This essay combines impressions of the Drifters exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with reflections on how one might approach an encounter with a being whose ways of knowing and sensing challenge anthrocentric logics. Rather than view the immersive exhibit’s jellyfishes as part of a romanticized nature in opposition to human culture or as sympathetic by virtue of some forced familiarity to humans, the author traces the path by which “jellies” have exerted a unique agency throughout the history of their captivity and, in doing so, forges a politics of the alien, in which empathy does not rely on similarity. This essay does for the reader what the aquarium has done for the author: paints a multisensory picture of the world experienced through the tentacles of a creature historically reduced to the object of human spectatorship. Though she demonstrates how humans have constructed the ocean by displaying organisms necessarily removed from their natural habitat, the author holds this train of thought in suspension to contemplate the aspects of sea life that have escaped the epistemological taming that makes the mysterious ocean intelligible to land-dwelling humans. The radical alterity of jellies serves as a reminder of the limits of anthrocentric, anthropomorphic, and scopophilic knowledge.
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Eva Hayward; Sensational Jellyfish: Aquarium Affects and the Matter of Immersion. differences 1 December 2012; 23 (3): 161–196. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-1892925
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