciliary combs of ctenophores trace. The actual physics of diffraction, in this space, is an iridescent archive. It is the articulation of convergent histories and co-presences. So the encounter is not on any one set of terms, jellies’ or humans’, but on a set of contingent terms.

So, yes, these are captive beings—what they “know” about their captivity one cannot be sure of—their captivity makes local economies work. Whether we decide captivity for these invertebrates is ethical or not, what is at play in this display is more than just a politics of domination. Light, space, perception, and bodily (human and non/human) and technological sensoriums are brought into conjunction in ways that matter, that make meaningful relationaility. Drifters display, rightly or wrongly, makes material the distributed qualities of sensation. We both, with our fleshy differences, are affected by the exhibit, by its constraints, its possibilities, its convergences. We have, hopefully, a future together, sharing in a local ecosystem that is under intense commercial and environmental pressures. We are both interferences in the histories—past and present—that define the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its local and global communities.

Figure. The Outer Bay, Hayward, 2000

As I leave the “Drifters” display, I turn to my left and am confronted with another view of the “Outer Bay.” However, here, tunas, sunfishes, mackerels, and sharks worry the waters of a tremendous aquarium. Not only have the inhabitants changed in this other “Outer Bay”—no dreamy, stinging drifters here—but also has the environment. And, above all, the scale has changed dramatically back to that of fellow large vertebrates. The difference between fish and mammal is swamped by the fellowship of scale.  There are no new-age sounds, and there are no special effects. Here, there is no doubt that I am looking at the top of the food chain. I am back in vertebrate space. The lights from above this aquarium that radiate through the water are beautiful, but not of the same quality as the “Drifters” exhibit. Here, the space is understandable. These predators have armament not too different from my own—not nematocysts and nerve toxins. I know what position I am in—you are looking at large fishes that move from the back of the tank to the front. The aquarium is full of depth—the tiger sharks awe me when they emerge from the back shadows and glide across the front wall of transparency. It is beautiful—they are beautiful—and yet, I begin to miss the mysterious and submersive space I just left.


I want to thank Donna Haraway, Vicki Pearse, and Jennifer Gonzalez for reading and commenting on early drafts of this essay. I presented a version of this essay—focused on diffraction, hermaphroditism, prepositional knowledge, and differential becoming—at the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts annual Conference, 2004, Duke University. I want to thank Katie King, Karen Barad, and Nigel Rothfels for their engagement with my work at that conference. 

[1] This quote comes from Rachel Carson, The Sea around Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

[2] The parallel between jellies and aliens is further emphasized by The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s video production, Jellies and Other Ocean Drifters (1996), narrated by Leonard Nimoy, the former Star Trek actor. Through out the narrative, he compares jelly life forms with the unimaginable forms seen during his travels on the ENTERPRISE. One might say that aliens have always been here beneath the ocean’s waters.

[3] The aquarium was a gift to the public by David and Lucile Packard. “The original cost of the aquarium was approximately $55 million.” The David and Lucile Packard Foundation were created in 1964 by David Packard (1912–1996), the co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company, and his wife, Lucile Salter Packard (1914– 1987). For more details see

[4] The origin story of the “aquarium” is open to debate, but Celeste Olalquiaga in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998) suggested that it begins with European, white, upper class women. In 1832, Madame Jeannette Power “initiated the scientific use of the aquarium with her ‘cages √† la Power,’ glass cases lowered into the ocean to study marine animals” (48). Undoubtedly, the proliferation of public and private aquariums results from the discovery that water plant aeration produced healthier and longer-living organisms—this finding goes to M. de Moulins and Anna Thyne in the 1840’s. For further consideration of Aquarium history consult Leighton Taylor, Aquariums: Windows to Nature (New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1993) and Lynn Barber, The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1980).

[5] For more information: Shedd Aquarium,; New York Aquarium,; Waikiki Aquarium,
[6] In her article, Translating Cuttlefish: Underwater Lifewritings, Clare Brant writes about the translation of going underwater into words. She writes, “Genre boundaries are fluid, in life writing and in the sea . . . . It is as if the literal pressure of going underwater puts entity under pressure. Bodies change underwater; senses alter; minds have different thoughts” (2009:114).

[7] I’m reminded here of Tara Rodgers provocative work on the fluidity of sound. “There has been a long-standing association of water and sound in observational acoustics from antiquity through Chaucer to Helmholtz and beyond, with the sound of a stone hitting water producing a visual counterpart, which was then mapped back onto the invisible movements of sound waves” (under review: 246).

[8] Freya Sommer, an aquarist who specialized in jellies, was instrumental in making jellies a year-round exhibit. Jellies are part of the plankton, drifting with the currents.  Most medusa-type jellies have an unusual, two-stage life cycle. The familiar swimming medusa is either male or female and produces sperm or eggs that combine to produce thousands of microscopic larvae. If these larvae find a suitable surface to attach them to, they develop into tiny sea anemone-like polyps. Each polyp buds off additional polyps, eventually giving rise to a clonal assemblage of several hundred individuals. When conditions are just right, a polyp will change form and take on the appearance of a stack of little saucers. Each saucer (or ephyra) then splits off and swims away, growing and developing into a medusa. Sommer needed to be able to assist the reproductive cycle of different species of jellies to insure a constant population of jellies—availability of jellies is unpredictable. Certain species were already relatively easy to cultivate, e.g., moon jellies (Aurelia aurita). But, the purple-striped jellies (Pelagia colorata) and the sea nettles (Chrysaora fuscescens) required scientific breakthroughs to understand their previously unknown life cycle. Powell 261-262.

[9] The “future primal”? The MBA is not new to science fictions. The reader may recall Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home with its virtual humpback whale swimming in one of the MBA’s tanks. Here the MBA functioned as site of contact between global space and extraterrestrial space, and a place of planetary hope. As the narrative goes, the aquarium had conserved the last of the humpbacks, the singing whales. We discover that the whales had been in “conversation” with extraterrestrial life forms for eons. The extinction of the whales threatened to destroy the planet. The discourse of conservation is obvious and everywhere present in the film. 

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