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Diving with Donna Haraway and the promise of a blue planet.

Abstract. It has been two decades since Haraway spoke about the 'promise of monsters', and seventy years since a novel kind of sea monster was created through the Aqua-Lung, giving 'underwater worlds' better access to humans. By revisiting and examining the combinatory effects of these historical moments, this paper illustrates the 'promise of scuba divers' who are somewhat monstrous in their potential to disturb common ideas about being human and life on land. In exchanging 'sacred ground' for submersion beneath the sea, scuba diving redefines the limits of human experience and emphasises the historical and largely forgotten primacy of land-based coordinates in theorising human life. Under the sea, these coordinates are vastly altered so that even preconscious markers, like breathing, are transformed through a circuitry that includes humans, science, technology, and nature in a 'body-incorporate'. 'Immersion' becomes a threshold beyond which humans and nature, society and space are discovered anew in the reversal of the significance of territory to planetary life.

Keywords: posthuman, ocean, technology, experience, space


Since one of the most formidable and preconscious markers of being human is that we are land-dwelling creatures with bodies that require air, human experience has almost exclusively been composed without a consciousness of life beneath the sea. While this has been compensated for by myths, monsters, and fictions, it is not until recently, with technological innovations like SCUBA, (1) that these have been entrained so as to transgress the oceanic limit to human life. The experience of scuba diving redefines what it is to be human because the scuba diver discovers not only a partially 'other world' beneath the sea, but also a partially 'other self who can exist there. It is in the oceanic environment that humans are made subject to many of their own inadequacies, and that 'humanism', as the act of marking human beings from other beings in absolute difference, appears to dissolve in a saline solution.

This paper shifts away from "narratives of humanism" towards "narratives of permanent possibility [and] accommodation of the nonhuman" (Kull, 2002, page 285), because this is the only way to extend the domain of humans to include life beneath the sea. In the case of scuba diving, the condition of this life relies upon science, technology, and oceanic nature incorporating the body into a more-than-human assembly. Hence, the experience of scuba diving extends the domain of cyborgs beyond the mythical, virtual, or imaginary towards hybrid bodies that are in "permanent touch with the world" (Becker, 2000, page 361), including the otherworldliness of the sea. Being in the underwater world is a reality that is more-than-human, natural, or technical, as it is more than scientific, socially constructed, or technologically enabled. Beneath the sea, the scuba diver is stripped of his or her humanist core, whereby, after Haraway (1990, pages 192-193), the 'ultimate self is not untied from dependency but exists in the dangerous, risky, and thrilling condition of ultimate dependency. This same ultimatum is described by Law (1998) as a convention of jet travel and by Venturini (2010) as the general condition of life on land, where the same ultimate dependency means that we are all "diving in magma" (Law, 1998, page 26) and immersed in connectivity. For our purposes, in the cyborg as a posthumanist intellectual resource and the scuba diver as a living illustration of a cyborg are implications for thinking about and living a life that is part of 'natural humanity' (Cusack, 2004, page 225). Not least of these implications are the life depleting properties of an 'autonomous human species' and 'agential self'.

The ocean serves as a natural environment par excellence for disturbing humanist notions of life on Earth because it subscribes to the most common definition of nature: that it is 'other than', and most often devoid of, humans (Williams, 2005). The only exceptions are superficial ones, of humans navigating the surface or else limited to the short duration of a breath, and where the scale of one breath far outweighs the diver's reality, since one yard is akin to opening up access to "three thousand cubic kilometres of living space" (Cousteau, 1988, page 8). While some related species, such as whales and dolphins, occupy this space and harmonise their biological existence with it, humans need to combine with technology--to become cyborg--to share even some of this possibility. Therefore, scuba serves as a technology par excellence for us because it makes the impossible possible in breathing under water. Since a human's very life's breath is at stake, scuba diving depends upon ultimate dependency between humans and nonhumans, and in this dependency are transformations of human being in a blue planet. In some cases, this experience is so transformative for divers that immersion in the sea offers a more complete version of themselves:

"They assured us that although they were semi-cripples on land, when they returned to the world of pressure, they recovered their agility as in a fountain of youth. The first 'pressure stroke' [bends] cut them off from land and condemned them to the sea, and each new seizure bound them closer to her" (Cousteau, 1988, page 37).

This paper considers this transformative potential by situating the scuba diver as an important example of how life beneath the sea reshapes what it is and can be to be human. The central claim of the paper is that scuba diving, performed at the extreme end of life support in 'immersion', is a timely reminder of human-nature entanglement. This claim coincides with a recent "scholarly turn to the ocean" (Connery, 2006, page 496), whereby, amid increasing interaction between society and the sea, ocean-space is becoming both a subject and an object of study in its own right (Steinberg, 1999). Where cyborg studies considers an altered human subject, new ocean studies begin with the kind of experiences that are possible when social and physical space is vastly altered, as with underwater access. This has begun to facilitate a reconsideration of social, cultural, and geographical explanations and how these reflect upon the preconceptions of land-based forms of life (Mentz, 2009; Picken, forthcoming; Steinberg, 1999). In other words, there are freedoms in studying oceanic worlds (Lambert et al, 2006, page 480), freedoms that come from the disorientation of land-based regularities, coordinates, and experiences. This view from the ocean is trained upon the "intersections of social and spatial difference", recasting human and natural worlds with new experiential dimensions (Lambert et al, 2006, pages 479-482), and these profoundly "disturb our imaginings of our own place in the world" (Dixon, 2008, page 672).

Under the sea, familiar airborne sound becomes dulled, not quite empty but lull of rich muteness instead. Part of this new acoustic arrangement is that sound no longer acts as a sensory mechanism for orientation; sound announces that the noise is behind, above, below, to the left, and right all at the same time. These points are now equally accessible too. Depth increases pressure behind the ears and with it, a reminder to equalise and to breathe gently. Continuing to descend means continuing to equalise, watching the dive computer, the shadows and movements as the world above moves further away. Standing posture leads to descent, but is no good for moving forward. Lying horizontally moves the diver forward. Like Haraway's (2003, page 9) kin networks, "everything seems to go sideways ... full of indirection" and any panic must be met with regulated breathing. The loud, dense, but soft sound of breathing becomes almost meditative with instructions that repeat 'breathe'. The world sways and turns, pulls and pushes. Haraway's (2008, page 8) "motley crowd" sways with the flows of the current, and proximity is distorted as the visual sense is experienced as deceptive. The world around and everything moves including the oxygen from the tank, which is finite.

To merge these concerns of both humans and territory, society and space, subject and object, we first adopt the resourcefulness of a 'sea monster' to make a point about human ancestry, the nature of science in modernity, and the birth of underwater worlds as they are enacted as a cyborg venture. Like Haraway, we recognise an old species in cyborgs and steady companions to what we rephrase as 'the intellectual resource' of 'being human'. At the same time, in scuba diving and the decentring of the human through immersion in the sea, it becomes possible to recognise the intellectual resources of 'being territorial' or 'grounded', particularly in the service of humanistic accounts and explanations. The remainder of the paper illustrates this through the diagnoses of scuba diving, in life and postmortem, as a relational materialism (Law, 2002) or performance that attests to humans' "co-evolution in natureculture" (Haraway, 2003, page 12). Drawing on the autobiography of Cousteau (1988), we engage Haraway (1992) and our own experiences of scuba diving to develop a closer account of 'ultimate dependency' and to demonstrate how underwater worlds ultimately bring this dependence to the surface. The "subtle vision" (Haraway, 1992, page 300) afforded by "cyborg spectacles" (Angus et al, 2001, page 196), and their ability to recognise the social competencies of 'nonhumans', inform our audacious naming of Haraway, alongside a wish to adopt the 'spirit' of her work by offering slight variations on her thought so that through "faithful act[s] of disobedience" (Braidotti, 2006, page 203), we take her diving with us.

Undersea worlds: myth, monsters, and cyborgs

Access to undersea worlds exists through imagination, territorialisation, and submersion. Imagination involves the "stories we mutually construct" (Gough, 2004, page 255), including the performance of sea myths, monsters, and fiction. Territorialisation, including aquaria, underwater photography, and film, follows a domestication of undersea worlds so that they are presented to humans on their own terms, on land. Submersion, the focus of this paper, includes light blue forms of access such as skin diving and snorkelling, marine blue access through underwater capsules and vehicles, and dark blue forms of access, including scuba diving. These shades of engagement with underwater worlds are not mutually exclusive, but always semipermeable, like the ocean itself.

Access is an important part of what Mentz (2009) refers to as blue forms of culture because the ocean is still an exploratory front that is partially known in multiple ways. The growth in the marine sciences, for example, is quite recent and interdependent with the development of scuba technology for gaining access to marine worlds (Rozwadowski, 2009). Scuba itself is the latest technology to emerge from "years of struggle and dreams" that included 'breath-hold' and 'surface-supply' diving as well as the 'Aqua Lung' in 1943 (Cousteau, 1988, pages 3-7). That said, the genesis of these dreams and struggles is as distant as sea myths and legends, so while scientific knowledge and the 'modern project' of properly 'formatting, measuring or socialising' (Latour, 2005, page 244) the ocean is still young, other relations ensure a much longer engagement with the sea. Beyond humanist narratives of heroic and inevitable frontier exploration (Bailyn, 1996; Trevor-Roper, 1972), 'undersea' is a pathway opened up by the shady allegiance between the ancient and innovative; the real and imagined; cyborgs, sea monsters, and other seemingly incompatible things.

Almost two thousand years ago, the Greek Philosopher Strabo wrote:

"We are in a certain sense amphibious, not exclusively connected with the land, but with the sea as well.... The sea and the land in which we dwell furnish theatres for action, limited for limited actions and vast for grander deeds" (in Steinberg, 1999, page 368).

As the "source of all things" and the "maternal sublime" (Lambert et al, 2006), the ocean locates ideas about amphibian origin and belonging of humans. The 'oceanic feeling' referred to by Freud (1930) and traced to Sanskrit beginnings captures a spiritual origin, or 'Nirvana principle', described as a "subterranean source of religious energy" (Parsons, 1989, pages 501-503). The Greek God of the ocean Poseidon and his Roman counterpart Neptune, both linked not incidentally to planets in the other 'frontier', also extend the mythical proportions of the sea and lengthen the historical legacy of enchantment beneath the waves. Atlantis, the former city and empire both believed and disbelieved to have sunk into the sea, remains a common metaphor for 'lost civilisation' and the literal sinking of "history into nature" (Serres, 1995, page 4), where countless lost treasures perpetuate this fascination. The Mediterranean is described as a sea that is "girt with the oldest cultures, a museum in sun and spray" (Cousteau, 1988, page 96) so that there is ample evidence of human life beneath the sea, but none that suggests we have been allowed to 'live' there for very long.

Imaginary forms of access exist not only through cultural artefacts but also through natural bounties. The ancient Sumerian King Gilgamesh's search for immortality in a plant that grows only on the unreachable sea floor is testament to its mysterious, life-giving properties (Bostrom, 2005). Cultural and natural treasures are supplemented by literary ones as with the late 19th century captivation with undersea adventure through Captain Nemo, the hero of Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1998 [1870]), reaching the sea floor. Soon after, the treasure-hunting Captain Hook emerged in Barrie's (2011 [1911]) Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up with the infamous prosthesis that became his name, and then the trials of a man against himself and nature are classically recorded in Hemingway's (1952) The Old Man and the Sea, forming part of an inheritance through which we learn to relate to the possibilities beneath the waves.

Just like stories, sea monsters and cyborgs have a history that begins with a distinct lack of evidence (Jameson, 1994). They are closer to "worlds we might yet live in" (Haraway, 2003, page 3), and this is why they are so often described as 'metaphors', 'symbols', or 'imaginative resources'. The association of cyborgs with "acts of creativity" (Cusack, 2004, page 227) forms continuity through time and across the domains of mythology, fiction, and modern science. So entwined, these histories have served to galvanise oceanic exploration and our cyborgian relationship with the sea. However, while metaphors, symbols, and imaginative resources are real in their effects, too often this effect is one of symbolic overexposure, whereby the sense in which they are also 'experiments' that are "in contact with the real" is lost (Gough, 2004, page 254).

Home to the Leviathan, huge serpents, and other barely imaginable creatures, the sea has also had its monsters that resemble neither fish nor land-dwelling species but are partially both. Sea monsters have served as points of access to the sea, as both curios and gatekeepers, and they have complicated truth (or pluralised it) as so many facts and fictions, deliriums and sobrieties by way of explaining the inconceivable. Hence, they have performed both hybridity --like the mermaid engendering a 'liminal state' (Westerdahl, 2005, page 8)--and purification, by signifying what humans count as real and imagined (after Latour, 1993). Like cyborgs, sea monsters inhabit both ontological and epistemological domains and this necessary relation between interacting and knowing (Franklin, 2006) is symptomatic of a wider "intimacy with the experience of boundaries" (Haraway, 1990, page 223) that is shared by scuba divers.

Combining a "science fictional move" and "imagining of possible worlds" (Penley et al, 1990, page 10), cyborgs easily transgress boundaries between fact and fiction; real and imagined; nature and culture; machine and organism; practical treatise and entertaining stories (Cohen, 2010; Haraway, 1990; Kull, 2002; Lykke, 1996). Just like their monstrous ancestors, they trouble the many dualisms of our time while they are also "contradictory creatures" (Haraway, 1991; 2003), not exempt from the coperformance of dualism and polemics. Rather, these categories are 'multiply displaced' in cyborgs, only at home through partiality (Haraway in Penley et al, 1990, pages 18-20), and in Latour's (1993) language they have been 'misplaced' as a direct consequence of their unruliness and unwillingness to commit to either the 'one' or the 'other' of modern scientific discourse. Condemned, in this way, to adolescence at the 'risk-taking' end of humanity, cyborgs 'thumb their nose' at their parents' ordered lives. Like adolescents, cyborgs can never quite escape their genetic makeup and the binary codes that contribute to their being, any more than parents can undo the nonconformist potential of their offspring. Instead, these are "crucial interfaces" (Haraway, 1992, page 298) where cyborgs are innovative and they are fantastic, but they are also 'monstrosities' in the face of convention, and the sea is a historical theatre for all of these.

Immersion and affinity

As a place that is "all subtle" (Klein and Mackenthun, 2004, page 1), permeable, and liquid (Ecott, 2002), the undersea world presents the scuba diver with challenging conditions. To survive, he or she gives up being 'only human' for the integrity of a cyborg whose 'acting ability' depends on the simultaneous deployment of the technological, the natural, and the human (after Latour, 2002). Simultaneity evokes the 'real-time' presence of these and also their synchronicity, since the failure to synchronise revokes the competency of the scuba diver. In this way, the scuba diver is more-than-human through a fortification that allows a confrontation with a series of metaphysical propositions that are reorganised in crafting an impossible life. Through the act of immersion the scuba diver can be nothing other than "open, relational, human and non-human" (Blackman and Featherstone, 2010, page 5) if he or she is to successfully exist in a deterritorialised environment.

Consequently, the scuba diver is an ill-conceived creature for land: weighty, backward, and awkward, like "Charlie Chaplin walking into the sea" (Cousteau, 1988, page 4). In the sea, the scuba diver is a better conceived model, but is still prey to a myriad of catastrophes, each emphasising the peculiarities of undersea worlds. Across the land-ocean divide, one set of constraints and enablers is substituted for another, where scuba diving simultaneously 'overcomes' and 'fixes' the conditions for new cultural norms, material limitations, and identities. The diver's panic, and greatest risk to life (Morgan, 1995), is linked with the dynamics of an underwater "border reality" that is an "active verb" (Haraway, 2003, page 6) mobilising culture and nature, organic and machine, human and nonhuman. Through this mobilisation, such a different life and reality are performed that scuba diving delivers what Westerdahl (2005, page 3) refers to as a "paramount experience".

A paramount experience operates at the margins or extremes of experience, where the purity of 'humankind' is put at stake. As a technological entity that is immersed in the oceanic environment, the scuba diver immediately poses problems for established ideas about humans by shifting their established terrain. Being in underwater worlds disturbs--and therefore brings to the 'surface'--understandings that have come to dominate the experience of being human and humanist ways of being. Divers must develop a conscious and willing intimacy with nonhumans, including the otherness of oxygen when it is compressed beneath the sea, and is no longer the ether in which they dwell. The diver's "affectionate ties to non-human[s]" (Braidotti, 2006, page 199) are fundamental to the minimisation of risk and the defiance of death. The diver learns a deep respect, and even 'love', for oxygen, since survival relies on its continual translation across the technological, natural, and human. 'Survival' does not belong to humans, although they are its beneficiaries, since any discontinuity between any of these 'actors' risks a fatality. What is a critical requirement of the human is that he or she does not to fear the joint kinship with technology and nature; that he or she does not fear the cyborg-self. In the willingness to become cyborg, and the trust this engenders, is the means of becoming a participant in the performance of synchronising with the water-based coordinates of underneath the sea.

Following Latour (1993), a modern, land-based human is reliant upon being bound through the management of monstrosity by 'othering' what is not human. Simultaneously, the modern human fails at "holding the still centre of meaning and authority against its margins" (Shildrick, 1996, page 1). The negativity of 'collapsing boundaries' is Haraway's (1992) 'interference' and this is symmetrically the positivity of'expanding boundaries', or Haraway's (1992) 'affinity'. Affinity destabilises "the presumed content of the 'I'" (Dixon, 2008, page 674) since affinity 'overtakes' (Latour, 2005) the sum of the parts, pursuant to the 'primacy', or at least equivalence, of "relations over substance" (Braidotti, 2006, page 199). Taxonomies such as nature, human, and technology become "interactively determined in the production of alignments between them" (Pickering, 1995, page 2), and a human must "yield to and incorporate or recognise its intimate association with a radical exteriority" (Gibson, 2005, page 93). The human becomes a scuba diver by assimilating the radical exteriority of a mind and a body, and then both of these with technology and ocean so that there is only partial exteriority; and this is indeterminately so. Assimilation lies at the heart of synchronicity, the active life-blood of scuba diving existence, and this makes each dive an "ambiguously crafted performance" (Haraway, 1991) that extends the "range of humanness possible in our era" (Brasher, 1996, page 815). By insisting that the scuba diver is a cyborg, at once human, natural, and technological, the fixed terms of 'human identity' and its genealogy in the canons of expression and consciousness (Gover, 1984 in Bostrom, 2005) become counterintuitive to our task. Instead, the material emphasis of cyborg experience mobilises the ideas that define identity, 'fleshes out' the human who used to be dominated by his ability to think, and immerses the human into a literal and metaphorical sea of "significant otherness" (Haraway, 2003, page 7). Here, scuba diving offers another of those 'crucial interfaces' demonstrating that notions of 'the self' hold up much better on land than they do under water.

The asymmetrical, life-depleting proposition of an agential 'self' and inert 'other' can no longer apply in underwater worlds. The technology of scuba mostly enables life, and the ocean is not inert, but often unsympathetic to this life. The body moves differently in oceanic atmospheres: it loses weight and orientation; it discovers an altered visible and aural competency (this is known as a 'silent world'); a sense of smell is denied, while sixth-sense awareness is intensified. Access to language is made difficult, or altered to more rudimentary forms in signs and gestures. Feet no longer suffice for movement but are augmented by fins. Wetsuits and dry suits are membranes or additional thermal layers of skin, and skin becomes part of the family of inner organs. Eyes are covered by masks that hold pockets of air to enable vision, although water still distorts the optic dimensions so that size, distance, and clarity are not the same as on land. Spatial orientation, among the earliest ways of engaging with exteriority, is reversed--its accuracy is transferred from the senses to a computer and buoyancy vest. Breathing is experienced as overreliant on conscious thought: to think about breathing is to think about not breathing.

Beneath the sea, where all of these senses are modified, there exists a version of a human whose experience of life is different, who is part of a smaller society of humans who are less gendered and racially distinctive, and whose culture, personality, and individuality becomes muted in more anonymous forms of communication. The scuba divers live differently under water; they apprehend the world differently, and, when returning to land, will still know the world to be otherwise. In the disaggregation of humanity through relations with 'others', we are always to be caught in the act of what Haraway (1991) calls 'articulation'. This is achieving companionship, a 'grappling with' (Haraway, 2008, page 3) that is an effort at once natural and unnatural. In achieving companionship, agency must be distributed, and in scuba diving the proof of this requirement is to be found in the panic. Once distributed, the asymmetrical idiom that suffuses more humanist narratives of action becomes a 'bad guide' to ethics, politics, or experience (Haraway, 2003, page 8); and this misguidance is extended to language in which the linguistic inelegance of speaking about socio-natural-technical entanglements is proof of its compliance with the mastery of 'monstrosity in the world'.

While scuba diving is a scientific and technological performance, it has largely escaped the debate of good versus bad technoscience, because it is mainly regarded as leisure and recreation, assigned to the margins of what is 'pleasurable' (Jameson, 1994). Where it is taken more seriously, as in salvage, rescue, and naval operations, its effects on nature and humans have been relatively benign, especially when weighed against the 'collective good'. Most assessments of scuba diving fall into two like camps, one measuring the impact of scuba diving on marine environments (Davis and Tisdell, 1995; Tratalos and Austin, 2001; Musa, 2002), and the other measuring the impact of diving on the human body (Koehle et al, 2005; Merchant, 2011a; Schipke and Pelzer, 2001). Either case supports a humanist ontology, in which the technology of scuba is instrumental or "indifferent" (Haraway, 1992, page 312) in permitting a series of effects on either humans or nature. Compared with cyborgs that more seriously test the bounds of 'nature', such as 'OncoMouse' (Haraway, 1997) or 'Alba, the fluorescent rabbit' (Dixon, 2008), scuba diving is closer to the 'natural order of things', which is to say that its impacts on nature are relatively measurable. Likewise, to the 'natural order of humanity', scuba diving appears a relatively harmless pursuit because the experience and technology are impermanent, liability protection is usually in place, and there is an acceptable level of risk. That said, recreational diving carries with it conservative averages of 16.4 deaths per 100000 dives (Vann and Lang, 2011, page 73).

Death defiance

Part of the romance associated with scuba diving is that death defiance lies at its heart, where the 'potent fusion' (Haraway, 1990, page 196) between scuba technology, ocean, and human is also the potency of a scuba diver's life. As a boundary-crossing activity, scuba diving alters the mode of human life by "tinkering at the edges" of its realm of possibility (Sharp, 2011, page 2). These edges are tied to the materiality of creative acts and the giving of life to scientific facts only insofar as they synchronise to perform an underwater world. In defying "the body inescapable" (Connel, 1985 in Schyfter, 2008, page 81), since it escapes, quite literally, out of its (life-supported) depth, scuba diving performs new limits to, and experiences of, what it is to be human. If, within this context, it is true that "the apparent unity of our body ... is only the superficial impression left by the routine of life" (Latour, 2002, page 127), then the diver experiences a very different routine and life; it becomes clear that the only unity of the human body is to be found in its death.
   The scuba diver was stretched out on the sand, remaining
   unresponsive to resuscitation, while the other children and I kept
   a wary and curious vigil nearby. We heard the adults say that he
   was bleeding from the ears. We misunderstood them as saying that
   'the bends have got him for sure' and that the resuscitation was
   'only carried out for the relatives' sake'. Somehow, in trying to
   make sense of it all from our prescientific perspective, by
   midafternoon we had decided that an octopus must have tried to
   wrench away his mask and, failing this, had vengefully pecked him
   in the ear. Then the sea water had got inside him and now he was
   off to the hospital on the mainland, courtesy of the police boat.
   Today it seems clear that on that day, out beneath the bay that was
   unmarked by anything other than gentle waves, a terrible failure
   had occurred and then a man had lain dead on the beach, his scuba
   gear and his biological finitude beside him.

This recollection illustrates the mythological narratives associated with the sea and constructs an explanation that is outside the knowledge of science and technology. Experienced divers can only speculate about the exact circumstances of this recollection, yet know that a technical explanation will likely deny the octopus its exclusive rights to the story, and its humanist motives of 'revenge', in favour of a more probable scenario: the failure to assimilate air. The bleeding ear is symptomatic of a pressure buildup due to nonequalisation, a burst ear drum, disorientation, a too rapid ascent or descent, and then drowning. The diver has gained the 'unity of his body', but has lost his life outside the disunity that connected him to it.

Panic-induced injury is the most common cause of accidents for divers (Acott, 1999; Cumming et al, 2011), when, quite literally, "a stressed system goes awry" (Haraway, 1990, page 206). Underwater, as on land, air is fundamental to the existence of human life; however, life under water necessitates a complex network of air circuitry, and panic compromises this. On land, breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system that is an involuntary system, and the barely perceptible witness to human life. It is before consciousness, and therefore not part of what separates humans from others, but a bond to nature, among the most natural acts for all living things to do. The first complication for a human in breathing under water comes from the transference of breathing to consciousness and a greater reliance on the communicative properties of air. To add another link to Descartes' chain, 'the scuba diver thinks, therefore he or she breathes, therefore he or she is'. The diver's lung brings together machine, biological organs, and nature into one, where each life-giving component conceitedly performs as an underwater lung. The lung itself performs at the end of a longer set of exchanges with a distinctive look, feel, and sound that break the regulations of breathing on land. As Cousteau (1988, page 5) describes it, "my human lungs had a new role to play, that of a sensitive ballasting system", and more besides.

The composition of air has a particular importance in the diving experience, since the density of air changes under different pressures (Boyle's law) and in relation to different temperatures (Charles's law). Charles and Boyle conspire to ensure that the experience is sensitive to their warnings: water pressure and temperature work together to determine the amount of air a diver does not have. At 10 metres (one bar), every breath the diver takes will be 0.987 times denser, doubling at 20 metres and so on. (2) In this strange topography of pressure, the oceanic environment actively transforms the scuba's delivery of air and the diver's breathing activity so that all three 'components' must perform 'in sync'. Natural (although by humans they are experienced as (natural) pressures limit and renegotiate diving behaviour according to movement across depth. Since the human body is unable to actively recycle high densities of gas, time and depth exposures corroborate the range and duration of the experience. Because of active renegotiations between breathing and processes of oxygenation, the life-threatening circumstances of decompression illness--commonly known as the bends (ascent danger)--and nitrogen narcosis--commonly known as ocean drunkenness (descent danger)--are never far away. For those who are not open to negotiation with these variables, who may panic and 'travel themselves' too quickly, the delicate balance of synchronicity fails and so does life support.

The cyborg lung constitutes a physics of breathing that entrains the mechanics of technology with human biology, sea water, and air that is held, squeezed, and mobilised in a precarious circuitry. From the tank run hoses, the first of which connects to a regulator in the diver's mouth, which allows a steady flow of air, once activated by a heavier than normal inhalation. A second hose transports air to a jacket known as a 'buoyancy control device' that inflates and deflates like two external lungs, and a third hose is connected to a dive computer capable of both inventing and taking over several functions of thought, including the measurement of depth and familiar (land-based) functions such as orientation. Longer encounters under sea involve an advanced rebreather, recycling air through filtration systems for return to the diver's biological circuitry. The molecules in each breath find no explicit exit, but move seamlessly across synthetic and organic tubes. The flexibility of air is vital for its capacity to move through the cyborg circuitry, for balancing the components of this circuitry and for communicating across the registers of biology, technology, and nature. These 'returns' or 'feedbacks' perform inseparable parts of the diver's body, so that there is an indistinct line for where a diver's organic self ends, where the technological self begins, and where the ocean intervenes. While it is the point of submersion that draws this symbiosis into being, it is the working relationship between them that maintains synchronicity, or not. The crucial point is that very few of these activities are ever completely under 'human' control. They are, instead, part of an orchestration with too many conductors, none of which are in control so that, even without the spectre of sharks and indignant octopi, the conditions for panic are in place. This postmortem must reenact a series of domino effects spanning multiple actors, and is illustrative of the ontological challenge of cyborgs: that there are no 'essential ones', only "the durability and fragility of the networks they constitute" (Gough, 2004, pages 255-261). Reconstituting these networks, made up of bodies, technology, and all kinds of other matter in situated relations, is the path to specialising in a new kind of diagnostic practice, since 'death defiance', and therefore 'life', is an entirely collaborative effort.

Promises of a blue planet

As an ally of heroics and The Greatest Story Ever Told (Haraway, 2003, page 5), scuba diving has been a contributor to the noncollaborative, humanist 'taming' of the ocean frontier. However, this paper started with a lesser-known story that reverses the humanist proposition by claiming that the ocean has been given better access to humans and that the oceanic frontier unleashes new possibilities for, and constraints on, being in the world. Such an ontological proposition necessitates the taming of experience in the service of discovering new ways of knowing. For us, immersion highlights how humanism is a state of affairs that is performed through relations between society and space; a condition that space permits people to attain.

Undersea is an unfamiliar, if not hostile, space that bestows upon humans the benefits of decentring the subject and emphasising the land bias (Peters, 2010, page 1261) that informs our humanness, and our absolute difference and perceived disentanglement from the object world. The diving experience troubles long-held notions of what it is to be human, because this existence is explicitly networked, turbid, and reshaped by the act of participating in life under water. Life under water is tied more explicitly--but no less actually--than life on land to an ability to identify with, find affinity with, or know, in an embodied sense, the many conditions and possibilities of life in the world. Beneath the sea is an experience reserved for aquatic flora, fauna, and cyborgs, who have increasingly leapt from the purview of myth and literature to become "thoroughly grounded" (Angus, et al, 2001, page 196), adopting "countless formations" in the lived experience of many (Brasher, 1996, pages 811-815), but are still being regarded as 'embryos', spanning a "vast and diverse population" (Franklin, 2006, page 168).

The usual emphasis of the symbolic dimension of cyborgs permits another property to be added to the estate of humans, and a devaluation of the way in which they "directly face and accept the material components of human life" (Brasher, 1996, page 825). Within this context, cyborg ontology is criticized for "blanking out the body" and attempting to resist materiality (Becker, 2000, page 362). Yet cyborgs always have material consequences, regardless of their aspirations, including the fear produced by sea monsters, the 'virtual' blanking out of bodies, and their ability to "perform a link between imaginary and craft" (Cusack, 2004, page 228). As an intellectual resource and a symbolic vanguard of both "apocalyptic visions and utopian dreams" (Becker, 2000, page 361), the matter with cyborgs becomes their lack of material and how this keeps them secured within the manageable space of human ideals, or else safely out of mind in scientific laboratories. Material accounts of cyborgs risk becoming technical and scientific accounts of how a fusion, as between biology and machine, takes place in seeming separateness from the human, whereas 'experience' forces a more dedicated attempt to comprehend "the cyborg subject position" (Haraway, 1992, page 300).

The subject position of a scuba diver depends upon an extreme object world in which he or she is positioned, or 'immersed'. Immersion heightens our awareness of the interrelatedness of subjects and objects, of the friction of being in the world and therefore the quasi nature of both (Serres, 1995). It highlights how subject and object, diver and ocean, cyborg and sea, society and space are outcomes of the simultaneous deployment of nature, technology, and humanity in the forming and execution of life. A scuba diver does not experience reality as a hybrid of biology and machine, and neither does 'OncoMouse' (Haraway, 1997) when it is perforated with disease in a laboratory. Instead, such experiential tales are aimed at including ontological forms of knowing and an understanding of the practical and material 'relationship work' that prompts an ongoing "(de)liberation of the contemporary human character" (Brasher, 1996, page 814).

Both cyborg ontology and the oceanic environment redeploy the 'self-contained human' through a "vast array of uncertainties" (Latour, 2005, page 245), all of which are constituted with other-than-human actors. The presence of these mobilises and disaggregates the human "in such a way that we are not immediately led to the usual discussions about dualism and holism" (Latour, 2004, page 206). As socio--technical-natural bodies, scuba divers are directed away from their usual, humanist habitat on land towards a life support made up of ultimate dependency and synchronic action beneath the sea. Synchronicity denies the claim that scuba diving results from "a modified body with prosthetic dive equipment to exploring an 'other' world" (Merchant, 2011b, page 54, quote adapted), since synchronicity does not equal an enhanced human/body/subject per se. What is required instead is a decentring of the subject, a new sense of 'completion' in immersion and something most difficult to achieve outside the circuit of ideas, as the proportion of panic-induced fatalities and injuries among divers shows. Indeed, panic is a specific effect of many cyborg experiences, evident in the serious business of medical intervention, the frivolity of carnival rides, and the paradigms associated with climate change and our inevitable entanglement with nature. These describe the nature of 'new experiences' and new forms of interdependent life on a blue planet, as well as the requirement for "new trusts and affinities" (Dixon, 2008, page 672).

For Haraway 'affinity' is "precisely not identity" (1992, page 318, our emphasis), because it cannot reproduce "the sacred image of the same" (page 299), and this fundamental divergence lies at the heart of what she recognises as the "promise of monsters", and of escaping our humanist selves. Our emphasis on experience has not been made to privilege the cyborg as an elaborate subject position, with the attendant properties of an entity. Rather, the cyborg is shorthand for 'cyborg realities' in which we have "insisted] on the world", particularly the underwater world, since this is "precisely what gets lost in doctrines of representation and scientific objectivity" (Haraway, 1992, page 313). Questions of 'knowing' and 'how we know' are only a partial preparation for, and diagnosis of, this experience. Although diver education is a key form of knowing that is attached to legal requirements in legitimate diving operations, a dive certificate does not make a cyborg, since there is no 'innocent' process of becoming one (Haraway, 1992, page 307). Rather, this process is reliant on a willingness to become entrained with the 'otherness' of technology and the ocean, and to be contaminated by it. This is an embodied sense of going with the flow (Game, 2001), of being interpolated into (Law, 2000), or even overtaken by (Latour, 2005), 'others', that sustains a diver's life and describes a cyborg life, both of which "exceed prediction" (Dixon, 2008, page 672).

Prediction travels a straight line and its root in consciousness lies at the heart of 'the promise of humans'. Synchronicity, however, is excessive and multidirectional, and not a property of humans, or a particular action that they do. The humanist 'death defiance' is reliant upon a life made secure by the diver's willingness to deploy all he or she must in relations of uncertainty, exchanging a sense of human completeness for a sense of unity with technology and ocean. This willingness is confirmed by "effects of difference" (Haraway, 1992)--in sensing and behaving otherwise, as conscious processes take up subconscious work, and as 'others' constantly act upon these. Underwater realities mobilise the binaries and dualisms that make sense in social space, highlighting how these are historically situated on land. 'Earth texts' (Peters, 2010) become all too traditional as discourses, whereas ocean texts "challenge static modes of thinking" (Lewis and Wigen, 1999, page 166) and "established habits of thought" (Mentz, 2009, page 997). This makes scuba diving a laboratory for experimenting with humanity, confronting its more-than-human self in the situatedness of 'underneath the sea'. These situations are full of interferences and interruption (Haraway, 1992, pages 299-300) in the usual sense of human accomplishment, and these allow for "the consideration of a host of new possibilities, of new modes of being and doing" (Dixon, 2008, page 672). The place of humans in the world is better described as 'emplacement', where to refuse "a world full of cacophonous agencies" (Haraway, 1992, page 297) is to panic; to limit our explanatory resources; to misunderstand our experiences; and to continue to fear monsters, in the dark.
   Ascent. An aural assault by the sharp sound of crashing waves
   against the boat, of people talking. A world of weight and gravity
   and I feel my heaviness. I slowly begin to shed accoutrements that
   are intrusive here; first the regulator from my mouth as I begin to
   breathe the abundant air, unnaturally at first. Seagulls shrill.
   Were they always so shrill? Or am I already longing for the
   muteness of immersion? I continue to divest of my scuba gear, the
   swimming equipment, and wetsuit, until my body is returned to its
   'humanness' and stands emptied of the other world, except for my
   eyes that reflect its view from the deck of the boat.

doi: 10.1068/d13016p


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(1) SCUBA-Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

(2) These figures have been adapted from the Encyclopaedia of Recreational Diving and are applicable to normal conditions and salience levels in sea water (PADI, 2005, page 423).

Felicity Picken, Tristan Ferguson

School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 17, Hobart, 7001, Australia; e-mail:,

Received 27 April 2013; in revised form 7 October 2013
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Author:Picken, Felicity; Ferguson, Tristan
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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