Caring for Colour
Multispecies Aesthetics at the Great Barrier Reef
Keywords:The Great Barrier Reef, chromatic behaviour, corallian colour practice, chromatic repair
The Great Barrier Reef has been bleaching yet again. If the Anthropocene had a colour table, bleached coral would hold an especially recognizable place within it. By some lights, chromatic behaviour — and chromatic disaster — are best apprehended as secondary qualities, as spectacles that offer to point the discerning observer beyond the tokens of human sense and toward an object’s (or ecosystem’s) essential properties. This article asks whether it is possible, and ethically viable, to recognise corallian colour practice as having meaning in and of itself. I argue that we should recognise coral colourism as the irreducibly relational comportment of species, sunlight, salt water, sediment and so on. Contrary to some influential views, the Reef’s performances are not simply constructed by the fantasies of human spectators, but by stimulating human sensoria, they do hail us as participants in the chromatic field. Reckoning the loss of hue as a discrete catastrophe might therefore generate tools for articulating value in a manner that is not strictly constructivist, naively scientistic or reactionarily idealistic. Caring for the Reef may be, not first of all but not least of all, a caring for colour — a caring against chromatic disappearance and a caring towards chromatic repair.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, ‘Invitation’, in Oceanic (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2018), p. 29.
Damien Cave, ‘Great Barrier Reef is bleaching again. It’s getting more widespread’, The New York Times, 6 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/australia/great-barrier-reefs-bleaching-dying.html.
Cameron Allan McKean, ‘The horror of a rubble Reef’, in Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell (eds), Living with the Anthropocene: Love, loss and hope in the face of environmental crisis (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2020), p. 208.
Irus Braverman, Coral whisperers: Scientists on the brink (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018), p. 79.
Félix Guattari, The three ecologies, trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton (New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone Press, 2000), pp. 36–7.
Bärbel G. Bischof, ‘Geographies of coral reef conservation: Global trends and environmental constructions,’ in Jon Anderson and Kimberley Peters (eds), Water worlds: Human geographies of the ocean (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 53.
‘Biocube in Moorea, French Polynesia’, Smithsonian National Museum of National History, Washington, DC, https://naturalhistory.si.edu/education/teaching-resources/life-science/biocubes-exploring-biodiversity/biocubes-action/moorea.
‘Biocube in Moorea’, p. 7.
Helen Scales, ‘From polyp to rampart: The science of reef building and how art can inspire a sustainable future’, in Jason deCaires Taylor, The underwater museum: The submerged sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014), p. 19.
Cameron Allan McKean, ‘The color of climate change’, The Japan Times, 4 March 2018, 10.
Terry P. Hughes et al., ‘Ecological memory modifies the cumulative impact of recurrent climate extremes’, Nature Climate Change 9 (2019), 44.
McKean, ‘The color of climate change’, 10.
Jeff Orlowski (dir.), Chasing Coral, Netflix, 2017.
James Bradley, ‘The end of the oceans’, The Monthly, August 2018, https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2018/august/1533045600/james-bradley/end-oceans.
For a discussion of future oceans as biologically simpler, see Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 191.
Stacy Alaimo, ‘The Anthropocene at sea: Temporality, paradox, compression’, in Ursula K. Heise, Jon Christensen and Michelle Niemann (eds), The Routledge companion to the environmental humanities (London: Routledge, 2017), p. 158.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County almanac: With essays on conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982), p. 262.
Braverman, Coral whisperers, pp. 58–9.
Emily Brady, ‘Aesthetics in practice: Valuing the natural world’, Environmental Values 15 (2006), 278–9.
Brady, ‘Aesthetics in practice’, 283.
Dirk Lanzerath, ‘Biodiversity as an ethical concept: An introduction’, in Dirk Lanzerath and Minou Friele (eds), Concepts and values in biodiversity (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 11.
William Cronon, ‘The trouble with wilderness; or, getting back to the wrong nature’, in William Cronon (ed.), Uncommon ground: Rethinking the human place in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), p. 82.
Simon Foale, Michelle Dyer and Jeff Kinch, ‘The value of tropical biodiversity in rural Melanesia’, Valuation Studies 4 (2016), 13, 24.
Celmara Pocock, Visitor encounters with the Great Barrier Reef: Aesthetics, heritage and the senses (London: Routledge, 2020), pp. 1, 6.
Ann Elias, Coral empire: Underwater oceans, colonial tropics, visual modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), p. 203.
Elias, Coral empire, 207, 210.
Megan Raby, American tropics: The Caribbean roots of biodiversity science (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), pp. 67–8.
Timothy Morton, Ecology without nature: Rethinking environmental aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 113.
David M. Frank, ‘“Biodiversity” and biological diversities: Consequences of pluralism between biology and policy’, in Justin Garson, Anya Plutynski and Sahotra Sarkar (eds), The Routledge handbook of philosophy of biodiversity (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 100.
Keith Hiscock, Marine biodiversity conservation: A practical approach (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 10.
I borrow this phrase from Paul Ricoeur via Rita Felski, ‘Suspicious minds’, Poetics Today 32 (2011), 216.
Amitav Ghosh, The great derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 62.
Jonathan Lamb, ‘Understanding the loss of colour’, in Margaret Cohen and Killian Quigley (eds), The aesthetics of the undersea (London: Routledge, 2019), p. 56.
‘Great Barrier Reef’, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154.
Celmara Pocock, ‘Sense matters: Aesthetic values of the Great Barrier Reef’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 8 (2002), 380.
Marcus Rediker, ‘Hydrarchy and terracentrism’, in Alex Farquharson and Martin Clark (eds), Aquatopia: The imaginary of the ocean deep (Nottingham: Nottingham Contemporary and London: Tate Publishing), p. 115.
For an extended discussion of this distinctiveness, see Margaret Cohen and Killian Quigley, ‘Submarine aesthetics’, introduction to Cohen and Quigley (eds), The Aesthetics of the Undersea, pp. 1–13.
William Firebrace, Memo for Nemo (London: AA Publications, 2016), p. 65.
Melody Jue, Wild blue media: Thinking through seawater (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), p. 10.
Peter Quigley, introduction to Peter Quigley and Scott Slovic (eds), Ecocritical aesthetics: Language, beauty, and the environment (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018), pp. 3, 15.
Nicholas Mirzoeff, ‘Visualizing the Anthropocene’, Public Culture 26 (2014), 219. For further discussion of debates respecting the eighteenth-century origins of an ‘aesthetic theory of art’, see also Paul Guyer, ‘History of modern aesthetics’, in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), The Oxford handbook of aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 29–30.
Mark Luccarelli, ‘Renaissance aesthetics, picturesque beauty, the natural landscape: An essay examining the rise and fall of the impulse toward beauty’, in Quigley and Slovic (eds.), Ecocritical aesthetics, p. 80.
Emily Brady, ‘Aesthetic value, nature, and environment’, in Stephen M. Gardiner and Allen Thompson (eds), The Oxford handbook of environmental ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 188.
Jennifer Welchman, ‘Aesthetics of nature, constitutive goods, and environmental conservation: A defense of moderate formalist aesthetics’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76 (2018), 419–21.
Heather I. Sullivan, ‘The ecology of colors: Goethe’s materialist optics and ecological posthumanism’, in Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (eds), Material ecocriticism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014), pp. 80–1.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Ecology’s rainbow’, introduction to Prismatic ecology: Ecotheory beyond green (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. xvi.
Sullivan, ‘The ecology of colors’, 89.
Eduardo Kohn, How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013), p. 81.
Julian Yates, ‘Orange’, in Cohen (ed.), Prismatic ecology, p. 85.
Vittoria di Palma, ‘A natural history of ornament’, in Gülru Necipo?lu and Alina Payne (eds), Histories of ornament: From global to local (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 26.
Elias, Coral empire, pp. 212–13.
Sullivan, ‘The ecology of colors’, 93.
Timothy Morton, ‘X-Ray,’ in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (ed), Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 312.
Alphonso Lingis, ‘The rapture of the deep’, in Excesses: Eros and culture (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983), p. 7.
Janet Laurence and Prudence Gibson, ‘The ocean hospital – a walk around the ward’, in Cohen and Quigley (eds.), The aesthetics of the undersea, pp. 198–9.